Clearing the Haze: Understanding the Difference Between CBD and THC

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is one of the most well-known and prominent cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant. It is the psychoactive compound responsible for the "high" or euphoric feeling that people experience when consuming cannabis. Here's a breakdown of some key aspects of THC:

Chemical Structure

THC has a similar molecular structure to cannabidiol (CBD), another major cannabinoid, but the two compounds have different psychoactive effects. THC binds with the cannabinoid 1 (CB1) receptors in the brain, producing a high, while CBD has a much weaker binding affinity.

Medical Uses

THC has been used for various medicinal purposes, including pain relief, nausea control, and appetite stimulation. It is an active ingredient in medications like Marinol and Cesamet, which are used to treat conditions like chemotherapy-induced nausea and AIDS-related weight loss.

Legal Status

The legal status of THC varies by jurisdiction. In some U.S. states and other countries, it is legal for both medical and recreational use, while in others, it remains illegal. It's important to be aware of the laws in your area regarding THC.

Potential Side Effects

While many people use THC for its psychoactive effects, it can also have side effects like dry mouth, red eyes, increased heart rate, coordination issues, and short-term memory loss.

Forms of Consumption

THC can be consumed in various forms, including:

  • Smoking: Marijuana flowers or "buds"
  • Vaping: THC oil
  • Edibles: Foods infused with THC
  • Tinctures: Liquid extracts
  • Topicals: Creams and balms for skin application


While both THC and CBD are cannabinoids, they have different effects on the body. THC is psychoactive, meaning it will get you "high," whereas CBD is non-psychoactive and is often used for its potential therapeutic benefits without the high.

Understanding THC is crucial for anyone interested in cannabis, whether for medical or recreational purposes. Always consult with healthcare providers and follow local laws when considering the use of THC.


Concentrations of THC in cannabis

When THC is exposed to air, it degrades into cannabinol, a cannabinoid that has its own psychological effects. THC concentration also depends on the cultivation of the marijuana plant, known scientifically as Cannabis sativa L.

A type of cannabis that has a minimal amount of THC, as low as 0.5 percent, is hemp, according to the North American Industrial Hemp Council. Hemp is used for industrial and medical purposes.

Some strains of cannabis can have as little as 0.3 percent THC by weight. In other strains, THC makes up 20 percent of the weight in a sample. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that the average THC concentration in marijuana is 1 to 5 percent; in hashish, it is 5 to 15 percent, and in hashish oil, it averages 20 percent. THC in recreational doses of marijuana is highly variable and the lower the THC content in the marijuana, the more the user must consume to produce the desired effects. 

What is CBD?

CBD is one of the many active chemicals in cannabis. This compound affects every human organ, from your brain and heart to your skin. It also has many medical uses, including as an anti-inflammatory and stress-relieving substance.

CBD is remarkably like chemicals produced by our bodies, a special kind of neurotransmitter called endocannabinoids. These chemicals play a key role in regulating the body’s biological processes. CBD’s similarity to these neurotransmitters is why it has so many effects on our bodies. 

Does CBD have psychoactive properties?

Yes. Psychoactive substances are anything that affect your brain and your whole mood. Clinical trials have found that high doses of CBD can lower anxiety. CBD also causes greater sleepiness, according to several studies. These mental effects mean that CBD is a psychoactive substance. 

But CBD is not an intoxicating substance. Intoxicating substances affect your decision-making and ability to control your movements. Think about what happens when someone drinks a lot of alcohol. That loss of control is considered intoxication. CBD does not have these intoxicating qualities. It also does not have a risk for substance misuse. And it doesn’t get you high (more on this next).

Can CBD get you high?

No. To understand why CBD does not get you high, some things need to be explained about your brain — specifically your brain receptors. Brain receptors act like light switches for your nervous system. When they are activated, they can turn bodily functions on or off. 

A brain receptor called the cannabinoid one receptor (CB1) is a major reason for the difference in how different cannabis products affect you. If the CB1 receptor is activated, that causes a “high.” 

CBD does not activate the CB1 receptor directly. This means CBD can’t deliver the “high” feeling that is commonly associated with other cannabis products. 

But tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) gets you high by partially activating the CB1 receptor. 

How does CBD differ from THC?

Of the more than one hundred different active compounds produced by the cannabis plant, CBD and THC are the two most common. Both THC and CBD activate receptors inside your central nervous system. 

But as explained above, these two chemicals have very different effects. 

Effects on the Body 

When it comes to the effects on the body, CBD and THC couldn't be more different. THC stimulates appetite, reduces nausea, and can help with pain relief. It's often used for recreational purposes or for medicinal use in states where it's legal. However, it can also cause anxiety, paranoia, and impaired memory, especially in higher doses or for those who are more sensitive. 

CBD, on the other hand, has a more calming effect on the body. It can help reduce anxiety, promote relaxation, and has anti-inflammatory properties. Many people use CBD as a natural remedy for various ailments, such as chronic pain, insomnia, and even epilepsy. It's important to note that CBD is not a cure-all, but it can be a valuable addition to your wellness routine.

Effects on the brain

The most obvious difference between CBD and THC is how they affect your mind. Consuming THC gives you euphoric and intoxicating feelings commonly referred to as “getting high.” But CBD will not get you high.

Effects on the heart

THC also raises your heart rate and can cause anxiety. But CBD has the opposite effects. It lowers anxiety and has not been shown to raise your heart rate — even at high doses.

What are the effects of CBD?

CBD has many different effects on the human body and brain. In fact, CBD affects every organ, and scientists are still discovering new ways it interacts with our physiology. 

Here are the known effects of CBD on the body:

  • Relieves pain

  • Decreases inflammation  

  • Reduces anxiety 

  • Heightens sleepiness (at high doses)

  • Limits certain types of seizures

  • Counteracts the effects of THC

And even though it won’t get you high, that’s not to say CBD is free of risk. CBD can still cause other mental and physical side effects, including:

  • Diarrhea

  • Nausea

  • Drowsiness or sleepiness

  • Low appetite

  • Irritability

  • Agitation

The Entourage Effect: What about the effects of CBD with THC?

While CBD and THC have their own individual effects, they can also work together synergistically in what's known as the entourage effect. The entourage effect suggests that the combination of various cannabinoids, terpenes, and other compounds found in the cannabis plant can enhance their therapeutic benefits. 

For example, CBD can help mitigate some of the negative side effects of THC, such as anxiety and paranoia. On the other hand, THC can enhance the pain-relieving effects of CBD. This is why some people prefer to use full-spectrum CBD products that contain a range of cannabinoids, rather than isolated CBD. 

It’s important to know that THC changes how CBD affects your body. That’s because these two cannabinoids interact with each other. And, since many medical cannabis products have both compounds, understanding how THC and CBD work together can help you control how you use them: 

  • THC and CBD combined may be more effective than CBD alone. There’s new evidence that medical cannabis may be more effective when it has both THC and CBD. For example, THC can boost the pain-fighting effects of CBD. Healthcare providers who specialize in cannabis often recommend combining THC with CBD if CBD is not an effective treatment by itself. 

  • CBD may counteract the intoxicating effects of THC. There’s growing evidence that CBD might lower THC’s psychoactive strength. Scientists have found that CBD makes THC less effective at activating the CB1 receptor. Consuming CBD with THC might be one way to avoid the negative feelings associated with getting high. 

Do the effects of CBD differ depending on the form it comes in?

The effects of CBD change depending on how you consume the substance. CBD is available in many forms, including topical creams, smokeable dried herbs, and vape pens. It’s also in CBD-infused foods and concentrated CBD oils. Each of these product types change how fast you feel CBD’s effects and how long those effects last.

Let’s review the forms that CBD comes in.


These are lotions, creams, or ointments that contain CBD. Topical CBD products are very unlikely to give you any mental effects. This is because CBD absorbs very slowly into your bloodstream through your skin.

Smoking or vaporizing

Smoking or vaporizing CBD will have a quicker effect than eating CBD-infused foods or swallowing CBD oil. Inhaled or smoked CBD is quickly absorbed into your bloodstream through your lungs. This delivers the peak dose of CBD to your body within a few minutes of inhalation. Smoking or vaping dried CBD flowers could also lead to stronger psychoactive effects if you consume large amounts of cannabis that have small amounts of THC.

Edibles or oils

Eating CBD-infused foods or oils will take much longer to have an effect on your body compared to inhaling the substance. This is because the CBD must pass through your digestive system and then your liver before it is available to your body. This leads to a delay of up to 2 hours before the CBD reaches its peak absorption in your bloodstream.

CBD distillate 

People looking to completely avoid the intoxicating properties of cannabis should look for products made with “distillate CBD.” This refers to CBD that has been purified to remove all other active ingredients. This includes trace amounts of THC that could be psychoactive if taken in large enough doses.

What are some risks of taking CBD?

CBD is safe for most people, but it’s not risk free. In addition to the possible side effects mentioned above, here are some other potential risks to keep in mind: 

  • Interactions with medications: CBD is unsafe when combined with some pharmaceutical medications, like warfarin (Coumadin), a popular blood thinner. There’s also evidence that using CBD with acetaminophen (Tylenol) can raise the risk of liver damage. Talk with your healthcare provider before consuming CBD if you’re taking any medications. 

  • Interactions with alcohol: Mixing alcohol with CBD is still poorly understood by scientists. The FDA warns that people can become very sedated while drinking alcohol and taking CBD. Despite this warning, other scientists have stated that they do not know how alcohol interacts with CBD. And there’s new evidence that CBD may lower blood alcohol levels and the harms of alcohol misuse.

There’s also some evidence that long-term CBD use may be linked to liver problems, smaller testicles, and poor sperm quality. It also might be harmful to babies and children. So do not use CBD if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding


Another important distinction between CBD and THC is their legality. While THC is still classified as a Schedule I substance in many countries, including the United States, CBD derived from hemp is legal under certain conditions. In 2018, the Farm Bill legalized the cultivation and sale of hemp-derived CBD products if they contain less than 0.3% THC. 

Keep in mind that cannabis is legal in some states for recreational and/or medicinal use, but not in others. Cannabis is still illegal under federal law. Before you use cannabis products, find out the laws in your state. Always make sure you're buying from a reputable source and that the product has been tested for quality and potency.

Choosing the Right Product 

Now that you understand the difference between CBD and THC, it's time to choose the right product for your needs. If you're looking for relaxation, stress relief, or help with sleep, a CBD-dominant product may be your best bet. On the other hand, if you're seeking pain relief or a euphoric experience, a THC-dominant product might be more suitable. 

When shopping for CBD or THC products, keep in mind that there are various forms available, including oils, edibles, topicals, and even smokable flowers. Consider your personal preferences, lifestyle, and desired effects when deciding.

Conclusion: A Clearer Path

Now that you have a better understanding of the difference between CBD and THC, you can navigate the world of cannabis with confidence. Whether you're looking to relax, relieve pain, or simply explore the benefits of cannabinoids, there's a product out there for you.
Remember to start low and go slow when trying new products, especially if you're new to cannabis. Everyone reacts differently, and it's important to find the right dose and product that works for you. And always consult with a healthcare professional if you have any concerns or questions.
So, let's clear the haze and embrace the world of CBD and THC. Whether you're looking for a calming CBD oil or a euphoric THC experience, there's something for everyone. Happy exploring!

If you or someone you know struggles with substance use, help is available. Call SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) to learn about resources in your area.



Argueta, D. A., et al. (2020). A balanced approach for cannabidiol use in chronic pain. Frontiers in Pharmacology.

Arzimanoglou, A., et al. (2020). Epilepsy and cannabidiol: A guide to treatment. Epileptic Disorders.

Conclusion: A Clearer Path 

Now that you have a better understanding of the difference between CBD and THC, you can navigate the world of cannabis with confidence. Whether you're looking to relax, relieve pain, or simply explore the benefits of cannabinoids, there's a product out there for you. 

Remember to start low and go slow when trying new products, especially if you're new to cannabis. Everyone reacts differently, and it's important to find the right dose and product that works for you. And always consult with a healthcare professional if you have any concerns or questions. 

So, let's clear the haze and embrace the world of CBD and THC. Whether you're looking for a calming CBD oil or a euphoric THC experience, there's something for everyone. Happy exploring!  

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