THC and CBD: What is the Difference?

THC and CBD: What is the Difference?

Published on 10/12/19

Updated Jun 7, 2022

Out of the more than 100 cannabinoids that researchers have isolated from the cannabis plant - the plant genus that includes both hemp and marijuana - the two best-known and well-studied cannabinoids are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). Cannabis enthusiasts, and increasingly the general public as recreational cannabis becomes increasingly legal and widespread, know these two cannabis-derived compounds because they are the two cannabinoids that seemingly have the most significant effect on the human body when enjoying marijuana.

But when you get down to it, what are the differences between the two? What makes their effects so profoundly different, and how do they interact with our bodies to create the impact we're so familiar with today? More importantly, how can savvy cannabis users benefit from their varied and profound effects for recreational enjoyment or medical use? 

This article will break down in detail the differences between THC and CBD from a scientific, consumer, and medical perspective. We'll go in-depth on how and why these cannabinoids impact our bodies, their role in helping our overall health, and some of the core differences between them. So with that in mind, let's get right into it! 

The Endocannabinoid System and Cannabis

To gain a deeper and more throughout understanding of the differences between THC and CBD, we first need to dig a little bit into how and why each one affects us the way they do. Cannabinoids affect the human brain and body in various ways but do so primarily through interactions with the endocannabinoid system. 

This vast network assists with the regulation of our body's physiological function and response. Cognitive processes and other physical indicators such as energy, mood, sex drive, appetite, pain perception, and more are connected to the endocannabinoid system. 

Research initially suggested endocannabinoid receptors were only present in the brain and nerves. Still, scientists have detected receptors throughout the body, including our vital organs, skin, immune cells, bone, fat tissue, skeletal muscle, blood vessels, and gastrointestinal tract. When we take a cannabis product, cannabinoids enter the bloodstream and circulate throughout the body and into the brain. The cannabinoids then link with and activate particular neurons that produce changes across the entire neurological system. This is why cannabinoids can be so effective in treating and managing a wide range of illnesses on the medical side and explaining why being high impacts use the way that it does. Due to the endocannabinoid system, using a cannabis-infused product for anything from enjoyment to pain management is a whole-body experience!


Chemically speaking, both CBD and THC molecules are practically identical with only a minor variation and both share the same chemical formula of C21H30O2. Twenty-one carbon atoms, 30 hydrogen atoms, and two oxygen atoms. So why are the effects on our minds and bodies so profoundly different?  

Despite the identical chemical formula, a difference in the arrangement of the atoms means that CBD and THC interact differently with the Type One cannabinoid receptors (CB1) in the body and produce opposite effects. THC can bind directly with the CB1 receptors and affect the brain (where the psychoactive aspect begins), but CBD effects are not psychoactive because they do not bond with the receptors. 

CBD is considered an antagonist to compounds that bind with CB1 receptors. It can interfere with THC binding and sometimes dampen the psychoactive effects. No matter how much CBD is consumed, it can never cause a high. Simply put, no matter how much CBD-infused product or CBD-rich flower you down, it's never going to give you the same effects as something with THC in it will. The compounds are just too different from one another in that way.

Where Do We Find THC and CBD?

THC and CBD are located throughout the flowers, stalks, and seeds of marijuana and hemp to different degrees. THC is most plentiful in marijuana, and CBD is present in higher quantities in hemp, which is the primary source of CBD in CBD oil products. THC dominates marijuana's chemical makeup, and over the years, it has been manipulated and explicitly cloned to increase its THC concentration and produce powerful intoxicating effects. In recent years, however, craft cannabis producers have also gotten busy creating CBD-rich cannabis flower strains. However, it's fair to say there are not as many CBD-dominant strains as there is THC. 

While THC content can be as low as 3 percent in marijuana, strains today average around 12 percent THC, with some containing as much as 30 percent THC. Hemp's chemical makeup is dominated by CBD, usually about 0.3 percent THC content. Any higher than that, and the hemp product would be considered federally illegal. 

Of course, purchasing these products isn't always easy. With THC being only legal in certain states, the best place to buy THC products is from state-licensed dispensaries for the highest quality. Our Where's Weed Dispensary Listings are a great place to find dispensaries near you! Since CBD is not federally illegal, it's easy to purchase CBD products online, at your local health or holistic medicine store of choice, or even from a dispensary!

What Are the Health Benefits of CBD and THC?

CBD and THC both have several similar medical benefits and can provide relief from many of the same conditions. However, some people may prefer to use CBD because of the lack of the psychoactive effects present when using THC. And, believe it or not, science suggests that using them both together might best the best results overall. But before we get into all that, let's talk about the impact of each one independently first. 

Let's touch on CBD first, shall we? There is both convincing anecdotal evidence and comprehensive scientific studies that link the use of CBD oil to a decrease in anxiety and depression. Patients with multiple sclerosis have reported significant pain relief thanks to hemp oil with CBD. Individuals suffering from the most challenging types of pain to treat are also finding comfort in the use of CBD. 

In June 2018, the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) approved Epidiolex, the first prescription medication to contain CBD. It's a CBD-based oral solution that has been proven to assist children suffering from seizures due to a rare form of epilepsy. The benefits of CBD can also work to decrease the joint inflammation associated with arthritis and protect the nerves. 

Like CBD, THC is used to deal with muscle spasticity and pain and glaucoma, low appetite, and nausea. It has also been found to inhibit an enzyme implicated in the formation of beta-amyloid plaque, which is a crucial indicator for Alzheimer's-related dementia. 

More studies are beginning to hint at THC having even more medicinal benefits than previously thought.

The Legal Status of CBD and THC

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Marijuana and THC are listed in the U.S. Controlled Substances Act and prohibited under federal law. At the time of writing, 18 U.S. states and territories like Washington D.C. and Guam have passed their recreational cannabis laws, with another 37 giving some type of legislation that permits the use of medical marijuana with high levels of THC if a physician prescribes it. For those out there counting, that's the majority of the U.S., with 1 in every 3 Americans living somewhere they can legally purchase some form of cannabis.

CBD's legal status is not so straightforward. CBD itself is not listed under the Controlled Substances Act. Even though the 2018 Farm Bill legalized hemp-extracted CBD, CBD derived from marijuana remains illegal unless you get it via a state-regulated medical marijuana program or purchase it in a state that permits recreational marijuana use. 

There is a bit of a loophole, however. CBD derived from hemp is perfectly legal as long as that CBD oil has a THC level below .3 percent. So as long as the product you're buying is hemp-derived, you can legally get access to CBD-rich products. It's also worth noting that CBD-laden cannabis flower has been growing in popularity and popping up in medical and recreational dispensaries all over the country. Not just regular weed, CBD-heavy weed specifically born and created with those CBD-lovers in mind. 

Both THC and CBD-rich flower and infused products are widely available to most Americans. It won't be too tricky if you want to get your hands on some legally. 

How THC and CBD Work Together

While it's true that CBD and THC separately are both potent and effective compounds, researchers are becoming more aware of the different ways in which the two cannabinoids work in synergy. There is a consensus that the benefits of THC and CBD together relate to something known as the "entourage effect." It is analogous to "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts."  

In other words, when working harmoniously, everything that composes the plant is more effective than one specific compound in the plant. To receive the most significant therapeutic benefit, all the compounds in cannabis should be harnessed - not just one. 

Anecdotally, weed users have reported that CBD can modulate the psychoactive effects of THC and operate as an antidote to the anxiety that can accompany a very strong high. The THC can provide a euphoric feeling, and the CBD can work to temper the body's reaction and maintain balance. The two compounds make one another more potent and more effective. 

So if you're dealing with pain, for example, you would likely opt for something with high THC to ease it. Consider taking a low dose of CBD along with it, however. The same idea applies when it comes to CBD. Taking a little THC with it will be enough to put you over the top. Research suggests that those who mix the two compounds feel more profound effects. 

The Bottom Line

No matter how you slice it, both of these cannabinoid compounds likely have a place for every cannabis user. Whether it's to unwind after a long, hard day at work, take the edge off, treat symptoms of serious medical ailments, or somewhere between the two, you can likely benefit from a little bit of THC or CBD in your daily life!  

Have you noticed any medically beneficial effects from CBD? How about THC? Do you take THC and CBD equally or do you prefer one to the other? Do you use CBD oil or do you look for flower that has high levels of CBD? Let us know what THC and CBD are doing for you in the comments section below.

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