Hemp History: Defining Hemp vs. Marijuana

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Historical Considerations For Hemp: Defining Hemp Versus Marijuana

As America embarks on creating an industry utilizing hemp in textiles, medicines, food, environmental remediation, and other numerous applications, it is important to consider what defines hemp from its cousin marijuana. Both plants come from the Cannabis family while the main difference between these two species is their genetics that determine their physical characteristics and the chemicals they produce at different ratios including terpenes and cannabinoids. It can be difficult to tell these differences apart for many people including law enforcement and legislators.

Hemp’s history is closely tied to marijuana in Colorado’s drug prohibition laws. Henry O. Whiteside in his book Menace in the West eloquently describes how marijuana became stigmatized and outlawed in Colorado beginning in the 1920s. Racism and fear fueled drug prohibition efforts lead by federal narcotic agent Harry V. Williamson who suggested that a “Mexican shootout” in Denver might have been caused by marijuana. Williamson also warned that marijuana made its users “quarrelsome and often desperate.” Public attention at the time turned to what Hispanics using marijuana might do in the state’s cities and migrant camps. The press and public officials seized on this fear and racism to significantly shape the legislative and judicial response and Colorado helped stoke marijuana’s reputation as a drug of addiction and menace.1 Hemp due to its close relation often gets lumped into the stigmatization of marijuana and one that still exists today. It should also be noted that the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, THC, was not discovered until 1964 when Raphael Machoulam along with his colleagues isolated and extracted this cannabinoid.

Today, as drug laws are reforming we should also consider history when forming policies. For Hemp History Week we can look at current hemp policy and what defines hemp. Colorado defines hemp as cannabis having less than 0.3% THC on a dry weight basis and current federal policy uses this definition. This general definition is commonly used but where did it come from? According to Dr. Ernie Small, a Principal Research Scientist at the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) in Ottawa, the definition is completely arbitrary and based on the THC content in standard-grown material in “young leaves of relatively mature plants in Ottawa and analytical techniques.”2 This analysis lead to the adoption of the 0.3% THC standard commonly used to define hemp versus marijuana.

As the hemp industry matures and becomes more sophisticated, it’s important to remember history and how regulations came into existence. Creating sensible legislation and avoiding stigmatization and fear can help guide an industry with tremendous potential with well documented environmental and health benefits that could benefit the community. Laboratory testing also informs the public as to the components in a product and helps people make informed decisions. Accurate, standardized testing also plays an important role in the cannabis and hemp industry to define these plants.

Happy Hemp History Week!

Mark Angerhofer
Research and Development Chemist


1 Whiteside, Henry O. Menace in the West: Colorado and American Experience with Drugs, 1873 – 1963, Colorado Historical Society: 1997.
2 Small, Ernest, Cronquist, Arthur, 1976, “A Practical and Natural Taxonomy for Cannabis”, Taxon, 25(4) pgs. 405-435.

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