What is CBD? Part 3.

Hemp vs Marijuana* CBD, what’s the difference?

When researching CBD (Cannabidiol) products, the consumer will find that there are different sources of CBD.  The compound can be derived from the Cannabis plant classified as ‘marijuana’ (high resin cannabis) or that classified as hemp.  It can also be synthetic or produced by various experimental means using GMO yeast and other organisms.  For this article, we will stick with products that contain CBD derived from the cannabis plant, either from hemp or ‘marijuana’.

This begs the question, what’s the difference?

The good news is that CBD is CBD, it doesn’t matter where it comes from.  The body recognizes the compound the same way, regardless of its source.  However, there are significant differences between the cannabis plant classified as hemp and that classified as ‘marijuana.’

Let’s reiterate from the last article in this series…It’s ALL Cannabis, the same genus of plant.  However, in modern times, there are numerous ways of differentiating and classifying the types of cannabis plants.  Here are just some examples:

The botanical distinction:  Cultivators/growers/producers are more familiar with this distinction.  From the botanical or scientific perspective, the different types of Cannabis plants (C. sativa, C. indica, C. ruderalis, and all their subspecies and chemovars, the nomenclature of which is hotly debated) vary in size, shape, smell, nutritional requirements, hardiness, growth cycle, etc.  In some instances, experienced cultivators can identify variations of these plants based on their appearance.

The intended purpose/use distinction:  Throughout the centuries, different types of cannabis plants have been farmed for different purposes.   In various parts of the world, they are used for food, paper, oils, fiber and textiles, medicine and/or as intoxicants.  The different species and subspecies of plants can be differentiated based on the desired crop or product.  For instance, some species of plants are harvested for the seeds, which are consumed for their nutritional attributes; other species have tall fibrous stalks which are desirable in the textile industry; and those species with large numbers of resin producing flowers are sought for their medicinal qualities.

The legal distinction: The distinction between different types of cannabis in the United States is largely a legal one.  The long and tedious war on cannabis (see previous blog on the legality of CBD) has left us with 2 recognized “versions” of the cannabis plant.  The federally legal version of cannabis with THC levels at or below 0.3%, and the federally illegal version that has THC levels above 0.3%.  In this case, ANY species or subspecies of cannabis can be classified into ‘marijuana’ or ‘hemp.’  In this instance, the cannabinoid content (specifically THC) is the determining factor and this distinction cannot be readily ascertained by the look, feel or smell of the plant.


For this article, we will discuss the difference between hemp and ‘marijuana’ as it relates to CBD from the legal (will I be able to access it?) and purpose of use (will I get the benefits I seek?) distinctions.

The main difference in both distinctions comes down to the RESIN.  The cannabinoids and other physiologically active compounds in the plant are produced in the resin secreted by the flowering tops of the plant.   For the legal distinction, it’s the THC produced in the resin, and for the purpose of medicinal use distinction, it is the sum of ALL the components contained in the resin.

In general, the criteria most often used by consumers to choose between the two sources of CBD are: Quality and Availability.



Traditionally, the optimal source of whole plant CBD is from the ‘marijuana’ or high resin cannabis plant, preferably organically grown.  There are several reasons for this:

  1. The high resin ‘marijuana’ plant naturally has a higher percentage of CBD (and ALL the cannabinoids) than the hemp plant, therefore, it is simpler to obtain the extract containing CBD. Conversely, in order to get an equivalent amount of CBD from hemp plants, manufacturers need to process a larger number of plants to concentrate the same amount of CBD.  The more concentrated the extracted CBD, the more likelihood there is of also concentrating other components (i.e. toxins, etc.).  For comparison; it’s the difference between squeezing 1 large, juicy navel orange vs squeezing 5 or 6 smaller, drier, inferior oranges, just to get 1 glass of juice.
  2. The high resin plants are “cleaner” because they are naturally more resistant to mold, bacteria and other plant diseases. This is because the resin also contains large numbers of terpenes that not only have medicinal qualities for the user but have evolved to protect the plant itself from diseases and natural pathogens.
  3. The most robust synergy or “entourage effect” comes from the richest spectrum of active components of the cannabis plant, once again, produced by the resin producing parts of the plant. ‘Marijuana’ has higher amounts of resin, therefore has higher amounts of all the cannabinoids and terpenes, as well as flavonoids and other active components of the plant.  The spectrum of active ingredients is greater and so is the cumulative benefit.
  4. These CBD products can also contain THC for its added benefit, in varying ratios which are NOT available in hemp derived products.


In addition, aside from the above, there is also the matter of quality control.  Due to the more stringent regulations surrounding the legal cannabis industry in states that have approved it, ‘marijuana’ products are more regulated in terms of product labeling, testing, safety and overall quality control.  These regulations vary by state and are designed to protect the consumer.   At this point, there is very little (if any) regulation of hemp-based CBD products and in many cases the ancient mantra of “Let the Buyer Beware” holds true.



For the consumer, the practical difference between choosing a hemp vs a ‘marijuana’ product will likely be based on where you live and your comfort level.  If you live in a state that has pro-cannabis laws and you have access to ‘marijuana’ based products, this is generally a better option for the reasons listed above.  However, if you do not have access to these products through a legal dispensary, or if you are not comfortable visiting a medical or recreational dispensary, you will have to rely on a hemp-based product.  Even though this is not the ideal situation, there are many quality hemp-based products on the market.  Hemp derived CBD products are readily available…they can be found online, in natural grocery and pet food stores, farmer’s markets, etc.  In many cases, products can be shipped right to your door.

While the FDA and individual states sort out the new rules and attempt to regulate this rapidly growing market, expect there to be a wealth of hemp-based products available.  Many companies are emerging and there is fierce competition.  CBD products of all types and varying quality are being produced.

It is important to note that times are changing.  Today’s cultivators, with the use of genetic manipulation, cross breeding and creative techniques are developing ways to breed high CBD strains of cannabis that are rich in terpenes, but also conform to the above federal requirements to classify them as hemp.   In the coming years, expect to see huge strides in the efforts to produce superior quality, high resin producing plants that are rich in the spectrum of medicinally active components, but with a small enough percentage of THC to qualify as hemp.

In the end, the important thing to remember about choosing a CBD product, regardless of whether it is hemp or ‘marijuana’ derived, is how to determine the quality of the product and if it is appropriate for your needs.  Evaluation of any CBD product generally requires some investigation on the part of the consumer.  This is where the advice of an educated cannabis consultant can be beneficial.  Learning how to navigate the market, compare and choose quality products, and read the certificate of analysis requires effort and knowledge.

We will explore this topic in the next article… “What to look for in a CBD product.”




Author’s note: * The term ‘marijuana’ is largely regarded by those in the cannabis industry as a controversial word that was created to mislead the general public in the early 1900’s. Its derogatory connotation was used to fuel the racially-charged, negative stigma surrounding cannabis use.  When used by this author, it is done reluctantly and to 1) highlight the general negative perception shown by some towards cannabis 2) as a direct reflection of use by another source or 3) to avoid confusion by using common nomenclature.