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CBD vs THC: What's the Difference?

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The growth of the hemp-sourced CBD industry has more and more people turning to cannabis for it's numerous health benefits. This increase in curiosity has consumers looking at the two most well-known cannabis compounds: cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

Both compounds naturally occur in cannabis. Hemp is well known for being high in CBD while marijuana is known for being high in THC. Both compounds interact with your body's endocannabinoid system to different ends.

THC is known primarily for it's role in creating the high associated with marijuana use. CBD is known for providing anti-stress, sleep, and other health related benefits associated with CBD oil use. Keep reading to learn how these two compounds differ, and how they are similar across a number of important topics for any CBD user.

Psychoactivity: CBD vs THC

The biggest difference between these two compounds lies in their psychoactive effects:

Delta-9 THC (Δ9-Tetrahydrocannabinol) - Commonly referred to as simply THC this is the well known psychoactive compound in cannabis that produces the high. Marijuana strains that are generally bred to maximize the amount of THC present in order to increase potency.

CBD (Cannabidiol)  - Unlike THC, CBD does not produce psychoactive effects and is actually known to ease the harsher pshycoactive properties 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 hemp plants which are grown to maximize CBD content while minimizing THC content.

Chemical Structure: CBD vs THC

Both THC and CBD are phytocannabinoids. Phyto indicates naturally occurring while cannabinoid indicates a class of cannabis-sourced compound. The two molecules share the same components: 21 carbon atoms, 30 hydrogen atoms, and 2 oxygen atoms. The difference between the two lies in a subtle difference in the arrangement of the atoms.

Their structure allows these cannabinoids to bind to your body's endocannabinoid receptors which are found throughout all the major systems in your body. These interactions affect the release of neurotransmitters in your brain and play a role in pain, immune function, stress, and sleep, to name a few.

THC is a partial agonist that 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.

THC vs. CBD: Legality

Cannabis Foliage

Both hemp and marijuana produce THC and CBD. The cannabinoid is chemically identical in either case, but the quantity of THC in the plant determines it's legal status.

Today, the only federally legal type of cannabis is hemp which is any type of cannabis containing 0.3% THC or less by dry weight. Marijuana is defined as any cannabis containing more than 0.3% THC and still federally illegal, though state-level legalization is progressing.

As a result, the CBD industry sources CBD-rich oils from hemp as these low-THC plants and their derivatives (the oil) are legal to possess, sell, and even travel with in the USA. Any products or plants with more than the trace amount of THC found in some CBD oils must be sold through medicinal or recreational marijuana programs.

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 compounds depending on their preference or tolerance for the psychoactive 'high' associated with THC use.

In June 2018, the FDA approved Epidiolex, a prescription formulation of CBD. It is used to treat rare, difficult-to-control forms of epilepsy. Other applications of CBD are not approved but studies and anecdotal evidence show the compound effective in helping with:

  • Sleep
  • Stress
  • Skin issues
  • Mental issues
  • Soreness

THC is used to help with other issues including:

  • Sleep
  • Soreness
  • Appetite
  • Stress

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 nor THC has been directly linked to human 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.

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, 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.

THC and CBD in CBD Oil

Today it is possible to find CBD products containing both CBD and THC. As we mentioned above, however, legally sold CBD oil must contain no more than a trace of THC. There are many products of different spectrums that remove the THC completely to remove any exposure.

This makes CBD oil a less than ideal place to look if you're after THC. If you are looking for the psychoactive compound in significant quantities, you'll need to look to medicinal or recreational marijuana.

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