The Differences between CBD and THC and Why They Matter

By Jenny Menzel, H.C.

Upon nationwide legalization of hemp-derived cannabidiol (CBD), CBD products such as oil, gummies, and topicals promptly flooded the markets — claiming natural relief for common complaints such as pain, anxiety, insomnia, and more. Even with FDA approval, frequent misunderstandings about this cannabis chemical continue circulating due to its close association with tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) — the psychoactive property in cannabis.

Interestingly, out of over 100 different cannabinoids found in cannabis, CBD and THC share many similarities, with ample evidence of them productively working together to produce a healing entourage effect. This phenomenon that occurs when multiple cannabis components are consumed together, rather than separately, boosting their individual healing properties.

However, while CBD and THC have similarities and a positive synergistic relationship, distinguishable differences are present. Clearing up confusion about CBD and THC can be done by examining the following key contrasts:

  • Chemical Structure
  • Cannabis Strains
  • Effects on the Body
  • Legality

CBD and THC: How Are They Different?

1. They Have Different Chemical Structures.

CBD and THC are the most recognized and studied cannabinoids found in cannabis that interact with our endocannabinoid system (ECS), helping to regulate sleep, appetite, mood, and memory, according to experts. Both have the same chemical makeup of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms and account for the majority of the compounds found in the cannabis plant. However, the arrangement of those atoms is what differs, causing each to affect the body differently. Technically, the only difference is one chemical bond — which is enough to make CBD less capable of binding to the cannabinoid (CB) receptors in the way that THC does to produce the feeling of being high.

CBD vs. THC: CBD and THC have the same chemical makeup yet are arranged differently — causing different bodily reactions. THC gives you the euphoric high, while CBD doesn’t.

2. They Come From Different Cannabis Strains.

It’s a common misunderstanding that CBD and THC are derived from two different plant species — hemp and cannabis. CBD and THC are both found in the plant species Cannabis sativa, which has many different strains with varying plant profiles, allowing for a huge range of plants offering other effects and health benefits. Hemp is a cannabis plant containing more CBD than THC, while marijuana cannabis has significantly more THC than CBD. The term “marijuana” doesn’t have roots in science, though. It’s an outdated legal label to declare a cannabis strain containing more than 0.3% THC — a measurement above the legal limit, depending on ever-changing state laws.

Hemp vs. Marijuana: Hemp is predominantly composed of CBD. Marijuana is predominantly THC. Both are derived from different strains of the Cannabis sativa plant species.

3. They Interact Differently Inside the Body.

CBD is relatively free from side effects, and THC has immediate side effects like delayed reaction times, red eyes, dry mouth, and anxiety.

CBD and THC influence both types of cannabinoid (CB) receptors in the body — cannabinoid receptor-1 (CB1) and cannabinoid receptor-2 (CB2). CB1 receptors are primarily found in the brain and central nervous system, while CB2 receptors are mostly found on immune cells in the spleen and gastrointestinal (GI) tract.

The difference lies in how CBD and THC block or bind to these receptors, with CBD being antagonistic and THC being agonistic — inhibiting and activating, respectively. Research has shown the side effects of each differ due to this ability to bind to receptors. CBD is relatively free from side effects, and THC has immediate side effects such as delayed reaction times, red eyes, dry mouth, and anxiety.

Antagonist vs. Agonist: Whereas THC tightly binds to CB receptors to produce a psychoactive effect causing users to feel high, CBD blocks this binding — reversing the effects of THC and creating feelings of clarity.

4. They Are Legally Regulated Differently.

As early as the 1830s, doctors used cannabis extracts to ease symptoms such as stomach pain, nausea, inflammation, and insomnia — allowing them to be sold in American and European pharmacies. Following the Mexican Revolution, Mexican immigration to the U.S. increased, and with it came the recreational use of the drug. Marijuana became closely tied to the new immigrants, and as fear and prejudice arose towards them, so did the opposing viewpoints about marijuana use. Marijuana and the Mexicans who used it were thought to be involved in violent, criminal activity.

After 29 states banned marijuana, the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was formed — outlawing the plant and extract nationwide, despite objections by medical professionals. Penalties stiffened until the 1970s, when states sought to soften their laws. Currently, hemp-derived CBD is legal in all 50 states because it contains only negligible amounts of THC.

Legal vs. Illegal: Hemp-derived CBD lacks THC content, making it legal for use when THC levels are under 0.3%. Due to its roots in racism, “marijuana” cannabis has historically suffered strict regulations — laws that are slowly being loosened or thrown out altogether on a state-by-state basis as the march toward nationwide legalization continues.

Final Thoughts

As we better understand exactly how CBD and THC differ, we become well-informed CBD consumers to find the best CBD products capable of enhancing our health. As research continues to be conducted, and more states relax laws regarding THC, future doors will open to understanding how THC can be used in combination with CBD for health ailments.


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  • Pollio A. The Name of Cannabis: A Short Guide for Nonbotanists. Cannabis Cannabinoid Res. 2016;1(1):234-238. Published 2016 Oct 1. doi:10.1089/can.2016.0027
  • Russo, E. B. (2011). Taming THC: Potential cannabis synergy and phytocannabinoid-terpenoid entourage effects. British Journal of Pharmacology, 163(7), 1344-1364. doi:10.1111/j.1476-5381.2011.01238.x

Jenny Menzel, H.C., is a Certified Health Coach and branding specialist for various alternative healthcare practices, and volunteers her design skills to the annual grassroots campaign, the Lyme Disease Challenge. Jenny was diagnosed with Lyme in 2010 after 8 years of undiagnosed chronic pain and fatigue, and continues to improve by employing multiple alternative therapies, including Āyurveda, Chinese Medicine and Bee Venom Therapy.

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