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CBD vs THC? They differ in effects, structure, legality and benefits – get the truth on the difference between CBD and THC here in our guide. CBD and THC are both cannabinoids, but they can have differing effects on the body. Learn more about the differences in the effects and benefits of CBD vs, THC.

CBD vs THC

UNDERSTANDING THE DIFFERENCES
BETWEEN CBD AND THC

Understanding the effects of CBD is confusing when THC is sometimes mentioned too. Do they come from the same plant? Do they both make you ‘high’? How are they different, and how does a game of CBD vs THC play out? In order to help you, we’ve put together an informative guide on how to explain their differences.

Explained by our CEO Dr. Henry Vincenty

What is CBD?

CBD stands for Cannabidiol
It’s a cannabinoid – a natural compound – that’s found in cannabis plants (also known as Cannabis sativa). It is not considered a controlled substance and is 100% non-psychoactive, which means it doesn’t make you feel “high”.

What is THC?

THC stands for Tetrahydrocannabinol
Is also a cannabinoid found in cannabis plants (there are over 100 different cannabinoids in total). THC is the compound that’s responsible for causing the marijuana ‘high’. Because it’s considered a controlled substance, it is often deemed illegal.

DOES CBD HAVE THC IN IT?

CBD does not have any THC in it as they are two different compounds.

However, it’s important to know that CBD hemp products often have a very small percentage (0.2%) of THC, due to both compounds being in the cannabis plant when the CBD product is made – be it tinctures, oils, edibles, etc.

The main differences lie in how differently they react and affect the body. When introduced to your system CBD and THC both interact and have an effect on the endocannabinoid system.

IS CBD PSYCHOACTIVE?

The cannabidiol compound isn’t psychoactive, its chemical structure doesn’t allow it to bind to your body’s cannabinoid receptors. CBD and THC may look very similar in chemical structure but this subtle change lowers CBD’s binding affinity and causes it to have mild stimulating effects and helps your receptors to create more endocannabinoids, while THC alters the function of cannabinoid receptors by binding to them.

HOW IS CBD DIFFERENT TO THC?

The main difference between CBD and THC is the effects they have on you.
Put simply, THC gets you ‘high’ while CBD won’t.

This is because CBD does not bind effectively to our endocannabinoid system – the body’s unique system that regulates elements such as sleep, appetite, and our immune system. It’s this binding action that gives you that ‘high’ feeling.

THC initiates a psychological response via the endocannabinoid system’s cannabinoid 1 receptors (CB1), found primarily in the central nervous system and the brain. When the CB1 receptor is activated, it produces a psychoactive effect.

CBD doesn’t bind with the CB1 receptors and so has no effect on your perception or sensorial experiences. In fact, research has suggested that when CBD is taken with THC, it can lessen the psychotropic effects of THC by suppressing the CB1-activating qualities and so protecting the consumer from getting too high.

THEIR ATOMIC ARRANGEMENT IS DIFFERENT

Without getting too scientific, CBD and THC may share the same chemical composition, but their atomic arrangements are different.

Both of them are considered cyclic compounds, which means one or more of the atoms in the compounds connect to form a ring. CBD has an open ring, while THC has a closed ring.

Why does this matter? It’s this arrangement that means they interact differently with the endocannabinoid system’s receptors.

CBD IS ABUNDANT IN HEMP,
THC DOMINATES OTHER FORMS OF CANNABIS

While THC and CBD are both found in cannabis plants, THC is most plentiful in other forms of cannabis while CBD is found in higher quantities in hemp.

Hemp is dominated by CBD. In order for a cannabis plant to be classified as ‘hemp’, its THC content is to be no more than 0.3%.

When other types of cannabis are grown, the THC content tends to be maximized to produce more powerful intoxicating effects.

CAN YOU SMOKE CBD OIL?

While cannabis is often synonymous with smoking, smoking CBD oil is not advisable. There are other forms of CBD available that are more suitable for smoking, this includes CBD crystals (CBD isolate), hemp flowers, and CBD e-liquid. Handheld and tabletop vaporizers or e-cigarettes are popular for smokers that want an alternative to the traditional rolling papers and natural flowers.

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU SMOKE CBD OIL?

Most CBD oils are made with carrier oils such as hemp seed oil, olive oil, or coconut oil. As with any oil-based product, when heated at high temperatures it can be dangerous, causing smoke, damage to the integrity of the cannabinoid, or cause injury to your lungs if inhaled. Smoking CBD can be achieved through none oil-based products.

WHAT DOES SMOKING CBD DO?

The inhalation method has a high bioavailability and is absorbed quickly into the bloodstream through the lungs. Smoking CBD gives fast results, However, this method does have the risk of inhaling toxic chemicals if you use low-quality e-liquid or Isolate products. CBD Isolates and e-liquids must be high quality and pure to make sure they aren’t mixed with dangerous chemicals that could do damage to your lungs or harm your health. Always do your own research before smoking CBD.

DOES CBD WORK BETTER WITH THC?

In a 1998 study by Professors Raphael Mechoulam and Shimon Ben-Shabat, it was discovered that cannabinoid activity is increased when there is a broad spectrum of cannabinoid present at one time.

This effect is called the ‘entourage effect’ which sees cannabinoids work in synergy with each other to enhance their effects. Full-spectrum and broad-spectrum formulas contain more than just CBD and are thought to be more effective than when CBD is used by itself.

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HOW DOES CBD AFFECT THC?

Medical studies into the effects of CBD show it has the ability to lessen the psychoactive effects of THC, it is thought that the ‘entourage effect’ – when there’s more than one compound present at a time, helps regulate the effect of each cannabinoid, causing a balancing effect in the plant. CBD works in partnership with other cannabinoids to regulate the effects of THC.

IS THERE CBD IN MARIJUANA?

Marijuana contains high amounts of THC (of up to 30%) and low amounts of CBD. The composition of each type of cannabis plant has different levels of cannabinoids, which gives each species varying effects. No one cannabis species has just one type of cannabinoid. There are over 100 different variations found in the plant, which includes CBD, CBC, CBN, CBG, and many more.

We are avid believers in the wonderful benefits of CBD oil. And medical studies have suggested that CBD can help with social anxiety and panic attacks.

THC, on the other hand, can in fact worsen anxiety and increase paranoia in some people, as suggested by other medical studies. However, some studies have suggested that when THC is combined with CBD, the negative effects are lessened.

HEMP-DERIVED CBD IS LEGAL IN MOST COUNTRIES.
THC IS NOT.

Other forms of cannabis and cannabis-derived CBD will get you ‘high’ because of their large amounts of THC (around 30%). This means that they’re often illegal in many countries around the world.

However, when CBD is derived from the hemp plant, it has such minute levels of THC that many countries have no laws against its use. Click here to see if CBD is legal in your country.

HOW CBD AND THC INTERACT WITH THE BODY

THC initiates a psychological response via the endocannabinoid system’s cannabinoid 1 receptors (CBD1), found primarily in the central nervous system and the brain. When the CB1 receptor is activated, it produces a psychoactive effect.

CBD doesn’t bind with the CB1 receptors and so has no effect on your perception or sensorial experiences. In fact, research has suggested that when CBD is taken with THC, it can lessen the psychotropic effects of THC by suppressing the CB1-activating qualities and so protecting the consumer from getting too high.

WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENT CBD & THC PRODUCTS AVAILABLE?

It’s important to remember that while CBD and THC are often delivered together in a CBD product, they have different effects. For example:

High THC + low CBD (e.g. 10-30% THC + trace amounts of CBD):
This will provide that euphoric, ‘high’ feeling.

Balanced CBD/THC (e.g. 5-15% THC and CBD):
This will be a little more euphoric than CBD -strong strains, but it is less likely to induce THC’s negative side effects in the consumer such as paranoia and anxiety.

High CBD + low THC (e.g. 5-20% CBD + THC under 5%):
This will not get you high and can, in fact, provide some wonderful benefits.

CBD vs. THC: What’s the Difference?

Both come from cannabis, but THC is psychoactive and CBD is not

Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.

Verywell Mind articles are reviewed by board-certified physicians and mental healthcare professionals. Medical Reviewers confirm the content is thorough and accurate, reflecting the latest evidence-based research. Content is reviewed before publication and upon substantial updates. Learn more.

Steven Gans, MD is board-certified in psychiatry and is an active supervisor, teacher, and mentor at Massachusetts General Hospital.

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Cannabis contains over 113 different chemical compounds known as cannabinoids. Cannabidiol (CBD) and delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) are two types of chemical compounds derived from cannabis. In recent years, interest has grown in the potential health effects and benefits of cannabis. Much of this interest has centered on these two cannabinoids.

This interest will likely grow as cannabis and marijuana products become legal in more states. A number of different products have emerged that contain CBD, THC, or both that are designed to alleviate ailments such as stress, anxiety, and insomnia. To understand these products’ side effects and potential benefits, it is important to first understand the differences between CBD and THC.

What Is CBD?

Cannabidiol, usually referred to as CBD, is the second most prevalent chemical compound found in cannabis. First discovered during the 1940s, CBD has recently become more popular as a natural treatment for a range of conditions. It can be derived from hemp or from marijuana. Hemp-derived CBD still contains trace amounts of THC, while marijuana-derived CBD may contain more.

What Is THC?

Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is the main psychoactive ingredient in cannabis. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), THC activates the brain’s reward system by signaling the release of the brain chemical dopamine.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays an important role in mood and pleasure. By triggering a higher-than-normal release of dopamine, THC causes people to experience feelings of euphoria. THC is often administered by smoking marijuana, but it can also be found as an ingredient in capsules, edibles, and oils.

CBD vs. THC: Key Differences

THC and CBD have an effect on the endocannabinoid system, a system that plays an important role in maintaining homeostasis. Researchers are still working to understand the ins and outs of this complex system, but they do know that it is associated with processes including memory, appetite, sleep, mood, and fertility.

While THC and CBD share similarities, there are some key differences between the two compounds.

Psychoactive (produces a high)

Sourced from marijuana

Non-psychoactive (does not produce a high)

Typically sourced from hemp

CBD vs. THC: Psychoactive Properties

CBD and THC affect different receptors in the brain. Because of this, CBD typically does not have psychoactive effects—in other words, it won’t cause you to get high.

THC, on the other hand, does have psychoactive effects. It is the compound that produces the high that people associate with marijuana.

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CBD vs. THC: Chemical Structure

Both CBD and THC have a chemical structure that is similar to the body’s natural endocannabinoids. Endocannabinoids are neurotransmitters that act in the brain.

Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that relay signals between nerve cells in the body. They play an important role in a wide range of functions including sleep, pain, appetite, mood, and the immune system.

CBD and THC have the same molecular structure, but there are differences in how these molecules are arranged that are responsible for the differing effects they have. By mimicking endocannabinoids, they bind with receptors and cause different effects in the body.

CBD vs. THC: Sources

While CBD can come from either hemp or marijuana, it is often derived from hemp in order to avoid the addition of larger amounts of THC. THC, on the other hand, is derived from marijuana.

CBD that comes from marijuana may contain more THC, which may not be ideal for people who are trying to avoid THC. Some CBD products that are produced from cannabis, for example, may contain more THC than the label suggests.

CBD vs. THC: Potential Benefits

While research on the potential health benefits of THC, CBD, and other cannabinoids is still in the early stages, there is evidence that these substances may be helpful for conditions including:

  • Epilepsy
  • Glaucoma
  • Symptoms of HIV/AIDS
  • Pain
  • Opioid dependence
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • Inflammatory bowel syndrome (IBD)
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Sleep difficulties
  • Movement disorders

While CBD and THC often have similar effects and are often used to treat many of the same ailments, there are some differences.

CBD is often used to alleviate symptoms associated with:

  • Anxiety
  • Inflammation
  • Migraines
  • Seizures

THC, which may be administered as medical marijuana, may be used to alleviate symptoms of a number of conditions. It may be helpful for conditions such as:

  • Glaucoma
  • Insomnia
  • Nausea; it may help alleviate nausea caused by cancer treatment
  • Pain associated with conditions such as arthritis, fibromyalgia, and migraine headaches
  • Poor appetite; including appetite problems caused by cancer treatment
  • Tremors

CBD vs. THC for Pain Relief

Both CBD and THC can both be beneficial for pain relief. Because THC has psychoactive effects, it may produce more immediate pain relief. However, CBD can help reduce inflammation, which is useful for long-term effectiveness. Some evidence suggests that taking both CBD and THC may provide the greatest pain relief. In one study, people who took a combination of CBD and THC experienced greater pain relief than those who took THC alone.

FDA-Approved Medications

While cannabis itself has not been FDA approved to treat any condition, there are a few drugs approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that contain CBD or THC.  

  • Epidiolex contains CBD and has been approved to treat seizures associated with two severe types of epilepsy—Dravet syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome
  • Marinol and Syndros are drugs that contain dronabinol, a synthetic THC. These drugs are used to treat nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy during cancer treatment.
  • Cesamet contains nabilone, a synthetic substance that is similar to THC. This drug is used to treat weight loss and appetite problems associated with chemotherapy and HIV/AIDS.

CBD vs. THC: Side Effects

Some research suggests that CBD and THC are generally safe and result in few side effects.

However, while these substances appear safe, that does not necessarily mean that you won’t experience some unwanted effects. Some adverse effects that have been reported include:

  • Changes in mood and appetite
  • Drowsiness
  • Feelings of anxiety or other mood changes
  • Nausea and dizziness

THC use may also result in unpleasant side effects such as increased heart rate, dry mouth, and memory loss.

Marijuana itself can have a number of short-term and long-term adverse effects, including impaired short-term memory, altered judgment, and impaired coordination. Research also suggests that marijuana can alter brain development and may lead to cognitive impairment.

NIDA also notes that THC alters how the hippocampus and orbitofrontal cortex function. These areas of the brain are important in the formation of new memories and the ability to shift attention from one thing to the next. This not only affects a person’s ability to learn and form new memories, but it also makes it difficult for people to perform difficult tasks.

Legality of CBD and THC

When choosing CBD or THC products, it is also important to consider their legality. Both marijuana and THC are included in the U.S. Controlled Substances Act, which means that they are not legal under federal law.

As of July 2020, 33 states and Washington, D.C. have enacted policies allowing medical marijuana and products containing THC to be prescribed by a doctor. Some states also allow recreational use of marijuana and THC-containing products.

Although CBD in certain forms is legal in most states, the specifics of the legality of any THC or CBD product can vary from one state to the next. Several states have also approved the use of marijuana and THC for recreational purposes.

Because the laws regarding the use of cannabis and cannabis products are rapidly changing, you should always check your state’s laws before using products containing CBD or THC.

How to Take CBD and THC

Both THC and CBD can be consumed in a number of different forms. THC may be consumed as marijuana by smoking, but a number of other cannabis products are also available including:

  • Oils
  • Tinctures
  • Sprays
  • Vape products
  • Edibles including gummies and chocolates
  • Beverages containing marijuana oil

Like THC, CBD can also be consumed in a number of different forms. CBD oils can be formulated for vaping, although there have been recent concerns about the health dangers posed by vaping.

It can also be added to lotions and salves to apply to skin. It is important to note that the effects of these topical products will be localized since they are not being ingested.

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CBD can also be taken orally as a tincture, oil, capsule, or spray. Edible CBD products are also popular and include gummies, candies, and beverages.

When choosing CBD products, it is also important to consider its formulation. Isolate products contain only CBD. Broad-spectrum products contain other cannabinoids with the exception of THC, while full-spectrum CBD products contain CBD, THC, and other cannabinoids.

Which One Should You Take?

The product you choose may depend on the effects you are trying to achieve. If you are trying to reduce stress or sleep better, for example, CBD may provide benefits without the negative side effects associated with THC. THC might be a better choice for symptoms or conditions for which the substance has demonstrated benefits, such as tremors or poor appetite.

The Entourage Effect

Some research suggests that the potential therapeutic effects of THC and CBD tend to be greater when the two cannabinoids are taken together at the same time. This phenomenon is known as the entourage effect.

Taking CBD along with THC has also been shown to help reduce some of the unwanted effects that THC may have. For example, one study suggests that CBD may potentially reduce some of the negative cognitive effects of regular cannabis use.

For example, people who use cannabis, particularly when it has high THC levels, may have a greater risk of experiencing psychiatric symptoms such as paranoia, anxiety, and psychosis. Studies have found, however, that CBD may help mitigate these effects.

One study found that CBD helped block some of the potential psychiatric effects of THC. The authors of the study suggest that such findings have important implications for the use of cannabis products. People who are prone to unwanted side effects, for example, may be able to still gain the potential health benefits by sticking to products that are low in THC and higher in CBD content.

It is also important to remember that CBD and THC work in a number of different areas of the brain, and researchers do not yet fully understand the effects that these cannabinoids have, either alone or in conjunction with one another.

Some evidence suggests that the combined effects of CBD and THC may be dependent on dose. A 2019 study, for example, found that low doses of CBD actually played a role in amplifying the psychoactive effects of THC, while high doses of CBD reduced THC’s effects.  

Drug Testing CBD or THC

Because THC is the main psychoactive substance in marijuana, it can be detected on most standard drug tests. CBD may be detectable as well, but many drug tests are not designed to look for cannabidiol.

However, many CBD products do contain trace amounts of THC. While these amounts are small, they may still be detectable if you are consuming large quantities of CBD or if the products you are using contain more THC than the packaging label claims.

Research has found, for example, that as many as 70% of CBD products are mislabeled and contain significantly more THC than labels suggest. Because of the lack of regulation of these products, it is difficult to know exactly how much THC you are actually getting.

There is no way to tell between THC and CBD based on appearance, smell, taste, or texture. Purchasing products from reputable manufacturers and retailers may help ensure that you are getting the type of product you want.

Both THC and CBD are stored in body fat, which means that both can potentially be detected on drug tests for some time after you have stopped using them.

Before You Take CBD or THC

THC and CBD may also have an effect on some health conditions and can interact with certain medications, so you should always use caution before taking these products. These substances might impact how medications are metabolized by your body. They can also heighten feelings of anxiety in some cases.

Before choosing a THC or CBD product, it is important to check your state laws to ensure that these products are legal where you live. Federal law mandates that hemp-derived CBD products should contain less than 0.3% THC, but even those trace amounts are still illegal in some states.

A Word From Verywell

Both THC and CBD may have a number of benefits, but you should always talk to your doctor first before you try any products containing these cannabinoids. Both CBD and THC hold promise for alleviating symptoms and even treating some medical and mental health conditions, but research in this area is still relatively new and further investigation is needed.

Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Cannabis (marijuana) and cannabinoids: what you need to know.

Perry D, Ton J, Allan GM. Evidence for THC versus CBD in cannabinoids. Can Fam Physician. 2018;64(7):519. PMID: 30002029; PMCID: PMC6042662.

Volkow ND, Baler RD, Compton WM, Weiss SR. Adverse health effects of marijuana use. N Engl J Med. 2014;370(23):2219-2227. doi:10.1056/NEJMra1402309

Morgan CJ, Schafer G, Freeman TP, Curran HV. Impact of cannabidiol on the acute memory and psychotomimetic effects of smoked cannabis: naturalistic study: naturalistic study [corrected] [published correction appears in Br J Psychiatry. 2010 Nov;197:416]. Br J Psychiatry. 2010;197(4):285-290. doi:10.1192/bjp.bp.110.077503

Bonn-miller MO, Loflin MJE, Thomas BF, Marcu JP, Hyke T, Vandrey R. Labeling accuracy of cannabidiol extracts sold online. JAMA. 2017;318(17):1708-1709. doi:10.1001/jama.2017.11909

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.

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