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  • Martha Bajec, PhD

Cannabinoid 101 – Learning the difference between CBD and THC

When most people think about cannabis, the first thing that usually comes to mind is either smoking or eating something to produce some type of high. Yet, there is so much more to the cannabis plant. It is actually very complex, containing hundreds of chemical compounds that are still being discovered and described. The compounds produced by this plant are known as cannabinoids. Given the lack of accessible consumer information and educational materials around cannabis that are both correct and free, in this blog, we are going to break down two of the most common and abundant cannabinoids: cannabidiol (CBD) and Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

Family ties- Where do these cannabinoids come from?

CBD and THC are both classified as phytocannabinoids, which, put simply, means that they are chemicals made by plants in the genus Cannabis (Cannabaceae). This precision of language is important for cannabinoids, as it distinguishes phytocannabinoids made by plants from endocannabinoids, which are made endogenously by all mammals. While CBD and THC have similar chemical structures, the two differ in how they bind with target receptors in the body and in which receptors they are able to bind. This complexity in receptor activity, coupled with the distribution of receptors through the body, ultimately results in the differential effects elicited by using either THC or CBD.

What is CBD?

“I’m a THC isomer that won’t get you high. What molecule am I?” was the query posed by the American Chemical Society when CBD was their Molecule of the Week for February 6, 2017, which remains a very appropriate description of CBD.

While a number of distinguished scientists conducted research on cannabinoids in the three decades prior, the structure of CBD was first described by cannabis pioneer and legend, Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, and his colleagues in Israel in 1963.

To dive further into the history behind cannabis, it was first reported as an anti-seizure medication in 1843 by professor and physician W.B O’Shaughnessy. He noted its remarkable efficacy in the treatment of a toddler’s recurrent convulsive seizures. Unfortunately, the emphasis was placed on the intoxicating effect of cannabis rather than its treatment of seizures, so it wasn’t until the separation of CBD from THC that CBD’s potential was truly appreciated. Just in the last decade, a number of high-quality, controlled clinical studies were conducted that provided the evidence required for the FDA (US Food & Drug Administration) to approve a CBD formulation for severe pediatric seizure disorders in 2018.

CBD was made famous in 2013 by the plight of Paige Figi and her daughter Charlotte, who suffered Dravet syndrome, a rare type of epilepsy that caused her to have more than 300 seizures a week by the age of five. The use of hemp-derived CBD dramatically reduced Charlotte’s seizure load down to just a few per month. Since then, thousands of children afflicted with intractable seizures have also found relief with ‘Charlotte’s Web’, the high CBD-producing cannabis cultivar (i.e., strain, genetics) named for the young girl whose life it first saved and whose story sparked an explosion of cannabinoid research. Charlotte’s story ignited a complete shift in paradigm and perspective of the clinical potential of cannabis.

Anecdotal and clinical evidence suggests that CBD has the potential to treat or mitigate numerous diseases and disorders besides epilepsy, including chronic pain, anxiety, insomnia, inflammation, cancer, and even COVID-19. While it might be tempting to consider CBD a miracle cure for all that ails you, it's important to be cautious in using CBD for personal health regimens. Research on CBD is still limited but based on its interactions with other drugs, including common over-the-counter medications (e.g., acetaminophen), CBD shouldn’t be considered a simple dietary supplement, but rather as a proper, and potentially prescription, medication.

What is THC?

Just a year after Mechoulam’s discovery of CBD came the discovery of THC by the same research group. Unquestionably the world’s best-known cannabinoid, THC, also called dronabinol, is the main intoxicating component of cannabis. Currently, there are only two formulations of THC, both synthetic rather than plant-derived, that are FDA-approved:

Both dronabinol products are for HIV/AIDs-induced anorexia and chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting – Marinol was first approved for this in 1985. THC is not the only cannabinoid used for addressing medical ailments. Nabilone, marketed as Cesamet, has the same indications as dronabinol but is also used off-label for the management of chronic pain.

While research on the effects of isolated THC continues, cannabis products with both THC and CBD together are used to treat spasticity and pain associated with multiple sclerosis. In fact, Sativex, an oral spray containing THC and CBD in almost equal proportions, has been approved in over 25 countries for multiple sclerosis (MS) for over a decade but is not yet approved in the US. In addition, cannabis with THC has been shown effective in relieving symptoms of both Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease, among others. Most recently, THC-containing cannabis has been suggested as a viable substitute for opioids for pain relief and mitigation of opioid withdrawal symptoms.

Key Differences

Both CBD and THC are, by definition, psychoactive and psychotropic, in that both can cause changes in brain function, psychological state, mood, and consciousness. The main experiential difference between CBD and THC is intoxication; CBD does not cause intoxication, while THC has long been widely recognized for its potent intoxicating effect or subjective feelings of being ‘euphoric’, ‘high’, or ‘stoned’. Societally, it seems the associations with using cannabis comes from either the negative associations people have of THC or the positive health halo around CBD. While these are overly generalized perceptions, there certainly is a difference between the two phytocannabinoids (the chemical compounds in cannabis).

Whether the cannabis product is inhalable (e.g., vapes, dabs, etc.), edible (e.g., foods, beverages, oils, tinctures, etc.), topical (e.g., cream, salve, bath bomb, etc.), or something else, consumers need transparency and verification on product composition from brands and producers. Consumers benefit by educating themselves with a high-level understanding of key characteristics of both CBD and THC, as provided here, to maintain their personal wellbeing and make informed choices.

If you are interested in learning more about how HCD Research can help you explore the wellness space, including cannabinoids, please contact Allison Gutkowski at



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