What's The Difference Between THC and CBD?

Cannabis has many contents, though none are as important as knowing the distinction between THC and CBD. Let's find out their differences.

We note that the subject contained in this article represents illegal activity in certain jurisdictions. Whilst we do not condone any acts which are contrary to any such laws, we understand that readers in those jurisdictions which have decriminalised cannabis may find this article of interest.

Learning about cannabis can often feel like being back in science class, having to learn about different compounds, different form factors, different consumption methods… there's an almost endless amount to learn about the cannabis plant and we continue to uncover more each and every day. Though if you're a consumer, the first thing you'll want to learn is the differences between THC and CBD.

Plants within the cannabis family, namely hemp and marijuana, are host to over 113 different cannabinoids, which are chemical compounds found within them that each act in a unique way and elicits a differing experiences for the user.

Though of the hundred-plus cannabinoids that exist within marijuana, two cannabinoids, in particular, have undoubtedly taken center-stage: Tetrahydrocannabinol and Cannabidiol, or as they're commonly known, THC and CBD. Let's learn a little bit more about them.

THC CBD Cannabis Industry

Same Crew, Different Compounds

For decades, scientists have been fascinated by the effects cannabis has on the human body and what causes those effects. Despite being used medicinally for over 4,000 years, cannabis' recent illegality has stifled research and slowed a deeper understanding of the plant.

Despite these hurdles and legal barriers, in 1963 and 1964, the structures and stereochemistry of both CBD and THC were both isolated by Raphael Mechoulam in his laboratory in Israel. Shortly after, Mechoulam also went on to synthesize them.

Mechoulam found that on a chemical level, CBD and THC are almost identical, with both compounds comprising of 21 carbon atoms, 30 hydrogen atoms, and two oxygen atoms. Though while the atoms are the same, they are arranged very differently in CBD and THC, giving rise to different chemical properties and thus, different effects on consumers.

Understanding the stereochemistry of both THC and CBD has enabled researchers to dig deeper into the medicinal benefits of the plant, and spurred Dr. Mechoulam to conduct a study on the potential application of CBD for the treatment of epilepsy.

The studies proved hugely successful, however, the stigma surrounding cannabis was in full effect at the time, and they made little impact. Now, when one thinks of medicinal cannabis, the most ground has been made in curing epilepsy.

Though why is it that cannabis is able to have such an effect on those suffering from certain ailments? Well, that comes down to our endocannabinoid system.

The endocannabinoid system was discovered in the late 1980s, roughly two decades after the discovery of THC in 1964.

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Upon identifying THC as the main compound within cannabis, scientists then began to explore why it had such a profound effect on people who consumed the compound and conducted studies on mice to find out.

In a 1988 study, researchers found out that mice had receptors for THC in their brains, which were then named cannabinoid receptors, or CB1 receptors. These receptors actually turned out to be one of the most abundant networks of neurotransmitters in the brain.

In 1993, a second cannabinoid receptor (CB2) was discovered, this time in the spleen of a rat. This discovery made researchers aware that cannabinoid receptors weren't just found in the brain, but rather they existed all throughout the body in a complex system.

In short, we produce our own cannabinoids, both in our brain and in our bodies, and we can somewhat supplement them with external cannabinoids such as THC and CBD to yield certain effects. Now let's look at what those effects are.

CBD – Cannabidiol

CBD, or cannabidiol, was actually discovered before THC, though this compound has only just recently started to make waves in the cannabis space. CBD's recent rise to stardom is owed almost entirely to the passsing of the 2018 Farm Bill, which federally legalized the cultivation and distribution of hemp in the U.S.

The legalization of hemp opened the floodgates for hemp-based wellness products, hemp clothing, and even hemp plastics. Though most notably, the Farm Bill allowed for the hemp-derived CBD craze to begin in earnest.

While CBD appears in marijuana, hemp plants have a much higher concentration of CBD, with only minimal amounts of THC (around 0.3%) which means users won't get high.

You can consume CBD gummies, use CBD tinctures, or put a drop of CBD into your beverages to consume the compound.

CBD use has been associated with many of the same health benefits that marijuana users enjoy like better sleep, less chronic pain, reducing inflammation, assisting with PTSD and depression.

Though most notably, CBD has made strides in improving rare forms of childhood-onset epilepsy, such as Dravet Syndrome, for which traditional medicines don't always work. As a result, GW Pharma has released 'Epidiolex,' the first CBD-based drug to receive FDA approval.

Gaining FDA approval for a CBD product represents a huge step forward for cannabis, and may help to push other cannabis medicines into the legal arena.

THC – Tetrahydrocannabinol

THC is the most commonly found compound in cannabis and is the compound that causes users to get high – without which, cannabis may never have been made illegal.

THC is found at concentrations of anywhere from 12-40% in the marijuana plant, and upwards of 90% in cannabis concentrates. Though because THC has psychoactive effects, it is still considered federally illegal and under the category of Schedule 1.

This means that if you want to get high, you'll have to go to a country or state which has legalized recreational cannabis use. In the U.S., 11 states have legalized THC for recreational use, and other countries such as Uruguay and Canada have legalized the cannabis plant in its entirety.

THC works by attaching itself to cannabinoid receptors associated with thinking, memory, pleasure, coordination and time perception. When you consume cannabis, the THC stimulates the brain to produce more dopamine, which in turn creates a euphoric effect. This euphoria is typically why recreational users will consume cannabis, and these effects can be brought on generally within an hour depending on which cannabis form factor you consume.

Though THC isn't purely euphoric, instead, the compound comes with a range of undesirable side effects, such as impaired motor control, dizzyness, fatigue and sometimes depression.

The higher the THC concentrations in a plant, the higher you'll get and the more potent the effects will be. For newer users, consuming too much THC can often lead to sickness or anxiety, and so we suggest you avoid eating too many edibles or trying concentrates until you've acclimatized to the effects of THC first.

To activate the effects of THC, you have to first decarboxylate marijuana, which otherwise would contain a compound known as THCA. Once you've heated the weed, often done through smoking or placing the buds in an oven, you'll effectively remove the barrier that prevents the THC molecule from binding with the proper receptors that cause a "high," which changes THCA into THC.

What's Left?

So those are the basic differences between THC and CBD, which should help you understand whether or not you want the subtle benefits of CBD or the more intense high of THC.

Though as we mentioned, the cannabis plant contains over a hundred compounds, and THC and CBD are only two of them. You then have terpenes, other cannabinoids like CBN, different strains, different form factors, and the various shades of legality surrounding each.

There's a lot to learn when it comes to cannabis, though it's clear that the plant is here to stay and that the benefits to using it will continue to emerge.

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Louis O'Neill
Louis O'Neill

Louis is a writer based in Sydney with a focus on social and political issues. Having interviewed local politicians and entrepreneurs, Louis now focuses on cannabis culture, legislation & reform.

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