Hemp Oil vs Medical Cannabis

These two products are often misidentified

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Major Differences

People use many different terms to describe the cannabis plant and its products, creating a source of confusion for consumers. Two products which are often misidentified are hemp oil and medical cannabis oil. The major differences are summarised in Table 1.

Table 1: Summary of hemp oil and medical cannabis oil differential characteristics

Different Plant Origins

Both hemp oil and medical cannabis oil come from a species of plant called cannabis sativa. Humans have farmed cannabis sativa for thousands of years1. Early civilizations selectively bred plants with certain traits, and, over time, this produced a number of distinct strains within the species.

Strong, tall plants were grown to make food and textiles; today this strain is known as hemp. Flowering plants with psychoactive properties were grown for recreational and medical purposes; this strain is commonly referred to as medical cannabis, marijuana or simply cannabis.

Hemp oil is made from hemp plants which have a high fibre content and very low concentrations of pharmacologically active compounds (cannabinoids). Medical cannabis oil comes from cannabis plants with large, cannabinoid-containing flowers, but very little fibre2.

Seeds vs. Flowers

In addition to being sourced from different strains of cannabis sativa, hemp oil and medical cannabis oil are made from different parts of the plant. Hemp oil comes from the seeds of the hemp plant, similarly to almond, flaxseed or sunflower oil, whereas medical cannabis oil is most commonly made from the flowering head of the cannabis plant. Medical cannabis oil can also be produced from cannabis leaves and stems, however the flowering head contains the highest concentration of cannabinoids2.

Cannabinoid Content

In most countries, growing hemp is restricted to plants with less than 0.3% THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the psychoactive compound in cannabis4. Moreover, research has shown that the seeds from which hemp oil is produced contain no cannabinoids at all3. Therefore, hemp oil is not useful for medical purposes and does not cause psychoactive effects.

However, hemp oil does have nutritional benefits. It is made up of more than 80% polyunsaturated fatty acids, and the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 in hemp oil is considered optimal for health5.

On the other hand, medical cannabis oil contains high concentrations of pharmaceutically active cannabinoids. Cannabis plants contain approximately 400 chemical compounds, 60 of which are cannabinoids6. THC and CBD (cannabidiol) are the most abundant cannabinoids; the exact proportions present in the oil will depend on the variety of plant from which it was extracted.

One exception of note is CBD oil derived from hemp plants. This is generally produced in countries where growth of medical cannabis is restricted, but CBD is not legally controlled. As other parts of the hemp plant such as leaves and stems can contain small amounts of the non-psychoactive cannabinoid CBD (cannabidiol), these may be used to create a pharmaceutically active oil referred to as hemp CBD oil or simply CBD oil. CBD oil is usually made from medical cannabis plants; the concentration of CBD in hemp is much lower, so a large volume of plant material is needed to produce a small amount of oil.


Hemp oil is primarily a food, consumed for its omega-3 and omega-6 content. It can also be used to make soaps, lotions and shampoos.

Medical cannabis oil is a medicine used for its potentially beneficial effects in various health conditions.

Production Methods

Hemp oil is made by pressing hemp seeds in a process similar to that used for olive, coconut and peanut oils.

In contrast, medical cannabis oil is generally made by solvent extraction from the flower. Cannabis plant material is mixed with a liquid solvent such as ethanol or supercritical CO2 to dissolve the active compounds. Then the solvent is evaporated, leaving a resin with a high concentration of cannabinoids. This resin is then mixed with oil.


Please note: this reference material is informational and does not constitute as advice. Furthermore, the information you are being referred to may not comply with the Australian regulatory environment. GreenChoices recommends any information provided should be discussed with a healthcare professional and does not replace their advice.

  1. Fleming MP, Clarke RC. Physical evidence for the antiquity of Cannabis sativa L. (Cannabaceae). J Int Hemp Assoc 5(2): 80-92, 1998.
  2. Chandra S, Lata H, El Sohly MA. Cannabis sativa L. - Botany and Biotechnology. Springer Ch1: 1-63, 2017.
  3. Mölleken H, Husmann H. Cannabinoids in seed extracts of Cannabis sativa cultivars. J Int Hemp Assoc 4(2): 73-79, 1997.
  4. Sawler J, Stout JM, Gardner KM, Hudson D, Vidmar J, Butler L, Page JE, Myles S. The Genetic Structure of Marijuana and Hemp. PLOS One 10(8), 2015.
  5. Callaway JC. Hempseed as a nutritional resource: An overview. Euphytica 140: 65, 2004.
  6. Atakan Z. Cannabis, a complex plant: different compounds and different effects on individuals. Ther Adv Psychopharmacol 2(6): 241–254, 2012.