How Can Cops Tell the Difference Between Hemp and Marijuana?

open bag of marijuana buds

As our nation continues to make leaps and bounds towards major marijuana reform, the legal gap between federal and state law is creating significant hurdles. Not only are established marijuana businesses stuck dealing with ridiculous banking laws and taxes, but the legalization of industrial hemp is confusing law enforcement across the nation.

The Hemp Farm Bill of 2018 was signed into law last year and went into effect in 2019. While this type of reform is remarkable to see at a federal level, it is really just causing an even broader legal gap for the industry. It’s crazy how many people do not understand the difference between hemp and marijuan

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What Is Hemp and Marijuana?

hemp and marijuana plants

Since the beginning of the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, hemp and marijuana have been classified as the same plant. While they are both variations of the cannabis plant, the differences between the two are drastic. Over the years, the misrepresentation of industrial hemp and marijuana has caused the public confusion we notice in our society today. It is essential to educate both consumers and government officials of the differences between hemp and marijuana.

What is Hemp?

lush hemp plants growing

Industrial hemp is nothing new to our world. The use of industrial hemp dates as far back as 800 B.C. and was, at one point and time, the top agricultural crop in the United States. Over the years, hemp has had multiple uses and societal applications.

Uses of Hemp:

  • Hemp Clothing
  • Hemp Concrete
  • Hemp Fiber
  • Hemp Paper
  • Therapeutic Relief
  • CBD Products
  • Hemp Plastics

These are just a few uses of industrial hemp, and we will continue to discover more now that hemp is federally legal. While the above applications are partially why hemp is different than marijuana, the primary difference is that hemp does not produce much, if any, THC. THC is the psychoactive compound found in marijuana that provides the “high” effect consumers adore.

Industrial hemp must contain less than 0.3% THC for it to be considered hemp and federally legal. Any hemp over the legal limit is considered marijuana in the eyes of the law. Industrial hemp has many uses, but CBD products are its most popular at the moment. The growth of the hemp-derived CBD market is remarkable to watch and is a primary reason as to why hemp is finally federal legal.

What is Marijuana?

growing a marijuana plant inside

The marijuana plant is practically the same thing as industrial hemp, except it produces a much higher THC content. Throughout the years of cannabis consumption, most marijuana plants were bred to contain high amounts of THC and low amounts of CBD. In turn, it is causing a lack of industrial hemp varieties. For this reason, most cannabis strains are considered marijuana.

While marijuana is not legal on a federal level, statewide markets are thriving. Nevertheless, as more states continue to legalize marijuana, it becomes more and more difficult to notice the differences between hemp and marijuana.

What’s the Problem?

hemp leaf with hemp products

The differences between hemp and marijuana are essential to understand, for a variety of reasons. Without this education, consumers and local law enforcement are at risk of making grave mistakes.

Potential Problems:

  • Local law enforcement is making wrongful arrests.
  • Consumers are purchasing hemp thinking its marijuana or vice versa.
  • Marijuana trafficking is tough to regulate with the legalization of hemp.
  • Court systems are stuck filtering through the gray area which wastes time and money.

The above issues are significant and are causing many problems for hemp businesses and consumers. While the legalization of marijuana is on the brink of becoming a reality at the federal level, there needs to be a solution to this gray area right now.

Hemp vs. Marijuana

big pot leaf

The biggest challenge in determining the difference between hemp and marijuana is the fact that they look the same. The hemp plant and marijuana plant are part of the same family. The buds look the same, smell the same, and are likely packaged the same. However, the primary difference lies in the contents of the buds. Does it have the legal limit of THC?

Ultimately, the only way for anyone to fully know if a plant is hemp or marijuana is to test the plant for THC and CBD content. If the THC content is over 0.3% THC than it is considered marijuana and illegal in most states.

For this reason, local law enforcement must run on-the-spot tests to determine THC content. However, the spot-tests do not always add the percentage of THC and THCA to get an accurate test result. For this reason, people are wrongfully arrested for trafficking hemp across state lines. Granted, if a cop has reason to suspect it is marijuana and not hemp they are allowed to act accordingly.

The gray area created allows for a gap in the law which allows for criminals to find a loophole in the system, but also brings unnecessary problems to legal hemp businesses.

Conclusion plastic bag of marijuana spilling out

While this gray area between hemp and marijuana is causing major issues, there is no easy answer. It may be best to create a more accurate device for law enforcement to determine the THC content of a hemp plant. Otherwise, it is likely people will continue to be arrested for trafficking hemp that looks like marijuana.

The other solution is to create further regulation of industrial hemp. Creating hemp regulations regarding the entire process from seed to sale will likely take away these problems. If industrial hemp products must follow certified procedures and laws, it will be much easier to determine the difference between hemp and marijuana.

There’s also research being done on the development of a field test to determine the difference between hemp and marijuana, which would be a huge advancement.

Overall, legalizing marijuana at a federal level is the best answer to this problem. However, we all know how long it has taken our government to reach this point so I wouldn’t hold your breath. That said, the H.R. 420 bill was introduced this year and just might make its way to law. If that happens, the gray area between hemp and marijuana will likely begin to dwindle.

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Justice Council
Justice Council is a freelance writer, CBD specialist, and cannabis enthusiast located in Denver, Colorado. His wide range of experience as a budtender, delivery driver, and CBD sales rep has given him a unique look into this new world of cannabis. Throughout his career in the industry, Justice has written many pieces on culture, economics, product knowledge, and career opportunities within the cannabis space. He takes pride in being part of a truly pioneering industry.