The Difference Between Hemp & Cannabis in the European Union

Throughout history, humans have bred plants and animals to suit their needs, and cannabis is no exception. Historically and culturally speaking, many cultures and tribes have long histories of using cannabis for medicinal, spiritual or shamanistic, and recreational purposes. As such, many cannabis strains were specifically chosen and cultivated to contain higher amounts of THC - the cannabinoid known for producing the intoxicating and psychoactive effects so characteristic of the cannabis plant.

Similarly, hemp plants, also called industrial hemp, have been selectively bread and cultivated to produce fast-growing plants with long fibrous stems that can be used for making rope, clothing, paper, and construction materials to name but a few. Hemp’s history goes so far back that some archeologists suspect that the first hemp plants spun into usable fiber happened as far back as 50,000 years ago.

However, since then, the differences between hemp and cannabis have become not only functional but also political. Here we look at the biological differences between hemp and cannabis plants, as well as differences in its legal classification and the impact the history of hemp and cannabis in Europe have had on the EU’s legal decision-making today.

Biological Differences Between Hemp & Cannabis

Taxonomical Differences

To truly understand the biological differences between hemp and cannabis plants, it is important to first understand the taxonomical system of classification for life on earth. Taxonomy is a ranking system based on shared physiological characteristics and differences that roughly looks as follows:

For plants, species can then further be divided into what is commonly called strains or cultivars.

Based on this taxonomical ranking system, cannabis is the Latin name for a genus of flowering plants in the family Cannabaceae. Within the Cannabis genus, there are three different species; Cannabis Sativa, Cannabis Indica, and Cannabis Ruderalis. And finally, within these three species, there is a wide range of different cultivars (or commonly called strains) of which hemp is one type.

In other words, BIOLOGICALLY speaking, cannabis is an umbrella term derived from the plant’s Latin name to refer to a group of plants belonging to the Cannabaceae family. And hemp, in its various forms (e.g., industrial hemp or medical hemp), are simply a few of the wide range of different strains within the Cannabis sativa species.

Physiological & Strain Differences

Typically, in the field, different cannabis strains are barely distinguishable, and even growers are hard-pressed to tell the difference at a glance. This is because all cannabis and hemp plants have thin stems, similar leaf patterns and similar flowering anatomies (comprising of buds and colas).

However, each species and strain also have their own set of characteristics, usually related to stature (tall vs. short, lanky vs. bushy), leaf shape (5 vs. 7 leaflets), growing conditions (cold vs. warm, wet vs. dry) as well as cannabinoid profiles (high vs. low THC or CBD). And it is these differing biological characteristics that make hemp and cannabis strains distinguishable from one another.

So, for instance, high THC strains of Cannabis indica and Cannabis sativa plants tend to be short, with indica plants being especially bushy as well. Cannabis plants also tend to produce dense flowers with crystalline structures (called trichomes), with a potent and characteristic cannabis smell.

In contrast, hemp plants destined for industrial use grow much taller, reaching heights of up to 2-5 meters with wide distances between nodes. Leaves also grow quite large, and branches and trunks tend to be much denser, and have a higher fiber count than those of normal cannabis plants. Hemp flowers also differ from cannabis flowers in that they are more stretched out with little consistency.

However, more recently, low-THC/high-CBD cannabis strains that legally qualify as hemp (more on that a later) have been cultivated to specifically for the medical CBD being bred for CBD content rather than the quality of their hemp fibers. These are generally known as medical hemp strains or CBD hemp, including popular strains like ACDC, Afghan Kush and Charlotte’s Web.

Legislative Differences between Hemp & Cannabis

Legal classification of Hemp vs Cannabis in the EU

From the above, one can see that the taxonomical differences between hemp and cannabis are clear. However, legally, what is deemed “hemp” and “cannabis” is pretty much a semi-arbitrary classification based on THC content, with the only real legal distinction between the two being a number.

In other words, LEGALLY speaking, in the EU any strain of the Cannabaceae family of plants (including Cannabis sativa, Cannabis indica and Cannabis ruderalis) that contain more than 0.3% THC is classified as cannabis, with its cultivation, sale and use still considered as being a prosecutable offence. In contrast, Cannabis sativa strains comprising less than 0.3% THC (0.2% in some EU countries) is classified as hemp and can be cultivated, sold and used without prosecution.

Hemp and the Law

Industrial hemp is an integral part of European industry, economics and agriculture, with EU-wide rules regarding its cultivation and use being relatively well defined. In fact, the EU does hold a special place of distinction amongst the industrialized world with its long history for supporting the hemp fiber sector. As such, hemp can be grown as an industrial crop. Many European countries also have networks, direct monetary aid, subsidies and organizations in place that support their domestic hemp industry.

Moreover, hemp breeders, farmers and processors are protected against prosecution with a seed registration data base that forms part of the EU Common Catalogue of Agricultural Plant Species. Similarly, seeds must be certified to have a low THC content (0.3%) with seed sellers also being required to provide documentation that provides a form of legal protection for growers against prosecution.

Cannabis and the Law

In stark contrast to this, the cultivation, sales and consumption of cannabis or cannabis related products for recreational use largely continues to be a prosecutable offence in the EU - despite various experiments with legalization underway in many member states, including in Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Italy. However, in many member countries, medical cannabis and related products are increasingly being legalized for use for certain medical conditions, and under tightly controlled circumstances.

This has unfortunately led to something of a cannabis policy paradox where access for medicinal purposes remains difficult, while the continued ban of cannabis for recreational use has done little to curb its consumption. In addition, there is also still a great amount of variation across the EU countries in terms of which products are authorized, and how regulatory frameworks govern their prescription, supply and use.

However, despite many EU governments still remaining deeply divided in their attitudes towards cannabis, there is an overwhelming increase in public interest when it comes to cannabinoid based medicines. And Europe’s most commonly used illicit drug is quickly moving out of Dutch coffee shops, into the mainstream, forcing talk of an EU-wide approach concerning the legalization of cannabis production, sale and use within a public monopoly framework.

Proponents argue that this would provide stronger guarantees for both patients and recreational consumers, a better knowledge-base of cannabis and related products for doctors, more investment in cannabis research, as well as greater economic opportunities in agriculture and pharmaceutical sectors.


Hemp and Cannabis In Europe

To really understand the current status of hemp and cannabis in the EU, as well as the theoretical, practical and ideological differences between them in Europe, we need to take a look at hemp in particular in European - specifically in relation to the integral roles it played in historical, industrial, cultural, societal and legislative matters.


Cannabis and hemp have a long and varied history in Europe. In fact, although conventional wisdom states that Cannabis sativa originated in Asia, various European Neolithic or Bronze age tribes have now emerged as pioneer cultivators. Scientist examining the prevalence of various pollen, has found that our European ancestors cultivated cannabis during the early Holocene (mini-Ice Age), the Late Glacial, and other previous glaciation periods, potentially going as far back as 12,000 years ago.

Classical Antiquity

However, it was in the 1st century AD that hemp really came into its own, with the Roman Empire embracing its use. Written documents show that during the time of Emperor Augustus, the famed agriculturist while Lucius Columella promoted new hemp cultivation methods. Similarly, Pliny claimed that a particular type of hemp grown in from the city of Cairn in Asia Minor is the best. It was also at this time that Roman occupation brought hemp to England around 70 AD, ushering in a new age of hemp industry across Europe and England.

Dark Ages

By 400 AD, European hemp was a well established crop, supplying both food and fiber to the people. Hemp fast became one of the most economically and socially important crops. So much so that by 600 AD, tribal titans like the Germans, Franks and Norsemen were using hemp for making sails, paper, rope and clothes, making hemp an integral and trusted part of European industry.

Middle Ages

By the Middle Ages hemp really came into its own in Europe and England, becoming so popular that up to 80% of clothing and textiles were made from it. And due to its strength, and resistance to water and salt, the shipping industry was almost exclusively dependent on hemp canvas, rope and oakum for its sailing ships.

In fact, hemp was such an integral part of European and English culture that Henry VIII passed an act compelling all landowners to sow a quarter acre of hemp, or face a fine. His daughter, Queen Elizabeth, upped that to 60 acres of land or more, while King Philip of Spain ordered hemp to be grown throughout his empire, including the New World, stretching from what is modern-day Argentina to Oregon.

Early Modern Period

By the 1800s, hemp was such an essential crop in Europe that it started a war. At that time, the Royal Navy was almost completely dependent on Russian hemp to stay afloat during the 1812 US War over British violations of U.S. maritime rights. So, when the Czar refused to continue to enforce an 1807 treaty in which the Czar was to cut off all legal Russian hemp trading with Britain, Napoleon invaded Russia in an attempt to put an end to Britain’s main supply of hemp.

Modern Period

Then, in 1961, the United Nations placed hemp on a “black list” that resulted in a global ban on its cultivation, including Europe. However, with the development of low-THC strains 20 years later, hemp regained its rightful place in the industry and food industries without legal complications once again.

This history of hemp and cannabis in Europe paints a picture that is quite different to that of other western countries like the United States and Canada. One in which hemp, and to some extent cannabis, plays a pivotal cultural, societal and industrial role in European history with legislation supporting - and in some cases even enforcing - its cultivation. This may also explain why even today, the EU holds a place of distinction amongst the industrialized world when it comes to hemp cultivation and production, as measured by its long history in support of its hemp fiber sectors.