What’s the difference between CBD and THC?
Cannabis consumers have long prized potency (a high THC content) as a primary factor for strain popularity and desirability. This traditional demand for THC has caused an over-saturation of high-potency products, though many consumers now prefer less intense products lower in THC and higher in the non-intoxicating compound called CBD (cannabidiol). Both have unique properties that make them ideal for all your weed needs.
CBD vs. THC: Key differences
THC and CBD are both cannabinoids derived from the cannabis plant, but they’re different in many ways that may influence your next dispensary purchase.
An easy way to think about it is that THC is defined by effects that cannabis makes you feel. CBD will not intoxicate you, or get you high.
What is CBD?
CBD is one of the most abundant cannabinoids found in various strains of the cannabis and hemp plants, with a long list of holistic and medicinal benefits. Like THC, the human body absorbs it via a system of cannabis-friendly receptors called the endocannabinoid system, which helps regulate everything from sleep cycles to immunity to reproductive health.
But unlike THC, CBD doesn’t bind to the system’s primary CB1 and CB2 receptors; rather, it helps regulate how these receptors and cannabinoids interact.
It can also counteract some of the intoxicating effects of THC by binding to other cannabinoid receptors, and will keep THC from activating those receptors. This translates to a less intense psychoactive effect, making products with a mix of CBD and THC great options for first-time consumers.
This does not mean that CBD, by itself, cannot offer a beneficial effect. High doses of CBD often produce a profoundly relaxing experience with ample internal perks. Like stepping out of a hot tub, your body may feel tingly and relaxed, and your brain may be clear.
What is THC?
THC is the star cannabinoid of the weed world. It imparts cannabis’ beloved high sensation, and its use for treating numerous medical maladies via the plant has been cited in medical texts for thousands of years. It was first discovered and isolated in Israel in 1964, and high-THC weed remains the world’s most widely-consumed illicit substance.
THC primarily binds with the body’s CB1 receptors, which abound in the brain and central nervous system, as well as the eyes and spleen.
The intensity of THC’s effects can change when combined with other cannabis and terpenes as part of the entourage effect theory, which argues that “various cannabis compounds work together to create unique effects and benefits.”
CBD vs. THC: Legality
Currently, 37 states plus DC, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands have medical marijuana programs with both CBD and THC products; 18 states have legal adult use laws. The passing of the Farm Bill in December 2018 made industrial hemp a legal agricultural commodity in all 50 states.
However, the legality of hemp-derived CBD may vary from state to state, so it’s important to check your state’s laws before stocking up on hemp-derived CBD products.
Marijuana and THC are classified as Schedule I substances and remain illegal at the federal level. Strains that have a high CBD:THC ratio are legal only in states with legal, regulated cannabis markets.
CBD vs. THC: Molecular structure
On a molecular level, THC and CBD have a lot in common. They resemble the endocannabinoids our bodies naturally produce, and both contain 21 carbon atoms, 30 hydrogen atoms, and 2 oxygen atoms. They diverge in the structures that connect these atoms, which impacts how they bind to different receptors and catalyze the release of neurotransmitters in the human body. This accounts for their distinct effects on consumers.
CBD vs. THC: Psychoactive components and effects
The molecular differences between CBD and THC contribute directly to their difference in effects on the body and endocannabinoid system. THC’s molecular structure fits perfectly into CB1 receptors and mimics the effects of endocannabinoid anandamide, which signals the brain to release dopamine—hence, the high. CBD’s atomic arrangement means it does not bind well to CB1 and CB2 receptors, but its presence can counteract the presence of THC binding, as well as influence the efficacy of other neurotransmitters in the body.
CBD vs THC: Medical benefits and effects
In the limited body of marijuana research, cannabinoids like THC and CBD have shown to work most effectively when in tandem with one another, terpenes, and other minor marijuana compounds in a synergy called the entourage effect. But both can help address a number of conditions in isolation.
CBD medicinal effects
The list of conditions CBD may help with continues to grow and evolve. Despite ample self-reported and studied evidence, more research is still needed to better understand the efficacy and range of CBD’s benefits for humans and animals with endocannabinoid systems. Many use CBD and CBD-based products to manage the following symptoms and conditions:
- Epilepsy and seizure disorders
- Pain and inflammation
- PTSD and anxiety
- Crohn’s disease
- Multiple sclerosis
- Opioid withdrawal
Though clinical and anecdotal evidence suggests CBD can help manage different conditions, CBD became most famous for treating a rare and debilitating form of pediatric epilepsy. Dravet’s Syndrome is notoriously resistant to current treatment methods. People with the condition are plagued by seizures, often up to hundreds a day, and they usually worsen as people age and can be life-threatening.
Currently, treatment methods include having a child wear an eyepatch, specialized diets, and brain surgery, but all have mixed success rates.
One of the earliest CBD success stories involved a young girl with Dravet’s Syndrome named Charlotte Figi, who at five years old was given an ingestible oil derived from Charlotte’s Web, a high-CBD cannabis strain specifically developed to provide her with all the benefits of the plant without the high.
In less than two years, Charlotte went from a monthly seizure count of 1,200 to about three. Other success stories followed and more parents have begun to speak out, particularly parents desperate for access to this life-saving treatment.
Though Charlotte passed in April of 2020 at the age of 13, she far outlived the prognosis given to her before starting CBD treatment, which predicted she wouldn’t live past eight.
In 2018, the FDA approved Epidiolex, the first CBD product federally approved to treat Dravet’s Syndrome. The DEA has scheduled it as a Schedule V substance.
THC medicinal effects
While the euphoria that comes with smoking, dabbing, eating or ingesting weed doesn’t officially count as a medical treatment, high-THC cannabis and byproducts have a long history of mitigating mental and physical health symptoms and conditions.
Many patients find that a balance of CBD and THC offers the best symptom relief as the two work together synergistically, and they overlap in treatment, but THC is particularly effective in relieving the following symptoms and conditions.
How to find the best CBD cannabis product for you
CBD has no lethal dose or known serious side effects, and many of THC’s negative side effects have been debunked as based on bad-faith research. Using cannabis-derived compounds for pediatric conditions remains a touchy subject in a culture rife with cannabis stigma. We recommend doing your own research and speaking with a medical professional familiar with cannabis and how it may benefit you. If you live in a legal state, Leafly can help you find a doctor.
What are some high-CBD strains I can try?
Before human intervention, cannabis grew wildly with much lower cannabinoid levels than present day. Most cannabis strains are bred for potency and high THC, with less than 1% CBD or other cannabinoids. CBD is typically the second-most abundant cannabinoid in cannabis, but this isn’t always the case. A strain may deliver CBD and THC in the following ratios:
- High THC, low CBD (e.g.,10-30% THC, <1% amounts of CBD)
- Balanced CBD/THC (e.g., 5-15% THC and 5-15% CBD)
- High CBD, low THC (e.g., 5-20% CBD, THC under 5%)
Typical levels of CBD & THC in marijuana
By and large, most of the weed you’ll find in dispensaries and on the black market has been grown to exhibit as much THC as possible. Most pre-packaged flower sits at around 20% THC, and <1% CBD, as most consumers prioritize the potency of their high. You may need to do some sleuthing to find brands producing flower with a more a balanced or even high-CBD ratio.
High-CBD strains tend to deliver very clear-headed, functional effects without the euphoric or sedating highs associated with high-THC strains. They suit consumers who are extremely sensitive to the side effects of THC (e.g., anxiety, paranoia, dizziness).
A high-CBD strain also benefits anyone needing to medicate throughout the day to control pain, inflammation, anxiety, or other chronic conditions.
Balanced CBD/THC strains feel more euphoric than CBD-dominant strains, though they’re much less likely to induce anxiety, paranoia, and other negative side effects. Strains like these tend to be the most effective for pain relief, and they’re also well-suited for THC-sensitive consumers who’d like a mellow buzz.
You can smoke or vaporize CBD-rich flower, eat a CBD-infused edible, swallow a CBD oil capsule, apply a CBD lotion, or use a CBD tincture sublingually, just high-THC products. Hemp products also contain CBD, though it is a less efficient source and lacks the beneficial chemical diversity of cannabis-derived CBD products (more on that here).
Keep in mind that CBD levels may vary from crop to crop—even from plant to plant. We also recommend checking with dispensaries about the specifics of their strains’ CBD levels, and purchasing only lab-tested products that clearly state the CBD/THC levels, so you know what kind of experience to expect.