Unless you’ve been living under a rock your whole life, you probably first heard the acronym THC a long time ago. That’s because it stands for tetrahydrocannabinol, the chemical responsible for marijuana’s euphoric high. It might not have been until recent years, however, that you’ve heard of another three-letter acronym derived from the cannabis plant: CBD.
CBD stands for cannabidiol, and products containing the compound have been exploding in popularity as of late. That newfound fame owes a lot to the long list of reported health benefits associated with CBD oil. But what is CBD, exactly? And what makes this new cannabis kid on the block so different from medical marijuana and THC?
Despite CBD’s relative anonymity until recent times, both CBD and THC were first identified as individual components of the cannabis plant all the way back in 1940. More specifically, the pair were grouped together under a class of compounds called cannabinoids.
Like most botanical compounds not essential to the growth and metabolism of a plant, cannabinoids are believed to have evolved as natural pesticides and environmental defense mechanisms. And like all cannabinoids, CBD and THC affect the body’s endocannabinoid system, interacting with specialized receptors that control the way your brain transmits messages between your body’s cells.
It’s long been known that both CBD and THC share the same molecular formula, C21H30O2. In layman’s terms, that means simply that both compounds contain 21 carbon atoms, 30 hydrogen atoms, and 2 oxygen atoms. But because of variations in the way these atoms are arranged between CBD and THC, these two cannabinoids end up having very different effects in the human body.
Both CBD and THC can be absorbed by the body in a number of similarly inventive ways. Either compound can be inhaled as a smoke or vapor, consumed in edible food products, swallowed as a supplement, or ingested in liquid form. It’s only after the chemicals are in your system that the differences really kick in:
Virtually all varieties of cannabis contain some CBD and some THC, but they tend to show up in varying proportions among different strains.
While marijuana boasts relatively high levels of THC, industrial hemp plants, by definition, only contain the compound in extremely low amounts. Instead, since CBD and THC naturally occur in inverse proportions, low-THC hemp tends to be jam-packed with high amounts of CBD—the non-psychoactive, therapeutic cousin to THC.
Both CBD and THC can be packaged and sold to consumers in a wide range of forms. From raw flower and edible gummies, to liquid tinctures and topical ointments, there are products available to meet every palette. Beyond this similar variety in forms, however, CBD and THC products have very different purposes.
As you can see from this brief comparison of CBD and THC, though the two compounds share some overlap, their profiles are truly distinct and they are often used for very different purposes.
Remember to seek the advice of a medical professional before using cannabis products of any kind. And since laws regulating cannabis and its byproducts vary widely across the U.S., be sure to research your state’s laws on hemp, CBD, and marijuana before purchasing or using these products.
The chart below breaks down some of the most widely reported medicinal benefits of CBD compared to THC:
|Psychoactive?||Non-psychoactive; well-tolerated by most individuals, including children||Strongly psychoactive; may cause side unwanted side effects, such as paranoia; not for use by minors|
Inflmmatory conditions, like inflmmatory bowel syndrome
Depression & anxiety
Low appetite (especially related to serious wasting diseases, like cancer)