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CBD vs. THC: What’s the difference?

Cannabis consumers have long prized potency (a high THC content) as one of the main factors that makes a particular strain more desirable. Though traditional demand for THC has caused an oversaturation of high-potency products, many consumers are starting to prefer less intense products that are lower in THC and higher in the non-intoxicating compound called CBD (cannabidiol).

What’s the difference between CBD and THC?

THC and CBD are both cannabinoids derived from the cannabis plant, but they’re different in many ways that may influence your next dispensary purchase.

An easy way to think about it is that THC is defined by what cannabis makes you feel, while the effects of CBD can’t be felt. The important distinction is that, unlike THC, CBD will not intoxicate you. It also addresses one of the most common reasons people choose to use CBD—pain management.

CBD can also block some of the intoxicating effects of THC. By binding to cannabinoid receptors, it will keep THC from activating those receptors. This translates to a less intense psychoactive effect, which is why products with a mix of CBD and THC are great for first-time consumers.

This does not mean that CBD, by itself, cannot offer an effect. High doses of CBD often produce a profoundly relaxing experience. Like stepping out of a hot tub, your body may feel tingly and relaxed, and your brain may be clear.

CBD vs. THC: legality

With the passing of the Farm Bill in December 2018, industrial hemp became a legal agricultural commodity in all 50 states. While the DEA still considers CBD to be a Schedule I controlled substance, it clarified in a memo that trace amounts of CBD found in hemp stalks or seeds were legal.

However, the legality of hemp-derived CBD may vary from state to state, so it’s important to check your state’s laws before stocking up on hemp-derived CBD products.

Cannabis strains that have a high CBD:THC ratio are legal only in states with legal, regulated cannabis markets.

What are the medicinal effects of CBD?

The list of conditions CBD may help with is ever-expanding. More research is needed to better understand the efficacy and range of CBD’s benefits, but it’s popularly used to manage the following symptoms and conditions:

  • Epilepsy and seizure disorders
  • Pain and inflammation
  • PTSD and anxiety
  • Crohn’s disease
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Opioid withdrawal

Though clinical and anecdotal evidence suggests CBD can help manage different conditions, CBD became most famous for treating a rare and debilitating form of pediatric epilepsy.

Dravet’s Syndrome is notoriously resistant to current treatment methods. People with the condition are plagued by seizures, often up to hundreds a day, and they usually worsen as people age and can be life-threatening. Currently, treatment methods include having a child wear an eyepatch, specialized diets, and brain surgery, but all have mixed success rates.

One of the earliest success stories involves a young girl named Charlotte who was given an ingestible oil derived from Charlotte’s Web , a CBD strain that was specifically developed to provide her with all the benefits of the drug without the high.

In less than two years, Charlotte went from a monthly seizure count of 1,200 to about three. Other success stories followed and more parents have begun to speak out, particularly parents desperate for access to this life-saving treatment.

CBD has no lethal dose or known serious side effects. The idea of using cannabis-derived compounds for pediatric conditions remains a touchy subject in a culture where cannabis has been stigmatized.

If you would like to know more about the benefits of CBD, check out our CBD Guide.

Although THC is best known for its mind-altering euphoria, it too has important medical benefits. There’s some overlap in what CBD and THC can treat, but THC is particularly effective in relieving nausea, appetite loss, insomnia, among other symptoms. Many patients find that a balance of CBD and THC offers the best symptom relief as the two work together synergistically.

What are some high-CBD strains I can try?

CBD is typically the second-most abundant cannabinoid in cannabis, but this isn’t always the case. A strain may deliver CBD and THC in the following ratios:

  • High THC, low CBD (e.g.,10-30% THC, trace amounts of CBD)
  • Balanced CBD/THC (e.g., 5-15% THC and 5-15% CBD)
  • High CBD, low THC (e.g., 5-20% CBD, THC under 5%)

(The Cannabiz Agency/iStock)

High-CBD strains tend to deliver very clear-headed, functional effects without the euphoric high associated with high-THC strains. They’re typically preferred by consumers who are extremely sensitive to the side effects of THC (e.g., anxiety, paranoia, dizziness).

A high-CBD strain would also be a great choice for someone needing to medicate throughout the day to control pain, inflammation, anxiety, or other chronic conditions.

Balanced CBD/THC strains will be a little more euphoric than CBD-dominant strains, though they’re much less likely to induce anxiety, paranoia, and other negative side effects. Strains like these tend to be the most effective for pain relief, and they’re also well-suited for THC-sensitive consumers who’d like a mellow buzz.

CBD strains can be consumed just as you would THC strains. You can smoke or vaporize CBD-rich flower, eat a CBD-infused edible, swallow a CBD oil capsule, apply a CBD lotion, or use a CBD tincture sublingually. Hemp products also contain CBD, though it is a less efficient source and lacks the beneficial chemical diversity of cannabis-derived CBD products (more on that here).

Keep in mind that CBD levels may vary from crop to crop—even from plant to plant. We also recommend checking with dispensaries about the specifics of their strains’ CBD levels. It’s always a good idea to purchase only lab-tested products that clearly state the CBD/THC levels so you know what kind of experience to expect.

This post was originally published on July 3, 2018. It was most recently updated on April 1, 2020.

CBD and THC are both derived from cannabis plants, but they’re very different. Learn the difference between CBD and THC.

The next big thing in marijuana won’t get you high

Jenni Avins

senior lifestyle correspondent

Recently, at the end of a surf trip with several friends, my pal Tim passed me a pipe packed with sticky green buds. I’m not much of a social smoker (more of a one-hitter-before-chores type) so politely declined.

Then, he made an odd promise, for a guy brandishing a glass pipe and a lighter: “It won’t get you stoned,” he said. “It’s CBD.”

I took a little hit, and soon after, felt my body pleasantly melt into a lawn chair, my ability to socialize not at all impeded. Truth told, at the end of a physically exhausting vacation and a can of Tecate, I was already pretty relaxed. But the CBD seemed to deepen that state.

CBD is one of the many chemical compounds in a class called “cannabinoids” that naturally occur in cannabis plants. While THC is the most famous of cannabinoids for its ability to get us high, CBD is a rapidly rising star for its capacity to deliver mental and physical benefits without the giggles, paranoia, or couch-lock. Eaze, a marijuana delivery service that operates in California, reported an “exceptionally high” demand for CBD in 2017, which led the company to quadruple its product offerings in the category. Chris Kelly, a representative of Tikun Olam, an Israeli company at the forefront of medical marijuana, calls Avidekel—his employer’s highest-CBD strain—the “golden child” of its offerings. Rolling Stone deemed it one of the five best strains of 2017.

In addition to that good old “melting into a lawn chair” feeling, CBD’s reported benefits include relief from anxiety, joint pain, post-traumatic stress disorder, menstrual cramps, insomnia, nausea, seizures, bowel inflammation, and plain old moodiness. Today, adults in more than half of US states (and 16 countries worldwide) have legal access to marijuana for medical purposes, and it’s been legalized for recreational use in nine states, plus Washington, DC. As marijuana continues its march into the mainstream, CBD has emerged as an easy entryway for those who want to dip a toe into the wellness benefits of weed, but may be skeptical of getting stoned.

You can use it as a rub, or as a soak inside the tub

In the months since that first hit, I’ve tried out CBD in many forms. I’ve dropped tinctures under my tongue to help me sleep, whipped Whoopi and Maya’s CBD-enhanced raw cacao butter into hot milk to ease cramps (yes, that’s Whoopi as in Goldberg), and massaged Lord Jones’ piney scented CBD lotion into a stiff neck.

As with marijuana, the modes of consuming CBD are limited only by one’s imagination. Curious gourmands can sip it in a CBD-laced “Stoney Negroni” at the West Hollywood restaurant Gracias Madre, and aesthetes can rub it onto their lips via rose-scented balm. For a more traditional medicinal experience, CBD also comes in soft gel capsules, droppers, and sublingual sprays. (In more than 20 countries outside the US, one such spray is prescribed to multiple sclerosis patients who suffer from muscle spasms and stiffness.) And of course, since CBD is derived from the flowers of cannabis plants, one could just go ahead and smoke a high-CBD strain of marijuana the old-fashioned way, by rolling it into a joint or lighting up a bowl—or the new-fangled way, by vaping distilled cannabinoid oils in a Dosist vape pen that vibrates to alert the user they’ve reached the recommended dose.

How CBD works

Yu-Fung Lin, an associate professor of physiology and membrane biology at the University of California-Davis School of Medicine, teaches a course on the physiology of cannabis. She says although CBD is not considered to be psychotropic—meaning it won’t alter our perception of reality or produce a feeling of euphoria—it’s still working on our brains. CBD doesn’t activate our brains’ cannabinoid receptors in the same manner as THC, but it does target a wide variety of proteins in the brain and nervous system that regulate cell activities all over the human body. By interacting with the brain’s signaling systems in various ways, it can provide relief from pain, anxiety, and nausea. Beyond our brains, says Lin, CBD may benefit our bones and immune systems and work broadly throughout the body as an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant, which may help protect cells from damages associated with neurodegenerative diseases.

With these sorts of benefits, it’s little wonder that there’s a booming market for CBD—and readily willing suppliers promising miraculous results.

“CBD can be used to relieve multiple symptoms,” says Lin. “But you need to know what you are getting.”

To THC or not to THC

CBD products made from industrial hemp, which contains almost no THC (less than 0.3% in the US), are legal in all 50 US states. While many users report benefits of hemp-derived CBD—not the least of which is legality—some experts say a little THC helps CBD work in the body; that cannabis’ chemical compounds work better in tandem than in isolation.

This is often called the “entourage effect,” or as Lester Grinspoon, a psychiatrist and professor emeritus at Harvard Medical School calls it, the “ensemble effect.” (Like so much of the research surrounding cannabis, which is heavy on anecdotal evidence and light on hard science due to marijuana’s status as a Schedule I drug, the entourage effect is the source of healthy debate.)

“It’s a mixture of CBD, cannabidiol, THC, and the phytochemicals, the terpenoids,” Grinspoon tells High Times. “You need all three of them to get the best therapeutic effect.” For this reason, Grinspoon, Lin, and many others say that the best source for therapeutic CBD is a plant with all of its cannabinoids intact.

For the layperson with legal access to cannabis, the easiest of way of doing that is to visit a trustworthy dispensary, where you can ask for products derived from plants that have a high CBD-to-THC ratio. The aforementioned Avidekel, for example, is about 18:1. You can also ask for lab results that show the exact breakdown of a plant’s chemical compounds.

Like most medicines, CBD will have a different effect on everyone who uses it, so the best way to find out what works is simply to try it. Research shows minimal side effects, though some users have reported drowsiness and an upset stomach. Personally, I’ve once felt perhaps a little too relaxed after drinking a 20:1 CBD-enhanced hot cocoa to relieve excruciating cramps. But you know what? My muscles relaxed too.

CBD’s reported benefits include relief from anxiety, joint pain, PTSD, menstrual cramps, insomnia, nausea, seizures, bowel inflammation, and plain old moodiness.