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CBD vs. THC: Why Is CBD Non-Intoxicating?

October 11, 2016
Why is THC intoxicating and CBD is not? How can one cannabinoid alter the mind so profoundly, and the other seemingly not at all?

When we’re talking about cannabis and euphoria, we’re dealing exclusively with CB1 receptors, which are concentrated in the brain and the central nervous system. The difference between CBD vs. THC comes down to a basic difference in how each one interacts with the cannabinoid 1 (CB1) receptor. THC binds well with CB1 cannabinoid receptors. CBD has low binding affinity for CB1 receptors. That’s where the two diverge.

Think of it like an electrical plug connecting to a wall socket. A THC molecule is perfectly shaped to connect with CB1 receptors. When that connection happens, THC activates, or stimulates, those CB1 receptors. Researchers call THC a CB1 receptor agonist, which means THC works to activate those CB1 receptors.

THC partially mimics a naturally produced neurotransmitter known as anandamide, aka “the bliss molecule.” Anandamide is an endocannabinoid which activates CB1 receptors. Animal studies have taught us that anandamide can increase appetite and enhance pleasure associated with food consumption, and it’s likely responsible for some of the rewarding effects of exercise (e.g. the “runner’s high”). Anandamide also plays a role in memory, motivation, and pain. THC is a “key” that so closely resembles anandamide that it activates CB1 receptors, allowing it to produce some of those same blissful feelings.

CBD, by contrast, is not a good fit with CB1 receptors. It’s categorized as an antagonist of CB1 agonists. This means that it doesn’t act directly to activate or suppress CB1 receptors—rather, it acts to suppress the CB1-activating qualities of a cannabinoid like THC. In other words, when you ingest THC and CBD, the THC directly stimulates those CB1 receptors, while the CBD acts as a kind of modulating influence on the THC. As Project CBD co-founder Martin Lee once wrote: “CBD opposes the action of THC at the CB1 receptor, thereby muting the psychoactive effects of THC.”

Left: THC directly stimulates the CB1 receptor. This interaction underlies the major psychoactive effects of Cannabis consumption. Right: CBD reduces, or "antagonizes," THC's ability to stimulate CB1 receptors. This can decrease some of THC's effects, especially negative effects like anxiety and short-term memory impairment.

Left: THC directly stimulates the CB1 receptor. This interaction underlies the major psychoactive effects of Cannabis consumption. Right: CBD reduces, or “antagonizes,” THC’s ability to stimulate CB1 receptors. This can decrease some of THC’s effects, especially negative effects like anxiety and short-term memory impairment.

How does that work in real life? Let’s say you vaporize cannabis flower with 24 percent THC. If that flower has 0.2 percent CBD, the THC is going to excite your CB1 receptors with almost no interference from CBD. You may feel extremely high, and you might also experience some of the less desirable effects of THC, such as a heightened feeling of paranoia. If you consume cannabis with 24 percent THC and 6 percent CBD, though, the CBD should have a dampening effect on the THC. You’ll still feel high, but perhaps not stupefyingly so—and the CBD should help keep the paranoia in check.

This difference has had profound political implications. As the founders of Project CBD have noted,  some have mistakenly labeled THC the “bad cannabinoid” and CBD the “good cannabinoid.” Legislators have passed many “CBD-only” laws in Southern states in an effort to allow patients access to this potent cannabinoid while prohibiting its euphoric sibling. But the pioneering cannabis researcher Raphael Mechoulam has often spoken of the “entourage effect,” the idea that cannabinoids and terpenes may work better together than in isolation. The GW Pharma product Sativex, for example, is a drug approved outside the U.S. for treatment of MS-related muscle spasticity. Sativex contains with a nearly 1:1 CBD-to-THC ratio.

As researchers learn more about CBD and the role of other cannabinoids and compounds in the treatment of conditions like MS, we may be able to more accurately dose CBD in combination with other cannabis-derived compounds.

 


References
Fuss J, Steinle J, Bindila L, et al. A runner’s high depends on cannabinoid receptors in mice. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2015;112(42):13105-8. PDF
Mahler SV, Smith KS, Berridge KC. Endocannabinoid hedonic hotspot for sensory pleasure: anandamide in nucleus accumbens shell enhances ‘liking’ of a sweet reward. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2007;32(11):2267-78. PDF
Englund A, Morrison PD, Nottage J, et al. Cannabidiol inhibits THC-elicited paranoid symptoms and hippocampal-dependent memory impairment. J Psychopharmacol (Oxford). 2013;27(1):19-27. PDF

Bruce Barcott's Bio Image

Bruce Barcott

Leafly Senior Editor Bruce Barcott oversees news, investigations, and feature projects. He is a Guggenheim Fellow and author of Weed the People: The Future of Legal Marijuana in America.

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  • stevenlehar

    Very interesting. I have compared high Sativa with high Indica strains, and subjectively speaking I cannot distinguish the two. Can you? Both of them seem to get me going where I want to be. All the vapes I have tried, however, are never the same as flower, they never go all the way to 100% the way I feel with the flower. Am I alone?

    • Trppedsnsanity

      Try dabbing its so close to flower but it is a bit different high like if I smoke bud I tend to hold it in so maybe that is why I get really stoned to a point sometimes my brain gets stuck but ive never actually felt that same super brain stuck high from dabbing although I dont hold it in like bud..but also that brain stuck high only lasts about 1 min or so after I blow the hit out sometimes it makes me fall over and have seizers it feels super cool but it’s scary at the same time lol and I have tried holding rip of some shatter and it just doesnt ever do that which seizers aside is the best feeling I’ve gotten from pot.

    • Mike

      Flower = nature. Flower power hehehe. Vape looses so much in translation. I understand that combustion of biological matter is not as healthy to human lungs. But keep in mind – studies done for 30 years by Dr Tashkin proof that you’re healthier smoking weed, than not; even counters harm of cigarettes, let alone it’s own (negative effect of being a biological matter that you burn and inhale).

    • The differences between Sativa and Indica are over-rated and largely a marketing move.
      Where differences exist between Sativa and Indica it’s likely due to differences in terpene compounds and minor cannabinoids – not so much CBD vs THC

  • 1badbadger

    I have a theory that smoking makes you feel more high because of less oxygen. after smoking I noticed my lungs would become tighter and heavier feeling. The years I only smoked, I would take a few days off a couple times every year to clear my lungs of all the resin and flem that’s built up from everyday use. I have now been exclusively vaping for 8 years and have only a hand full of times experienced the same feeling(once every 2 years of so). I’ve recently made the switch to waxes, shatter, and crumble concentrates and couldn’t be happy with the high I get from vaporizing them. After vaping long enough you will find the right temperature to hopefully get the effects you wish. Your lungs will feel night and day and your weed budget will definately appreciate it. I use 1/4 or less of the weed I used to when I went to vaping only!

    • georgia

      I have tested this out. Multiple times. I have the ability to hold in very big hits when the smoke doesnt contain chemicals that irritate my throat. I have taken a bowl of weed in the past when i could get high because i had this question and i had to try to see the effects of lack of oxygen vs effect of the high. i could tell the difference. Id hold each hit in until i had no choice but to breathe and id purposely extensively cough and not give myself time to breathe a bit before taking another hit and repeating. Making sure i coughed as much as possible and held the smoke in. The effects of the lack of oxygen only really get you higher for like 10 seconds from holding it in, when you cough you restrict the oxygen from your brain in small patterns, you get enough oxygen but not as much and it increases the effect of the high for like maybe 1 min after you stop coughing. I know what oxygen depravity feels like, and the high effects of weed, so i could tell how long i was able to hang onto the small boost high you get from lack of oxygen and how long lack of oxygen high lasted. When i was in hospitals sometimes id have like things on my chests monitoring me and the one that was watching my oxygen intake would sometimes just start beeping and the light on the room door would turn red a nurse would come in because the machine told them either my heart stopped beating or i stopped breathing. I was breathing i just took such small breaths the machine thought i wasnt breathing. Ive tried to get high off of restricting oxygen to my brain before i knew what getting high really was, i just knew sniffing paint was dumb, eating glue or sniffing it didnt work and just holding in air over and over to make my head all floaty seemed the best. Doesnt last long. Your lungs feel tighter and such because you just held in a lot of smoke and released and did that for some time, so they recently actively contracted pretty frequently, its similar to hanging upside down for a long time and very fast getting right side up. But it wont contribute to the high.

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  • Tinman

    I wanted to bake a batch of CBD cookies, and so I used sour tsunami which has low THC and Higher CBD, very good CBD for kicking the edge off back pain. I usually bake chocolate chip cookies (using 7 grams of decarbed cannabis and 2 sticks of butter for my canna butter ). If I eat 3 CBD i feel a little stoned but, if I eat 1 cookie that was made with grand daddy purple- I am baked for 3-4 hours.

  • Joel Munson

    I have read that THCA binds to CB1 receptors even stronger than THC does, yet it does not cause a high. Is this because THCA is not as strong of a CB1 receptor agonist?

    Reference- “Differences in receptor binding affinity of several phytocannabinoids do not explain their effects on neural cell cultures”

  • Nathan Staats

    In the example above, I was confused about how a 24% THC strain coupled with either 0.2% CBD or 6% CBD differed from ingesting just a lower % THC strain.

    • Mike

      Because there is more to that than to algebraically cancel each other out, e.g. 5/5 strain is weak and 20/20 strain is strong – even though by logic you perceived (and me too at first) that it’s pointless. This article did misleads by not being clear about that aspect.

  • Josh Derickson

    But in a sense it’s wrong to say CBD is truly non psychoactive. Unless you quantize the cbd molecules, they need THC (normally 2-3%) to reach your CB receptors. If you’re smoking CBD expecting no high, then start to get a mental high, it definitely will lead to anxiety and paranoia.. I’ve been there. I would recommend everyone to the CBD vapes i’ve been using from a company called Quanta. They use quantum physics to add natural energy to the CBD molecule to make it stronger and more effective, blocking out the other cannabinoids from reaching your cb receptors. It’s done wonders for my bad back!

  • Organic grower

    This article is misleading. CBD is psychoactive but not intoxicating. It reduces anxiety which by definition would make this a psychoactive drug (a substance that produces a physiological change in the brain)… I love how CBD makes me feel and take it in a daily bases, I just think this is article is trying to feed the masses instead of teach the masses.

    • Mike

      FYI: psychotropic = physiological change in the brain; psychoactive = physiological change in the brain that leads to change in consciousness (intoxication); CBD = psychotropic (like Zanax) and THC = psychoactive (like Lorazepam, intoxicating). I like CBD too, but don’t like the slight elevation in hyperness, and does nothing for the pain. Feels like maybe 3%-5% THC would keep me down a little. Other than that, CBD is great – I feel confident, energetic, young again.

  • Cristina Sulzener

    How to sensibly buy LEGAL cbd oil online? Because I got a letter saying customs has confiscated my package two times already and I’m pissed.

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    • georgia

      Damn two spammers of this dr peter guy who wants to cheaply pretend to be real people and promote bullshit. He probably sells CBD/THC oil from his basement that he sells from places he buys from but sells it for more than he bought it while promising lies to increase sales and offering a 100% refund policy but when you go to refund it because it was just fraud, you find out that there is no website or link or person to call to get a refund, if you get a number to call it may be a foreign person that sells illegal cannabis and its just shady and he wants money and he thinks banking off of the popularity of CBD with the considerably new info we have on it. Where i live when i was in high school and middle school no one wanted anything to do with any type of weed that did not get you high. So like just because of that i started smoking weed with those types of desires. So because thats how it was and how i found weed helpful which was all about the high. i dont want anything to do with CBD smokables the only times id get high CBD is for sleeping purposes.

  • Otis Collier

    (Thc)makes you happy hungry sleepy all the time (Cbd) mimics you current state of mind, and dosent trick it?

    • georgia

      I only get the munchies if i start eating while under the high of THC but when i had only gotten the CBD effects from a edible, i felt hungrier and kinda craved some food.

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    i try him out too just to discover his high potent THC/CBD Oil is the best for my pains and Parkinson’s diseases , i got seeds and medical marijuana card from him to Phone # (313) 923-7690

    • jordan Wilson

      I got relief from PTSD,pains and depression from Cannabis meds and hemp oil i got from Dr Mc Donald via his number (313) 923-7690 .

  • Nfor Johner

    CBD Oil/THC is the ANSWER. I am 48 years young and I have several pains and anxiety No more PHENOBARBITOL or DILANTIN 6 pills a day-Thanks to Dr Peter Hurt for their top quality highly efficient CBD oil. 1 drop under my tongue twice a day and the glaucoma go away. I will do everything within my power to educate people about CBD.Text/Call # (804) 537-0917

    • georgia

      This screams fake. No one ever starts off a comment with “CBD OIL/THC is the ANSWER.” then introduces themselves which is pretty weird, like who makes a comment like “IUD IS THE BEST THING EVER BUT IS IT WORTH THE PAIN? YES. Hi, im georgia i am 23 years old and i suffered from very weird effects from my period that even the doctors couldn’t figure out why it happened, the important thing is that it did happen, after realizing i had some problems with my period and taking my birth control i found out about an IUD. An implant that they tell you isnt that painful but if it hurts it only lasts 30 seconds, until that day i didnt understand how long 30 seconds really was, lets just say that for what my experience was like. After i got my IUD i never saw my period again, but what really happened, is this IUD changed how some things work, and severely limits the bleeding effect of the period, and widens the tube that the egg must travel through therefore not causing bleeding so the period is not gone, it just doesn’t show up. After a month i had unprotected sex for a over a year and never once got pregnant because getting pregnant on an IUD is beyond 1 in a million i think. But use this very unappealing method of contact, we only have a fax machine. But we got the best deals on IUDs better than hospitals, our IUDs last for 40 years instead of 5!. ”
      i did what you did. no one decides to give thanks to their dr and when you are 48 years old you are not on the younger spectrum anymore unless you compare your age to someone whos 88. Then you seem pretty young. You went over the hill 8 years ago. Well, i have chronic back pain and anxiety with several behavioral problems and a long medical history and a rare deep depression disorder ive had since i was 9 and why is there like the ulitmate fix for you but nothing weed related could cure my depression, it could help me feel better, edibles with CBD are the only thing that is weed related that ive tried where i noticed reduced back pain. but not much else. Seriously no real person makes comments like this, its like you are a robot or a AI that does nothing but say one thing on a website trying to make money off CBD….

  • peterhurt035@gmail.com

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  • Jackson McCormack

    I was under the impression that CBD modulated the CB1 receptor, not the THC molecules. 🤔 I’m curious about the process of modulation in either case.

  • georgia

    From all of the hours i spent trying to find out why i can’t get the high effects of THC. I smoked a joint with late 20s % of THC 0% CBD and was rolled in THC and THC enhancing chemicals and oils that was supposed to i think give you a pretty good high, i used to smoke weed daily and a lot when i was 13 to 17 then when i was like 20, after my twin brother who was my source of weed died, i was going through his things and found like enough weed to make a bowl and i got legitimately or satisfyingly high off of it just like i did when i was 17. Now weed is legalized and i have done a lot of research to try to find out what is going on, since i don’t own a lab station and blood work equipment and everything required to draw and test blood and just google the shit i need to test for to figure out whats up inside me because im not part of the 0% I also can’t look inside my head and like go to my CB1 and CB2 receptors and like observe them, make sure they look healthy and functional, then while watching them, i see what happens when i smoke weed and i can monitor what hormones or chemicals are not present that are allowing the receptor to be blocked. So im honestly hoping this anti psychotic that i used for sleep and realized how much of my brain and what not it was controlling and creating problems with, it didnt act like an antipsychotic because of the fact it made me actively bipolar and moody when i started taking it and before that i took geodon but because i take trazadone for sleep too and if you mix geodon with trazadone theres a rare problem where you can get a heart block, it basically means your heart stops, i dont know if the block part means you need to use something as powerful as defibrillators to hopefully revive the person. Since i experienced heart racing on geodon after a bit and it kind of increased as time went by, my heart would just sometimes race, and when i was looking up how rare or like how possible this heart block thing was, it said something like if you experience irregular heartbeat or often experience your heart racing, to stop taking the drugs and go to the er. i felt like i was able to be a good enough judge if i had to go to the ER or not…. ive got a lot of experience in being in the ER i just sometimes know that its a waste of time. So then it said that these issues were signs that you were at increasingly high risks of your heart stopping. Plus i take 150mg of adderall, i smoke cigarettes and drink coke religiously. I drink other things too though, so i have a lot of sugar intake and high dose of adderall, a stimulant, and smoking so thats all stuff that can put a negative impact on my heart potentially so i understood that it was smart to get off it because if i just kept adding drugs into my body that all could do something to my heart if i was unlucky, and if i added more things that could cause heart issues that type of thinking is how you die because your heart stops. So i went to another antipsychotic, never have i experienced the really bothersome bipolar effects that were not being countered by the antipsychotic which works for bipolar disorder just fine. So it pretty much only worked for sleep but it took over and made so many problems, i think it could be somehow blocking the THC still? idk. maybe not. unsure of when its considered out of your system enough for shit to return to normal. Im having a hard time figuring out what could cause it.