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.
What happened when I took CBD for a week to help with my anxiety
Following is a transcript of the video.
Steven Phan: You gotta lean back. No, tongue back!
Benji Jones: That’s me, trying CBD at a shop in New York City. Lately, I’ve seen this stuff everywhere: At the local health food store, but also at Urban Outfitters , Sephora , and CBD shops like this one. And if you look at some of the branding, it kind of makes sense.
CBD products claim to help with everything from anxiety to insomnia to muscle pain. It almost sounds too good to be true. And maybe it is. To find out, I set up a little experiment. For one week, I took CBD three times a day, while tracking my anxiety with a scorecard. I also chatted with an expert before and after to sort through the results. Here’s what I learned.
CBD is a distant cousin of THC, the psychoactive chemical in marijuana. They both come from the cannabis plant, but CBD isn’t psychoactive. Meaning it doesn’t get you high. Now, of course, getting high isn’t the only reason why cannabis is popular. People also use it to relieve pain, control seizures, and lessen anxiety. But as researchers like Dr. Yasmin Hurd are discovering, it’s likely CBD, not THC, that’s behind these benefits.
Dr. Hurd: “It can activate some serotonin receptors, and the serotonin system is associated with alleviating anxiety.”
Jones: Hurd has been studying the effects of CBD for over 10 years. And she’s found that it can reduce anxiety in people with a history of heroin addiction . Now, fortunately, I don’t have a history of addiction, but I do see a therapist for chronic anxiety. And CBD could still help.
Dr. Hurd: “Both under normal conditions and in people who have anxiety disorders, enough research has started to show that it does have an anti-anxiety effect.”
Jones: So, back at the shop, I tried all kinds of product. From sweets to lotions and sprays. And while Hurd couldn’t recommend a specific dose for me, she did say that 300 milligrams a day should be enough to feel something. Because participants in clinical trials typically take anywhere from 300 to 600 milligrams. So, those chocolates and sprays? They weren’t going to cut it. Instead, I went for something else.
Phan: The tinctures, right? This is where you really get into the higher-strength things.”
Jones: I decided to err on the side of caution and take 250 milligrams each day, broken out into three doses: 50 milligrams in the morning, 100 milligrams at midday, and another 100 milligrams at night. That way, it wouldn’t hit me all at once.
Jones: All right, today is the day! I have my CBD here. I’m kind of nervous. All right, here we go.
Now, mind you, this was a Wednesday. A workday. Side note: The reason I’m taking CBD this way is that there are tons of capillaries under your tongue. So, anything you put there can be absorbed directly into your bloodstream. Whereas when you ingest CBD, like with that chocolate, a lot of it is broken down by your stomach. Which means you probably won’t feel much.
Anyway, several hours later, I took my last dose of the day.
If anything, I just feel extremely tired.
That was the first thing I noticed: that CBD was making me drowsy. Really drowsy. Which Hurd said is a pretty normal side effect at high doses. Though we’re not exactly sure why. But as I discovered the next night, it’s also great for hangovers.
I had some alcohol, and I’m certainly not going to have trouble sleeping. I think I’m going to eat a slice of pizza.
The next morning, I felt…great. And according to Hurd, that’s because CBD also has some anti-inflammatory effects. But what about anxiety, what I was really in this for? Each morning, I filled out the anxiety scorecard that Hurd gave me. It was a rough estimate of my daily emotional state, based on numbered responses to statements like, “I feel at ease.” But day to day, it was harder to figure out whether CBD was helping.
Just walking home on Friday night after three days of CBD, and I’m reporting that I’m mostly just tired and feeling lethargic. Not in a bad way; it kind of feels like I have a warm blanket around me, so I don’t hate it.
But over the weekend, I finally got the relief I was looking for, even more quickly than I had expected.
So, I happened to take CBD right before I had to do something stressful. It’s Sunday, but I had a task that I was not looking forward to. And I took 100 milligrams, and I pretty quickly felt my nerves calming down. And I was like, OMG, this is totally working, which is really great because I’m looking for that quick relief like everyone is.
Now, of course, this could have been a placebo. I mean, all of this could have been placebo. So, a few days later, I tried it again in a similar high-stress situation.
Not going to lie, I actually feel a little bit more calm. It kind of puts me into a dissociative state, where I’m slowing down a little bit. I actually get physical pain in my heart region when I’m anxious, which I know sounds terrible. But just 30 minutes after taking my 100-milligram dose for the evening, I feel an absence of that. I will say that I’ve also been listening to the “Lion King” soundtrack, so there are confounding variables. But yeah, I feel a lot better right now.
At that point, I had just one day left.
All right, I’m about to take my last dose of CBD! I must say, I’m kind of excited to stop having to take this three times a day. I think part of it is scheduling and remembering. But also, yeah, I’ve also just been so much more tired. I don’t feel like my anxiety was just washed away. I felt like there were a few times where it really helped in certain instances. And, overall, kind of lowered the intensity of how I was feeling because I felt lethargic. But yeah, I don’t want to be tired anymore.
Afterward, I looked over my anxiety scorecards. And sure enough, it showed that I was feeling slightly less anxious on my last day, compared to my first. Especially when I looked at statements like this. Yeah, that’s a big one for me. I wanted to run these results by Hurd.
Dr. Hurd: “How do you feel?”
Jones: Um, to be honest, I don’t feel that different. I think that the biggest change that I noticed is…I was just tired all the time. I feel this kind of slo-mo lethargia that makes me feel, like, a little bit disassociated with reality. And I think that is what made me feel a little less anxious at times.
Dr. Hurd: So, perhaps…taking it at night only might be best because it can make you a bit sleepy, and everyone has a different sensitivity. If you take it at night you get past the initial sedative effects… and then you don’t have to worry about taking other things like caffeine to try to stay awake.
Jones: And what about those moments of instant relief? Was that in my head, or could CBD act that fast?
Dr. Hurd: “Yeah, absolutely. It can act that quickly. For us, in our studies, people did — shortly after getting CBD — report reduced anxiety.”
Jones: But if there was one takeaway from our conversations, it was this:
Dr. Yasmin Hurd: Ironically, even though it’s now this huge fad in our society, we still don’t have a very good handle on how it’s working.
Jones: In other words, we don’t know: what size dose you should take, how, exactly, it changes your brain, or how it impacts different people in different ways. That’s because until late 2018, nearly all CBD was classified as an illegal substance. Which made it really difficult for scientists to study. And while research is starting to catch up… in some ways, it’s too late.
Dr. Hurd: It’s one of the first times in history that the public is determining whether something is medicine, not scientists and physicians.
Jones: As for me, will I continue using CBD? Yes — but likely only for those moments when I need instant relief. Because, while it seems to benefit a lot of people … I’m not yet fully convinced. But also because, this bottle? It costs more than $130! And if I’m going to spend that much, I want to be absolutely sure it works.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This video was originally published on August 20, 2019.
CBD products claim to help with anxiety, insomnia, muscle pain and more. It almost sounds too good to be true. So I conducted my own experiment.