With cannabis legalization spreading across the globe, it’s now more common than ever to hear a bunch of new science-sounding terms where once the word “pot” would’ve done just fine.
Lots of people seem to get overwhelmed at the idea of having to learn about cannabis, but the fact of the matter is that you don’t need to be a botanist to have a working knowledge of the plant’s basics. Being an educated consumer just takes staying informed, so here is some fundamental information about a foundational part of pot: what is the difference between THC and CBD?
THC and CBD Are Both Cannabinoids
Cannabis contains over a hundred cannabinoids (including THC and CBD), chemical compounds that work alongside the plant’s 200+ possible kinds of terpenes (essential oils) as the active ingredients driving both flavor and psychoactivity. Each individual plant has a varying level of these different compounds depending on a range of factors including seed strain genetics and growing conditions (the climate and soil quality, whether the plant was grown indoors or out in the sun, levels of nutrients the plant received while growing, and any other number of variables).
THC and CBD both plug into different cannabinoid receptors. They exist throughout the body of humans and many mammals, birds, fish, and reptiles to be used as the dock for the homeostasis-maintaining endocannabinoids that our bodies naturally produce. But plant cannabinoids, or phytocannabinoids, fit right in too.
What Is THC?
Tetrahydrocannabinol, known as THC, is the primary psychoactive cannabinoid contained in the cannabis plant. Because of its intoxicating effects, THC is certainly the best well-known cannabinoid and is usually the only one that most smokers really take note of. Like with any cannabinoid, THC levels can vary based on plant genetics and growth conditions.
There’s a pretty predictable variance to THC levels based on the type of product being used. The most potent dry flower registers at around 25% THC, while concentrates like waxes and oils can near 80% THC at their strongest. Edibles can vary in strength because they’re typically made using cannabis oils that can be anywhere from barely noticeable to overpoweringly strong depending on their initial strength and the amount used in the recipe.
In addition to the “high” it produces, THC can also help medical marijuana patients (or those taking pharmaceutical grade THC like the drug Dronabinol) by alleviating symptoms of nausea and easing illnesses including those resulting from certain cancers and immunity disorders. It can also ease the eye pressure felt by glaucoma patients and has long been a popular home (and now legal) treatment for the ailment. The cannabinoid has also been put forth as an anti-cancer agent and means of slowing Alzheimer’s, with a number of new studies now exploring these possibilities. There are also reportedly pending applications into the FDA to study the effects of THC on Huntington’s disease and MS.
What is CBD?
Cannabidiol (CBD) is quickly becoming just as well-known as THC, a surprising turn for the low-psychoactive, non-intoxicating cannabinoid. Even though it doesn’t produce a traditional “high,” CBD has been shown to act on the same brain receptors as benzodiazepine anxiolytics like Xanax and Klonopin, making it a popular, if experimental, alternative anxiety treatment. Its calming effect has made CBD a hip new ingredient at juice bars and across health food stores, with the cannabinoid even popping up as an expensive add-in for coffee and tea drinks at cafes.
CBD is becoming a big business these days, with significant growth projected over the next several years as the cannabinoid begins to make its way into FDA-approved medications like Epidiolex. Though the legality of CBD is contested and the cannabinoid is technically still a Schedule I federally, DEA spokespeople have made clear over the last few years that the agency has routed its priorities away from busting producers and sellers of CBD products.
The cannabinoid has been found to ease cases of otherwise treatment-resistant epilepsy. The World Health Organization announced in 2017 that it could possibly also treat everything from Alzheimer’s disease and chronic inflammation to Parkinson’s and depression.
CBD creams and tinctures are occasionally made out of industrial hemp instead of medical cannabis. Unlike medical marijuana-based CBD creams, which can contain a significant amount of THC, products made with industrial hemp tend to stay in the range of 0.1-0.3% THC.
Like with THC, CBD levels in cannabis products vary—but in this case often more because of strain genetics than growing conditions. There are certain strains like Charlotte’s Web and AC/DC that are renowned for high levels of CBD and low levels of THC, as well as some strains that have such little THC they’re considered to be “CBD-only.” Overall, high-CBD dry herb can be difficult or expensive to come by and as such most CBD aficionados stick to either vaping CBD waxes and oils or taking CBD tinctures orally.