CBD Versus THC: What’s the Difference?
Due to the steady generational shift that has occurred in the U.S., it’s easy to forget just how controversial cannabis legalization once was. Though by no means an issue that reaches easy consensus, the reality is that at no other time in modernity has the green plant reached such magnitude of support like we see today.
Despite growing public awareness and advocacy for cannabis legalization, the federal government has not yet fully caught up to the enthusiasm. As a result, the U.S. government still classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug, which is the highest form of restrictive control that exists. Of course, such a draconian stance leads to incredibly harsh sentencing for otherwise vanilla drug-related offenses.
That’s not to say, though, that the feds are completely out of touch with modern underpinnings. In 2018, both Democrats and Republicans supported the landmark farm bill. Essentially, this law enabled cannabis-based products under certain conditions and requirements to be sold in so-called green states.
But because of the often confusing nuances among individual state rights, federal permissiveness, and Schedule I classification, many people are left with an overriding ambiguity as to the legality of certain botanical products. Moreover, this dynamic is especially harmful to those who seek natural, therapeutic alternatives but are left discouraged from the convoluted legal landscape.
To be clear, the following should not be considered legal advice. Always consult a legal professional for specific guidance regarding your circumstances and local.
But with this caveat out of the way, we’d like to tackle one of the most persistent questions about the burgeoning cannabis sector: what is CBD (cannabidiol) and how does it relate to the controlled substance THC (tetrahydrocannabinol)?
To answer this question, we will consider the following:
- The organic background and similarities between CBD and THC
- How CBD and THC differentiate themselves
- Legal nuances behind CBD and THC
- Benefits of both CBD and THC
- Will CBD show up on a drug test?
The aim of this article is not to provide a comprehensive breakdown of CBD and THC, but rather, a quick and usable guideline and reference. At the end of this write-up, you will have a greater appreciation of why so many people are confused about cannabis, CBD, marijuana and THC, and more importantly, why each component is a related but critically differentiated piece of the broader botanical puzzle.
CBD and THC: Just How Similar Are They?
Arguably, for most newcomers to the botanical industry, they funnel the complex narrative behind CBD and THC into a binary deduction: cannabidiol is legal and tetrahydrocannabinol is illegal. While largely true – bear in mind, nuances have their own nuances in this industry – in practice, this picture has multiple shades of gray.
Primarily, this is because CBD and THC are mostly the same thing. Scientifically, both are classified as cannabinoids, or naturally occurring organic compounds that interact with specific receptors found in many organisms.
In fact, one of the reasons why cannabis advocates stress the underlying compound’s holistic and natural therapies is that humans and all vertebrates produce endocannabinoids. These are neurotransmitters that bind to cannabinoids, catalyzing specific reactions – depending on the cannabinoid in question – that address common ailments, such as stress or anxiety.
In other words, the cannabis plant, because of its myriad diverse cannabinoids, levers a potentially profound impact on medical research. Here, we have a naturally occurring compound that can promote impactful medicines without harsh side effects. At the same time, not all cannabinoids produce medically desirable effects.
Thus, for completely understandable reasons, society focuses mostly on two cannabinoids because they are the most accessible to us in the here and now: cannabidiol and tetrahydrocannabinol. The former is because of its legal status (in states where it is legal) and the latter for its stereotypical image as the compound of choice for stoners.
However, bear in mind that researchers have identified over 100 cannabinoids. With advancing technologies in botanical investigations, it’s not inconceivable at all for more to be discovered. If you thought the current debate behind legalization was complicated for the public, just wait a few more years!
As it stands, though, CBD and THC attract the most public and media attention not only for their legal and pop-cultural status, but also because of their shared organic heritage, which then leads to similar benefits, which we’ll discuss later.
For our purposes, it’s important to keep in mind that while society views CBD and THC from differing lenses, they both have the same molecular structure: 21 carbon atoms, 30 hydrogen atoms, and two oxygen atoms. However, a slight variance in the way that these atoms are arranged ultimately determines the difference between CBD and THC, which we’ll discuss below.
- Summary: CBD and THC are both cannabinoids, which are compounds found within the cannabis plant. Humans and all vertebrates have endocannabinoids, which are neurotransmitters that bind to cannabinoid receptors, resulting in various reactions. From a molecular perspective, CBD and THC are identical, only differing in the arrangement of their atoms.
CBD and THC: Same Family, Different Personalities
Hearing about the remarkable molecular similarity between CBD and THC – actually, they’re identical except for the arrangement – you might find it odd that the two cannabinoids lever a dissimilar impact to the end-user. However, a familiar analogy may be helpful.
To appreciate the likeness, differentiation, and complexity of cannabidiol and tetrahydrocannabinol, one only needs to consider their family situation. For instance, while you may have the same sense of style or art as your siblings, do you always have the same view toward everything else in life? Chances are, you’ll find many distinguishing factors with your family members, even though you share the exact same DNA.
So it is with CBD and THC. Although they have more molecular similarities than differences, their “personalities” vary significantly, and sometimes wildly in particular cases. Not understanding this distinction can have serious repercussions for both medical use as well as political deductions.
Chiefly, the most significant factor that distinguishes CBD from THC is how each cannabinoid interacts with the brain. Within the organ that controls intelligence and emotional responses lies receptors known as cannabinoid 1 or CB1 receptors.
What makes THC especially potent – from the experiential point of view – is that this cannabinoid binds firmly to CB1 receptors. This connection between cannabinoid and receptor causes the high associated with the marijuana plant.
On the other hand, CBD typically doesn’t bind at all to CB1 receptors. Therefore, users of what is known as full spectrum CBD – cannabidiol infused with other cannabinoids and terpenes – can enjoy the myriad benefits of cannabis without getting high. This is also known among CBD advocates as the “entourage effect.”
One important distinction, though, is that in some cases, CBD will bind weakly to CB1 receptors. This may result in a mild sense of euphoria. Therefore, while many botanical resources claim that CBD has no psychoactive effect, it’s more accurate to say that it doesn’t lever a negative psychoactive effect. We’ll discuss this issue further in the upcoming section about CBD showing up on a drug test.
- Summary: While CBD and THC feature identical molecular structure, their differing arrangement leads to different catalysts – much the same way that siblings of the same bloodline may exhibit distinct personalities. The key factor in how the body responds to each cannabinoid lies with the brain’s CB1 receptors. With (full spectrum) CBD, it is possible to enjoy the entourage effect without getting high.
Legal Granularity of CBD and THC
Scientifically, it’s the small details that impart the most effect on how either cannabidiol or tetrahydrocannabinol affects your psychology and physiology. However, the practical implications of all cannabinoids are ultimately the exclusive domain of our political system. Unfortunately, lawmakers do not make things easy for the American public.
Adding to the complications, though, is that the two cannabinoids’ legal segmentation has a basis in biological differentiation. While both CBD and THC are derived from the cannabis plant, they originate from non-identical pathways. The former comes from cannabis sativa, while the latter is sourced from cannabis indica.
Here’s where the situation gets interesting. In 2018, both Democrats and Republicans signed off on what is colloquially known as the farm bill. Significantly, the bill achieved broad consensus at a time when our political discourse has devolved into volatile untruths and ad hominem attacks. Ironically, legislation involving cannabis helped calm everyone down.
But easily the most significant development out of the 2018 farm bill was the federal legalization of hemp. With this groundbreaking law, botanical companies now have the opportunity to distribute hemp-based products across state lines (so long as those jurisdictions allow cannabis products).
More importantly, the farm bill legitimized the budding CBD industry. As we discussed earlier, CBD does not impart a negative psychoactive impact; therefore, it is an ideal platform for various alternative therapies. And a big reason why CBD has the characteristics that it does is because it’s sourced from the now legal hemp plant.
Hemp is a strain of the cannabis sativa plant. Therefore, hemp-based products offer similar benefits to the maligned marijuana plant, but without the associated side effects. As such, the terms hemp and CBD are often used interchangeably.
And this is perhaps the biggest reason why legal cannabis advocates stress the distinction between CBD and THC. Because the two cannabinoids are sourced from different strains of the cannabis plant, CBD and THC technically occupy separate sections of the cannabis spectrum.
Furthermore, the CBD versus THC framework facilitates often contrasting pathways for legality. Because THC falls under Schedule I classification, legal users of this substance typically require a medical prescription. However, CBD has comparatively far looser restrictions, making it an ideal component for public retail.
But that however doesn’t mean that CBD is free to roam, if you will. The 2018 farm bill only allows full legal access to industrial hemp; hemp derivatives, such as cannabidiol, still must follow strict guidelines. Thus, CBD is only “safe” in jurisdictions that have ruled as such.
The caveat is that CBD and THC laws have been complicated from the very beginning. Unfortunately, the specter of Schedule I classification still casts a cloud over the entire cannabis industry. But for now, the de facto condition is that the federal government is willing to allow individual states to control their cannabis discourse.
- Although similar in multiple ways, it’s important to realize that CBD and THC derive from different strains of the cannabis plant. Furthermore, CBD originates from industrial hemp, and hemp under the 2018 farm bill is legal in the U.S. However, THC lies outside this purview and is therefore usually illegal unless medically prescribed. All that said, cannabis remains one of the most complex and dynamic issues, so further changes are more than likely to occur.
Benefits of CBD and THC
While the legal environment imposes some challenges regarding cannabis-based therapies and holistic solutions, a growing number of people consider these obstacles a small price to pay. Why? Simply put, no other compound offers the beneficial potency and organic assurance of naturally sourced cannabinoids.
True, the medical community continues to engage in robust debates about the efficacy of medical cannabis products. Currently, the Food and Drug Administration does not support any specific claims of medical benefits using botanicals. As a result, health institutions are hesitant in making any direct conclusions.
Nevertheless, ongoing research into cannabis – and specifically cannabidiol because of its easier legal pathway – suggest its myriad benefits and therapeutic uses. Moreover, because the cannabis plant offers at least 100 different cannabinoids, scientific analyses will likely continue for years to come. Naturally, this adds to the probability that we’ll find new and exciting breakthroughs.
One of the most common reasons why people seek CBD therapies is for stress-related symptoms. According to the American Institute of Stress, American workers have progressively felt under pressure from their work environment, as well as from general financial concerns. Based on a recent survey, the causes of stress are: workload (46%), people issues (28%), work-life balance (20%), and lack of job security (6%).
It’s not just an American problem either. The Guardian reported in September 2019 that in Australia, workers have never felt more stress than they do now. More critically, the ongoing pressure and the resultant emotional (and sometimes physical) responses have made Australians sicker.
Typically, if a stressed-out worker goes to their primary care physician to complain about stress, they may be prescribed pharmaceuticals that address symptoms such as high-blood pressure. But not everybody wants to consume pharmaceutical concoctions. Moreover, those who experience stress may not even want to go through official medical channels.
Prior to the ongoing cannabis legalization movement, these individuals lacked options. However, with legally acceptable products like cannabidiol, stress sufferers can discreetly enjoy natural, effective therapies. Although this is a separate lengthy discussion, CBD features multiple platforms, ranging from vaping oils, edibles, tinctures, and ointments. Thus, end-users can consume cannabidiol in a manner most appropriate for them.
And while most of the attention centers on CBD, medical research has historically focused on THC as a therapeutic cannabinoid. According to WebMD.com, scientific evidence indicates that medical marijuana may be helpful in addressing the following:
- Pain associated with multiple sclerosis (MS)
- Nerve pain
- Parkinson’s disease tremors
As mentioned earlier, the cannabis plant features multiple cannabinoids. Therefore, medical research into their efficacy toward other conditions and diseases is an evolving endeavor. From what we’re seeing today, the results are very encouraging. Watch this space as it can dramatically change, even on a moment’s notice.
- Despite the many challenges pressing against legal cannabis, the reason why both CBD and THC remain a popular, hot-button topic is their medical efficacy. Although not officially established, ample scientific research suggests that CBD and THC are useful in addressing certain symptoms. Moreover, because cannabis as a medical pathway is a relatively new phenomenon, we can expect further developments in this space.
Drawbacks of Using Either CBD or THC
In physics, we learn that every action has a reaction. Essentially, this boils down to a common-sense deduction that anything we put into our bodies will have some reaction. Cannabinoids, whether CBD or THC, are no different.
You may have read marketing materials that suggest that fatal overdoses of cannabis are impossible. Additionally, you may have heard that CBD in particular imposes no side effects. While these are generally accurate statements, it’s critical to recognize that individual circumstances may vary, and sometimes wildly.
That’s why CBD manufacturers recommend small doses for first-time users. Once they understand how cannabidiol will affect them, they can then modulate their dosage accordingly. This is all to say that even with net beneficial botanicals, they do have drawbacks for which users should be aware.
First, let’s talk about the side effects associated with THC. Most obviously, the THC in marijuana gives you the classic, stereotypical high – this results from THC binding to CB1 receptors in the brain, as we discussed earlier.
However, that’s not the only side effect associated with tetrahydrocannabinol. Again, borrowing data from WebMD.com, other drawbacks include:
- Problems with concentration
Because of THC’s negative psychoactive effect, along with its legal pitfalls and associated accessibility issues, most first-time botanical users may eschew marijuana for legal hemp or CBD products. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that CBD isn’t without its symptoms either.
Although arguably most users will not experience any negative feedback with cannabidiol, not all individuals are built the same. For some users, they may experience the following:
- Upset stomach
- Low blood pressure
Critically, CBD may also affect the way certain medications react. Therefore, if you’re already seeking medical treatment for a certain issue, please be sure to consult your physician before taking cannabis, whether that’s CBD, hemp or THC. Similarly, any questions about your specific tolerance toward CBD should be directed to a medical professional.
Finally, we can’t avoid the pressing question that most people have regarding CBD: does it show up on a drug test?
Like anything involving cannabis, the comprehensive answer is hardly straightforward. The quick response is no. Due to federal legality concerns, all hemp- or CBD-based products must contain no more than 0.3% THC. Because this is a trace amount, by law, manufacturers are able to claim that their products contain no THC whatsoever.
However, the technical reality is that this is not quite the case. Theoretically, it may be possible to consume enough trace amounts of THC to produce highs or psychoactive effects similar to marijuana consumption. However, the amount of CBD or hemp needed to realize this threshold is prohibitively large (and expensive).
Therefore, you should be able to consume CBD without pinging a drug test. That said, some tests are much more sensitive than others. For those who are entering high-level professions or who must undergo frequent drug tests, the ideal pathway is to elect CBD isolate products. Featuring pure CBD that has other associated botanical components removed, CBD isolates have absolutely zero THC.
- Like anything in life, using either CBD or THC has their pros and cons. In particular, THC creates a high sensation among end-users, along with other undesirable symptoms like difficulty concentrating or dizziness. But even though CBD features little to no THC, it too can create side effects, such as nausea. As such, it’s best to start with small dosages before moving heavily into CBD-based therapies. Finally, CBD should not show up on drug tests but bear in mind that some tests are more sensitive than others.
Summary of CBD and THC
Although society tends to separate CBD and THC as a binary proposition, these two compounds are more similar than the general public thinks. Both are cannabinoids, and both have identical molecular structure. Only the arrangement of the individual molecules is different.
But within this seemingly small distinction catalyzes a world of differences. Obviously, THC gives you a high that is associated with the marijuana plant. Moreover, THC imposes much more debilitating side effects than CBD. Moreover, THC falls under Schedule I classification, and is thus off limits from a federal perspective.
On the other hand, CBD is much more accessible to the average consumer thanks to the groundbreaking 2018 farm bill. Language within this law allows CBD to be sourced from federally legal industrial hemp. Essentially, CBD features all the health benefits of THC but without the negative psychoactive impact.
That said, enthusiasts should be aware that cannabis laws remain tricky business. As such, education and awareness are crucial to enjoy CBD with confidence. Particularly, the issue of drug testing is a thorny one. Those who are especially worried should consider using CBD isolate for having absolutely 0% THC.