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Why cops keep confusing hemp for marijuana (and how you can tell the difference)

Even though hemp cultivation is legal in the United States, that doesn’t mean that hemp companies are entirely free from legal risk. If you’ve been following hemp news recently, then you have probably seen stories about law enforcement officers seizing legal hemp shipments thinking it was marijuana. So what gives?

Here’s why cops keep confusing hemp for marijuana, and how you can tell the difference.

How hemp and marijuana are similar

Before we can talk about why hemp and marijuana are different, we need to talk about how the two plants are similar. Both hemp and marijuana are members of the genus Cannabis. There are three distinct species of Cannabis: Sativa, Indica, and Ruderalis. What we refer to as marijuana belongs in both the Sativa and Indica family.

Hemp, on the other hand, is solely a member of the Sativa species. Both hemp and marijuana have similar smells, and to the untrained eye look very similar. This is especially true if you look at a side-by-side comparison of hemp and marijuana flower.

Here’s a picture of hemp flower:
Hemp Flower

And here’s a picture of marijuana flower:
Marijuana Flower

The difference between hemp and marijuana

As previously stated, to the untrained eye hemp and marijuana can look similar, but there are some differences. Hemp leaves look skinny while marijuana leaves often have a much broader appearance. Additionally, marijuana plants often look like a short bush while hemp plants look tall and skinny with most of the leaves growing at the top. That is not to say that marijuana plants can’t reach tall heights, but even the biggest plant will still have that bushy appearance.

To help give you a better visual, here’s a graphic showing the differences, courtesy of the Ministry of Hemp:

The difference between hemp and marijuana

The biggest difference between hemp and marijuana is their chemical composition. Hemp plants contain a variable amount of CBD and typically less than 1% THC. The legal definition of hemp is that it must contain 0.3% THC or less, but some hemp plants will go over that percentage. Marijuana, on the other hand, typically contains 5% THC or more.

Why cops keep confusing hemp for marijuana

The number one reason why cops keep confusing hemp for marijuana is training. Ever since the passage of the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937, hemp and marijuana have legally been considered the same substance. Consequently, law enforcement has never taken the time to learn how to distinguish the two plants; and why would they? If both hemp and marijuana are considered the same plant under the law, why bother learning the difference?

Even though the 2018 Farm Bill changed that legal definition, law enforcement has yet to catch up. Not only are law enforcement officers unable to tell the difference between hemp and marijuana, but their equipment is too. Roadside marijuana detection kits are designed to detect the mere presence of THC but not the concentration.

At the moment, there is no way for law enforcement to tell the difference between legal hemp and marijuana, but that may soon change. Earlier this year, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) issued a notice that they are seeking companies that can provide test kits capable of telling the difference between hemp and marijuana. With any luck, the DEA will be able to quickly resolve the issue and put to rest the long history confusing hemp for marijuana.