CBD vs THC – The Chemicals Found in Cannabis and Cannabidiol

What is the actual difference between CBD and THC?

CBD is currently one of the most heated topics in the health industry. You might have heard about it while seeking medical advice from an allopathic practitioner, a holistic practitioner, your primary care physician, or a specialist. You might have also seen it from one or many web platforms and are probably curious about the diversity of health benefits associated with it.

One thing that has left many people uncertain or confused about is whether or not a CBD product should have THC.

CBD was first isolated or purified for use outside of the whole marijuana plant in 1940, but THC would not be isolated for another 24 years. This took place in 1964 by way of scientist Raphael Mechoulam.

CBD and THC are only two of the isolated 113 cannabinoids to date. CBD and THC are the most vastly known and most thoroughly researched of the bunch. They are both compounds that occur naturally in plants that fall in the cannabis genus classification, and both are called phytocannabinoids. These two phytocannabinoid compounds are known to interact with two cannabinoid receptors, known as the CB1 receptor and CB2 receptors, which are part of the endocannabinoid system. The endocannabinoid system promotes homeostasis (aka regularity) in the human body (and most mammalian species) by regulating numerous physiological and cognitive functions – such as sleep, appetite, mood, and pain regulation.

While CBD oil has been legalized in many of the United States, the component tetrahydrocannabinol (or THC) does come at the cost of several additional and differing restrictions and prohibitions.

At its most basic, the main differences between cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) are the individuality of their physiological effects. CBD is a non-psychotropic compound of the marijuana plant and therefore (CBD) does not induce a psychoactive high or impart psychoactive effect, while THC is considered a psychotropic and does possess psychoactive properties. Additionally, THC is the only compound derived from cannabis that is known to produce the atypical “high” associated with marijuana to date.

Much like CBD, THC is a cannabinoid that can be extracted from the cannabis plant, and THC does offer many health benefits – but THC also contains intoxicating and psychoactive properties which are responsible for the “high” associated with marijuana and the recreational use of the cannabis plant.

For this reason, professional athletes should take precautionary care to ensure any high CBD supplements used are free of THC so as not to violate the USADA’s anti-doping regulations. Additionally, it would also be prudent for individuals who are subject to regular drug testing to check the ingredients of supplements.

The Chemical Breakdown

Chemically, the structures of CBD and THC are quite similar. They both share an identical molecular formula: 21 carbon atoms, 30 hydrogen atoms and 2 oxygen atoms. Furthermore, the molecular mass of CBD and THC is also nearly identical, as THC has a mass of 314.469 g/mol and CBD bears a mass of 314.464 g/mol.

THC and CBD are also biosynthesized in very similar fashions. Cannabigerolic acid, or CBGA, is cycled into tetrahydrocannabinolic acid, or THCA and cannabinolic acid, or CBDA, by their own synthases. This is where the end products THC and CBD are produced by the decarboxylation (or the chemical reaction that removes a carboxyl group, thus releasing carbon dioxide) of their acidic forms, THCA and CBDA.

While the processes are incredibly similar, there remains one vital structural difference: CBD is essentially a structural isomer of THC. This means that although CBD and THC have the same chemical composition, their atoms are arranged a bit differently. There is a ring that opens and closes in chemistry. If the ring is closed, it is THC, and if the ring is open, it is CBD. The molecular structure differences between these compounds are what differentiate the two, giving each their own unique pharmacological properties.

Similar to the majority of the other cannabinoids, CBD and THC have less than ideal solubility within the water, but their solubility is greater than that of many organic solvents – especially alcohols and lipids.

Both CBD and THC are found in the cannabis plant in a melding of acidic forms that are readily decarboxylated and are altered chemically upon interaction with heat. This is an important detail considering the most popular form of cannabis consumption is smoking and vaporizing – as the heating of cannabis can ultimately cause damage to its medicinal components, such as the beneficial component, terpenes.

TCH is also notorious for binding to plastic and glass, so good quality THC products are generally stored in organic solvents (such as alcohol tinctures or carrier oils such as coconut oil and hemp oil). They may also be stored within glassware made of amber silicate in order to avoid the leaching of components and loss of medicinal value, especially during testing and analytical procedures.

Understanding How THC Induces a “High”

Some basic information for starters: CB1 is a cannabinoid receptor made of G proteins, which is located mostly in the peripheral and central nervous system and is particularly abundant in the brain.  It makes up a portion of the body’s endocannabinoid system and is activated by endogenous neurotransmitters as well as compounds that are naturally occurring, such as the phytocannabinoids that are found in cannabis.

THC is a partial antagonist of CB1 (and potent, at that), thereby stimulating the CB1 receptors and leading to the hallucinatory effects that cannabis is known for. Meanwhile, CBD is considered to be a “negative allosteric modulator” of CB1, which means it changes the CB1 receptor’s shape. This makes it increasingly trying for CB1 agonists, such as THC, to offer any stimulation to the receptor. Furthermore, CBD is not capable of stimulating or binding to CB1, which may be another reason that it fails to bear the hallucinatory effects that are associated with marijuana use.

How CBD and THC interact with each other

By interacting with the CB1 receptors, CBD is assumed to inflect the psychoactive properties of THC by constraining tetrahydrocannabinol’s ability to connect to (and therefore its ability to stimulate) the CB1 receptors. CBD has also been shown to reduce a portion of the potential negative side effects of THC by minimizing paranoia, anxiety, and short-term impairment of memory that is commonly experienced when using cannabis or cannabis products that deliver THC above 0.3%. It is suggested that CBD-rich products with minimal THC (below the regulated 0.3%) can offer benefits that are therapeutic without the presence of dysphoric or euphoric reactions.

Medical Use of CBD and THC

Cannabis has been used medicinally for thousands of years, even dating back to China in the year 100 AD. It was recorded for being used as an anesthetic by mixing a powdered form of the plant with wine and being administered prior to surgery. Interestingly, the Chinese term for “anesthesia” literally means “cannabis intoxication.”  It is also thought that Chinese pharmacists obtained Cannabis Indica rather than Cannabis sativa. Indica strains are generally believed to be physically sedating, whereas Sativa strains tend to illicit a more invigorating and uplifting effect – the terpenes in cannabis tend to play a large role in what its effects are, whether uplifting or sedating.

Due to modern restrictions and regulations, modern research on cannabis as a medicinal component, while vast, is still considered to be limited. As cannabis is legalized more and more, research potential for cannabis and its medical qualities and medical uses grows greater.

The World Health Organization published a 2017 pre-review report, providing a recent summary of the potential and current clinical use of CBD. The evidence unequivocally shows that CBD could be indicated for the treatment of some forms of epilepsy, including Dravet’s Syndrome, which is a complex disorder found in children and is associated with a high rate of mortality as well as high drug-resistant seizures.

CBD has also effectively been shown to be consistently beneficial for its neuroprotective, antipsychotic, anti-inflammatory, anxiolytic, analgesic, anti-tumor and anti-asthmatic properties. This evidence is based on clinical, pre-clinical and anecdotal evidence alike.

The World Health Organization also states that CBD may be of benefit to those who have Parkinson’s, Huntington’s and Alzheimer’s  disease in addition to Multiple Sclerosis anxiety, depression, psychosis, cancer, chronic pain and many other conditions.

Medically, CBD and THC offer different benefits, largely due to their slightly different medicinal properties.

CBD tends to be better utilized as a calming supplement and offers benefits such as:

  • Anti-seizure
  • Reducing pre-existing inflammation or anti-inflammatory
  • Analgesic
  • Anti-tumor effects
  • Antipsychotic
  • Treatment of inflammatory bowel disease
  • Treatment of depression

THC tends to be useful for an array of conditions, such as:

  • Use as an analgesic
  • Treating, reducing and/or preventing nausea
  • An appetite stimulant
  • Reducing symptoms of glaucoma
  • Aiding sleep and treating insomnia
  • Treatment of Anxiety and anti-anxiety benefits
  • Reducing muscle spasms and muscular spasticity

What are Terpenes?

If you are familiar with the concept of utilizing aromatherapy to relax or to invigorate (for mind and body), then you already are familiar with terpenes on a basic level! Terpenes are aromatic compounds that are commonly produced by plants and fruit. They can be found in peppers, oranges, lavender flowers, hops and cannabis, to name a few. The terpenes in Cannabis are secreted by the same glands that secrete CBD and THC, and they are what cause Cannabis to release scents reminiscent of citrus, pine, berries, fuel, and more.

Similar to diffusing essential oils in a vapor diffuser, the terpenes (or terpenoids) in cannabis can promote feelings of calmness, relaxation and even drowsiness. They can also stimulate energetic and more euphoric reactions – it all comes down to what terpenes are being used. For example, the terpene pinene has an alerting effect, whilst linalool has more relaxing and sedating properties.

It is important to note that trains of Indica or Sativa do not specifically determine the aromas and effects of the terpenes they produce, though some strains tend to offer more consistency than others.

Side Effects of THC and CBD

Some of the common adverse effects of cannabis as marijuana and cannabis with high concentrations of THC include:

  • Changes in visual perception
  • Decreased sperm count
  • Slowed pupillary response to light
  • Dry mouth
  • Reduced coordination
  • Dysphoria
  • Altered sense of time
  • Dizziness
  • Anxiety

THC can cause temporary side effects, such as:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Dry mouth
  • Red eyes
  • Poor coordination
  • Slowed reaction times
  • Temporary memory loss

While neither compound is fatal, high THC may be contraindicated for long term use as it has been known to elicit negative psychiatric effects (with long term use). This is especially true for adolescents as the effect of high concentrations of THC is more profound in teens, increasing the risk for psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia.

CBD, on the other hand, is well-tolerated, even in large doses. Research indicates that any side effects associated with CBD use are more likely the result of the drug to drug interactions between CBD and other medicines that an individual is taking. Always consult your primary physician or naturopath to ensure that CBD is compliant and not contraindicated with your current supplement and/or pharmaceutical regimen.

Hemp vs Marijuana

Marijuana is defined, in the United States, as any Cannabis sativa plant that has a percentage of THC greater than 0.3%. THC, as addressed earlier, is the primary compound in cannabis that delivers psychoactive properties.

Hemp plants, on the other hand, are defined as any cannabis plant containing 0.3% or less of THC. This classification is strict, as a plant containing even 0.4% of THC is automatically classified as a marijuana plant – even despite the fact that the percentage would still be low enough to deliver little to no psychoactive effects.

Cannabis and Marijuana: Legality

Unfortunately, despite its revealed medicinal qualities, the use, sale and possession of cannabis and CBD products containing concentrations greater than 0.3% THC is illegal in the United States, under federal law (even despite individual state laws). As ruled by the Federal Controlled Substances Act of 1970, cannabis containing concentrations higher than 0.3% THC is considered to have “no accepted medical use” and is at risk of a higher potential for abuse, physical dependence and psychological dependence. Some individual states have enacted legislation that permits exemptions for medicinal, industrial and recreational use.

Prior to the 1930s, no stigma or rules were inferred against cannabis and its use for any reason. It was commonly used for the production of cloth and products – such as clothing, paper and rope – as well as herbal medicine and a recreational drug. Later in 1937, cannabis was placed under legal restriction and in 1970 found itself ruled illegal under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970.

In the Farm Bill of 2014, hemp was defined as plants with 0.3% or less of THC and was made legal for the purposes of industrial growth and research.

In 2018, under the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, hemp was made legal in all fifty states, and with that legality, the production and popularity of hemp-derived CBD oil accelerated rapidly.

The growth of cannabis for industrial use (specifically with hemp) was made illegal if grown without a permit under the Controlled Substances Act due to its relation to cannabis as a drug (marijuana), and thereby all imported products are required to adhere to a zero-tolerance policy abiding therewith. The Agricultural Act of 2014 allows for state-level departments and universities to cultivate cannabis for research purposes; to better determine its industrial potential.

All of that aside, cannabis continues to find extensive favor as a psychoactive drug amongst recreational and medical users in the United States. As of 2019, the recreational use of cannabis has been legalized in eleven U.S. states, two U.S. territories, as well as the District of Columbia. Meanwhile, the medicinal use of cannabis has been legalized in thirty-three U.S. states, four U.S. territories and D.C.

There have been several failed efforts to reschedule cannabis under the Controlled Substances Act, and the United States Supreme Court even ruled that the federal government reserves the right to regulate and criminalize cannabis and its use – whether recreational or medicinal. As a result of this ruling, cannabis dispensaries are licensed individually  by the state as well as any businesses that are state-licensed to sell products that have not been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Although the FDA has not approved cannabis due to legal risk, the FDA does recognize [cannabis and marijuana’s] potential benefits and has approved two drugs that contain components of marijuana.

Ultimately, it is strongly recommended that any individual considering usage of CBD, THC medical marijuana, and similar products should look into the laws in their state of residence before acquiring, using and consuming products that contain CBD or THC, regardless of whether the product is for medical purposes or for recreational use. Furthermore, any individual considering incorporating cannabis into their healthcare or recreational routine should consult with a healthcare provider to ensure that it does not interact poorly with any pre-existing medical conditions.

All in all, THC and CBD both have been shown to offer health benefits and both have been used for centuries and research continues to unveil their benefits and any associated risks further.

Susan Lindeman

Susan is a young mother and writer, passionate about cooking and blogging. She makes CBD-infused foods, like cookies and candies, to help her cope with anxiety and perform her daily tasks better.
Susan Lindeman

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