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CBD Vs THC – What Are The Differences?

difference between cbd and thc

CBD and THC are the two most abundant of the many cannabinoids found in cannabis. Both THC and CBD interact with the endocannabinoid system but elicit different natural effects. CBD and THC are also regulated very differently. There are also very different legal regulations surrounding CBD vs THC.

Many consumers have the same question: “What are the differences between CBD and THC?” Here we will look at differences and similarities between the two cannabinoids.

What is CBD? What is THC?

Cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) are the two most prominent cannabinoids found in cannabis, the plant genus that includes both hemp and marijuana. While there are over 100 different cannabinoids so far identified in cannabis by scientists, CBD and THC are by far the most extensively studied and best understood.

CBD is a compound found in hemp plants and most commonly used to produce CBD hemp oil products. CBD is non-intoxicating and, when derived from hemp, is legal under U.S. federal law.

THC is a compound found in marijuana plants and is responsible for the euphoric “high” that people experience when they ingest or smoke marijuana. The legal status of THC products differ from state to state.
cbd vs thc chart

What is the Endocannabinoid System?

THC and CBD, like all cannabinoids, interact with the body through the endocannabinoid system a signaling system in the body responsible for regulating a wide array of functions. Although we lack complete knowledge of the endocannabinoid system and its functions, it is generally understood to regulate balance in the body’s communication between cells, impacting many processes.

The body naturally synthesizes its own cannabinoids, called endocannabinoids. Endocannabinoids act as neurotransmitters to interact with the cannabinoid receptors located throughout the body. They are created in response to needs within the larger physiological system and are largely understood to be used for the body’s regulatory functions.

The chemical make-up of plant-derived cannabinoids like THC and CBD are similar to the endocannabinoids produced by the body. Therefore if the body does not generate enough endocannabinoids due to under stimulation of the system, plant-derived cannabinoids like CBD or THC could provide extra stimulation to help maintain balance in the endocannabinoid system.

Interaction of THC and CBD with Cannabinoid Receptors

Despite their similarities, tetrahydrocannabinol and cannabidiol have distinct differences that influence how they interact with the endocannabinoid system.

CBD and THC both interact with the body’s endocannabinoid system and its specialized cannabinoid receptors, CB1 and CB2. It is through these interactions that these two cannabinoids augment the endocannabinoid system and encourage balance. However, the ways in which THC and CBD interact with these cannabinoid receptors vary.

THC directly binds with both CB1 and CB2 receptors, while having a higher affinity for CB1 receptors.

CBD has little affinity for the two cannabinoid receptors. Instead, it acts as an indirect antagonist of cannabinoid agonists. This means that CBD may suppress the CB1 and CB2 activating qualities of other cannabinoids. CBD has also been found to interact with other non-cannabinoid receptors, including 5-HT1A receptors and the vanilloid receptor TRPV-1.
cbd vs thc

Psychoactive Differences in CBD vs THC

One of the key differences between CBD and THC is whether the cannabis product will cause a euphoric effect when consumed. Here we compare the effects of the two cannabinoids – THC v CBD.

THC is the cannabinoid people think of when they think of marijuana or weed. It is a direct agonist of the endocannabinoid system’s cannabinoid 1 receptors (CB1), found primarily in the brain and the central nervous system. The intoxicating effect that most associate with recreational or medical marijuana use is exclusively brought about by activating CB1 receptors with THC.

CBD doesn’t bind with CB1 receptors and is actually considered an antagonist of CB1 agonists. This not only means that CBD can never cause a high, no matter how much is consumed, but that it also acts to suppress the CB1-activating qualities of compounds like THC.

THC Dominates Marijuana, CBD Dominates Hemp

THC and CBD are both found throughout the seeds, stalks, and flowers of both hemp and marijuana. The two exist in cannabis plants in a wide range of proportions. THC is most plentiful in marijuana, also called weed or pot. CBD is present in higher quantities in hemp, the source of the CBD in CBD oil products. 

In marijuana, THC dominates the plant’s chemical makeup. Marijuana is generally cultivated specifically to maximize its THC potency. Over many decades, marijuana has been manipulated and cloned with particular emphasis on increasing its THC concentration and producing more powerful intoxicating effects. While THC content can be as low as 3 percent in marijuana, on average, marijuana strains today contain approximately 12 percent THC with some as high as 30 percent THC or more. 

Hemp’s chemical makeup, on the other hand, is dominated by CBD. By definition, hemp’s THC content is no more than 0.3 percent, nearly 10 times less than the least potent strain of marijuana. Instead, hemp naturally has more CBD compared to THC, making it an ideal source of CBD from cannabis.

cbd oil vs marijuana

Want to learn about high THC and high CBD cannabis strains?

The way they make you feel isn’t the only difference between CBD vs THC. They also have differences at the molecular level.

Molecular Differences in CBD vs THC

CBD and THC are considered structural isomers, which means they share the same chemical composition but their atomic arrangements differ. The two compounds share a molecular formula of C21H30O2 and molecular weights of 314.4 g/mol.

The atomic arrangements of the two cannabinoids differ slightly. Both CBD and THC are considered cyclic compounds, which means one or more series of atoms in the compounds are connected to form a ring. CBD comes with an open ring with a hydroxyl and alkene group, while THC supports a closed ring with an ester group.

cbd versus thc

It’s these slight differences between THC and CBD in how their atoms are arranged that have a dramatic effect on how the two cannabinoids interact with the endocannabinoid system’s receptors.

Differences in the Legal Status Between CBD and THC

The legality of cannabinoid products in the United States is dependent on their THC concentration and source, marijuana or hemp. How do THC and CBD differ in legality?

Marijuana and THC are both specifically listed in the U.S. Controlled Substances Act and, therefore, prohibited under federal law. Thirty-three U.S. states and Washington D.C. have passed their own cannabis policies permitting the use of medical marijuana with high levels of tetrahydrocannabinol, provided it’s recommended by a licensed physician. Eleven of those states and Washington D.C. have gone a step further and legalized the recreational use of marijuana and THC.

CBD is legally available in the United States, but it must be derived from high-CBD, low-THC hemp. CBD itself is not listed under the Controlled Substances Act, so it’s legal at the federal level, provided it’s not extracted from marijuana.

If derived from marijuana, CBD cannabis is illegal unless obtained through a state-regulated medical marijuana program or in a state that permits recreational marijuana use. CBD products derived from hemp are legal to buy and sell in the U.S.
what's the difference between cbd and thc

Differences in Side Effects Between CBD and THC

What’s the difference between CBD and THC side effects? Because CBD and THC interact with the body in different ways, the way they make you feel after consumption is different.

CBD, as a non-intoxicating cannabinoid, does not elicit a euphoric effect or alter perception.

It is important to note that CBD’s influence on the endocannabinoid system and other receptor systems within the body tends to affect people differently. Some people have reported feeling “in the flow” or described a “sense of serenity”. Others have noted that it makes them feel “more awake” or “energized” after they use CBD products. The takeaway is that when manufactured using responsible and clean methods and consumed at suggested servings, CBD is well tolerated and does not have any intoxicating effects.

THC has intoxicating properties, known as the “euphoric” feeling. While there is a risk of some negative side effects from THC, according to the National Cancer Institute, there have been no reported cases of a fatal overdose. 

THC can produce a variety of physical and psychological side effects. Each person will likely have a different experience.

CBD vs THC for pain over the past decade there has been growing interest in the idea of using cannabis products to treat pain related to digestive issues, arthritis, chronic pain, and more. You may have seen some initial research and very positive Internet articles making claims about using THC and CBD for sleep or anxiety. There is even research looking at medical marijuana for cancer patients.

Despite these, the FDA has not approved any medication with cannabis to treat any of these health issues. We do not make or support any medical claims relating to the use of cannabis products to treat sleep problems, anxiety issues, or any other indication not approved by the FDA.

Learn More about CBD vs THC

You can learn more about CBD and THC by visiting our What is CBD Oil? guide or our Cannabis 101 page.