What is the Difference Between CBD and THC?
Posted on September 13 2021
Cannabidiol, or CBD, in its wide variety of forms, continues to garner attention for its wide selection of possible health and medical benefits. But CBD is easily confused with its close cannabinoid cousin, THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, which is the chief element found in marijuana. While CBD and THC are the two chemical compounds that originate from the cannabis sativa plant, there are some important differences that you should be aware of as you shop for CBD products.
CBD vs THC: Top 7 Differences
- Harvest Process
- Psychoactive Compounds
- Effects on Brain Chemistry
- Primary Uses
- Side Effects
- Presence in Drug Testing
CBD and THC actually are only two of hundreds of active chemical compounds found in the cannabis genus plants—but they are likely the most commonly known. While the two compounds originate from the same source and share some important similarities, they also diverge in several ways; most notably when it comes to psychoactive or intoxicating effects.
In some cases, patients report good results from using the two together. As always, it’s imperative that you talk with your physician if you’re considering incorporating either CBD or THC into your health and wellness practice. The information presented here can help prepare you to have an informed and productive discussion.
CBD vs THC Similarities
CBD and THC share some important inherent characteristics. First, they come from the same plant family. The cannabis sativa plant features several sub-species, which include both hemp and cannabis.
Hemp typically features only trace amounts of THC and more CBD. For hemp to be considered legal in the United States, it must contain less than .3 percent THC concentration. Cannabis, however, will have high THC concentrations, sometimes of up to 20 percent or more. And cannabis may feature varying amounts of CBD—anywhere from .1 to 25 percent.
CBD and THC also share a similar chemical structure, which has a lot in common with the chemical base of the endocannabinoids produced by the human body. This may help explain the profound therapeutic effects of both THC and CBD reported by many patients.
Each of these two cannabinoid compounds consists of 30 hydrogen atoms, 21 carbon atoms and two oxygen atoms—but the atoms are arranged in different configurations, which explains the fact that CBD and THC ultimately have different effects. The slight change in chemical structure allows the two compounds to interact differently with the endocannabinoid system receptors present throughout the body.
For example, THC’s chemical structure allows it to bind directly to the brain’s CB1 receptor family. In contrast, CBD’s particular chemical structure prohibits it from binding to the CB1 receptor group, but it does interact indirectly with the CB2 receptors—all of which brings about two different responses.
A number of studies have been conducted to investigate the medicinal and health benefits of both CBD and THC, and there have been some striking similarities in their therapeutic effects. In fact, CBD and THC can often be used to treat some of the same conditions; however, largely because of THC’s intoxicating effect, it’s not a good idea to use the two interchangeably in all cases.
In some cases, THC and CBD may be used together, resulting in what’s known as the “entourage effect” – the concept that the sum of the two cannabinoid compounds, plus other related chemicals in the cannabis sativa plant family, is greater than simply the sum of their individual parts.
CBD vs THC: Top 7 Differences
Let’s take a closer look at the main differences between CBD and THC.
1. Harvest Process
How and from where CBD and THC are derived is the first major difference between the two. While CBD and THC are harvested from cannabis genus plants, CBD can be harvested from both cannabis and hemp, both of which come from the cannabis sativa plant. You can find CBD extracted and used in a variety of consumption methods, including skin care products, oils, gels, gummies, supplements, extracts, and more.
When purchasing CBD products, it’s especially important to read the label to ensure you are getting a true CBD product, not one made with hemp oil. While CBD oil and hemp oil come from the same plant, they do have very different applications. Check out our hemp oil vs. CBD oil article for an in-depth explanation and shopping tips.
THC is sourced solely from the marijuana cannabis plant variety, and often appears in its finished form as marijuana cigarettes, edibles, THC oil and tinctures, capsules and others. THC-rich marijuana typically is harvested from the plant’s buds or flowers, while CBD can typically be sourced from the hemp plant’s stalks and seeds.
2. Psychoactive Compounds
One of the key differences between CBD and THC is that THC is intoxicating, while CBD is not. In fact, THC is the key cannabinoid compound associated with the euphoria, or the “high,” that results from smoking marijuana. If you are purchasing a hemp-derived CBD product, it should contain no more than .3 percent THC or less. This means the CBD products will not result in a high.
CBD is much better known for its health and wellness benefits than for recreational use. In contrast, while THC is not the only cannabinoid capable of producing intoxicating effects, it’s the only chemical compound that is present in high enough concentrations to produce a high—which explains why THC has for so long been associated with the more recreational aspects of marijuana.
In the strictest sense of the word, both THC and CBD have psychoactive properties because they both can help improve emotional balance and regulate mood. The biggest difference is that CBD does not produce an intoxicating effect.
When it comes to the mechanism of action, THC is able to bind to the CB1 receptors in the brain, which catalyzes a psychoactive process that leads to feelings of calm or even euphoria. Depending on the specific concentration of THC, these pleasant feelings also may progress into mild psychedelic effects. However, CBD’s chemical structure prohibits it from binding to CB1 receptors, which means CBD is incapable of triggering intoxicating effects, even if consumed in high amounts.
3. Effects on Brain Chemistry
Both CBD and THC interact with the body’s endocannabinoid system, which often is credited with helping the brain and body achieve homeostasis, or balance. This system helps regulate vital functions such as memory, immune function, hunger, pain sensation, reproduction, appetite, and a wide range of emotions. Both cannabis compounds interact with different components of the endocannabinoid system, which explains their different effects.
For example, THC stimulates CB1 and CB2 receptors, while CBD does not. Instead, CBD interacts with multiple receptor pathways throughout the body. In fact, CBD needs the presence of THC in order to bind withs CB1 receptors, which means taking CBD and THC together may help reduce a portion of any unwanted psychoactive effect of THC, such as euphoria or sedation.
And while CBD and THC both have the ability to alter pain transmission in the brain, the key difference is that CBD is able to do so without producing the physical sense of euphoria caused by using THC. The use of either CBD or THC can help reduce the chronic pain often associated with inflammation, physical injuries, migraines, fibromyalgia, and more.
Users of THC often report a relaxed state of mind, a reduction in physical tension, feelings of euphoria, or a case of “the giggles,” and in some cases, improved cognition.
4. Primary Uses
When it comes to how CBD and THC are used, THC has historically been used primarily for recreation, while CBD is mainly known for its potential therapeutic effects on health and wellness.
Many patients report, for example, that CBD has helped them reduce inflammation, relieve physical discomfort, including chronic pain, speed up the body’s regenerative processes, and even improve resilience to stress and anxiety. How to take CBD oil for best results will vary from patient to patient, along with dosages and frequency.
In other cases, the medicinal use of marijuana, containing THC, has shown positive effects when it comes to pain relief, and may be a safer alternative to traditional opioid-based prescription drugs. Some patients have also reported positive effects while using medical marijuana to control the tremors associated with Parkinson’s Disease, symptoms of fibromyalgia, nausea, weight loss, and even glaucoma.
5. Side Effects
By and large, CBD has been shown to be safe for use. It doesn’t show documented toxicity, even in amounts as high as 1,500 mg daily. CBD also has been shown to be safe for animals. Any side effects reported in conjunction with CBD use have generally been mild, and include mild nausea or diarrhea, dry mouth, dizziness, changes in appetite, fatigue, or dizziness.
One thing to make note of, though, is that there is the danger of CBD oil drug interactions. CBD has been shown to amplify the effects of some medications, and to nullify the effects of others. That’s why it’s so important to talk to your primary care physician about your plans to add either CBD or THC to any existing medication regimen. In fact, the World Health Organization has stated that CBD is safe in large quantities, with its only potential side effects likely the result of interactions with other medications a patient may be taking.
THC, on the other hand, is not generally well tolerated in large amounts. Reported side effects of THC include short-term memory loss, dizziness, and confusion, along with feelings of anxiety and paranoid thinking patterns. THC also has been shown to have some analgesic, appetite-stimulating and sedating effects. The “munchies” associated with THC and marijuana use often are the subject of pop culture humor, but according to Science Daily, this hunger-stimulating effect is often essential for encouraging appetite in patients with HIV/AIDS and cancer who otherwise might not get the nutritional benefits they need.
And while low doses of THC may help with symptoms of anxiety and stress, larger THC amounts have actually been shown to aggravate these symptoms, so dosing is extremely important in order to avoid this negative side effect. Additional side effects reported with THC use include memory loss, increased heart rate, reduced reaction time, anxiety, red eyes, trouble with coordination, and dry mouth.
Fortunately, neither CBD or THC has the potential to deliver a lethal overdose—largely due to their failure to interact with the brain stem area that regulates respiratory functions. However, it’s important to note that excessive use of THC may be connected to long-term detrimental psychiatric effects. This is especially true for teenagers who abuse marijuana, though there’s no conclusive evidence that using THC over the long term causes psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia.
This is where things can get a little confusing. CBD products containing .3 percent or lower THC are legal at the U.S. federal level, thanks to the 2018 U.S. Farm Bill, which allowed for legal industrial production of hemp. You can find hemp derived CBD products for sale all over the U.S., at pharmacies, vape shops, wellness centers, and specialty stores.
You can also find high-quality CBD oils and other products online through reputable retailers, like FarmerAndChemist.com. The internet offers multiple options for researching potential vendors, such as reading third-party verification reports, user reviews, and expert and consumer blogs that rank the highest quality cannabis products and retailers.
In the same year the U.S. passed the Farm Bill, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration also approved a CBD-based prescription medication for the treatment of childhood seizures often associated with epilepsy, called Epidiolex. To date, Epidiolex is the only cannabis-based drug that has gained approval from the FDA.
However, THC remains illegal at the federal level. And laws around THC and marijuana are generally fairly restrictive in most countries in the world. As of this writing, THC is legal at the federal level only in Uruguay and Canada.
Additionally, U.S. state laws vary widely as to their individual stance on CBD and THC. So, CBD may be legal in some states, while THC is illegal. As of this writing, 16 U.S. states have legalized recreational use of THC at the state level, and 48 states have some form of legal medical marijuana use. In general, CBD is legal at the state level for all U.S. states as long as it contains .3 percent or lower THC content.
Ultimately, you’re responsible for understanding the laws of your state. If you are found in possession of cannabis products in a state where they are not legal, or if you can’t show a prescription in states where CBD or THC products are legal solely for medical treatment, you could find yourself facing legal repercussions.
7. Presence in Drug Testing
Both CBD and THC can show up in drug tests for several days, or even weeks, after being ingested. Both compounds are stored in the body’s fat cells. As a general rule, most standard drug tests are designed to detect chemicals related to THC, though some CBD-sensitive drug tests are available. It is possible for some CBD products to contain trace amounts of THC, so if you’re in a situation where you’re regularly tested for drugs, you’ll need to ensure you’re buying a CBD product that doesn’t contain any THC.
How to Tell the Difference Between CBD and THC While Shopping
When shopping for CBD, it’s imperative to do your due diligence in terms of reading labels and getting familiar with what’s actually in your product. Unless your state has legalized the use of THC for recreational use, it’s important for your CBD label to specify that the CBD product comes from hemp and that it contains .3 percent or lower THC.
Unfortunately, many CBD oils and other CBD products you find online often inadvertently contain significant THC levels—largely due to lack of regulation and third-party testing. That’s why it’s important to request a certificate of analysis from a third-party laboratory, which, though not required by law, many CBD retailers (including Farmer & Chemist) will readily supply. This analysis will detail everything about the product’s potency, THC content, and level of purity. If an online retailer doesn’t have the certificate of analysis information or refuses to share it, you should probably steer clear of both the product and the retailer.
Ultimately, as the consumer, you should learn as much as you possibly can about any CBD product you buy, including where it’s grown and whether the plant was tested for both CBD and THC levels, as well as for potential contaminants. According to the Hemp Industry Association, most industrial hemp used for producing CBD products in the United States is grown in Colorado, Kentucky or Oregon, or is imported from overseas. Farmer & Chemist uses only the highest-quality hemp grown and cultivated in the United States, allowing us to verify each plant’s CBD levels, quality, and ancestry.
In addition, it’s a good idea to look for labels that tell you exactly how much CBD is in a product you’re buying—per dose. Most experts agree that if you’re trying CBD for the first time, you should start with the lowest possible dose and only increase if you aren’t experiencing the therapeutic effect you’re looking for, so individual doses are important.
For example, for a CBD oil or CBD tincture product, you’re wise to begin with a product that contains 10 milligrams of CBD per dose to begin with. Be on guard if a product you’re considering only lists the amount of “cannabinoids” present, and not specifically CBD. The umbrella term, “cannabinoids” may also include THC and dozens of other chemical compounds. It’s not uncommon for retailers to use the more general term in order to avoid careful scrutiny—from both the FDA and from consumers.
And if you’re looking to buy THC or CBD with levels of THC higher than .3 percent, your process becomes a bit more complicated. First, you need to ensure that you’re making a purchase within a state that legally sells THC, and you’ll likely need to make your purchase from a state-licensed dispensary. In addition, in the 20 states that allow only medical use of marijuana, you will need to have a recommendation from a physician before you can make a purchase.
Just as with CBD, you’ll want to request a certificate of analysis for any THC product you buy. Dispensary staff should have all product certificates of analysis readily available and be willing to share them with you. If they aren’t, or there’s no certificate of analysis for the product you wish to purchase, you should likely try to find it at another dispensary or choose a different product.
Above all: always be skeptical of any product that makes broad, sweeping health claims or guarantees. The only products that can legally make medical claims are those approved by the FDA. And the more dramatic and over the top the claim, the more skeptical you should be.
CBD vs THC: Same Plant, Drastically Different Effects
While THC-rich marijuana has long been known for its relaxing and euphoric effects, both THC and CBD have gained attention in recent years for their potential to help manage serious health conditions without the use of opioid-based prescription drugs. And while research remains in early stages, results seem promising that CBD products, which are currently legally available, can be a healthy and productive component of an overall health and wellness plan.
Above all, make sure you purchase your CBD oils, tinctures, gummies and other products from a reputable retailer that maintains the highest integrity when it comes to ingredients. If you’re ready to make a CBD purchase, the knowledgeable team at FarmerAndChemist.com stands ready to help you choose the products that best fit your needs, so reach out today.