CBD vs. THC: What’s the Difference?
If it feels like each year you have more freedom when it comes to using cannabis products, you’d be right. What began in 1996 with legalized medical marijuana in California has grown into a variety of cannabis products available in every state.
Medical marijuana is legal in most states, and many states also permit recreational marijuana. And while regulations vary from state to state, CBD oil is legal at the federal level.
This leaves consumers wondering which cannabis products are right for them. To make that choice, you need to understand the differences between CBD and THC, the two most well-known and abundant cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant.
What Are CBD and THC?
CBD (cannabidiol) and THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) are classified as phytocannabinoids, a class of compounds found in the Cannabis sativa plant. Both CBD and THC have demonstrated medical benefits, but the ways that they affect us and their potential uses differ.
The primary way that people distinguish between these two compounds is by their psychoactivity, or lack thereof. THC is psychoactive, meaning that it can cause measurable changes in our cognitive function and mood. THC is largely responsible for the euphoria, paranoia, and mental sluggishness that many people associate with marijuana.
Unlike THC, CBD is not intoxicating. This means that those who use CBD-only cannabis products will not become “high.”
How CBD and THC Work
While THC and CBD each contain the same atoms (21 carbon atoms, 30 hydrogen atoms, and 2 oxygen atoms), their atomic structure is different. Meaning, they are very similar, but their shapes differ. It is their unique molecular structures and the way that they interact with our bodies that is to thank for their different effects on the human body.
For example, THC alters our cognitive function thanks to its ability to bind to CB1 receptors found in our brains. CBD, on the other hand, has very little binding affinity for CB1 receptors, and so does not result in these intoxicating effects.
CB1 receptors are one of the two primary cannabinoid receptors, with the other being CB2 receptors. These receptors belong to the endocannabinoid system (ECS). Both CBD and THC exert many of their effects on human health by interacting with the ECS.
The ECS is a vast system that plays a role in a multitude of processes in humans and all other vertebrates, such as dogs, fish, birds, and horses. It is central to our immune response and homeostasis, which is our body’s ability to maintain balance. The ECS is involved in the following physiological processes:
- Body weight
- Pain perception
- Motor activity
- Heart rate
- Stress response
ECS receptors are found throughout our bodies, including in our central and peripheral nervous systems. This includes our brains and spinal cords, immune cells, organs, skin, and more. The other components of the ECS are endocannabinoids (cannabinoids that the body makes naturally) and enzymes responsible for their synthesis and degradation.
Even though CBD does not often bind to the ECS receptors, it is still able to interact with them. One of the ways that it does so is through allosteric modulation, where CBD alters the shape of ECS receptors. By doing so, CBD can impact the ability of THC and endocannabinoids to bind to ECS receptors.
Additionally, CBD interacts with the ECS by increasing the circulating levels of the endocannabinoid anandamide. It does this through inhibiting the enzyme responsible for anandamide’s breakdown and by inhibiting anandamide’s reuptake in the body.
THC vs. CBD: The Benefits
You hear stories of people using cannabis products for conditions as diverse as anxiety, pain, insomnia, and epilepsy. Because cannabis compounds have such diverse effects on humans, it is only natural to wonder how these compounds could benefit yourself or those you love.
It’s important to know that the effects of THC and those of CBD are different from one another. In fact, using these two together may offer unique benefits that you may not see when you use just one or the other.
Benefits of THC
THC is often used to relieve the side effects from chemotherapy and AIDS, such as nausea, vomiting, and loss of appetite. Its ability to do so is unlike any other treatment available today, and as such, it can greatly increase the quality of life of those who need it. It is well-known for its ability to provide pain relief and help people fall asleep, and it may be beneficial for glaucoma patients.
Benefits of CBD
As for CBD-only therapy, it appears to be particularly helpful for those with epilepsy and anxiety.
Its benefits for epilepsy have been demonstrated in multiple clinical trials conducted prior to the approval of Epidiolex, the first CBD-only drug approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Doctors may prescribe it to treat Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome, two rare forms of epilepsy.
Research into anxiety is not quite as robust, but the early research and anecdotal reports are promising. Human studies have found CBD to help social phobia patients undergoing a public speaking test and in adult psychiatric patients who were struggling with anxiety and sleep concerns.
Researchers who examined the preclinical evidence supporting CBD for anxiety in 2015 reported that CBD may offer relief from those suffering from:
- Generalized anxiety disorder
- Panic disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Social anxiety disorder
Relatively new research has found that CBD may be a useful tool to fight addiction. CBD-only therapy may reduce cue-induced anxiety and cravings in individuals with heroin use disorder.
Preclinical research suggests that CBD may benefit those with inflammatory disorders, neurodegenerative diseases, certain forms of cancer, skin conditions or acne, and psychiatric disorders. More research is needed in these fields before conclusions can be drawn.
Health Benefits of CBD with THC
When used together, CBD combined with THC can help those that would not benefit as greatly from just CBD or THC.
One medication, Sativex, contains a 1:1 ratio of CBD to THC. It is approved in different countries around the world to relieve the pain and spasticity caused by multiple sclerosis (MS). One study found that Sativex relieved fatigue in those with MS, and another study discovered that it improved sleep.
Dr. Sherry Yafai, a practicing physician and cannabis expert at The Releaf Institute, has found a combination of THC and CBD to help some patients with chronic pain. Its efficacy is such that some people can use cannabis as a substitute to reduce their narcotic prescription load. This could reduce the risk of addiction to opioid drugs.
One of the benefits of using CBD with THC is that CBD may counteract some of the negative side effects that come from using THC. This includes things like THC-induced anxiety, paranoia, and temporarily reduced cognitive function.
Additionally, research suggests that a cannabis extract rich in THC, CBD, and other compounds found within may be more beneficial than using either cannabinoid on its own. The potential of cannabis compounds to work together synergistically is known as the entourage effect.
What Does the Law Say About CBD and THC?
Legality is one of the most important distinctions to understand when it comes to CBD and THC. Until recently, the laws surrounding both CBD and THC were confusing, with federal law and state laws often conflicting.
While this is still the case for THC, CBD’s legality has recently become much more straightforward.
Thanks to the passing of the 2018 Farm Bill, CBD has been legalized at the federal level. This legalization means that you can purchase, possess, and use hemp-derived CBD oil in all 50 states.
Both marijuana and THC are still illegal federally, and their legal status varies from one state to the next. Most states have legalized medical marijuana, but fewer have legalized recreational marijuana.
This means that you will want to research your state’s laws, specifically, to determine if you can access THC in your state. As legalization efforts continue, THC is likely to become more widely available across the United States.
CBD vs. THC: Side Effects
Remember, THC is intoxicating, and therefore can cause distortions in your cognitive function. Some of the most common side effects of THC include:
- Dry mouth
- Dry eyes
- Anxiety or paranoia
- Increased heart rate
- Memory impairment
- Reduced reaction time
- Coordination difficulties
There is also a concern that THC may be dangerous for those who are at an increased risk of certain mental illnesses.
CBD’s side effects are generally considered to be less severe than those of THC. Some common side effects include:
- Nausea and dizziness
Keep in mind that CBD interacts with certain drugs. Long-term use of high-dose CBD isolate may also pose a risk to liver health.
Dr. Jamie Corroon, the founder and Medical Director of the Center for Medical Cannabis Education, emphasizes the importance of dose, timing, and the number of drugs that you’re taking when it comes to the risk of CBD drug interactions.
The higher the dose of CBD, the closer in time that you take it to your other medications, and the more medications that you’re taking, the larger the risk of interactions.
If you have questions or concerns about using CBD, THC, or any cannabis-based therapy, talk with your doctor. If you find that your doctor is not well-versed in cannabis, visit the Society of Cannabis Clinicians to find medical professionals near you that can help.
CBD vs. THC: Drug Testing
Drug testing for cannabis looks for the presence of THC metabolites in your body. While many people do not need to undergo drug testing, there are others who will need to do so upon accepting a job or as an ongoing requirement. For these people, it is imperative that you understand which cannabis products can result in a positive drug test.
Even if you live in a state where recreational marijuana is legal, companies are still allowed to drug test you for THC. Because marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, so employers can legally fire employees who test positive for THC.
Dr. Yafai points out that both CBD oil with low THC and marijuana products rich in THC can result in a positive drug test. “There is a misconception, but CBD can legally have up to 0.3% THC in it, which is enough to show up on a drug test.”
If you are worried about a positive drug test, it may be best to avoid both CBD and THC products. While there are CBD products that don’t contain THC, there are also products that are advertised as having 0.0% THC that in fact have trace amounts of THC that may be enough to show up on a drug test.
CBD isolate products may be your best option if you would like to use CBD oil and know that you may be subject to a drug test. However, be sure to ask for batch-specific testing from the company to confirm that the CBD that you’re purchasing truly contains no traces of THC. These tests are called Certificates of Analysis (COA).
Where to Buy CBD and THC
Even though CBD and THC both come from the same plant, they usually come from different varieties of cannabis. CBD is typically extracted from hemp plants that contain 0.3% THC or less. This is the requirement for CBD oil to be legal at both the state and federal level.
THC, on the other hand, occurs in high levels in marijuana plants, which are classified as any cannabis plant with over 0.3% THC. These products are legally available in states where medical or recreational marijuana is legal. In those states, a dispensary is the only place that you will find high THC cannabis products.
Purchasing CBD products is a bit trickier. You can now find CBD online, on supermarket shelves, and even on Amazon. But it is still important to be careful when you buy CBD. Unfortunately, there is a lack of regulation and a resultant lack of quality control.
Dr. Yafai recommends that those in a state with legal recreational marijuana go to a dispensary to buy CBD products. Dispensaries have licenses that they don’t want to lose, and therefore they are usually good at doing their due diligence and ensuring that the products that they sell are safe and consistent.
For those who do not have access to recreational or medical marijuana dispensaries, she recommends that you ask the manufacturer for a COA, and do your homework. The COA will tell you how much CBD and THC are in a product.
The best companies will also test for heavy metals, residual solvents, microbes, and pesticides to ensure that what they are providing their customers is safe.
There is an enormous variety of cannabis products available to consumers today. That makes it increasingly important to do your homework and understand the differences. One of the most important factors in deciding which product to purchase is whether it is rich in CBD, THC, or a combination of the two.
Now that you understand what the difference is between CBD and THC, you have the knowledge you need to find that cannabis products best for you.