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CBD vs. THC: Simple guide to understand the difference

Janet Miller

Janet Miller

Last updated: October 16, 2019

Sheet of cannabis marijuana in defocus image

CBD and THC are similar in some ways. These similarities lead to confusion. They are both cannabinoids that react with the endocannabinoid receptors in the body. The effects are dramatically different, however.

What is THC?

THC is tetrahydrocannabinol derived from cannabis plants. This drug is responsible for the psychoactive effects of smoking marijuana. The result is that a person’s memory, pleasure, movements, thinking, concentration, and coordination are affected.

What is CBD?

Though CBD is also a cannabinoid like THC, it does not produce a high. The way endocannabinoid receptors react is much different. Since it is derived from the hemp plant and not marijuana, it does not contain much THC, if at all.

CBD vs. THC: Chemical structure

Both cannabidiol and tetrahydrocannabinol share the same chemical structure. They each contain 21 carbon atoms, 30 hydrogen atoms, and two oxygen atoms.

Why do they cause such dramatically different reactions? They do not have the same molecular arrangement.

They both attach to and react with the CB1 and CB2 endocannabinoid receptors in the brain. Due to the differences in the arrangement of the molecules, cannabidiol does not cause a psychoactive reaction. Tetrahydrocannabinol, on the other hand, has a more potent effect.

Both THC and CBD can affect things like pain, mood, sleep, and memory. How intense the effects are is where the difference lies.
When tetrahydrocannabinol binds to the receptors, it starts the release of a torrent of endorphins, which results in the feeling of getting high.
CBD does not bind to the receptor in the same way. Cannabidiol interferes with the binding of THC. Some effects of THC become neutered, leading to a weaker reaction.

Source of Origin

Both THC and CBD come from cannabis plants. Tetrahydrocannabinol is derived from the bud and flower of the marijuana plant. It can only come from the female plant.
The buds of the plant contain the crystals. These crystals are called trichomes. It is from the resins of these trichomes that the most potent THC comes.

During THC extraction, the buds need to be treated or heated. Industrially, THC is extracted either by using butane, ethanol, or CO2.

  • When extracting with ethanol or butane, the buds are mixed with the chemicals. The result is a mix of ethanol or butane with the THC. The tetrahydrocannabinol is then removed from this mixture.
  • CO2 extraction works similarly, with one exception. The liquid CO2 is forced into the buds with pressure to extract the THC.

CBD comes from the hemp plant. They are technically the same plant, just with different names. Hemp is cannabis sativa, while marijuana is cannabis indica. Indica is the female cannabis plant, and sativa is the male. Cannabis sativa has less than 0.3% of tetrahydrocannabinol but is still rich in cannabinoids.

The extraction process to make cannabidiol is like how tetrahydrocannabinol is extracted. There are a few differences between cbd vs thc, however. There is a process after extraction to refine the CBD and remove unwanted substances.

Why does THC get you high, but CBD does not?

CBD has no psychoactive components, yet tetrahydrocannabinol does. That is the most significant difference between THC and CBD.

EffectAffects things like pain, mood, and memoryBoosts controls of pleasure, memory, thinking, concentration, movement, and coordination
Psychoactive effectTurns that off in the neurotransmitterCreates a psychoactive effect
The reactionReleases serotonin (influences things like pain, mood, and sleep)Releases a rush of endorphins throughout the body
Pain relieverYesYes

CBD vs. THC: Benefits

Both THC and CBD provide relief for many of the same conditions. The difference is in the potency and psychoactive element of the relief.

Some people are susceptible to tetrahydrocannabinol and have the opposite effect of what was intended.

CBD relieves symptoms from:

  • Chronic pain
  • Inflammation
  • Seizures
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Migraines

CBD offers another benefit beyond the relief of those ailments. Those that have to take drug tests can use CBD. Many cannabidiol products contain no tetrahydrocannabinol. The products that contain tetrahydrocannabinol have it in such low doses that some drug tests do not catch it.

Its use as an anti-inflammatory is one of its most significant benefits. The immune system sometimes starts inflammatory responses to prevent illnesses and reduce the effects of an injury.

It indiscriminately inflamed tissues even when it is unnecessary. CBD reduces the inflammation while still allowing the immune system to fight off a sickness or injury.

CBD is also being used recently to reduce the effects of opioid addiction due to its ability to disrupt opioid receptors.

THC relieves symptoms from the following conditions:

  • Insomnia
  • Chronic pain
  • Glaucoma
  • Muscle fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Anxiety

The potency of tetrahydrocannabinol is much higher than the cannabidiol. People with a sensitivity to the effects of THC should consider CBD.

Tetrahydrocannabinol has long been used for treating of glaucoma. The drug decreases the pressure on the eyeballs of people with glaucoma.

Marijuana and THC are still illegal at the federal level. The result is that there has not been a lot of studies done on the benefits of tetrahydrocannabinol without federal money available. Many benefits are coming to light as more opportunities to study happen.

The progression of Alzheimer’s slows when treated with tetrahydrocannabinol. Epilepsy and Parkinson’s patients also see many benefits when using tetrahydrocannabinol or marijuana.

CBD vs. THC: Side effects

There are very few side effects from THC and CBD. Neither one is fatal. Any side effects are caused by an interaction with another drug.

That is not to say that there are no effects at all. Some are even considered unpleasant by some people.

For example, THC is used to treat anxiety. Some people feel heightened concern after taking it. People sensitive to tetrahydrocannabinol find an increased heart rate, dry mouth, and slow reaction times.

Those effects are besides the euphoric sensation caused by THC. Usually, users become sleepy, starving, or unaware of their surroundings. Some feel all of those symptoms.

Cannabidiol is much milder, and the effects come with no psychoactive reaction.

Some side effects of CBD are like tetrahydrocannabinol. Namely, sleepiness and slowed reaction time.

It is not recommended, even illegal, to drive or operate any machinery while under the influence of THC.

Woman Smoking Weed in the garden image

1) The most popular way to take THC is to smoke a marijuana cigarette. Long before it became legal in some states, this has been the preferred method.

  • Smoking is slowly getting overtaken by vaping as the preferred means of delivery.

2) Vaping THC is much more discreet and delivers pure tetrahydrocannabinol without many other substances that come with combusting marijuana.

  • Rather than burn the flowers and buds of the plant, a concentrate of THC oil is vaporized and inhaled.
  • Vaping tetrahydrocannabinol is potent, and some users are too sensitive to use this method.

3) Vaping CBD is also very popular. Using a vape pen or similar offers the best bioavailability of the CBD. What that means is that not much of the CBD is lost.

4) Edibles are also very popular for both THC and CBD.

5) Oils and powders made from the cannabinoids can be added to food products.

6) Gummy candies and baked goods are the most popular way to eat them. It takes a while to feel the effects, since it needs to be digested first. Also, some bioavailability is lost in the digestion process.

7) Oils and tinctures dripped under the tongue are quite useful.

Drug Testing Issues

Drug test report form image

Marijuana is legal for recreational and medical use in several US states. Drug testing is still an issue even in those states, however. It is still illegal on a federal level. Part of the hiring process for federal workers includes drug testing. Some types of employees undergo testing periodically after the hiring process.
Other companies also require drug tests.

  • Tetrahydrocannabinol is the substance that the drug tests check. Smoking marijuana will trigger a positive result on a drug test. Taking tetrahydrocannabinol without the actual cannabis can also trigger a positive hit on a test.
  • Vaping, eating edibles, or any other way of taking THC oil will cause a failed drug test.
  • How long does THC last in the bloodstream? It can take weeks after taking the product for tetrahydrocannabinol to leave the system entirely.
  • CBD rarely causes a failed test. Some types of CBD products have trace amounts of THC. Full-spectrum CBD can have up to 0.3%. Depending on the drug test, this could cause a failure. Most CBD products do not have any THC at all.
  • Broad-spectrum or CBD isolate are recommended if a drug test is necessary. There is no guarantee that a THC free CBD product does not have any THC. Since the FDA does not regulate CBD, it is not a sure thing.

The legality of THC and CBD

The Hemp Farm Act of 2018 opened up the door to the use of CBD products for therapy. Since it passed, CBD products made with hemp are legal at the federal level. Complicating matters is that some states can still keep any CBD product banned. There are three states in which it is still illegal: Idaho, Nebraska, and South Dakota. In the Commonwealth of Virginia, cannabidiol can only be acquired with a prescription.

THC use is legal in eleven states:

  • Alaska
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Illinois
  • Maine
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • Nevada
  • Oregon
  • Vermont
  • Washington

Marijuana use is legal recreationally. There are further states in which it is legal to use it for medical reasons.

The legality of THC vs. CBD is still confusing. It is imperative to understand how the state regulates it. Tetrahydrocannabinol cannot be brought from a legal state to one in which it is not permitted.

It is also illegal on a federal level, which further complicates things. There is no guarantee that the federal government will override none any of the state laws allowing THC usage.

For instance, it is allowed to cultivate six cannabis plants per household in Nevada. The US government forbids the cultivation of cannabis and could pursue charges against somebody grows their own, although it is legal where they live.

The likelihood of the US government doing this is very slim, however. The DEA says that it is not in its purview to pursue individuals. Instead, they focus on large-scale operations.

Do due diligence

It is essential for anybody considering using THC and CBD to familiarize themselves with their local laws before taking any products.

It is still like the Wild West when it comes to CBD vs. THC consumption. There are some unscrupulous companies out there trying to make quick profits.

Make sure to look for brands that have a third party testing of their products. They should be labeled clearly, and the laboratory should be FDA approved.

Once a trusted brand is located, then start with small doses. There is no way to know how the body reacts to the effects of THC and CBD. Only increase the dosage once it seems like the full effects have come and gone.

CBD vs. THC Takeaway

Many people have had their lives changed for the better by taking CBD and THC. Millions of lives have been improved through the relaxation of cannabis-related drug laws.

CBD with THC is not a cure-all treatment, however. Take all claims with a grain of salt. Research the brand and product in question to find the right one for the best medicine.

If there are any questions about the information in this article, please leave a comment in the box below.


Janet Miller

Janet Miller

Janet is a medical specialist with 10 years of experience as a physician and writing passion. She aims to help people and expand humans mindset. Chat with Janet on Twitter @Janet_Miller_MD or via our contact page.


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