CBD and THC are two of many cannabinoids present in the cannabis plant. Although they have similar structures, they interact with different receptors. As such, only THC causes the high people associate with cannabis.

Cannabinoids refer to substances in the cannabis, or Cannabis sativa, plant. Besides cannabidiol (CBD) and delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), researchers have identified more than 100 other cannabinoids that can influence the human body. Potential uses of these cannabinoids can include treating the following:

Though CBD and THC interact with the endocannabinoid system, there have some important differences. Notably, unlike THC, CBD lacks the psychoactive effects that many people may associate with the characteristic high of cannabis.

This article explains more about the differences between CBD and THC.

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Despite having different pharmacological effects, both CBD and THC share a similar chemical structure. They both contain 21 carbon atoms, 30 hydrogen atoms, and 2 oxygen atoms. However, a slight difference in how the atoms are arranged accounts for the difference between CBD and THC.

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Both CBD and THC are naturally present in cannabis plants. However, different species of these plants may contain varying levels of cannabinoids. For example, when a person takes a CBD dominant version of medical cannabis, they are using CBD from hemp, which is a specific variety of the Cannabis sativa plant.

The main difference between hemp and other cannabis plants is their amount of THC. The 2018 Farm Bill considers C. sativa plants with less than 0.3% THC as hemp. Other strains will typically contain more THC and less CBD. A 2016 analysis notes that the average potency of cannabis plants rose from roughly 4% in 1995 to 12% in 2014. From 2001–2014, the average CBD levels decreased from 0.28% to less than 0.15%.

Learn more about hemp CBD vs. cannabis CBD here.

CBD and THC have similar effects on treating medical conditions. However, there is some variation in the uses of each substance.

People typically use CBD to help treat the following:

THC has potential uses in treating some of the following:

  • glaucoma
  • muscle spasticity
  • low appetite
  • insomnia

People may use either to help treat:

  • pain
  • anxiety
  • nausea

There are very few side effects with either CBD or THC.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), CBD is generally safe and does not appear to have abuse potential or the ability to cause harm. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) adds that potential side effects are likely the result of interactions with other medications a person may be taking. It may also have some impact on the liver and male fertility.

A person consuming THC may experience some temporary side effects. These can include:

  • dry mouth
  • red eyes
  • slower than average response times
  • a general feeling of being high
  • memory loss
  • issues with coordination
  • increased heart rate

Teenagers, in particular, may experience adverse psychiatric effects from getting high. This may be because a teenager’s brain is still developing. According to some research, regular or large doses of THC may be a catalyst for schizophrenia in some people with a genetic predisposition or strong family history of the condition.

Read on to learn more about whether cannabis can trigger schizophrenia and if CBD oil can help treat schizophrenia.

Neither CBD nor THC has any apparent side effects that are serious. Neither can be fatal when taken correctly. Also, people who use THC recreationally appear to have little risk of developing an addiction.

The following table summarizes some differences between these two cannabinoids.

Is illegalno — see paragraph belowyes — see paragraph below
Produces a highnoyes
Interacts with endocannabinoid systemyesyes
Has side effectssomepsychoactive side effects
Shows on drug testpossiblyyes
Relieves painyesyes
Reduces nauseayesyes
Eases migraineyesyes
Reduces anxietyyesyes
Eases depressionyesno
Decreases seizuresyesno
Is anti-inflammatoryyesyes
Helps with insomniayesyes
Helps with psychosisyesno
Increases appetitenoyes
Is used for various other conditionsyesyes

Both CBD and THC are naturally present in cannabis plants. Many people choose to smoke or vape cannabis, but this may not be possible for people with certain conditions. Instead, people can also purchase many different products that contain these cannabinoids.

CBD is available in a variety of forms. These include:

THC can also come in different forms, including:

  • smokable products
  • oils
  • tinctures
  • edibles, such as brownies

Many states in North America have approved of people having at least limited use of medical cannabis. Each state varies slightly on how they define and regulate the legal use, prescription, or sale of cannabis. There is no federal law allowing the legal use of medical cannabis. As a result, it is illegal to use or prescribe medical cannabis in any state that does not have a law allowing people to do so.

Several states have approved the use of cannabis for recreational purposes. As with medical cannabis, recreational usage is not legal federally.

A person should research the laws in their state before acquiring medical cannabis. If the state does not explicitly allow its use, a person could face legal issues for obtaining or using cannabis for medical or any other purpose.

Laws surrounding the use of medical and recreational cannabis are changing rapidly. A person who is considering using CBD or THC should check their local laws regularly as they may change or be changing.

Is CBD legal?The 2018 Farm Bill removed hemp from the legal definition of marijuana in the Controlled Substances Act. This made some hemp-derived CBD products with less than 0.3% THC federally legal. However, CBD products containing more than 0.3% THC still fall under the legal definition of marijuana, making them federally illegal but legal under some state laws. Be sure to check state laws, especially when traveling. Also, keep in mind that the FDA has not approved nonprescription CBD products, and some products may be inaccurately labeled.

Despite both being cannabinoids, CBD and THC interact with slightly different cannabinoid receptors in a person’s brain.

Evidence notes that THC can bind to the main cannabinoid receptors as it has a similar chemical structure to anandamide. This chemical belongs to a group of cannabinoids that the body naturally produces, known as endogenous cannabinoids or endocannabinoids. Due to this structural similarity, THC is able to interact with these receptors and cause the high people associate with using cannabis recreationally.

Unlike THC, CBD does not create the high sensation that people associate with cannabis use. Experts are not exactly sure how CBD interacts with receptors but believe it binds differently to THC. Instead, CBD may increase the effects of other cannabinoids or binds to other receptors that researchers have not yet discovered.