What’s the Difference Between CBD and THC?

close-up of a cannabis plant with a budding flower

Cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) are the two most abundant cannabinoids that occur naturally in the Cannabis sativa plant. Both substances interact with and influence endocannabinoids and their receptors spread throughout the brain and body as part of your body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS). Each has its unique characteristics, but the most well-known characteristic of THC is that it is intoxicating, while CBD is non-intoxicating. They also differ in terms of legal status. THC products from marijuana are classified as a schedule 1 drug, while CBD products with less than 0.3% of THC are federally legal in all 50 U.S. states. 


Cannabidiol is present in both agricultural hemp and the cannabis plant. CBD has a similar molecular makeup as THC but with the atoms arranged in a different matter, accounting for the slight variances between CBD and THC. This slight variance is what causes THC to have intoxicating or psychoactive properties. Both cannabinoids have an effect on the body’s endocannabinoid system. 

CBD differs from THC in that it does not bind to your body’s endocannabinoid receptors in the same way as THC does. Instead, CBD works as an inhibitor that slows down the natural process of your body breaking down anandamide (the body’s “bliss molecule”). Having an adequate amount (or even an abundance) of the bliss molecule helps the body maintain a state of homeostasis or balance. The beneficial balancing effects of CBD can be felt as the body reaches a state of prolonged homeostasis.

In addition to its balancing properties, CBD has an effect on the brain’s neurotransmitters but is not psychoactive in the same way as THC. THC binds directly to the body’s cannabinoid receptors and stimulates them, causing psychotropic effects, or the feeling of an altered state. CBD does not bind directly to these same receptors.

Entourage Effect

A full-spectrum CBD product that contains trace amounts of THC (0.3% or less) has been shown to have greater therapeutic value than either compound on its own. This is known as the “entourage effect.” In addition to the two primary cannabinoids CBD and THC, a full-spectrum product will also contain beneficial terpenes, flavonoids, fatty acids, and essential vitamins that work together to enhance the effects of CBD. A full-spectrum product will not make a user feel “high” due to the low amounts of THC and because CBD modulates THC’s ability to induce a psychoactive high. This allows the user to still receive the benefits of THC’s effect on the endocannabinoid system, but without the negative psychoactive effects.  

The Legality of CBD vs. THC

When the Farm Bill of 2018 came into effect, it classified CBD products derived from hemp as federally legal, as long as it does not contain more than 0.3% percent THC. Even though CBD derived from hemp has obtained federal legal status, some states have imposed legal restrictions on the possession of CBD. It’s best to check your state laws to see where your state lands on the matter. 

Conversely, THC in amounts of over 0.3% is considered federally illegal. Like CBD, a variety of states have passed state laws decriminalizing medical and recreational use of cannabis, though technically it remains federally illegal. 

As attitudes regarding cannabis-derived products continue to evolve towards acceptance, the ongoing legality of CBD appears to remain hopeful. The CBD “Green Rush” has garnered enough public interest in the past few years alone, that it shows no signs of slowing down any time soon.


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