Hemp vs. Marijuana: A Cannabis Communication Primer

For many, CBD has become an entry point into the wide, wild world of weed. Though cannabis has long been illegal and maligned by popular culture, recent recreational regulations have rapidly shifted public opinion. Plus, the widespread availability of a safe, seemingly beneficial cannabis compound has made the plant much less threatening, and many more people than before are considering experimenting with that sticky green herb.

The only problem is that cannabis culture is not new. Cannabis use goes back centuries — even millennia — and cannabis users have long developed their own lingo for talking about their favorite pastime without attracting the attention of cops or narcs. Legal cannabis shops maintain much of the same lexicon for their goods and supplies, which can make newcomers to cannabis more than a little intimidated during their first few trips.

If you are interested in visiting a dispensary near you, here’s your first lesson in cannabis lingo: hemp vs. marijuana.


The word for that sticky green herb has evolved through the millennia, beginning with a term unknown and passing through Scythian and Thracian to provide us with the Greek and Latin “cannabis.” Taxonomists borrowed this word for the scientific name of the plant, adding terms like “indica” and “sativa” in an attempt to differentiate between varieties — but we know now that the concept of “strains” is essentially pseudoscience. All cannabis plants, regardless of their shape, size or cannabinoid content, are as genetically identical as all humans are to one another.

The term “hemp” derives from an old Germanic word “henep,” which was taken by Old English and used to describe the same plant as cannabis. For most of history, “hemp” and “cannabis” were essentially synonyms in English — primarily because few Europeans knew or cared about the psychoactive properties of the plant. Instead, hemp was vital to Europeans for its fibers. The plant grows quicky and produces a natural fiber that is easy to harvest, lightweight, durable and water-resistant. As a result, hemp cloth became the dominant textile around the world, accounting for over 90 percent of clothing and providing almost all ships with sails — which is why “canvas” and “cannabis” are so linguistically similar.

Though cannabis’s reputation shifted in the 20th century, the meaning of “hemp” has remained closely tied to the plant’s functional properties as a source of fiber and seed. Today, “hemp” is legally considered an industrial crop grown and harvested for non-psychoactive uses. In fact, the 2018 Farm Bill determined that it is legal to grow hemp anywhere in the U.S. (provided state support) as long as the crop contains less than .3 percent THC. If you find a product on the shelves that is labeled “hemp” in some form — like hemp oil or hemp CBD — you can trust that it has low levels of THC.


The etymology of the term “marijuana” is all but shrouded in mystery. Some believe that the term originated in China, considering that the Mandarin word for cannabis is pronounced ma and the word for “hemp seed flower” is ma ren hua. Considering that the Ancient Chinese are believed to be the first peoples to use cannabis for its psychoactive effects, this is a compelling theory. Others believe the term is Nahuatl in origin, coming from the indigenous peoples of Mexico who were enslaved alongside Africans who brought to the New World their spiritual practice of smoking cannabis in water pipes. The Nahuatl word mallihuan means “prisoner,” which the people might have associated with their new access to the drug.

However, most linguists agree that “marijuana,” as it appears, is a word from Mexican Spanish. With a Semitic root of mejorana, which is also the ancestor of the English word “marjoram,” the term essentially describes a leafy herb with a pungent smell. It is also worth noting that in Mexico, marijuana is also sometimes called “Chinese oregano.”

The reason English has adopted this Mexican Spanish term for cannabis is thanks to a massive Latin American migration into the U.S. at the beginning of the 20th century. Mexican immigrants brought with them the cultural practice of smoking cannabis recreationally, to relax and have fun. At the time, white Americans were threatened by the physical and cultural differences of the immigrants, as well as the new recreational drug, which is why marijuana became outlawed across the country.

Today, marijuana typically refers particularly to cannabis grown for its psychoactive properties. Though some marijuana does have low THC and high CBD, most varieties are intended to get users high. Though this rule is by no meals foolproof, most products that have “marijuana” on the label do contain higher THC levels and are less likely to be designed for health benefits.

There is no reason to fear cannabis use, whether it be by CBD or by THC — by hemp or by marijuana. Hopefully you can use this new knowledge as a foundation for a future deep in cannabis culture. 

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