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Wild cannabis: what is ditch weed and can you use it?

Wild cannabis: what is ditch weed and can you use it?

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Ditch weed is a term used in North America for any wild-growing cannabis. It’s an umbrella term that can encompass any variety of cannabis plant found outside and growing without the help of a human. 

You may hear ditch weed referred to as wild weed, but this term would actually more appropriately represent a cannabis plant that has never been influenced by humans. You might think wild cannabis would be common, but actually due to the tremendous influence of humans on cannabis and on the planet, this true wild species of cannabis is quite rare.

Instead of truly wild weed, most ditch weed would be best described by the term feral cannabis– cannabis that is a cross of domesticated cannabis and wild cannabis. Cannabis is wind pollinated so it doesn’t take much for male plants to pollinate local wild cannabis, creating a hybrid of the wild and domesticated cannabis. Think of a house cat that got out and then bred with a wild cat; that is the animal equivalent of ditch weed. 1

Ditch weed can be found across the world, although by this name it mostly means cannabis that is found in the midwest of the US. The term pays homage to where feral cannabis would most commonly be found, on the side of the road or in drainage ditches.

Most of the ditch weed in the US is remnants of a time when hemp cultivation was not only legal, but an important piece of the United State’s manufacturing. To a lesser degree, ditch weed can also be also the product of growers living in states where cannabis was or still is illegal. By planting seeds in random locations, they could escape prosecution should law enforcement find their harvest. 

The term ditch weed historically was used as slang for poor quality cannabis, but this is less common today. 

What do wild marijuana plants look like?

Ditch weed can grow in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors (Shutterstock)

Because ditch weed is a generic term, it can grow in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors. Depending on the genetics and growing conditions, these cannabis plants can range from two feet tall fully grown, to over 10 feet tall. But all species share the iconic five-pointed leaves, and most have a distinct, musky odor.  2

The main difference between wild-growing marijuana plants and commercially grown cannabis plants is in the smoking experience. Commercially grown weed plants are grown in a highly controlled environment, where everything from the water to the light is highly controlled and optimized for maximum cannabinoid production. 

Feral cannabis plants, on the other hand, are left to the whims of nature, so they’re not as heavy in trichomes. The sugar leaves and buds will be less crystalized and sticky, though this can be hard to see at a distance.


Where does weed grow naturally? 

While wild cannabis likely evolved in central Asia over 20 million years ago, today you can find wild cannabis growing across the globe. 

Cannabis is one of the oldest cultivated crops in human history, with records dating back nearly 20,000 years. The plant is native to the mountainous region of Central Asia, not far from modern day Pakistan. 3

As humanity spread and intercontinental trade grew, cannabis moved with it. First the plant traveled across Asia and India before spreading to Africa and Europe. Cannabis made it to the Americas last, and is thought to have not reached the “new world” until Spanish explorers brought it with them in the 16th century.

Hemp was a staple crop in the American colonies to produce fibers and cordage, and some states even went as far as requiring farmers to grow hemp. Hemp again gained popularity during World War II, when the US Government needed to compensate for materials shortages. Much of the ditch weed growing naturally in the US is the remnants of plants from these historic cultivations. 

What kind of conditions does wild cannabis need?

Different varieties of wild weed do well in different conditions. Cannabis is a hardy plant with tough seeds that can grow in a myriad of climates. Wild cannabis seeds can lay dormant for up to 10 years sprouting again, so they can survive extreme conditions. 4

Today we think of warm climates and long hours of sunlight as optimal for cannabis growth. For cannabis sativa and indica, this can be; but the plant is very diverse and some varieties  adapted to live in the mountains and can survive cold, harsh weather.

Indica vs Sativa: What's the Difference?

Cannabis ruderalis is a cannabis species thought to have originated in Russia. It is smaller than cannabis sativa or indica with low levels of THC and higher levels of CBD. But what makes ruderalis notable is its ability to autoflower.  5

Cannabis sativa and indica are photoperiod-dependent plants, also known as short day plants, meaning their growing stages and yield are directly influenced by the amount of light they receive from the sun. But cannabis ruderalis, also known as a day-neutral plant or as an autoflower, is conditioned to grow in cold climates with shorter hours of daylight and automatically flowers after 21-30 days of vegetation regardless of light conditions. This makes the species popular in hybrids looking for high THC content with autoflowering ability. 6

Is ditch weed the same as hemp?

Most of the ditch weed plants growing in the US are actually wild hemp plants, descendant from leftover hemp cultivation in the 20th century that was grown to support the war effort during World War II. 

There are some plants planted by sly growers with higher THC levels, but these are not nearly as common. Most of the feral cannabis you find growing wild in the US will be Type III cannabis, or CBD dominant. However that may not be the case in other parts of the world where cannabis has deeping roots as a wild growing plant.

Is ditch weed legal to use?

Ditch weed that descended from hemp plants is legal in the US, thanks to the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, which legalized hemp cultivation with less than 0.3% THC. Ditch weed with percentages of THC over this legal limit is not. 

However, possession of ditch weed in states where cannabis consumption is illegal can still put you at risk for trouble with the law. It’s nearly impossible for the untrained eye to tell the difference between hemp and cannabis at just a glance, and testing the plant to confirm the cannabinoid levels is not something most police officers are inclined to do. 

Outside of the US, rules and regulations about hemp and cannabis possession vary by country.

Can you smoke ditch weed?

Yes, you can smoke ditch weed, but you might not want to. 

Wild weed isn’t tended or cared for in the same way as industrial cannabis, or even at all. Modern cannabis cultivars are highly manipulated to create potent strains with rich terpene profiles that we know and love today. In comparison, ditch weed has been left to the elements and won’t be nearly as strong.

Every element of commercial cannabis is controlled, from the soil to the water and light. Cannabis is a bioaccumulator, meaning it is an absorbent plant that picks up many of the toxins and heavy metals where it is grown. This can put the weed at risk of picking up toxic runoff, pesticides, or heavy metals in the soils- none of which are conducive for a good high. 

Other plants that look like cannabis 

Weed plants tend to be easily distinguishable, thanks to their odor and iconic five-point leaf, but nature loves a copycat. There are other plants in the wild that can resemble cannabis, none of which you’d want to smoke. 


The Cassava plant grows starchy roots similar to potatoes (Shutterstock)

Cassava is a woody shrub native to South America and grows starchy roots similar to potatoes, which are boiled and eaten or turned into tapioca. The green pointed leaves can resemble cannabis from a distance, though up close, they have rounded edges. 

Scarlet Rosemallow/ Texas Star

Scarlet Rosemallow/ Texas Star
Scarlet Rosemallow/ Texas Star (Shutterstock)

This perennial flower is native to the southern US and can be mistaken for weed thanks to its pointed leaves and tall stalk, reaching up to seven feet. But as the name suggests, the red flower easily sets it apart. 


The leaves of the tropical Kenaf plant look very similar to cannabis (Shutterstock)

Kenaf is a tropical plant that looks so similar to cannabis that police have conducted raids over it! Native to southern Asia, it’s easiest to tell Kenaf apart from cannabis when it blooms (or due to the lack of smell.) 

Japanese maple

The red leaves of the Japanese maple look similar to cannabis fan leaves (Shutterstock)

While it should be easy to tell the difference between a tree and a stalked plant, the red leaves of the Japanese maple do look quite similar to cannabis fan leaves, albeit in red.


  1. Ren G, Zhang X, Li Y, et al. Large-scale whole-genome resequencing unravels the domestication history of Cannabis sativa. Sci Adv. 2021;7(29):eabg2286. Published 2021 Jul 16. doi:10.1126/sciadv.abg2286
  2. Gloss D. (2015). An Overview of Products and Bias in Research. Neurotherapeutics : the journal of the American Society for Experimental NeuroTherapeutics, 12(4), 731–734. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13311-015-0370-x
  3. Ren G, Zhang X, Li Y, et al. Large-scale whole-genome resequencing unravels the domestication history of Cannabis sativa. Sci Adv. 2021;7(29):eabg2286. Published 2021 Jul 16. doi:10.1126/sciadv.abg2286
  4. Bewley J. D. (1997). Seed Germination and Dormancy. The Plant cell, 9(7), 1055–1066. https://doi.org/10.1105/tpc.9.7.1055
  5. Gloss D. (2015). An Overview of Products and Bias in Research. Neurotherapeutics : the journal of the American Society for Experimental NeuroTherapeutics, 12(4), 731–734. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13311-015-0370-x
  6. Zhang M, Anderson SL, Brym ZT, Pearson BJ. Photoperiodic Flowering Response of Essential Oil, Grain, and Fiber Hemp (Cannabis sativa L.) Cultivars. Front Plant Sci. 2021;12:694153. Published 2021 Aug 2. doi:10.3389/fpls.2021.694153
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