CBD vs THC : The Complete Guide to Cannabis
If you’ve spent any time researching hemp, CBD, or THC on the internet, you’ve come across plenty of articles pitting these three concepts against each other. Most of them have titles like “CBD vs THC: Which is Better?” or “Hemp vs CBD: What the Farmers Won’t Tell You,” but they never seem to have the information you want to know.
So instead of trying to convince you that hemp, CBD, or THC are better than the others, let’s take a more in-depth look at all three to understand better what they are, what they do, and the history behind them.
Once you learn more about each one of these cannabis-based options, it will be much easier for you to ask further questions, seek out the products you want, and be completely satisfied with your decision.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Before we can worry about making those decisions, we should learn a little history to appreciate the different paths that CBD, THC, and hemp took to get where they are today.
Hemp vs CBD vs THC: A Brief History
Much like the Bee Gees, Blink-182, and Alvin and the Chipmunks, the well-known trio of hemp, CBD, and THC have such a shared history – telling their stories would be impossible separately. However, the first of these three that we can credibly link to near-prehistoric usage is hemp, so let’s start there.
Hemp: The Early Years
Throughout the long history of hemp, it has been used to make rope, fiber, and other textiles, including hemp fibers found in pottery from around 5000 BC. It was used by rulers and shipbuilders and potters and everything in between. Whether it was a shirt, rope, or a bag, hemp had the potential to be useful to almost anyone.
However, it was not just textiles that hemp provided. In addition to the sturdy, fibrous stalks of the hemp plant, it’s flowering buds were also cultivated, and the long, strange history of THC would begin.
As hemp continued to be a fan-favorite in early human societies, ancient people like the Assyrians and the Aryans began to understand THC’s psychoactive properties. And while this mild intoxication didn’t cause any problems for hemp production in ancient Assyria, that would not be the case in early 20th century America.
Hemp and THC Find Trouble in America
After enjoying thousands of years as a cash crop used by every industry from textiles to paper to cars (shoutout Henry Ford), hemp finally hit a bump in the road thanks to THC. Many “activist groups” in the early 20th century held rallies, wrote pamphlets, and even made movies that showed THC and cannabis/hemp in general as something that minorities use to fuel their lawlessness and convince “upstanding” white people to commit crimes.
Unfortunately, these racist scare tactics succeeded in outlawing THC and put all hemp production in jeopardy. Lobbyists supporting the many industries that struggled to beat the efficiency of hemp-based products helped make sure people precisely knew where the marijuana came from and pushed to regulate hemp growth in America heavily. They succeeded.
From that “success” came the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which outlawed the use of cannabis and regulated hemp production more than nearly any other industry in the US. This regulation led to a drastic drop in the amount of hemp produced in America, but ironically did little to curb the THC problem.
In a nation where hemp production was once mandatory, hemp was all erased from American life. However, between the rampant popularity of THC in the American 60s and 70s and advancements in cannabis research happening across the world at the same time, hemp would soon find a new ally in the fight for mainstream acceptance.
CBD Comes to the Rescue
While America was busy with burning bras and the war on drugs, a research team in Israel led by Robert Mechoulam was making breakthrough discoveries that would eventually spawn an entirely new industry. That discovery? CBD.
CBD was found to interact with the body’s endocannabinoid system to help achieve balance and overall wellness. This breakthrough discovery led to more research, which eventually made its way over to America, where opinions were beginning to change thanks to the story of Charlotte Figi.
Charlotte was a six-year-old girl suffering from Dravet Syndrome (a type of childhood epilepsy). But, miraculously, her number of daily seizures dropped dramatically after regularly ingesting a high-CBD strain of marijuana. This development led both scientific researchers and medical marijuana growers to work hand-in-hand to develop strains that contain almost no THC while being full of CBD – all the help without the high.
From there, the 2014 and 2018 Farm Bills were passed by Congress to allow the increase of domestic hemp production and the sale of hemp-based products like CBD, and many states have introduced either medical or recreational marijuana programs.
After a long, bumpy ride, it seems like CBD, THC, and hemp are all beginning to find their niche and get the respect they deserve in society.
Now that you have a grasp on the road it took to get to where we are today, let’s start diving into what CBD, THC, and hemp are, what they do, and how they can be useful.
Does Hemp Have THC? What About CBD?
While hemp, CBD, and THC are closely connected, they all have different uses and purposes. But before getting too “in the weeds” about what separates CBD and THC, we first need to start with the plant they both come from – hemp.
What is Hemp and What is it Used For?
Simply put, “hemp” is a name given to the low-THC varieties of Cannabis sativa with the tall, sturdy stalks necessary to make things like paper, rope, and clothing. On the other hand, “marijuana” is usually used to describe the opposite – shorter, less sturdy cannabis plants that produce more buds with higher THC content.
While both technically are “cannabis,” they differ on pretty much everything else. While marijuana is only grown for recreational or medical consumption, hemp plants are incredibly useful for various industries.
We mentioned earlier that Henry Ford created an engine that could run on hemp-based biofuel and that everyone from ancient Assyrians to American colonists used hemp ropes. Still, there’s even more hemp can do now.
The most fascinating of these new, hemp-based inventions is Hempcrete. Hempcrete is considered both stronger and more eco-friendly than traditional cement. And because it’s also a lighter and more flexible material, it is much less likely to develop cracks due to settling and expansion.
We have also learned that hemp is an amazing bioaccumulator, which means it can be used as part of regular crop rotation to keep the soil fresh and ready for the next harvest. This ability has also been used to help purify soil that has been destroyed by radiation, most famously in Chernobyl.
Recently, the most exciting, new use of hemp has been CBD products, made from the compound that Mechoulam and his lab discovered the potential of nearly 50 years ago.
But CBD is not the only cannabinoid vying for public attention, so let’s now cut to the heart of the hemp debates – the battle of CBD vs THC.
The Difference Between CBD and THC
You may have noticed that most of the debate surrounding hemp has less to do with the plant itself and more to do with its compounds. THC and CBD have been the topic of countless discussions, and THC content is the basis for what hemp is considered “legal.”
But for all the debates, fear, and praise that these two compounds spark, many people still ask the questions, “What is CBD?” and “What is THC?” daily. And it’s about time we give those people an answer.
What is THC?
THC is the psychoactive or intoxicating compound found in cannabis. The commonly reported effects include heightened senses, a distorted perception of time, decreased motor skills, dry mouth, red eyes, paranoia, and fatigue
There are many different variants of this compound, but the most common type is Delta-9 THC. Delta-9 THC is converted from natural THC when introduced to heat (via smoking or vaping), allowing it to bind to receptors in your endocannabinoid system.
Edibles, on the other hand, produce 11-hydroxy-THC, which is much stronger and lasts much longer than Delta-9. This reason is why many THC users report feeling much “higher,” often to an uncomfortable degree, when using edibles.
Medical uses for THC are still being tested and proven, but anecdotally, THC is used to increase appetite, manage sleep issues, handle acute anxiety, and reduce inflammation.
What is CBD?
CBD is another compound that’s also found in cannabis, but unlike its cousin THC, CBD will not get you high. There is evidence suggesting that it can counteract the effects of THC, meaning that CBD could potentially be used to save those edible overeaters from a few paragraphs ago.
But just because it won’t get you high, doesn’t mean scientists aren’t rapidly unlocking its full potential. Much like THC, science and testing are quickly working to validate the benefits of CBD; however, many people are already using products made with CBD for everyday stress, pain management, and overall wellness.
What Are the Chemical Structures of CBD and THC?
CBD and THC are natural chemical elements found in cannabis, consisting of around 113 bi- and tri-cyclic compounds. They share the same molecular formula composed of 21 carbon atoms, 30 hydrogens, and two of oxygen (C21H30O2).
And their molecular mass is nearly identical, with CBD having a mass of 314.464 grams per mole (g/mol) and THC with 314.469 g/mol. By sharing the same chemical composition but having different atomic arrangements, CBD and THC are general examples of structural isomers.
The biological fusion of CBD and THC in cannabis also follows the same conversions. Both start as cannabigerolic acid (CBGA), which is the starting point of each natural phytocannabinoids. CBGA begins to cyclize into tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA) and cannabidiolic acid (CBDA) through their respective synthase.
CBD and THC are cyclic compounds because they contain one or more series of atoms connected to form a ring. Their final chemical forms develop through decarboxylation of their acidic structure; however, there is a significant structural difference between them.
A THC molecule has a closed, cyclic ring within an ester group. In contrast, CBD has an open ring with an alkene and hydroxyl group. It’s this small change in molecular structure that allows CBD and THC to have unique physiological properties.
What Are the Chemical Properties of CBD and THC?
Like many cannabinoids, CBD and THC aren’t particularly soluble in water; however, they have good solubility in organic solvents, such as alcohols and lipids. THC and CBD are inside cannabis as a mixture of acidic forms and are ready for decarboxylation and chemical alteration when heated.
THC molecules can also bind well to glass and plastics, which is why THC is usually prepared and stored in raw or organic solvents along with glassware to minimize the loss of valuable potency.
THC works as a potent partial agonist of CB1 – a cannabinoid receptor found primarily in the central nervous system with a high amount located in the brain. It stimulates the CB1 receptor, which leads to the intoxicating effects associated with marijuana cannabis.
On the other hand, CBD classifies as a negative allosteric modulator when it pertains to CB1 receptors, meaning that it can change the connector’s shape. With this alteration, it makes THC and other endogenous CB1 activators challenging to stimulate the receptor.
CBD also doesn’t stimulate or bind to CB1 receptors, so it doesn’t cause any of the psychotropic effects commonly known with THC.
How Do CBD and THC Molecules Affect Each Other?
CBD seems to modulate or restrain the intoxicating effects of THC by prohibiting its compatibility with stimulating the receptor, which is the primary reason people don’t get “high” or feel euphoria when consuming CBD-rich products in contrast to those derived from THC.
In some cases, CBD has shown a reduction in the temporarily adverse effects of THC, such as paranoia and short-term memory impairment. And some evidence implies that CBD combined with a little THC could also be beneficial without any harmful or euphoric effect.
Even with evidence suggesting positive interactions between the two cannabinoids, there is still significant resistance to combining the two mainly because of the traditional health industry’s consensus and the various hemp and cannabis laws that still divide the country.
However, the concept of “whole plant usage” is slowly gaining popularity and more supporters. It’s an idea that cannabis is best used in its most natural form, allowing several different cannabinoids and other active elements in cannabis to display combined effects – also referred to as the entourage effect.
Three Frequently Asked Questions About Hemp, CBD, and THC.
1. Does CBD Oil Have THC?
This question is one of the most common questions people ask when learning about CBD oil, and the answer is a little trickier than a simple “yes” or “no.” While industrial hemp, and therefore CBD, are legally not allowed to contain enough THC to get you high, that doesn’t mean that all CBD is entirely THC-free.
Some CBD oil products contain all of the natural cannabinoids in the hemp plant, including THC, and because they hold the “full spectrum” of cannabinoids, they are referred to as “full spectrum” products.
On the other hand, other companies produce products labeled “broad spectrum” that are said to host all cannabinoids except for THC. However, because there is no exact standard for “broad spectrum” products, there is no way to tell which cannabinoids are available in a product without looking up lab results.
But for those looking for CBD and nothing else, CBD isolate offers a pure CBD experience, free of all other cannabinoids. However, that also means missing out on what those other cannabinoids have to offer.
And while none of these options will get you high, if you’re worried about drug testing, you’re probably better off being safe than sorry.
2. Do all CBD Products Do the Same Thing?
In short, no. There are almost countless numbers of new CBD products these days. From cotton candy to shampoo to bath bombs, it’s getting hard to find something that CBD isn’t in, but many people still want to know if these wacky, new ways of taking CBD are even any different from just taking a CBD oil capsule. So let’s break it down.
Despite all the flash presentation, CBD can only be taken in three different ways – as an ingestible, a topical, or a sublingual tincture. Every weird CBD product you’ve ever seen will fit into one of these three categories. But how does each group work?
Ingestibles, or edibles, are perhaps the easiest way to take full advantage of all that CBD has to offer. They can come in the form of traditional capsules, CBD gummies, or even things like cotton candy, but they all work the same way.
Each edible product will contain a certain amount of CBD per serving, which allows you to know precisely how much CBD you are taking every time. After swallowing, the CBD makes its way to your stomach, where it is digested and absorbed into the bloodstream.
Because edible products are typically pre-measured and easy to take on the go, most people traveling with CBD oil carry edibles because they allow you to get the CBD you need without slowing down your day.
Unlike edibles, topical products are not meant to enter your bloodstream. Instead, they work at a surface level to assist with exercise recovery or to enhance skincare products. Many CBD topical products combine CBD with pain-relieving compounds like menthol and lidocaine. In these formulas, CBD provides support for the endocannabinoid system while other compounds temporarily reduce soreness.
By taking advantage of multiple support methods, these products can help everyone from athletes to accountants to stay-at-home parents get through a tough day.
Tinctures are very simple and efficient.
Tinctures are usually a mixture of CBD and a carrier oil (like MCT oil), that is either taken directly with a dropper or mixed into food.
To take a CBD oil tincture, just place a full dropper of CBD oil under your tongue, hold it there for 30-60 seconds, and swallow. Another option is to add a drop or two of your favorite CBD oil tincture to your coffee, smoothie, or nearly any dish.
Tinctures provide a quicker delivery method compared to edibles since the CBD can begin to interact with the body after 30 minutes.
3. Is CBD Federally Legal?
One of the most common questions we get asked at cbdMD is, “In what states is CBD oil legal?” And while the answer is undoubtedly less tricky than learning the difference between “full spectrum” and “broad spectrum,” it definitely requires a little explanation.
When it comes to CBD oil's legal status, just like with judging the legal status of hemp, it all comes down to THC content. While the 2018 Farm Bill federally legalized hemp and hemp-based products, not all CBD oils are made from federally legal hemp.
Thirty-three states have already begun or are creating medical marijuana programs, which means that in those 33 states, there may be “CBD Oil” that contains more than the federally sanctioned amount of THC. In the case of these oils, they are only legal in the state they were purchased in, and taking them across state lines would technically be a federal offense.
On the other hand, CBD products made with industrial hemp containing less than 0.3 percent THC are federally legal. That means it’s ok to order these products online without fear of breaking the law, and the TSA has even approved these types of CBD products to take onto airplanes so that you can travel all over.
What Do You Think About Hemp vs CBD vs THC?
We covered a lot of information in this blog about hemp, CBD, and THC, and while it would take forever to tell you literally everything there is to know about these three topics, this is a great place to start. Education has no exact finish line, so keep reading, asking questions, and searching for exactly what you need to make the most informed decisions possible.