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What is the Difference Between CBD and THC?

With the recent trend of states and countries legalizing medical and recreational marijuana, many people are hearing unfamiliar acronyms like “CBD” and “THC” being thrown around by the media and are thus highly confused about the topic. In addition, the media may also appear to be using “hemp” and “marijuana” interchangeably. This guide will provide you with more context around the terminology used and explain how different CBD is from THC.

A cannabis sativa plant which contains varying levels of CBD vs THC

The Plant

All of these mysterious substances come from a plant, cannabis sativa. Hemp and marijuana are the same species of plant, but hemp contains a lot of CBD and little to no THC (less than 0.3%), while marijuana contains some CBD and a lot of THC. Hemp is grown for its fiber, which has many industrial uses, and hemp seeds can be eaten or used to produce a healthy oil that can be used in cooking and as a salad dressing.

Hemp Seed Oil vs. CBD Oil

It must be noted that hemp seed oil and CBD oil are not the same thing at all. Hemp seed oil contains little to no CBD and no THC. CBD oil contains CBD and little to no THC. Like hemp seed oil, CBD oil is prepared from hemp, but not from the seeds; it is prepared from the hemp flowers and buds. Due the fact that CBD oil has a 0.3% or lower THC content, it is generally legal everywhere.

Marijuana Products

Strains of cannabis sativa have been developed to have predictable levels of THC; some strains have sky-high THC levels and low CBD levels, while others have moderate levels of both THC and CBD, and everything in between. Like CBD oil, all marijuana products are developed from the flowers and buds of the plants. Due their THC content, they are only legal in some places for medical and/or recreational uses.


Cannabis sativa contains over a hundred different compounds called cannabinoids. They all share similar chemical structures. THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol) are the two most predominant cannabinoid compounds found in hemp and marijuana. The human body naturally produces cannabinoid-like compounds and has receptors on various cell types that interact with cannabinoids, predominantly in the nervous and immune systems. THC and CBD interact with different types of these receptors to produce different effects on the body.


When THC interacts with cannabinoid receptors in the brain it induces a euphoric feeling (the “high” of marijuana) and affects mood in a positive way. It can also temporarily block pain and cause significant impairments of cognitive functioning and the ability to concentrate and remember. Dizziness and drowsiness may also occur.


CBD interacts with a different set of cannabinoid receptors and its overall effect has been compared to acting like a dimmer switch to partially down regulate certain nervous and immune system processes. It does not cause a high or affect cognitive functioning, although it may cause drowsiness. Instead, it seems to alleviate conditions caused by abnormally over-active pathways in the brain, and has been reported to be helpful in relieving symptoms associated with epilepsy, anxiety, insomnia, and pain. It also seems to affect the digestive tract by down-regulating overactive nervous system pathways that induce loss of appetite and nausea, and thus CBD has been reported to help normalize eating in persons suffering from loss of appetite and nausea, such as those undergoing chemotherapy. In addition, CBD may be able to also act like a dimmer switch on an over-active immune system that is causing an autoimmune disease.


Currently, there is a lot of discussion and controversy as to what percentage of THC and/or CBD should be in a particular product intended to achieve a particular goal. For example, in some cases, CBD seems to partially block THC’s ability to bind to its cannabinoid receptors, so if a product is intended to deliver a high, active dose of THC, perhaps it should have some or all of the CBD removed. Others argue that CBD products with little to no THC do not have the same therapeutic effects as products extracted from plants with substantial amounts of THC.

A clear bag containing marijuana that is high in THC and low in CBD

There is also controversy as to whether synthetic/highly purified cannabinoid products, which contain one cannabinoid molecule only, act the same as an extract from a plant that contains at least a hundred different cannabiniod molecules. For example, for decades, parents of children with Dravet and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome have used CBD oil extracts in hopes to treat these children’s severe, intractable, and life-threatening seizures. Recently, the FDA approved a drug that contains nothing but purified CBD for treatment of these conditions. Other researchers are producing totally synthetic cannabinoid-like molecules that bypass use of the cannabis plant completely.

Many users of full-spectrum CBD oil extracts and users of full-spectrum products derived from marijuana plants (the full-spectrum term means these products contain all of the cannabinoid compounds present in the precursor plant) remain skeptical about these purified and synthetic compounds and believe the effects of cannabis products rely on their complex matrix of multiple different cannabinoid compounds.

How are THC and CBD Products Consumed?

There are a wide range of methods used to deliver products containing THC and CBD. The most straightforward is inhaling the smoke from dried buds and flowers from C. sativa. Products can be extracted from the buds and flowers and partially purified for delivery in a vast variety of ways: as an oil, as an isolate, as a tincture, as a product that can be vaped, in a spray inhaler, and of course incorporated into various edible products like candies and baked goods.

The choice of product primarily depends on the purpose. Products that are inhaled or absorbed directly through the mucus membranes tend to have a very quick onset, while products that are eaten or applied to the skin have a slow onset and remain in the system for a more prolonged period of time.


In brief, both THC and CBD come from the flowers and buds of cannabis plants. THC causes the euphoric “high” associated with marijuana use along with many other effects on mood and cognitive functioning, while CBD does not cause a “high” but does have many far-reaching effects on the nervous and immune systems.

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All products contain less than 0.3% THC.