Breaking Down the Real Differences Between THC and CBD
You’ve likely seen that CBD-infused nut butter lip balm at the checkout line of your local health food store. And there’s a good chance you or someone you know has been offered THC-infused gummies at some point. Let’s dive into what these acronyms mean and the difference between the two.
There are multiple health benefits that come with cannabinoids, which we’ll get into in a minute, but the beauty of CBD is that you can get some of those benefits without the intensity of a THC high -- and because hemp-derived CBD, unlike like THC, is no longer federally illegal, it’s therefore easier to get your hands on.
What’s behind the science?
THC and CBD are what are called “Cannabinoids,” which is a fancy term for a particular kind of compound in the cannabis leaf. And though they’re almost identical in chemical makeup (they consist of the same atoms), what differentiates these two compounds is simply the placement of one of those atoms. This minute alteration is what makes all the difference in terms of how your body responds to them. Chemicals and atoms may sound like science class, but in layman's terms, THC gives you the feeling of being high and CBD soothes the body.
THC, short for tetrahydrocannabinol (try saying that 10 times fast), binds to CB1 receptors in the brain, which are associated with the central nervous system and means THC has an intoxicating effect. How exactly CBD, or Cannabidiol, interacts with the brain is still trying to be understood by researchers, but they know the broad strokes: CBD seems to have more of an effect on the peripheral nervous system and is believed to have a wide range of health benefits, such as reducing pain and inflammation, without making you feel high.
“It’s important to appreciate that our bodies also produce cannabinoids,” explains Dr. Ari Mackler, Chief Scientific Officer at cannabis brand PLUS. “These are referred to as endocannabinoids.” This is why the body knows how to interact with both THC and CBD and why they’re able to influence our endocannabinoid system (ECS), which helps the body maintain the stability and equilibrium necessary to keep us alive (e.g., if you are running low on fuel, your body will make you feel hungry).
Marijuana and CBD aren’t really that different in terms of their origins. They are both, in fact, from the cannabis sativa plant. The big difference being that “hemp” has been chemically defined as cannabis sativa that contains < 0.3% THC, whereas marijuana contains any amount greater than that.
How do they make you feel?
As far as what the THC high feels like, you’ve seen it in movies or maybe you experienced it last weekend: The uncontrollable giggles, the fascination with a fidget spinner that suddenly seems like the most incredible engineering feat, the sudden binge-watching of that 24-part FDR documentary. If you had a good experience, you likely felt some combination of relaxed, giggly, hungry, as well as heightened sensations -- which is why sex can feel better while stoned. You might have also experienced the less pleasant effects, such as cottonmouth or dry eyes.
CBD, on the other hand, is known to relax you without making you feel high “and a growing body of research is associated with certain health-promoting characteristics,” Dr. Mackler says. Harvard Medical School’s health blog cites a growing body of research which has identified CBD’s special ability to mitigate inflammation and chronic pain and to treat conditions like anxiety and insomnia. A drug containing CBD, it should be noted, has even been approved by the FDA for treating particular types of epilepsy.
One thing both THC and CBD can reportedly help with is sleep. This is partly why doctors prescribe cannabis to cancer patients, whose sleep might be disrupted by their treatment or discomfort from their disease. Dr. Mackler notes that, “historically, cannabis has been used for pain relief and to promote sleep for thousands of years.” He adds: “Researchers out of Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York and the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine reported survey data that described that among respondents taking cannabis for sleep, 84% found it very or extremely helpful.”
How do you get it into your body?
There are basically three ways you can get cannabinoids into your body -- inhale them, absorb them topically, or ingest them.
Smoking THC-dominant leaf or oils, which can encapsulate anything from a poorly rolled joint to a diamond-encrusted vape pen, offers a high you’ll feel almost right away. You can also smoke CBD-dominant strains, the influence of which will be equally immediate.
Tinctures, which are absorbed into the bloodstream through the mouth, also offer a near-instant effect and a more controllable dose. It tends to be similar to smoking either THC- or CBD-dominant cannabis in terms of how you’ll feel the effects, but tinctures come without the harmful side effects that inhaling smoke does.
THC-infused drinks and foods take comparatively longer to get high on as it has to go through the digestive system and it can be harder to gauge how a dose will affect you, but the resulting high is often a lot more intense and all-consuming. And if you’re ingesting CBD edibles, the effects will also be more profound (such as lowering anxiety) than a topical would, which has the benefit of treating a specific area (such as an injury).
As far edibles are concerned, gummies and mints are two staples due to their convenience and effectiveness. PLUS offers a range of both with precision dosing and an exhaustive testing process, which, Dr. Mackler argues, provides its consumers with consistency. PLUS employs a 14-point testing system “which begins by testing all ingredients (third-party and in-house) and ends with four sequential tests for potency of the final product,” he says. PLUS CBD gummies include Balance, Sleep (containing CBD and melatonin), and Uplift (containing CBD and B vitamins).
What are the legal differences?
Here’s where things get a little tricky. Not only are there different -- and often conflicting -- state and federal laws when it comes to THC and CBD, there are numerous laws that apply to both in their various doses and forms. A total of 33 states, along with the District of Columbia, have legalized marijuana (and THC products) to varying degrees, but that’s not the case at the federal level just yet.
CBD is a different story and the 2018 Farm Bill was a major win for CBD lovers. It legalizes and protects industrial hemp production and products containing CBD, as long as they contain less than 0.3% THC. So, that CBD-infused nut butter lip balm has to be produced from hemp (as opposed to marijuana) to not be considered an illegal drug, and could potentially be sold in even those states with strict cannabis laws.