CBD vs. THC: What’s the Difference?

The popularity and acknowledgment of medical marijuana are increasing, highlighting the importance of grasping the differences between its main constituents: tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). By exploring the distinct characteristics and therapeutic benefits of THC and CBD, we can better navigate the realm of medical cannabis and make well-informed choices regarding its usage.


CBD vs. THC: What's the Difference?


You’ve likely come across plenty of talk about marijuana, especially as more states legalize it. It’s derived from the cannabis plant, which contains a dense substance packed with compounds known as cannabinoids. Among the over 100 cannabinoids the cannabis plant produces, the two primary ones are CBD and THC, both of which trigger drug-like effects in your body.

What is CBD?

CBD, short for cannabidiol, is another compound derived from the cannabis plant. While it’s related to THC, CBD doesn’t have psychoactive properties, so it won’t induce the “high” associated with THC. In the U.S., CBD is more readily available compared to THC, although each state imposes different laws and regulations regarding its sale.

CBD is found in various forms such as oils, extracts, patches, vapes, and topical lotions, and it’s believed to offer a range of health benefits. Notably, CBD is the active ingredient in Epidiolex, the first FDA-approved medication derived from a marijuana component, used in treating epilepsy.

What is THC?

THC, or delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, is the primary psychoactive compound found in the cannabis plant. It’s responsible for the intoxicating effects commonly associated with smoking marijuana or consuming edibles.

In the United States, marijuana and other products containing THC are categorized as Schedule 1 controlled substances by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). This classification indicates that the DEA views them as having a high potential for abuse and currently lacking accepted medical use, despite the legalization of marijuana in some cities and states, including for medicinal purposes.

THC is available in three main forms: herbal or flower, hash/hashish, and hash oil. Among these, the herbal variety is the most prevalent. It’s typically made from dried cannabis leaves, flowers, or buds, which can be smoked or incorporated into foods and beverages.

CBD and THC chemical structures

CBD and THC share the same molecular formula: 21 carbon atoms, 30 hydrogen atoms, and 2 oxygen atoms. However, they have distinct arrangements of atoms, leading to different chemical properties and effects on the body.

Despite their structural similarity, CBD and THC interact differently with the body’s endocannabinoid system, resulting in varied physiological responses. Both compounds influence the communication between brain cells, albeit through different mechanisms, contributing to their diverse effects on cognitive function, mood, and perception.

Where do CBD and THC come from?

CBD and THC indeed originate from the same plant species, Cannabis sativa, but there are significant distinctions between the two.

CBD is typically extracted from the hemp plant, another variety of cannabis. Marijuana generally contains minimal THC, typically less than 0.3%. Cannabis plants with a THC concentration exceeding 0.3% are classified as marijuana.

Both THC and CBD are derived from the resin present on the leaves and buds of female cannabis plants, although CBD can also be sourced from the flower heads.

It’s essential to note the existence of synthetic cannabinoids, often referred to as synthetic marijuana, spice, or K2. These are artificially produced chemicals that are engineered to mimic THC. However, their psychoactive effects differ from THC and can lead to severe reactions.

How CBD and THC Affect the Body

CBD effects

Scientists have identified several “molecular targets” in your body that may be affected by CBD.
But we’re still not sure exactly how CBD works. Researchers believe it slows signals to the brain, reduces brain inflammation, and changes levels of calcium in brain cells, which plays a role in communication between cells.

A serious concern with CBD products is what else they may contain. Most are not regulated by the FDA, so no one can guarantee their purity. One study of CBD products found that more than 25 percent contained less CBD than listed on the label, and some also contained THC.

This may cause a false positive result on your drug test. The FDA has issued multiple warnings to companies selling these products and says you should be careful before using them.

THC effects

THC in marijuana activates the brain’s pleasure center and triggers the release of dopamine, commonly referred to as the “feel-good” hormone. This action results in a relaxed and euphoric sensation.

The potency of cannabis can vary significantly, with higher-grade varieties containing more THC, thus exerting a more pronounced impact on the body and brain. Present-day cannabis plants are notably more potent than in the past, with the average THC concentration in marijuana now around 15%, a considerable increase from approximately 4% in the mid-1990s.

Indeed, the higher THC levels in modern cannabis can potentially contribute to various mental health effects among users. These may include:

  1. Hallucinations: Elevated THC levels can increase the likelihood of experiencing perceptual distortions or hallucinations, wherein individuals may see, hear, or feel things that aren’t actually present.
  2. Delusions: Some users may develop false beliefs or delusions, often characterized by irrational or unfounded convictions about oneself, others, or the surrounding environment.
  3. Mental Illness: Long-term or heavy use of high-THC cannabis has been associated with an increased risk of developing mental health disorders, including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and psychosis. While cannabis use alone may not cause these conditions, it can exacerbate existing vulnerabilities or trigger the onset of symptoms in susceptible individuals.

It’s essential to approach cannabis use with caution, particularly considering its potential effects on mental health, and to seek professional guidance if experiencing adverse reactions or concerns about usage patterns.

CBD vs. THC for anxiety

Some studies indicate that CBD may reduce anxiety-like behavior in animals. However, further research is necessary to determine if this response translates to humans. A small study did show that participants who used CBD experienced improved sleep and reduced anxiety, but larger studies are required to validate these findings.

One study compared the efficacy of medical marijuana, CBD, and a placebo (sham treatment) in treating anxiety among veterans with PTSD. The study observed significant improvement in symptoms across all three groups. However, individuals who received THC or CBD did not experience any greater benefits compared to those who received neither.

Another study discovered that lower doses of THC appeared to alleviate anxiety in certain users, while higher doses may exacerbate anxiety in other users.

CBD vs. THC Benefits

People use CBD and THC hoping to alleviate a range of physical and mental health issues.

Although further studies are required for a comprehensive understanding, some research indicates that CBD may be beneficial for conditions like:

  • Anxiety
  • Inflammation
  • Nerve-related pain

Researchers are investigating whether THC can be effective in treating various conditions such as:

  • Muscle stiffness and spasms associated with MS or ALS
  • Chronic pain or nerve pain
  • Epilepsy or seizures
  • Tremors in Parkinson’s disease
  • Nausea
  • Glaucoma
  • Stimulating appetite in individuals with HIV/AIDS
  • Agitation in Alzheimer’s disease
  • Crohn’s disease
  • Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Research on cannabis in the United States is challenging due to stringent regulations. Since it remains classified as a Schedule I drug, scientists must adhere to DEA regulations or risk fines.

CBD vs. THC Side Effects

Smoking or consuming THC can lead to:

  • Issues with concentration, judgment, and memory
  • Dizziness
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Drowsiness
  • Impaired balance

Side effects from CBD may include:

  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Upset stomach
  • Fatigue
  • Lightheadedness
  • Irritability
  • Low blood pressure

CBD can also alter the effectiveness of certain medications. If you use CBD or THC, it’s important to consult with your doctor.


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