Of the more than 100 different cannabinoids so far identified in cannabis plants like hemp, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) are the most abundant and best understood. Cannabinoids are a class of compounds unique to cannabis. Because they mimic the body’s own endocannabinoids, they are able to interact with our endocannabinoid system and alter neurotransmitter release in the brain.
Because of the lingering stigma around cannabis, a common misconception is that THC is the “bad” cannabinoid and CBD is the “good” cannabinoid. Scientists have found both to have therapeutic properties, and there’s evidence that they’re able to work synergistically with each other and the other constituents found in cannabis to maximize their natural effects.
Still, there are distinct differences between the two. Here we take a look at the four major differences:
1. THC Can Cause a High, CBD Cannot
For consumers of cannabinoids, one of the key differences between THC and CBD is whether they cause a high.
THC is psychoactive. It is the cannabinoid that’s responsible for eliciting the euphoric effect when users consume medical marijuana.
CBD is non-psychoactive. No matter how much is consumed, CBD cannot cause a high. In fact, CBD suppresses the psychoactive properties of THC.
2. THC Dominates Marijuana, CBD Dominates Hemp
While THC and CBD are each found in various concentrations in both types of cannabis plants — hemp and marijuana – THC is most plentiful in marijuana and CBD is present in higher quantities in hemp.
THC dominates marijuana’s chemical makeup. In general, marijuana plants are carefully cultivated with the intent of maximizing their concentration of THC.
Hemp’s chemical makeup, however, is dominated by CBD. Hemp is naturally abundant in CBD, and contains only trace amounts of THC (no more than 0.3%), well below the psychoactive threshold.
3. THC is Prohibited Under Federal Law, CBD Is Not
In the United States, THC and marijuana are specifically listed as controlled substances under the Controlled Substances Act and therefore prohibited. Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia, however, have passed their own laws permitting the use of medical marijuana containing THC if a licensed physician recommends it. Eight of those states and the District of Columbia have gone a step further and passed laws permitting marijuana with THC for personal use.
CBD is not specifically listed in the Controlled Substances Act. This means, that the cannabinoid is federally legal, provided that it’s derived from hemp and not marijuana. CBD oil made from marijuana is prohibited federally, but CBD hemp oil products are legal under federal law. Some states have passed their own policies regulating CBD or hemp, but more often than not, hemp derived CBD is legally accessible in the U.S.
4. THC Activates Cannabinoid Receptors, CBD Does Not
All cannabinoids, including plant-derived compounds like THC and CBD, interact with the endocannabinoid system through its two receptors – CB1 and CB2. The endocannabinoid system regulates the body’s homeostasis, or general state of balance, impacting many of our functions like pain, mood, sleep, and appetite.
THC is considered an agonist of the endocannabinoid system’s CB1 and CB2 receptors because it binds with and activates them.
CBD is considered an indirect antagonist of cannabinoid agonists. This means that it blocks the two receptors, thereby suppressesing the CB1 and CB2 activating qualities of cannabinoids like THC.
It’s through these interactions that the two cannabinoids are able to trigger chemical responses and augment the endocannabinoid system as it works to keep our systems in balance.
You can learn even more about CBD and THC, as well as and what research has found about their therapeutic potential, by visiting our education page.