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CBD vs THC: Differences & Similarities Explained

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As the availability of cannabis-based products continues to grow in the USA and worldwide, the number of new curious users continues to increase as well. In the past, cannabis was primarily seen as a recreational drug via marijuana use. With the wealth of positive studies,  and anecdotal evidence, and even FDA recognition pointing to cannabis' wide range of potential therapeutic uses, more users are being attracted to the cannabis industry every day.

The caveat is that many of these new users would prefer to experience a wide range of benefits without the high. This is where a good understanding of hemp, marijuana, CBD, and THC all come into play.

Two of the most abundant and popular compounds in the cannabis plant have very different effects on the body and mind. Cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), are the two most abundant cannabinoid molecules originating in plants of the Cannabis genus. These two compounds both interact with the body's endocannabinoid system, but they have very different effects on the user.

Continue reading for an in-depth review of the similarities, differences, and interactions between CBD and THC.

Psychoactivity Comparison

The first and most important concept to talk about is the psychoactivity of these two compounds. The two molecules share a very similar chemical makeup, yet have very different effects on the mind:

Delta-9 THC (Δ9-Tetrahydrocannabinol) - which is commonly referred to as simply THC - is the well known psychoactive compound that produces the high associated with recreational marijuana use. THC is most commonly found in marijuana strains that are bred to maximize these psychoactive properties. See our guide for this cannabinoid for more information.

CBD (Cannabidiol) is the new rockstar cannabinoid that made its big push into the public spotlight in 2013. Unlike THC, CBD does not produce psychoactive effects and is actually known to reduce the effects of THC.  This molecule has been growing in popularity thanks to a wide range of supporting research and widespread use. CBD is most commonly found in special strains of hemp which are grown to maximize CBD content while minimizing THC content. The growth in popularity of CBD has also led marijuana cultivators to focus on growing high-CBD strains. See our guide for this cannabinoid for more information.

Pharmacology of CBD & THC

Cannabis Foliage

Both of these phytocannabinoids (naturally occurring cannabinoids) interact with the endocannabinoid system in the body. Specifically, they both interact with the CB1 receptors found primarily in the central nervous system and the CB2 receptors found primarily in the immune system.

THC is a partial agonist which activates the cannabinoid receptors to produce the 'stoned' feeling. CBD acts as an indirect antagonist of the same receptors. CBD is known to interfere with the binding of THC, explaining the psychoactive dampening effects when taken in combination.

Medical Benefits of CBD & THC

CBD and THC offer both unique and overlapping medical benefits. Those seeking relief may prefer to use one, the other, or both (more below) compounds depending on their preference or tolerance for the psychoactive 'high' associated with THC use.

Side Effects of CBD vs THC

Part of CBD's wide acceptance has been the presence of minimal side effects. The molecule is well tolerated, even by individuals taking large doses for an extended period of time. Most side effects of CBD observed in research can be attributed to interactions with other medications.

THC, on the other hand, carries a list of well known, yet non-severe side effects that are due to the compound's psychoactive properties. Users may experience common symptoms like dry mouth and red eyes when consuming THC.

Research on THC does point to potential negative psychiatric effects with long-term use. These risks may be higher for younger users with developing brains. Neither CBD or THC has been directly linked to a hum death.

Better Together: The Entourage Effect

Hemp Leaf Entourage

While each compound alone may produce many beneficial effects, research has proved that consuming a full range of cannabis compounds together provides increased overall effectiveness. This cooperative relationship between cannabinoids is called the 'entourage effect'. This principle can encourage the use of cannabis products which contain a wide range of plant components rather than a single, isolated molecule.

Two Different Approaches: Marijuana vs CBD User

There are two different approaches to the use of cannabis-derived products today revolving around the psychoactive properties of THC:

  • Recreational cannabis users are looking to maximize the quantity and/or quality of a high, seeking out THC-rich marijuana.
  • Medical cannabis users are often not looking for a high. Instead, these users are often looking for maximum medicinal properties with minimal psychoactive effects.

For medicinal users, hemp-derived CBD oils are often just the ticket. These products allow a user to experience the therapeutic benefits of cannabis, without the high associated with marijuana use.

Hemp-sourced products contain trace amounts of THC due to the legal restrictions on THC content for hemp production. Users choosing whole-plant products can enjoy a wide range of therapeutic benefits and no psychoactive effects.

THC vs. CBD: Legal Status

Public perception and the overall legal status of CBD and THC in the USA are evolving constantly. Currently, at a federal level, the type of cannabis determines the legal status of the resulting cannabinoids. Today, marijuana is a schedule 1 substance, making this plant illegal to possess. Hemp, however, has been cleared from this status thanks to the 2018 Farm Bill.

In practice, CBD products sourced from hemp containing less than 0.3% THC (the legal limit) are now federally legal and available for interstate trade. Marijuana, on the other hand, is still illegal federally and operates in legal space provided by individual states. As such, you must gain a doctors approval to consume high-THC cannabis while hemp-based products are federally legal without this requirement.

THC, CBD & Drug Testing

Many people are subject to drug testing at their workplace, most often upon hiring. Though often described as testing for 'marijuana', most drug tests are looking for a compound-specific presence in hair, urine, or saliva. Most commonly, these tests are looking for the presence of THC use.

What this means is that consuming a THC-free product like broad-spectrum CBD oil would not result in a positive drug test for THC, simply because it does not contain any. Consuming a CBD product containing a full spectrum cannabinoid profile, including even trace amounts of THC, could result in a positive result. If you are taking any type of cannabis-derived product while being subject to drug testing, you should exercise extreme caution and do your research first.

For more information see our article on the topic of CBD oil and drug testing.

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