Cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) are two of the most prominent compounds in cannabis, and they’ve been making waves lately — across headlines, and store shelves. They have many similarities, but some key differences that are important to keep in mind. When comparing CBD vs. THC, there are a few key things to look at, for starters: the science, the health benefits, psychoactive effects, and legality.
We’re doing a deep dive into how CBD and THC stack up. You don’t have to choose just one — unless you’re in a state where THC is illegal. But it can be helpful to know exactly what each compound does and how they interact. Even if you don’t have a preference, they’re each ideal in different situations.
CBD vs. THC: These Two Compounds Have a Lot in Common
CBD and THC are only two of over a hundred known cannabinoids — chemical compounds in the cannabis plant. They’re the most famous cannabinoids at the moment because their effects are clear and better understood than other cannabinoids, but others are becoming more popular, like CBG, for example.
Different strains of cannabis have varying levels of CBD and THC. Some are very high in THC (a few of those have been popular lately). Others have almost no THC but a high quantity of CBD (those are called hemp).
Both CBD and THC can be consumed in a variety of ways. They can be smoked, ingested as a tincture or gummy, or applied topically, to name a few. Smoking is the fastest path to absorption, whether it’s THC or CBD, but it’s not necessarily the right method for everyone. That will depend on what you’re hoping to achieve.
The Differences Between CBD and THC
The Molecular Level
CBD and THC have the same molecular structure. Both contain 21 carbon atoms, 30 hydrogen atoms, and 2 oxygen atoms. There is a subtle difference in the arrangement of these atoms, and that’s what causes the differing effects of CBD and THC.
Put simply, THC will get you high, while CBD will not.
To explain why we’ll have to get into a little bit of the chemistry of our endocannabinoid system. Our bodies have two kinds of cannabinoid receptors — called CB1 and CB2. CB1 receptors are found throughout the body, including the brain and central nervous system. CB2 receptors are more concentrated in the immune and gastrointestinal systems.
THC is a CB1 agonist, meaning it activates the CB1 receptor (and the CB2 receptor, though to a lesser degree). When THC bonds with CB1 in the brain, there’s a psychoactive effect, and the user feels a sense of euphoria. That’s what the cool kids call being “high.”
CBD works differently on our endocannabinoid system than THC. Actually, it’s almost the opposite way. CBD acts as an antagonist with CB1 and CB2 receptors, which prevents a person who takes CBD from getting high.
CBD also binds with other receptors in the brain, which is what produces so many positive effects.
That means that even though it doesn’t get you high, it is effective in moderating anxiety and stress, with many users reporting feelings of calm after consuming CBD.
For more information on how CBD works with our endocannabinoid system, check out our hemp guide.
How Does CBD Affect THC?
CBD and THC work together — and against each other — in a few different ways. Several studies, like this one from 2011 from the British Journal of Pharmacology found that consuming together offers more benefits than either one alone, helping the user better manage stress and pain.
CBD Can Cancel Out the Negative Effects of THC
There is some conflicting evidence out there, but it’s generally accepted that CBD negates many of the effects of THC. That includes the ones most everyone would consider negative, like anxiety.
CBD vs. THC: The Legal Stuff
Almost every month there are new developments in the legality of CBD or THC. As a result, it can be hard to keep track of what’s legal at the federal and state levels and what isn’t. Fortunately, the gist of things is fairly simple, even if the small-scale details aren’t.
CBD is Legal
That’s at the federal level, according to the 2018 Farm Bill, which removed hemp and cannabis products with low levels of THC from the Controlled Substances Act. It also permits interstate commerce for hemp and CBD derived from hemp (though states can still make their own restrictions). Just how low are “low levels” of THC? Any CBD isolate and full-spectrum hemp oil must, by law, contain less than .3% THC.
Unfortunately, not every state is as enthusiastic about CBD as the federal government. At the moment, hemp is still not legal in all 50 states, at least not in the same way it is federally. In Idaho CBD must have a THC level of 0. In South Dakota, CBD is illegal unless a doctor prescribes it to treat epilepsy. In several states, it’s more confusing than it needs to be. We recommend you keep fully up-to-date on your state’s CBD laws.
THC is Less Legal
Cannabis with more than .3% THC, on the other hand, is not legal on the federal level. It is considered a Schedule 1 substance, which according to the US Drug Enforcement Administration means it has “no currently accepted medical use in the United States, a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision, and a high potential for abuse.”
However, as you’re probably aware, states have begun to legalize all forms of cannabis for recreational use, no matter the level of THC. That started in 2012 with Colorado and Washington. Right now, recreational marijuana use is legal in 17 states, and medical use is legal in 36 states.
Some cannabis-derived substances exist in a legal gray area. Delta-8, for example, is low in THC but still able to get you high.
The Bottom Line: CBD and THC Both Have a Purpose
Want to get high? Try THC.
Want a more mellow feeling, free from anxiety? Try CBD.
CBD also offers numerous health benefits. It’s a proven way to reduce stress and anxiety. It can help you maintain a healthy sleep cycle. And it helps manage muscle inflammation. All of these make CBD a great part of a daily wellness routine. It’s the right choice in a variety of situations — like if you’re just trying to unwind at the end of a long day, or if you want to warm up your muscles before an intense workout.
We don’t want to say CBD is better than THC (well, we kind of do). Studies have shown that THC has analgesic (anti-pain) effects, and there’s some promising research suggesting it’s helpful for healthy sleep. But at the moment, CBD is appears to be a bit more versatile of a compound, and it doesn’t have the strong psychoactive component of THC. That’s especially true if you use full-spectrum hemp oil, like Green Lotus Hemp Oil CBD Tinctures, which have all of the cannabinoids, terpenes, and antioxidants naturally found in cannabis, without THC.
Which one do you prefer? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.