THC and CBD: How They Differ and Why They Matter

Despite resistance from the FDA and other government agencies around the world, research into the medicinal properties of cannabis is increasing. Marijuana is an extremely complex plant, and this may be part of the problem. Some authorities worry that some of the plant’s hundreds of chemicals could cause effects in the body that aren’t well understood. Others, such as CNN’s chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta, M.D., have begun to endorse the plant avidly. The plant’s two most well-known substances, THC and CBD, have well-documented effects, most of which are positive.

Why the Distinction Matters

Cannabis is composed of over 500 active chemicals. The related chemicals THC and CBD get most of the press because they’re the most psychoactive. As research into marijuana progresses, other chemicals may come into the spotlight. For now, though, cannabis connoisseurs and growers focus on THC and CBD because they each provide beneficial effects and because they can each be emphasized or minimized in individual strains according to the grower’s needs.

Generally, strains high in THC are favored among enthusiasts. Strains that are high in CBD are used primarily for medicinal purposes. When pot was made illegal in the US, smokers went from dealer to dealer, sampling stock until they found a source that could provide a consistent, powerful high. Dealers noticed this and sought to produce the strongest strains possible. This is why most strains are higher in THC than CBD.


THC is short for tetrahydrocannabinol, and it is a powerful psychoactive chemical. As you likely know, THC is the component in cannabis that produces the sense of euphoria the plant is so well-known for. Researches around the world have long studied THC to determine how it affects the body. They’ve found that the chemical has an immediate effect on the brain, not all of which is positive. As such, you should carefully test your tolerance for the drug before you move to higher doses. THC can temporarily lessen your brain’s ability to recall short term memories, and it can—rarely—produce feelings of anxiety in those unaccustomed to it. Recent research has suggested that as an individual gains a tolerance to the drug’s effects, these negative side-effects become less severe.

THC affects the brain by binding to cannabinoid receptors. As it activates these receptors, it effectively takes the place of the body’s own hormones, stimulating certain areas of the brain when they would otherwise remain dormant. The most prominent effect of this activation is the general feeling of well-being that occurs after a dose of THC is administered. This high can last for quite some time. Such euphoria is typically generated when the brain releases endorphins during times of heightened emotional response or brisk exercise. The response that THC elicits, however, is much stronger, and it can take unsuspecting tokers by surprise.

THC’s role in the body isn’t straightforward. Recent research has found that the chemical can also play a positive role in treating symptoms of anorexia and asthma. The first of these should come as no surprise to even the casual cannabis smoker: the plant has been known for its effects on appetite for generations. THC can produce a strong desire to eat, which can prove potentially life saving to those who suffer from extreme anorexia. Studies on THC’s effect in asthmatics date all the way back to the 1970s, which examined the chemical’s effect on sudden attacks. THC at doses as low as 2% have been shown to elicit an effect in the body that mimics those obtained by common bronchodilator drugs such as isoprenaline and salbutamol. Oral ingestion is recommended in this case, however, as cannabis smoke can irritate the lungs of sensitive individuals. High-THC strains include Head Cheese, Matt’s OG, Super Lemon Haze, Larry OG, Boost, Strawberry Cough and Dawg’s Waltz.


CBD, or cannabidiol, is the driving force of the medical marijuana revolution. The chemical has been found to provide anti-anxiety, anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties. Where legal, cancer patients are often prescribed strains high in CBD to help manage the pain associated with late-stage cancer. Many patients prefer the drug over morphine because it allows them to remain clear-headed in their final days. These strains, including the famous strain Charlotte’s Web, are often so low in THC that they don’t produce a buzz.

The chemical has also shown incredible promise in treating the symptoms of diseases such as multiple sclerosis, PTSD and Crohn’s disease. In fact, a multitude of drugs have been derived from high-CBD strains, such as Sativex, which slows the progression of multiple sclerosis. Others include Dronabinol, which counters nausea in cancer patients and CT-3, which is a strong anti-inflammatory.

The property that CBD is most famous for is its ability to counter the severe seizures associated with Dravet Syndrome, an extreme version of epilepsy. This illness can result in death in otherwise healthy children. Many parents with children suffering from this condition have packed up their lives and moved to states where CBD oil is an established and legal treatment. In a surprising turn of events, Utah, well-known for its conservative stance on most issues, has legalized the use of high-CBD strains for the treatment of Dravets syndrome.

Marijuana is among the most feared and loathed plants known to man. Yet as researchers delve deeper into its complex chemical makeup, they routinely come to the conclusion that the plant has a lot to offer. Time will tell, however, how long it takes for the governments of the world to catch up.