CBD vs. THC: Benefits, Side Effects, Legality

CBD and THC are the two most abundant cannabinoids found in varieties of cannabis, but how much do you know about them? There’s a lot of information swimming about in the great internet ocean — some true, some false. 

So, let’s set the record straight once and for all. In this article, I’m going to guide you through the similarities and differences between cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), as well as showing you what both can do for your mind and body. 

CBD vs. THC: Similarities and differences

ComparisonCBDTHC
Compound structure:
Intoxicating?NoYes
Psychoactive?YesYes
Interacts with your ECS?YesYes
Helps with:Anxiety, inflammation, pain relief, IBS, chronic painSleep and sleep-related disorders, nausea, glaucoma
Used recreationally?NoYes
Short term effects:Subtle effectsEuphoria, anxiety, paranoia
Long term side effects:None documentedDependency, lower IQ, psychosis
Federally legal?YesNo
Shows up on drug test?NoYes
Sold online?YesNo

Cannabidiol (CBD):

  • Non-intoxicating but psychoactive — does alter brain functionality and mood without a high (you don’t get stoned)
  • Interacts with your endocannabinoid system (ECS) — doesn’t effectively bind to either receptor; targets other receptor sites instead
  • Anti-anxiety, antipsychotic, inflammation, pain relief, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), chronic pain
  • Commonly consumed in hemp-derived CBD oils, CBD capsules, and CBD edibles. Additionally, vaporizing CBD vape juice or applying CBD topicals to the skin are also popular delivery methods as well
  • Not a recreational drug — doesn’t give you a heavy “buzz”, nor does it impair your thinking or judgment 
  • Short-term side-effects are oftentimes mild and subtle — again, no heavy buzz. No long-term CBD side-effects are documented. 
  • Molecular pharmacology is very similar; phytocannabinoid structure is slightly different (pictured)
  • Hemp-derived CBD is federally legal (47 states at the State level) 50 states — marijuana-derived CBD isn’t
  • Won’t show up on a drug test

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC):

  • Intoxicating and psychoactive — alters brain functionality with a high (you get stoned)
  • Interacts with your endocannabinoid system (ECS) — attaches to cannabinoid receptor type 1 and cannabinoid receptor type 2 
  • Sleep and sleep-related disorders, anti-nausea & vomiting, glaucoma 
  • Marijuana-derived products can be smoked (marijuana flower), vaped (THC vape juice), eaten (THC chocolate/gummies), and consumed sublingually/orally (THC tinctures/oils) 
  • A recreational drug — does provide not only a “buzz” but a “high” capable of psychological and cognitive impairment (thinking, mood, memory, etc)
  • Short-terms side effects include euphoria, anxiety, paranoia. Long-term side-effects include dependency, lower IQ, psychosis. 
  • THC is federally illegal and classified a schedule 1 drug — some states allow the use of THC (marijuana) medicinally and/or recreationally 
  • Will show up on a drug test

CBD vs. THC: Effects on your mind and body

One of the main reasons why CBD is preferred over THC is its lack of intoxicating effects. You won’t feel high or on the moon after consuming CBD — no mental impairment, no loss of inhibitions, and certainly no lack of reasoned judgment. 

THC, on the other hand, is definitely an intoxicating cannabinoid. You will get high after consumption. How? It directly binds to your cannabinoid receptors: cannabinoid receptor type 1 (CB1) and cannabinoid receptor 2 (CB2). Its affinity with CB1 is what causes the high.

Research indicates a significant increase of blood flow in the prefrontal cortex after THC consumption, resulting in an equally significant change to your decision making, problem solving, and self-control (amongst other executive brain functions).

CBD and THC also differ in terms of how it affects your memory and memory recall. A 2010 study explored the cognitive effects of daily cannabis use. The researchers discovered users who frequently consumed CBD-rich marijuana had better memory recall than those who consumed THC-rich marijuana (with lower amounts of CBD).  

Therefore, CBD may prevent cognitive impairment caused by THC. 

CBD vs. THC: Medical benefits

THC and CBD are the two most researched cannabinoids found in varieties of cannabis. Over the past 40-50 years, thousands of research papers and studies have been published. 

As cannabis prohibition continues to relax, more and more compelling studies are underway. Very exciting times in the cannabis industry, for sure. 

Because of this, we are now seeing how both these cannabinoids can be used in the medical field. CBD, for example, is used in Epidiolex, an FDA-approved cannabis drug to combat symptoms of rare epilepsy. 

Similarly, THC (alongside CBD) is used in another FDA-approved cannabis oral spray called Sativex. This spray is designed for patients with multiple sclerosis (MS) to help combat muscle and joint stiffness/inflammation caused by the disease. 

Comparison of medical benefits

CBDTHC
Anti-seizure, anti-epilepticInsomnia
Anti-nausea and sicknessAnti-nausea & vomiting
Beneficial for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)Glaucoma 
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)Arthritis 
Anxiety and anxiety-related disordersLow-appetite caused by a range of illnesses such as HIV, cancer, metabolic conditions, and heart disease
Chronic pain – CBD may have the ability to soothe arthritic pain, neuropathic pain, and fibroglycemiaChronic pain – THC may reduce pain sensitivity by interacting with cannabinoid receptors in areas of the brain, namely the amygdala

CBD vs. THC: Recreational benefits

THC is a recreational drug. It causes intoxication and does impair your thinking, judgment, and memory. Not only do you get a “buzz” from consuming THC and THC products, you also experience a pretty whopping high for a few hours. 

Most users believe THC consumption is a social enhancer. Some marijuana strains and marijuana-derived products induce talkativeness, clearer thinking, and reduced inhibitions, which leads to more confidence and social comfort. Other marijuana strains and marijuana-derived products can produce relaxing qualities where users feel more at peace.

CBD, on the other hand, isn’t a recreational drug per se. It causes no intoxication, nor does it impair your thinking, judgment, or memory, and it certainly doesn’t give you any form of head “buzz”. 

Instead, CBD’s recreational benefit (if you even want to call it that) is determined by its balancing and soothing qualities, making it potentially effective for reducing anxiety, stress, inflammation, and pain.

CBD’s short-term side effects are subtle and mild

CBD’s side-effects aren’t severe, nor are they life-threatening. The World Health Organization has labeled CBD as safe, fit for human consumption, and without addictive potential or evidence of harm. In other words, you’re not suddenly going to have a heart attack, stroke, or get violently sick from consuming CBD. You also can’t overdose on it either. 

The short and long-term side-effects of cannabidiol are as follows:

Short-term side effects of CBD use:

  • Dry mouth — also affects the throat 
  • Appetite changes — can reduce appetite (whereas THC increases it)
  • Fatigue 
  • Drowsiness
  • Diarrhea 
  • Nausea (extreme cases)

Long-term side effects of CBD use:

Long-term side-effects of CBD use is still somewhat unknown. Researchers and cannabis experts believe more needs to be done in order to understand how CBD will affect you over a long period of time. 

THC’s side effects are more pronounced 

Short-term side effects of THC use:

  • Red, puffy, bloodshot eyes (usually one of the first signs of a THC high)
  • Impaired short-term memory — conversations can be tricky here; you often forget what you want to say or what the other person has said
  • Impaired motor function — be careful of your balance and hand-eye coordination
  • Impaired thinking and reasoning — anxiousness, nervousness, and paranoia can rear its ugly head, especially when the high really kicks in and you don’t know how to handle it
  • Impaired mood — lethargy is the main problem for most but, again, anxiousness can make you upset, scared, or defensive
  • In high doses, paranoia and psychosis — this is rare but can happen

Long-term side effects of THC use:

  • Marijuana addiction isn’t a myth. It’s a fairly common side-effect of long-term consumption. An overall 9% of marijuana users become addicted — 17% begin in adolescence and 20-25% are daily users. 
  • Long-term marijuana use can cause chronic bronchitis — symptoms include frequent coughing, wheezing, chest tightness, and shortness of breath 
  • Increased risk of chronic psychosis disorders (including schizophrenia) in persons with a predisposition to such disorders
  • Some research suggests diminished IQ — a loss of 6 to 8 IQ points on average from long-term marijuana use

CBD and THC have the same chemical structures

Despite CBD and THC having completely different effects on your mind and body, they actually have the exact same chemical structure made up of 21 carbon atoms, 30 hydrogen atoms, and 2 oxygen atoms — or, put simply, C21H30O2

How is this even possible?

It’s not so much to do with the amount of atoms in their chemical structures; it’s more to do with the atoms being arranged differently. 

CBD indirectly interacts with endocannabinoid system

CBD is an interesting cannabinoid insofar as its interaction with your endocannabinoid system (ECS), specifically the cannabinoid receptors.

It’s believed CBD doesn’t actually bind that well with either cannabinoid receptor type 1 (CB1) or cannabinoid receptor type 2 (CB2). 

Instead, CBD interacts with these receptors in a different, perhaps more indirect way. You see, CBD is a cannabinoid receptor modifier. It has the ability to change the receptor’s size and shape without directly binding to it (at least that’s what current research suggests).  

This receptor modification means it may reduce the effects of THC (memory loss, intoxication, anxiety, etc).

So, if CBD doesn’t have much of an affinity with either cannabinoid receptor, where does it go instead?

Well, it targets other receptor sites in your body, namely serotonin receptors (5-HT1A) at high doses, vanilloid receptors (TRPV1), orphan receptors (GPR55), and nuclear receptors (PPARS). 

Receptor typeWhat happens when CBD interacts with this receptor?
Serotonin receptor (5-HT1A)Produces anti-anxiety effects
Vanilloid receptor (TRPV1)Promotes pain-relief and pain-management
Orphan receptor (GPR55)When activated, GPR55 is known to proliferate cancer cells. CBD is a GPR55 antagonist, which means it has the potential to inhibit the growth of cancer cells.
Nuclear receptor (PPARS)Anti-cancer effect — may help reduce tumor progression

THC directly interacts with endocannabinoid system

THC’s affinity with both your cannabinoid receptors is well-documented. It’s believed THC is a full-agonist of CB1 and a partial agonist of CB2. 

CB1 agonism is particularly noteworthy here. Why? Because CB1 receptors are found all throughout many parts of the brain* such as:

  • Amygdala 
  • Brain stem
  • Hippocampus
  • Neocortex
  • Nucleus accumbens

THC’s active binding to CB1 receptor sites in the brain causes various different mind and body effects.

For example, CB1 activation in the neocortex results in impaired judgment and thinking. Similarly, CB1 activation in the amygdala can produce panic, paranoia, and anxiety effects. 

*CB2 expression in the brain is significantly lower than CB1, though it’s enhanced under inflammatory conditions. THC, therefore, could be a potent anti-inflammatory when consumed.

THC’s effects on each of your brain’s structures:

Below is a comprehensive outline of the effects THC has on each region of the brain. 

Brain structureWhere in the brain is it found?What does this brain structure help regulate?Resulting effects of THC
AmygdalaNear the hippocampus in the frontal area of the temporal lobePerception of various emotions: anger, sadness, fearAnxiety, paranoia, panic
Basal ganglia (basal nuclei) At the base of the forebrain (connected to the cerebral cortex and brainstem)Voluntary motor movement, learning, eye movementReduced reaction time, hand-eye coordination, etc
Brain stem At the base of the brain between numerous brain structuresA number of basic physiological functions — heart rate, breathing, eating, sleeping. Also sends messages between the brain and spinal column Potential antiemetic effects — studies on animals are yet to be 100% conclusive 
Cerebellum In the “hindbrain” region near the brainstem Voluntary movements: posture, balance, speech, coordination, overall muscular activity  Impaired/reduced coordination. May be a factor in cannabis addiction
HippocampusUnder the cerebral cortex (connected to the amygdala)Learning and memory (learning and retaining new information)Reduced memory (short-term and potentially long-term) and cognitive impairment
Hypothalamus In the central region (links the central nervous system with the endocrine)Plays a major role in the body’s internal physiological balance (otherwise known as homeostasis) — regulates and/or inhibits blood pressure, body temperature, appetite, etc Increased appetite (munchies!), possible change in sexual behavior (reproduction, etc)
Neocortex Part of the cerebral cortex (makes up 70% of the entire brain). Whole range of regulatory processes: sensory perception, conscious thinking, reasoning, language processing, etc Impaired thinking and judgment 
Nucleus accumbens Located in the basal forebrain (part of the basal ganglia) Vital part of motivation and reward (acts upon dopamine and serotonin neurotransmitters)Produces the famous THC euphoria
Spinal cordThe spinal cord extends all the way from the lower brain region down to the lower back — follows alongside the spineOf of the main purposes of the spinal cord is sending information to and from the bodyMay reduce pain sensitivity (in patients with back/spinal cord injury)

CBD vs. THC: Which is more effective for common conditions?

Combine THC and CBD for pain & inflammation

  • There’s not much evidence suggesting either THC or CBD alone are effective for treating pain, pain-related conditions, or inflammation. However, when combined, they’re a potent tag-team. 
  • Speaking with Creaky Joints, Dr. Angela D. Bryan, a Ph.D. professor of psychology and neuroscience, believes CBD’s anti-inflammatory properties alongside THC’s ability to alter pain-perception make them a fantastic duo. 
  • The high associated with THC (alongside the euphoric effects it has on the mind and body) certainly helps me with pain perception. It feels as though my mind is able to forget about the pain I’m experiencing, at least partially. 

Use CBD for anxiety and anxiety-related symptoms

  • On the whole, THC is known to be anxiety-inducing, while CBD is widely known to be soothing and relaxing. However, THC in low doses may be effective for anxiety
  • In high doses, however, THC can cause anxiety and anxiety-related symptoms, as well as paranoia and over-alertness.
  • Interestingly, CBD’s ability to modify CB1 receptors may reduce the high associated with THC, thus decreasing the likelihood of anxiety, stress, and paranoia. In fact, a 1992 study showed CBD’s ability to reduce THC-induced anxiety symptoms. 
  • In 2011, a study showed CBD’s capacity to reduce anxiety symptoms in people with social phobia. The participants were asked to give a speech to a room of people — administration of CBD reduced negative self-evaluation. 

Consume THC for heavier sedation; consume CBD for mild sedation (sleep and sleep-related symptoms)

  • THC and CBD can be used as sleep aids (combined or separately) for anyone suffering from insomnia, sleep disturbances, or any other sleep-related disorder.
  • THC’s power lies in its sedative qualities, especially when it activates CB1 receptors in the hypothalamus (the part of your brain that regulates sleep). This can help you fall asleep quite quickly — there can be some grogginess when you wake up, though. 
  • Human studies show THC’s potential to combat sleep apnea, causing a 32% reduction in symptoms. Only 17 people were studied, however. We’d like to see more clinical studies to further prove this phenomenon. 
  • CBD, on the other hand, is only mildly sedating, even in higher doses. However, high-CBD cannabis strains (hemp or marijuana-derived) contain a large percentage of myrcene, a terpene known to induce sleep. Choose high-CBD hemp or marijuana strains such as Dancehall, Harlequin, and Remedy are useful here. 
  • Using CBD for sleep won’t cause grogginess or residual fatigue when you wake up — this is one of the true benefits. 

CBD is more effective for epilepsy and seizures

  • CBD has shown itself to be superior to THC for treating epilepsy-induced seizures. 
  • Epidiolex, the first FDA-approved cannabis medicine for epilepsy, contains only CBD (no THC present). This medicine is primarily used to treat Lennox-Gastaut syndrome (LGS) and Dravet syndrome (DS)
  • However, one study suggests THC may be better than CBD for epilepsy and epilepsy-induced seizures. 
  • Researchers at the University of Sydney looked into 51 illicit cannabis extracts used by Australian families across the country to treat epilepsy. Most of the extracts tested contained more THC than CBD. Three-quarters of participants said the extracts helped reduce symptoms and over half said they were able to reduce their normal epilepsy medicine. 
  • I would personally still vouch for CBD as a more effective treatment, but don’t count THC out just yet.

CBD vs. THC: Legality

Under the Agriculture Improvement Act, which was signed back in 2018, hemp and hemp-derived CBD products are federally legal in all 50 states. Sounds too good to be true, right? That’s because it is.

CBD, unfortunately, isn’t legal across all US states. Why? Because state law can contradict federal law.

There are 47 states allowing some form of CBD (medicinal, recreational, hemp-derived, marijuana-derived, etc) — 34 of these states have fully legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes and 11 (12 including D.C.) have legalized it for recreational use as well. 

So, what about the 3 other remaining states? 

Well, Idaho, Nebraska, and South Dakota have made all forms of cannabis illegal — you can’t buy CBD oils or capsules, and you certainly can’t buy any marijuana or marijuana-derived products. 

However, South Dakota has legislation to push forth legalized hemp growth, production, and transportation in the state. Nothing is concrete as of yet but I’ll keep you updated when the time comes. Nebraska only allows cannabis research and, therefore, remains practically illegal for the general public. Idaho doesn’t allow cannabis at all (not even for research).

CBD doesn’t show up on a drug test; THC does

CBD alone doesn’t show up on a drug test; THC does. If you’ve consumed a high level of THC, it’s guaranteed to result in a positive reading. 

What about full-spectrum CBD products with <0.3% THC?

Highly unlikely to fail a drug test with such a low amount of THC, though there have been reports of users causing false-positive readings. 

If you have a drug test coming up, stay away from marijuana and marijuana-derived products. They generally have high levels of THC (up to 35% but usually 10-15% on average).

Here’s how long THC stays in your body…

Hair – at least 60 days

Urine – at least 70 days

Blood – at least 7 days

Saliva – at least 7 days

The amount of THC needed in your body for it to be detectable is as follows…

Hair – No cutoff limit

Urine  – 50 nanograms per milliliter 

Blood  – 1, 2, and 5 nanograms per milliliter

Saliva – 4 nanograms per milliliter

Side note: You should always expect THC to be detectable for 60 days irrespective of whether you’re a heavy user or not. If you’re a beginner, you may pass it much earlier but don’t always count on that. The best way to pass a drug test is to not consume cannabis at all. 


Common myths surrounding CBD and THC

Anyone new to the world of cannabis and cannabis-related products will inevitably find the distinction between CBD and THC confusing — both terms are used so commonly without explanation. 

Let’s take a look at some of the myths surrounding THC and CBD.

Myth #1: CBD and THC cause a high

This might sound obvious to all you cannabis connoisseurs, but CBD and THC cause very different effects on your mind and body. 

The first thing you should know (above all else) is THC is the chemical compound in varieties of cannabis responsible for the high. If you consume enough THC (5%-35%), you’ll be zonked out of your skull, especially if you’ve never consumed it before and your tolerance is low. 

CBD, on the other hand, doesn’t cause a high despite being exactly the same as THC on a molecular level. 

Myth #2: Too much THC can kill you

This myth is the funniest of them all. I’ve personally heard people say too much THC can cause heart attacks, strokes, permanent paralysis, and sudden death. This just isn’t true. THC consumption will not kill you, no matter how much you consume.

THC can, however, make you feel close to death. The anxiety, nervousness, paranoia, and negative feelings associated with over-consumption can be very scary. This is why I also recommend not being an idiot. If you’re a beginner, keep the THC low and the CBD high — a 20:1 CBD/THC ratio will break you in quite nicely — Ringo’s Gift or Harle-Tsu, for example. 

Myth #3: THC is for stoners

No. No. No.

THC isn’t just “for stoners” — in fact, it’s a very beneficial cannabinoid worthy of a little more respect than that. As we discovered in more detail above, THC has many potential health benefits still being discovered. 

CBD or THC: Deciding what’s right for you?

Are you looking to get high?

This is the first question you should really be asking yourself — after all, CBD and THC affect your mind and body very differently. 

If you’re looking to get high, you really need to think about your tolerance. Are you a newbie? If so, that’s OK. Start small. Start slow. A 20:1 cannabis tincture or cannabis capsule is just what the doctor ordered. The high-CBD, low-THC extracts will guarantee a buzz without an astronomical high. 

If you’re not looking to get buzzed or astronomically high, you need to focus your attention on hemp-derived CBD products — you’ll only find <0.3% THC in full-spectrum products (0% THC in broad-spectrum or isolate products). Full-spectrum products will not cause a high even with trace amounts of THC. Broad-spectrum and isolate products certainly won’t either.

What is your budget?

It’s no secret: cannabis-derived products (with or without THC) can be expensive. An 1800mg hemp-derived full-spectrum CBD oil, for example, can cost upwards of $200. This, of course, is premium CBD oil created with love, care, and attention alongside organic, all-natural ingredients (with clever bits of marketing thrown in).   

However, not all cannabis-derived products blow holes in your bank account. There are some really awesome budget-friendly ones with an equal amount of love, care, and attention. You just have to know where to look. 

Note on pricing:

There’s a common misconception that THC-rich products are more expensive than CBD-rich products (or vice versa). This really isn’t the case. There are so many variables at play:

  • Product quality
  • Strength and potency 
  • Ingredients used
  • Extraction method
  • Hemp source

If the product quality is sound, the strength and potency is higher than 250-500mg, and the ingredients used in the formula are organic and all-natural, you’re more than likely going to pay top dollar. There’s no escaping this. 

If the CBD oil extraction method is sub-critical, mid-critical, or supercritical CO2, you’re (again) going to pay a little extra. These types of extraction are expensive. Only premium brands with enough money behind them can afford this and will add this to the cost of the product. 

Companies & products we recommend to you

Budget-friendly hemp-derived CBD products we recommend:

Are you purchasing hemp or marijuana-derived products for a specific ailment? 

While it would be unethical for me to recommend products for a specific health problem, I can guide you toward one based on the studies we looked at earlier. 

On a personal level, I would use THC-rich products (THC flower, THC concentrates, and high-THC oils) for pain and pain-related symptoms. These aren’t suitable for beginners though — the THC content is usually pretty high, unless you get a high-CBD, low-THC flower or a 1:1 CBD/THC cannabis oil derived from marijuana. 

For sleep, I personally suggest full-spectrum hemp-derived CBD oils in conjunction with melatonin. I genuinely get an amazing night’s sleep if I mix the two. All you need is one melatonin tablet and two/three drops of full-spectrum CBD oil. If oils aren’t your thing, melatonin-infused full-spectrum CBD capsules are your next best thing. Completely odorless and flavorless. Slow-absorbing as well. 

If I’m going through a stress-induced anxiety episode, I stay away from THC altogether, unless (again) I purchase a high-CBD, low-THC flower. What I do instead is simply consume a hemp-derived broad-spectrum CBD oil — no THC but still has all the beneficial cannabinoids, terpenes, flavonoids, and other plant compounds. 

Do you know what to look for when choosing a cannabis product or company?

Knowing what to look for when choosing a cannabis product and/or company is important. You don’t want the disappointment of purchasing a useless product from a shady company. It’s not only a waste of your time and hard-earned money, but it’s also harmful to your health, especially if you choose a less than average product carrying disproportionate numbers of contaminants.

For more information about what to look out for when buying cannabis and cannabis-related products, ready my CBD buyer’s guide. I’ve compiled a comprehensive, in-depth guide on everything you need to know about purchasing cannabis and cannabis-related products.