CBD vs THC: The Difference Explained

Hemp has been around since the beginning of time, yet the presence of CBD products hasn’t struck health and wellness markets until recently. Since the early 1900s, CBD legality has been cloudy waters. Until 2018, the law didn’t recognize the primary difference between hemp and marijuana. We’re talking CBD vs THC. Understanding this contrast is why millions can now legally enjoy CBD oil benefits. Let’s take a closer look at CBD vs.THC and the differences between these two molecules.

CBD vs THC Difference


First things first. What is CBD? What is THC? Scientifically speaking, they’re shorthand names for cannabidiol (CBD) and delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Both the THC and CBD molecule are two of 113 rare compounds known to humankind as cannabinoids.

Cannabinoids are largely found in plants from the Cannabis sativa genus; although tiny amounts are also present in other plants, including cacao, cloves, and black pepper. The Cannabis family consists of a few similar-looking species, which are popularly categorized as hemp or marijuana.

To understand the significance of differentiating CBD vs THC, you must start at their source. Plants are a lot like us —living beings. Trillions of cells give plants structure, aromas, and nutrients. Much like humans, plants also share many of the same genes as other plants in their family.

Let’s take our siblings for example. We have many of the same genes. Yet, we have unique personality traits, our own interests, and interact with others differently. These differences in characteristics are much like hemp and marijuana.

Pretend you have a blonde sister. In this roleplay, you have brown hair. The reason for this difference in color is due to how much of the pigment, melanin, you both have in your follicles. The darker the hair, the more melanin. This distinguishment makes melanin one of many compounds in our system that gives each human individual traits.

What separates the siblings, hemp and marijuana, isn’t melanin. Instead, it’s their ratio of cannabinoids, namely CBD vs. THC.


cbd vs thc compound


CBD vs THC: What’s the Difference?

The significant difference in CBD vs THC is that one gets you high, while the other doesn’t. When the prohibition on cannabis began, no one was able to differentiate which plants caused a psychotropic experience and which ones didn’t. Consequently, all varieties of the Cannabis sativa plant fell under the classification of a schedule 1 controlled substance as per the Controlled Substance Act.

In the 1960s, scientists realized that there was a specific molecule in cannabis plants that was causing this psychoactive effect. That was when scientists discovered what we know now as the THC molecule. This breakthrough was when the battle lines between CBD vs THC were officially drawn.

Prior to the prohibition on cannabis, the plant was recognized in the 1850 U.S. Pharmacopeia. This record was long before we had the resources to understand why it belonged in such a text. Since prohibition a century ago, science and technology have evolved immensely. We now know a major proponent behind the therapeutic benefits of cannabis relies on the CBD molecule and how it interacts with other cannabinoids within our system.


cbd tincture dropper

CBD and THC Molecules

CBD and THC molecules are cannabinoids. The science behind cannabinoids sort of mirrors that of aromatherapy. Hemp leaves have tiny hairs called trichomes. During the extraction process, trichomes on the hemp plant are burst open, releasing aromatic oils into the atmosphere. These aromatic compounds are known as terpenes.

Studies on terpenes show that these compounds have powerful therapeutic benefits. These benefits are much in thanks to the molecules that make up the oil.  

As you know, the body reactions differently to CBD vs THC. You’d assume their molecule structures were nothing alike. Shockingly, THC and CBD molecules are nearly twinning.

They both have a chemical makeup of:

  • 21 Carbon Atoms
  • 30 Hydrogen Atoms
  • 2 Oxygen Atoms

Then how are the effects of CBD vs THC entirely different? Prepare to have your mind blown! This contrast is in thanks to the arrangement of one microscopic hydrogen atom! In the THC molecule, a hydrogen atom bonds to oxygen, while it doesn’t in the CBD molecule. Other than that one discrepancy, the two are nearly identical.

Due to this alteration, there is a slight contrast in molecular mass between the two cannabinoids. These facts might seem trivial, but they have a significant impact on comprehending how the body reacts to CBD vs THC.

A change in molecular mass means that one molecule can fit in some areas that others cannot access. Understanding this is key to knowing how CBD and THC work.

CBD vs THC: How they Work

It’s hard to picture it, but your body is home to trillions of cells, tissues, vessels, bacteria, and organs. These microscopic beings are responsible for everything from our immune response to our beauty care to our mental state of mind. That’s a lot of influence, but it takes a lot to keep us chugging along!

Our system likes when things are peaceful…in balance, so-to-speak. In science terms, the body loves it when everything is in homeostasis (balance). To accomplish this task, our anatomy has evolved to include a sophisticated line of communication known as the endocannabinoid system.


endocannabinoid system ecs

What is the Endocannabinoid System?

Our endocannabinoid system is the body’s built-in policing system. There are three major cogs in this wheel. They include:

  • Endocannabinoids
  • Metabolic Enzymes
  • Cannabinoid Receptors

The human body can produce many essential vitamins, minerals, and amino acids in time of need. The same can be said for cannabinoids. Cannabinoids made internally are called endocannabinoids.

As we mentioned, the purpose of cannabinoids is to promote homeostasis throughout the system. In moments of duress, our body will take matters into its own hands and release endocannabinoids from our fat cells.

Once any nutrient, including cannabinoids like CBD and THC, enter the system, the body needs to break it down. To meet this goal, the body relies on metabolic enzymes. These catalysts help us digest the endocannabinoids. They are also partially responsible for us experiencing the benefits of CBD oil.

While enzymes and endocannabinoids play pivotal roles in the endocannabinoid system, the biggest cog in the machine may just be our cannabinoid receptors. Let’s take a closer look at receptors and how they interact with CBD vs THC.


cb receptors

CBD vs THC and Cannabinoid Receptors

Cells give structure to all of the organs, tissues, and bones in our body. On these cells lie little alarms known as cannabinoid receptors. Cannabinoid receptors are watch-eyes over the system and make sure everything is in balance.

Cannabinoid receptors are perfectly located in areas throughout the body, therefore, they know when the surrounding area is experiencing homeostasis. However, they are also well-aware when an intruder is in town.

Receptors are the first to realize the invader is in the vicinity. Their neural tissues become stimulated by the new, unpleasant scent. Cannabinoid receptors use their axons to send negative impulses to other cells. Like a game of telephone, the word gets spread throughout the endocannabinoid system that an infiltrator is present.

When your central nervous system interprets the message, the brain will call for the release of a neurotransmitter. Neurotransmitters are messages from the mind above. They will cause you to consciously experience symptoms associated with whatever condition is causing you to seek out CBD oil benefits.

Creating uncomfortable symptoms is your mind’s way of telling you to fix the issues going on inside. These reactions are dependent on the foreign substances in your body and any pre-existing conditions you may have.

There are two types of cannabinoid receptors, aptly named CB1 and CB2. They both reside in their own areas of the body and have a different relationship with CBD vs THC. These individual relationships are what causes the benefits of CBD vs THC to differ.

Benefits of CBD vs THC

The benefits of CBD vs THC differ immensely. These contrasts are not only due to the molecular structure of these cannabinoids. Benefits also depend on the unique interaction CB1 and CB2 receptors have with these molecules. Let’s take a look at the unique response of each receptor in the presence of CBD vs THC.

CB Receptors

As you’ve probably gathered, everything in the endocannabinoid system is about balance. This mission statement is further exemplified by the roles of cannabinoid receptors within the endocannabinoid system.  

CB1 and CB2 receptors tend to hang out with their own type of receptors. This segregation allows these receptors to spread out across the body quite evenly.

Not only do the hangout spots of these cannabinoid receptors differ, but so do their taste in cannabinoids.

Let’s start with the favorite of the THC molecule, CB1.

CB1 Receptor

You can find most CB1 receptors in areas such as:

  • Around Central Nervous System
  • Brain Cells
  • Lungs
  • Liver
  • Kidneys

Remember how we noted there was a one atom difference in the CBD vs THC molecule? This variance allows THC to bind directly to the CB1 receptor. When THC binds to the CB1 receptor, it creates the psychoactive effects on the body associated with consuming marijuana.

While THC loves itself some CB1, CBD doesn’t have any influence or interest. Instead, it turns to the CB2 Receptor.

CB2 Receptor

The CB2 receptor covers a little less ground than the CB1 receptor. You will find these messenger cells in areas such as:

  • GI Tract
  • Immune/White Blood Cells
  • Spleen

While THC does bind onto CB2, this receptor is much more compatible with CBD. However, CBD doesn’t bind with the CB2 receptor as the THC molecule does with CB1.

Research indicates CBD does bind onto CB2, but binding isn’t the primary interaction between the two. Instead, CBD is privy to stimulating the neural tissues that are causing the anxious signals throughout the endocannabinoid system. Analyses suggest that as CBD stimulates the CB2 receptor, it creates a sedative-effect through the body.

Based on where CB2 receptors dwell, some CBD oil benefits include helping with:

  • Digestive Issues
  • Recovery
  • Inflammatory Responses
  • Immune System Functions
  • Over-Eating
  • Perception of Pain
  • Storage of Fat Tissue

The effects of CBD can actually counteract whatever effects THC is causing. Therefore, if you are feeling sleepy from too much exposure to the THC molecule, CBD can help re-energize you. Once again, this is the endocannabinoid system trying to promote homeostasis throughout the body.

Besides chemical composition, interaction with receptors, and effects on the body, there are more differences between CBD vs THC. The next is perhaps the most controversial.


Made by Hemp store holland mi

Legality of CBD vs THC

Hemp’s association with marijuana has negatively impacted the legality of CBD. When the War on Drugs began, all forms of cannabis were prohibited. As science and technology evolved, we learned the differences between CBD vs THC, but yet that information hasn’t quite made it to the mainstream, thus why education like this article is an important next step.

Just as we mentioned earlier, this discovery of the THC molecule can date back to the 1960s. Yet, it was until 1996 when medical cannabis first became recognized in the state of California. Still, the legality of CBD remained murky. It would continue to be that way for almost two more decades!

In 2018, Congress signed a new Farm Bill into law. Under this monumental ruling, hemp is no longer classified the same as marijuana under the Control Substance Act. The reason for the change is that hemp contains less 0.3% THC. After 2018, hemp is now under the jurisdiction of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), rather than the Justice Department.

CBD Derived from Hemp vs Marijuana

While the new Farm Bill is very promising for CBD legality, it didn’t fix all the issues just yet. In states where recreational marijuana is legal, you may be able to purchase CBD oil with the THC molecule in the formula. That’s because some companies manufacture CBD oil using marijuana.

Purchasing CBD created from marijuana is okay if you are an adult in a state that allows recreational use of this plant. It’s also legal to purchase CBD oil derived from marijuana if you have a medical cannabis card. In fact, some physicians may recommend upping the amount of THC in your CBD vs THC ratio, depending on your wellness goals.

When you are crossing state lines, CBD oil from marijuana may become a bit of an issue. If you had a medical card and purchased a product with more than 0.3% THC, make sure your card is in your wallet. However, if you’re not a patient and bought CBD oil derived from marijuana at a rec shop, you might be breaking the law when you cross state lines.  

CBD derived from hemp is legal in all 50 states. There are not enough THC cannabinoids in the formula that can cause a psychotropic experience. To ensure you are complying with federal law, make sure that the brand you choose is Farm Bill complaint.

All of the CBD oil products listed on our site are derived from hemp, Farm Bill compliant, and below .3% THC and thus will not cause any intoxicating experience.


entourage effect

CBD vs THC and the Entourage Effect

You may be asking yourself, why bother keeping the THC molecule in a formula if, to be fully legal, it can only have up to 0.3%? That’s because hemp is a plant that keeps on giving.

There’s a reason why ancient texts, The Vedas, deemed cannabis one of the top five essential plants. Long before CBD vs THC was a thing, our ancestors had a hunch that the molecules in hemp brought a wide range of relief to everyday life. Today, we can confirm that cannabinoids are the reason we experience such vast CBD oil benefits.

Studies show that cannabinoids don’t just have a unique interaction with our endocannabinoid system, but they also have a strong connection with one another as well. When it comes to hemp molecules, the sum is greater than the parts.

Research indicates that cannabinoids improve the benefits that other cannabinoids may present our body. This synergy is known in wellness circles as the entourage effect.

As we mentioned, cannabis plants have at least 113 cannabinoids in their genetic makeup. They all play a part in boosting CBD oil benefits.

Some of the most common cannabinoids include:

  • CBDa – Non-Psychotropic Precursor to CBD
  • THCa – Non-Psychotropic Precursor to THC
  • Cannabichromene (CBC) – Third Most Abundant Cannabinoid, Non-Psychotropic, Anti-Inflammatory
  • Tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCv) – Small Psychotropic Abilities, Neuroprotective Qualities
  • Cannabidivarin (CBDv) – Similar to CBD
  • Cannabinol (CBN) – Non-Psychotropic, Believed to Exhibit Appetite Suppressant, Sedative-Like Effects

These are just a handful of the 113 cannabinoids known to the Cannabis sativa family. To get the entourage effect, make sure you are purchasing a full-spectrum CBD oil and not a CBD isolate.

CBD isolates are just the CBD molecule on its own, infused into oil. While we have shown that CBD oil benefits cover a lot of ground, CBD isolate doesn’t boast the full potential CBD could reach in the presence of other cannabinoids.


[RELATED BLOG: Full Spectrum CBD, Broad Spectrum CBD, Isolate, and PCR: Decoding the Difference]


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