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Cannabis 101

CBD vs THC: Similarities, Differences & Potential Benefits

06.07.22 - 4 min read

As the legalization of cannabis continues to expand into new states, more people are seeking out knowledge of the plant’s possible benefits and uses. To help empower the guests and patients in our community, we’ve compiled the latest research about the two most abundant, frequently discussed compounds found in cannabis: THC and CBD. 

The marijuana plant contains over 400 chemical compounds, of which over 100 are cannabinoids. CBD and THC are the main cannabinoids present in the cannabis plant. 

In this article, we aim to guide you through the differences between these two cannabinoids. You’ll learn everything you need to know about the difference between THC and CBD, including the ways to consume, psychoactive effects, legality and testing results. 

We’ll also take you through the potential therapeutic benefits of CBD and THC, including the results of recent medical studies and the latest science-based information on these cannabinoids. 

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Highlights 

  • THC and CBD are chemical compounds found in the marijuana plant and called cannabinoids
  • CBD and THC have the same chemical formula but different structures, which results in a different range of possible effects on the human body. 
  • THC and CBD are the two most abundant cannabinoids found in cannabis plants. 
  • THC and CBD, individually and in combination, are associated with many potential therapeutic benefits. 
  • THC is generally considered intoxicating, but CBD is typically thought to be significantly less psychoactive. 
  • THC is illegal at the federal level, but hemp-based CBD with <0.3% THC is not. 

THC vs CBD: What are they & where do they come from? 

THC is an abbreviation for delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol and CBD is short for cannabidiol. They are the two most abundant natural compounds, or cannabinoids found in cannabis, the plant genus that marijuana and hemp come from. 

What is cannabis? 

Cannabis, also known as marijuana and many other names, is a plant genus with three species 

  • Cannabis sativa 
  • Cannabis indica 
  • Cannabis ruderalis 

Due to their abundant cannabinoids, all three species have psychoactive properties, meaning when they are ingested, they cause state-altering effects on the human endocannabinoid system (which is responsible for modulating the central nervous system, neuron communication, and physical responses to external stressors). [Source] 

Cannabis and hemp products are grown from different varieties of the cannabis sativa species. They are genetically distinct forms of the plant, distinguished by differing chemical compositions and typical use. 

  • Cannabis products are high in THC and CBD, with a wide variety of ways to consume for medicinal or recreational purposes. 
  • Hemp-based products are high in CBD but low in THC. They have long been used in construction and industrial products, as well as in manufactured products for personal care, food, beverages, nutritional supplements, textiles and paper. 
what-is THC

What is THC? 

THC is the primary psychoactive cannabinoid in marijuana. When THC binds with the cannabinoid receptors in your brain that are responsible for mood, pain, and other feelings, the chemical reaction releases neurotransmitters producing an intoxicating feeling. [Source] 

THC can be consumed directly from cannabis, or extracted from marijuana to be utilized in many different formats, including 

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What Is CBD? 

CBD is one of the primary cannabinoids found in all three species of cannabis, but products containing CBD extracts are only legal in the U.S. if they are derived specifically from cannabis sativa hemp. [Source] 

There are different spectrums of CBD extracts, including 

  • Full-spectrum CBD: Contains all of the naturally occurring cannabis compounds, including trace amounts of THC, which is legal so long as there’s less than 0.3% THC content. 
  • Broad-spectrum CBD: Has all traces of THC removed, but other natural cannabis compounds will still be present. 
  • Pure CBD: is a CBD isolate extract with no other plant compounds present. 
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Because CBD interacts with cannabinoid receptors in your brain and releases neurotransmitters that affect your body, it’s considered psychoactive. However, CBD is thought to be non-intoxicating and has no psychotropic effect on your senses or perception. Research indicates possible health benefits of CBD may include reducing stress and anxiety, pain relief, and reducing inflammation. Ways to use CBD include: 

  • Smokable and vaping products 
  • Edibles 
  • Drinks 
  • Oils 
  • Topicals 
  • Tinctures 
  • Capsules 
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Key similarities between CBD and THC 

Key similarities occurring in CBD vs THC include: 

  • Both are cannabinoids, derived only from cannabis 
  • Both are primary ingredients in medicinal and recreational cannabis products 
  • Each can be consumed in their original plant forms 
  • Both are extracted for use in commercial products and homemade goods 
  • Each can be consumed similarly, including smoking, vaping, eating and drinking 
  • Both share the same chemical formula: 21 carbon atoms, 30 hydrogen atoms and 2 oxygen atoms C21H30O2 
  • Each is a psychoactive substance that interacts with cannabinoid receptors in the human body 
  • Both can potentially affect human health in general, as well as specific health conditions.   
CBD-and-THC

Key Differences between THC and CBD 

The key differences between CBD and THC include: 

  • Chemical Structure: While the chemical composition is similar, the atomic structures of THC and CBD are different, resulting in different interactions with receptors in the human endocannabinoid system (ECS). 
  • Legality 
    • CBD: Although the 2018 Farm Bill made eligible CBD products legal at the federal level, your local or state laws may restrict buying, selling, possessing, and using them, so check beforehand. To be legal at the federal level, CBD must: 
      • Be derived solely from cannabis sativa hemp 
      • Be sourced and grown by a licensed grower 
      • Have less than 0.3% THC content 
      • Comply with state and federal regulations 
    • THC: At the federal level, THC is an illegal substance, except for hemp-derived CBD products with less than 0.3% THC content. However, many states have legalized the medicinal and/or recreational use of marijuana, so check beforehand and proceed with caution. Crossing state lines with marijuana or THC products is a federal crime, even if it’s legal in both states. 
  • Cannabinoid receptors: THC tends to bind with CB1 and CB2, the two primary cannabinoid receptors in the ECS, while CBD doesn’t tend to bind with either (it interacts indirectly with the receptor). 
  • Intoxicating effect: When THC binds with CB1 receptors, it triggers a psychological and intoxicating effect. CBD isn’t intoxicating because it doesn’t bind well with CB1 receptors. 
  • Possible side effects 
    • CBD – While no CBD-related side effects are reported by the WHO, negative interactions between CBD and other drugs can be problematic, notably blood thinners, thyroid and heart rhythm medications, and medicines with “grapefruit warnings.” Always consult a doctor before using CBD while taking other medications. [Source] 
    • THC – THC exposure is responsible for an increased risk of psychotic disorders in adolescents who abuse cannabis. Common but temporary side effects associated with THC may include 
      • Anxiety 
      • Coordination problems 
      • Dry mouth 
      • Increased appetite 
      • Increased heart rate 
      • Memory loss 
      • Red eyes 
      • Slower reaction times 
  • Drug Test Results – THC/marijuana are commonly detected in most standard drug tests. Not all tests detect CBD, but CBD-sensitive tests are available. Keep in mind, hemp-derived CBD products may not be THC-free, even if they claim to be Pure CBD, and may contain detectable amounts of THC that could show up on a drug test.  [Sources. 1, 2
  • Detection Windows – THC/marijuana can show up on drug tests for 3 days to 30 days, depending on the frequency of use before being tested. CBD typically stays in the body for 2-5 days, but for some people, it stays in the body for weeks.  [Sources. 1, 2]  
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CBD vs THC: potential therapeutic benefits 

The endocannabinoids your body produces help regulate processes and functions like reproduction, fertility, memory, mood, sleep and appetite. Cannabis THC and CBD cannabinoids are very similar to human endocannabinoids, so they interact naturally with the ECS and are associated with various possible therapeutic benefits. [Source] 

The following sections highlight the results of many recent developments and medical studies regarding the beneficial effects of using CBD and THC separately, as well as promising research regarding the “entourage effect,” which involves combining THC with CBD for a potentially enhanced experience. 

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Therapeutic benefits associated with CBD 

In June 2018, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a CBD-based liquid prescription medication called Epidiolex® for the treatment of Dravet syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome, two severe forms of childhood epilepsy. [Source] 

Currently, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) clinical trials database shows over 300 trials involving CBD that are active or recruiting. 

Recent studies involving CBD have reported possible therapeutic benefits in the following conditions: 

  • Inflammation 
  • Nausea 
  • Discomfort 

Therapeutic benefits associated with THC 

In 1985, the U.S. FDA approved two synthetic THC medications, dronabinol (Marinol®) and nabilone (Cesamet®). Dronabinol is approved for treating HIV/AIDS-related anorexia and nausea and/or vomiting in chemotherapy patients who respond negatively to conventional medications for these conditions. Nabilone is also approved for treating chemotherapy-related nausea and vomiting and has shown some effectiveness in managing fibromyalgia. [Source] 

Recent research and ongoing studies of therapeutic benefits from THC indicate promising results for managing the following health conditions: 

  • Insomnia 
  • Low appetite 
  • Muscle spasticity 
  • Nausea 
Learn-what-is-THC

The Entourage Effect: Therapeutic Benefits When CBD & THC Interact 

When a cannabis product containing both THC and CBD is ingested, these two cannabinoids synergistically bind with CB1 receptors and produce an enhanced effect. 

This is called the “entourage effect,” discovered and reported in 1998 by Drs Raphael Mechoulam and Shimon Ben-Shabat. In a nutshell, ingesting an “entourage” of THC and CBD cannabinoids results in a more balanced, more peaceful, and longer-lasting effect than ingesting either one individually. [Source] 

An excellent example of the entourage effect is seen in a randomized controlled trial with Nabiximols, a 1:1 THC to CBD mix. Patients “with intractable pain despite optimized opioid treatment” were given either a THC-based extract, Nabiximols, or a placebo. Nabiximols proved “statistically significantly better” than either other treatment. The only relevant difference was the presence of CBD in Nabiximols. 

Clinical studies also show mixes of THC and CBD offer significant therapeutic benefits for managing symptoms of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). 

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Key takeaways 

Every individual is unique, and your own experiences will give you a more personal point of view when it comes to comparing THC vs CBD. If you’re new to cannabis or want to expand your knowledge as you try new products, we recommend talking to a patient care specialist at your local RISE Dispensary

Our team is here to share their passion for the plant and help support your cannabis journey. 

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