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Cannabis sativa

Plant Family

Cannabaceae – Hemp family

Other Names


Parts Used

female flowering tops


An economically important plant that has been traditionally used for fiber textiles, food, birdseed and seed oil.1

Prominent Phytochemicals

Prominent Constituents as Reported in Scientific Literature: Terpenes, volatile oils and cannabinoid-containing resins.1

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Cannabis was listed in revisions of the U.S. Pharmacopoeia from 1860 through 1930.

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Botanical Description

Hemp is a dioecious herbaceous annual that typically grows 4 to 9 feet tall and is entirely covered in fine hairs.1 It has an angular, erect stem that is branching.2 From the stem, its digitate leaves can be either opposite or alternately positioned on long petioles with five to seven lanceolate serrated leaflets.1,2 The axillary female inflorescences stand upright in either a raceme or spike structure.1,2 The male flowers have five stamens with long anthers and the female flowers have two pistils with long stigmas.2 The flowers are leafy at the base with brown glands covering the sepals.1 The whitish to grayish glossy fruits are somewhat flattened and ovate-shaped that contain one seed.1,2 Its seed coat is brown to olive-grey, while the inner part is green and oily with a slight scent.1

Origins & History

Hemp and Marijuana are two phytochemically distinct types of the plant known as Cannabis sativa. The two plants have long been bred for different purposes, and they contain different ratios of cannabinoids. As of the 2018 Farm Bill, Hemp and Marijuana are legally classified as different substances.3 Hemp contains less than 0.3% total THC, while Cannabis with greater than 0.3% total THC is classified as Marijuana.


Cannabis was originally listed as an herb in revisions of the U.S. Pharmacopoeia from 1860 through 1930. However, when the federal government created the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which later led to the Controlled Substances Act in 1970, they essentially outlawed all types of Cannabis on a federal level. The Farm Bills of 2014 and 2018 began the federal legalization of Hemp by reclassifying Hemp as an agricultural crop different from Marijuana. This change in law extended to the Controlled Substances Act, so that any part of Cannabis sativa with less than 0.3% total THC is considered Hemp and was removed from the Schedule I list. However, regulations vary at the state level: some allow Hemp cultivation; others decriminalize Marijuana; some allow medical Marijuana and even others allow both medical and recreational use of Marijuana; and a few states continue to outlaw all forms of Cannabis.


Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica were previously separate species but have recently been combined by taxonomists to one species with two varieties: Cannabis sativa var. sativa and Cannabis sativa var. indica.


Hemp is indigenous to northern India and what is now Iran but has become naturalized in Brazil, Europe, and North America, as well as being cultivated in numerous different countries.1 The plant was used in herbalism in ancient Iran, India, China and Greece, and in some cultures, Hemp also was used spiritually. Along with being used in herbalism, Hemp is an economically important plant and has been used for fiber textiles such as cordage.1 The plant’s seeds have been used for food and birdseed. The seeds are also pressed for oil used as a food and for making varnish, soap and paints.1


The plant is typically dioecious, meaning male and female parts usually occur on different plants. Since the female Hemp plants have been shown to have higher levels of cannabinoids, they are phytochemically more desirable. Due to this, unless being grown for seed the female plants are usually grown without male plants so fertilization/pollination can’t occur. Avoiding fertilization prolongs the flowering process and in turn, resin production.


Hemp contains 750 plus phytochemicals, which includes more than 100 cannabinoids.4 This is a distinctive group of compounds that is only found in this plant. Its main phytochemicals, cannabinoids and terpenes, are primarily located in leaf and flower glandular trichomes, which are readily visible.4 It is hypothesized that cannabinoids and terpenes work together to create an “entourage effect”, where the combined phytochemicals collaborate synergistically to create an effect that is greater collectively.5 Specific cannabinoids are often isolated in products, which is thought to negatively impact this synergy. Two commonly isolated constituents are cannabidiol (CBD) from Hemp, which is not psychoactive, and delta9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) from Marijuana, which is psychoactive.3 These are only two of the many cannabinoids found in the plant. Terpenes are more commonly known as the scent of a multitude of plants, as they make up the fragrant essential oils. This includes the well-known aromas of Rosemary, Lavender, Clove, Mint, Pine, Eucalyptus, Citrus and many more. Both cannabinoids and terpenes are soluble in high percentage alcohol and fatty oils, such as medium chain triglycerides (MCT) oil from Coconuts, making these menstrua the most optimal for extraction.


Most Hemp products used as dietary supplements are decarboxylated before extraction. The decarboxylation process unlocks more of the Hemp plant’s desired phytochemicals through a heat process. Cannabis sativa produces the bulk of its cannabinoids in an acidic form, by the addition of a carboxylic acid group on each cannabinoid molecule. Removal of that carboxylic acid group is called decarboxylation and is used to convert less active cannabinolic acids into more active cannabinoids.


  1. Felter H. W., Lloyd J. U. King’s American Dispensary, 1898. Henriette’s Herbal. Accessed October 30, 2019.
  2. Remington J. P., Wood H. C., et al. The Dispensatory of the United States of America, 1918. Henriette’s Herbal. Accessed November 4, 2019.
  3. United States Department of Agriculture Office of General Council. Memorandum for the Secretary of Agriculture. May 29, 2019. Washington, D. C. 20250 USA.
  4. American Herbal Pharmacopoeia. Cannabis Inflorescence, Cannabis spp. American Herbal Pharmacopoeia and Therapeutic Compendium. 2014. Scotts Valley, CA 95067 USA.
  5. Russo EB. 2011. Taming THC: potential Cannabis synergy and phytocannabinoid-terpenoid entourage effects. Brit J Pharmacol 163:1344-64.

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