CBD vs THC: A Cannabinoid Comparison

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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 revealing a wide range of potential health benefits, more users are being attracted to the medicinal aspect of cannabis. Many of these new users would prefer to experience the wide range of benefits without the high.

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 start 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 (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.

CBD 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 its wide range of research-backed health benefits. 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.

Pharmacology of CBD & THC

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

Cannabis Foliage

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.

CBD has been shown to help with a wide range of conditions including:

  • Seizures
  • Inflammation
  • Pain
  • Nausea
  • Migraines
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Tumor fighting
  • Mental disorders

THC has been shown to help with a wide range of conditions including:

  • Pain
  • Glaucoma
  • Insomnia
  • Low appetite
  • Nausea

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. Temporary side effects include:

  • Dry mouth
  • Red eyes
  • Memory loss
  • Coordination issues
  • Reduced reaction times
  • Increased heart rate

Research on THC does point to negative psychiatric effects with long-term use. These risks may be higher for younger users with developing brains. Neither compound has been directly linked to a human death, both are non-fatal.

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 an 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.

For example, pain management through the use of CBD alone has been observed to be less effective and long lasting when compared to using CBD and THC in tandem.

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. Unlike recreational use, medical cannabis users are often not looking for a high but instead looking for maximum medicinal properties with minimal psychoactive effects. This desire can be contradicted by the entourage effect since these compounds provide additional benefits when used together.

For medicinal marijuana users looking for a high with medicinal benefits, a high-CBD strain may be just the answer.

For CBD users who do not wish to alter their mental state, yet wish to gain the maximum medical benefit, a full-spectrum product is desirable. These products contain the maximum allowable levels of THC. This allows for maximum medical benefit while minimizing the psychoactive effects of THC use. Unfortunately today the allowable levels of THC in a hemp-derived CBD product determined by the legal status of hemp, not by medicinal value.

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, both THC and CBD are both schedule 1 substances making them illegal to possess. This legal status applies to both compounds simply because the laws established in the 1970's state that derivatives of the cannabis plant are illegal.

Contradicting this federal law, a growing number of states are implementing both medical and recreational marijuana laws which make both compounds legal. Additionally, most states without marijuana laws have implemented some sort of CBD-specific legalization.

In practice, CBD products containing less than 0.3% THC (the legal limit for industrial hemp) are widely available for sale online, shipped to almost all states. In states where medical marijuana is legal, you must gain a doctors approval to consume high-THC cannabis. States with recreational laws have wider availability, usually only restricting sale based on age.

CBD users should research state-level laws before purchasing products derived from cannabis. If a state does not have medical or CBD-specific laws in place, there may be a legal threat to possessing and using cannabis-derived products containing 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. In the case of cannabis use, these tests are screening for THC, not CBD.

What this means is that consuming a THC-free product like broad-spectrum CBD would not result in a positive drug test. 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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