Both hemp and medical cannabis, which for the sake of this article we will refer to as marijuana, are of a family known as Cannabis Sativa. When the federal government, through the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) included hemp in their statement about marijuana on August 11, 2016, it seemed as if they did not recognize a difference between the two.
When most cannabis activists are asked if there is a difference between marijuana and hemp many will point out the differences in levels of the cannabinoid THC: hemp having a level that is often legislated under 0.3%. Some are also quick to point out the difference in planting, growing and harvesting of hemp vs marijuana grown for medical or intoxication uses.
In August of 2015, Jason Sawler, Jake M. Stout, Kyle M. Gardner, Darryl Hudson, John Vidmar, Laura Butler, Jonathan E. Page and Sean Myles quietly published a study named “The Genetic Structure of Marijuana and Hemp” in the PLOS ONE journal.
In this study, which was in part funded by the government of Canada, they settled this debate succinctly. Hemp IS different than the marijuana or cannabis that we use medicinally.
It is different, not only in the ways that enthusiasts of this botanical medicine have debated for decades, the way that it is grown and the levels of THC, but it is also different in it’s DNA.
The marijuana strains tested were a broad selection of strains not only available commercially, but also “landrace strains.” The hemp strains used for testing purposes were sourced from historical European and Asian storages as well as modern strains.
On the second page of their 9 page article, one phrase stands out as if it was highlighted, “we find that the primary axis of genetic variation in Cannabis differentiates hemp from marijuana.“
Cannabis has TWO variants: HEMP and Marijuana. Or Hemp and medicinal cannabis, however you wish to describe it, no longer is hemp only differentiated by its THC level and methods of cropping, but it also has distinctly different genetics.
Interestingly, the researchers added the comparison that the level of genetic difference between hemp and marijuana is the same degree of difference in humans of european vs east asian descent. It isn’t much of a difference, but it is distinct.
In this study, they did acknowledge that there has been interbreeding between some hemp and marijuana strains throughout the centuries of cultivation.
In discovering a distinct genetic difference between hemp and marijuana, these researchers opened up a window for activists and governments alike seeking to understand hemp and it’s ability to provide a sustainable resource for fuel, fiber, food and building material for this planet’s future.
Hemp photos courtesy of Stephanie Bishop, photographer. Hemp field property of Jay Reedy in Tennessee.
(Author’s note: A previous version of this was published in the September 2016 edition of Everything Medical Marijuana magazine)