To understand THC vs CBD and how they affect us, you first need to understand the endocannabinoid system (ECS), which helps the body maintain functional balance through its three main components: “messenger” molecules that our bodies synthesize, the receptors these molecules bind to, and the enzymes that break them down.
But even this interaction is not entirely clear. In a February 2019 study, researchers found that low doses of CBD actually enhanced the intoxicating effects of THC, while high doses of CBD reduced the intoxicating effects of THC.
Types of cannabinoids
THC is far from the only ingredient in cannabis that has a direct impact on brain function. The most notable comparison is with cannabidiol (CBD), which is the second most abundant cannabinoid found in the cannabis plant. CBD is often touted as non-psychoactive but this is misleading since any substance that has a direct effect on the function of the brain is psychoactive. CBD most certainly creates psychoactive effects when it interacts with the brain and central nervous system, as it has very powerful anti-seizure and anti-anxiety properties.
The most abundant and well-known cannabinoid found in the cannabis plant is tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). It activates the CB1 receptor, an ECS component in the brain that governs intoxication. THC intoxication has been shown to increase blood flow to the prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain responsible for decision-making, attention, motor skills, and other executive functions. The exact nature of THC’s effects on these functions varies from person to person.
When THC cannabinoids bind to CB1 receptors, it also triggers feelings of euphoria from the brain’s reward system. Cannabis activates the brain’s reward pathway, which makes us feel good, and increases our likelihood of partaking again in the future. THC binding to CB1 receptors in the brain’s reward system is a major factor in cannabis’ ability to produce feelings of intoxication and euphoria.
The answer isn’t clear, but CBD has demonstrated the ability to moderate a high produced from THC by preventing the body from absorbing it. Some people say they use CBD when they get too high to reduce the effects. Evidence suggests CBD actually interferes with the activity of the CB1 receptor, especially in the presence of THC.
The bioavailability of CBD is greater through the lungs than through the gut. Photo by: Gina Coleman/Weedmaps
CBD vape juice, sometimes referred to as CBD vape oil, may vary in concentration depending on state-specific laws. It is legal in 30 states. Another 17 states have CBD-specific laws that enable some level of use or consumption.
Because smoking CBD involves — no shocker here — smoke inhalation, there is the risk of developing respiratory issues. Whenever you combust plant material, toxins called polyaromatic hydrocarbons form. Polyaromatic hydrocarbons exist in both tobacco and cannabis smoke and exposing yourself to those toxins is one of the risks of smoking weed.
Contrary to popular belief, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and CBD have a lot in common. They’re the most abundant cannabinoids found in cannabis plants and they both have the potential to help with anxiety. They even have the same chemical structure (the atoms are just arranged differently). The main difference between THC and CBD can be summed up in one word: intoxication.
Luckily, smoking cannabis doesn’t have the same risks as smoking cigarettes. While smoking CBD flower in excess may lead to respiratory issues (like bronchitis or, in severe cases, COPD), there has been no causal link found between smoking weed and cancer, one of the biggest risks associated with smoking cigarettes. Smoking anything, including cannabis, has potential risks.
CBD is often touted as nonpsychoactive or having no psychoactive effects, but it’s more accurately described as nonintoxicating. Why? Even though CBD won’t get you high, that subtly calm feeling you might experience after taking some CBD tincture is technically a psychoactive effect. Any substance that has a direct effect on the function of the brain is considered psychoactive. By contrast, THC can be intoxicating even at low doses.
Cannabinoids are a class of compounds that interact with receptors throughout your body. CBD is just one of dozens of cannabinoids found in cannabis, including tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is the one responsible for marijuana’s famous high. Medical cannabis is technically any cannabis product used for medicinal purposes, and these can contain THC or CBD or both, said Nick Jikomes, a neuroscientist at Leafly, a website that provides information about legal cannabis. “A common mistake people make is to think that CBD is ‘the medical cannabinoid’ and THC is ‘the recreational cannabinoid.’” That’s inaccurate, he said, because THC is a potent anti-inflammatory and can be helpful for pain.
Those warning letters aside, there’s not a lot of federal oversight right now over the claims being made or the products that are being sold. Cohen warned against buying CBD products online, because “there’s a lot of scams out there.” Yet his clinic sells CBD, and he admits, “I say ‘Don’t buy online,’ but ours is worth doing, because we know what we’re doing. We ship all over.”
As marijuana is legalized in more and more states, the wellness world has whipped itself into a frenzy over a non-intoxicating cannabis derivative called cannabidiol. CBD products can be found on the internet and in health-food stores, wellness catalogs and even bookstores. (A bookstore in downtown Boulder, Colorado, displays a case of CBD products between the cash register and the stacks of new releases.) Celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow, disgraced cyclist 1 Floyd Landis and former Denver Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer are all touting CBD products, and according to Bon Appétit, CBD-infused lattes have become “the wellness world’s new favorite drink.”
Right now, there’s a good chance that you don’t really know what you’re getting from any source. Testing and labeling rules vary by state, but many states that allow legal cannabis also require some kind of testing to verify that the THC and CBD levels listed on the label are accurate. However, this testing is controversial, and results can vary widely between labs, Jikomes said. A study published in March found measurable variations in test results, with some labs consistently reporting higher or lower levels of cannabinoids than others. There are no guarantees that the label accurately reflects what’s in the product. For a 2015 study published in JAMA, researchers tested 75 products purchased in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Seattle and found that only 17 percent were accurately labeled. More than half of the products contained significantly lower levels of cannabinoids than the label promised, and some of them contained only negligible amounts of the compounds. “We need to come up with ways to confidently verify the composition of cannabis products and make this information available to consumers,” Jikomes said.
Although there’s enticing evidence that good ol’ cannabis can ease chronic pain and possibly treat some medical conditions, whether CBD alone can deliver the same benefits remains an open question. What is clear, at this point, is that the marketing has gotten way ahead of the science.