Published on August 7, 2023

THC vs CBD Understanding the Difference

Cannabis is a complex plant with over 100 different types of chemical compounds, known as cannabinoids. Two of the most well-known and researched cannabinoids are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). While they might be sourced from the same plant, these two compounds possess distinct characteristics. In this article, we’ll dive into the scientific differences between THC and CBD and explore five reasons why they are not one and the same.

1. Molecular Structure

At the foundational level, THC and CBD have the same molecular structure: 21 carbon atoms, 30 hydrogen atoms, and 2 oxygen atoms. However, there is a slight difference in how these atoms are arranged, and this difference is responsible for the varying effects they have on the human body.

Both THC and CBD interact with the body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS), a complex cell-signaling system responsible for maintaining homeostasis in various physiological processes such as mood, sleep, and appetite. The difference in molecular arrangement means that they bind differently with the ECS receptors.

2. Psychoactive Properties

  • THC: This is the primary psychoactive compound in cannabis. It is the reason for the euphoria or the “high” that recreational cannabis users seek when using quality smoking accessories. When THC enters the bloodstream and reaches the brain, it binds with the CB1 (cannabinoid 1) receptors, leading to altered senses, changes in mood, increased appetite, and impaired cognitive functions.
  • CBD: In stark contrast, CBD doesn’t produce a “high”. It even has the potential to counteract the psychoactive properties of THC. This is because CBD has a low affinity for CB1 receptors. Instead, its primary mode of interaction is to inhibit the enzymes that break down endocannabinoids, leading to an increased presence of these naturally occurring compounds in our system.

3. Medical Benefits

Both THC and CBD offer a myriad of health benefits, but they are often used for different therapeutic purposes:

  • THC: Often prescribed for pain relief, muscle spasticity, glaucoma, insomnia, low appetite, nausea, and anxiety.
  • CBD: Popularly used for seizure disorders (such as in the case of Epidiolex, the first FDA-approved drug containing CBD), inflammatory disorders, depression, migraines, anxiety, and even certain neurodegenerative disorders.

It’s worth noting that many patients benefit from a combination of THC and CBD, particularly for pain relief and inflammation, as the compounds can work synergistically.

4. Side Effects

While both compounds are generally considered safe, they can cause different side effects:

  • THC: Due to its psychoactive properties, THC can lead to memory impairment, increased heart rate, dry mouth, red eyes, slower reaction times, and in some cases, anxiety or paranoia.
  • CBD: Side effects of CBD are rarer but can include diarrhea, appetite changes, and fatigue. Notably, it doesn’t cause the euphoria or intoxication that THC does.

5. Legal Implications

The legality of THC and CBD varies worldwide. In many parts of the U.S., THC is still illegal for recreational use but permitted for medical purposes in others. CBD, however, enjoys a more lenient status. This is primarily because of its non-psychoactive properties and proven medical benefits.

The 2018 Farm Bill in the U.S. federally legalized hemp-derived CBD (containing 0.3% THC or less). But, it’s essential to check state-specific laws, as some states have stricter regulations surrounding CBD.


Though THC and CBD are both cannabinoids derived from the cannabis plant, their interaction with our bodies, their medical benefits, side effects, and legal status are significantly different. As research continues and as societal attitudes evolve, it’s essential to understand these differences, especially if considering cannabis for medical or recreational purposes. Always consult with a healthcare provider when considering any form of cannabis treatment. Remember, knowledge is power, and being informed ensures safe and effective use.

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