Here's your guide to all things cannabis, including THC vs CBD, the difference between marijuana and hemp plants, and what cannabinoids really are. Does CBD work only when combined with THC? Find out how THC and CBD work individually and when combined with other cannabinoids in this article.
What’s the Difference Between CBD, THC, Cannabis, Marijuana, and Hemp?
Your primer on all things cannabis, including how to make the most of the therapeutic benefits with or without the high.
Cannabis is still one of the buzziest wellness trends out there and it continues to gain momentum. Once associated with bongs and hacky sacks, cannabis has made its way into mainstream natural medicine — and for good reason. Research shows that cannabis has proved useful in helping with a series of neurological and mental health illnesses including epilepsy, schizophrenia, depression, and anxiety to name a few. It has also gained recognition for its pain relieving properties and has helped people with neuropathic pain as well as those will illnesses like arthritis. Not only that but pre-clinical trials have also proved its efficacy in preventing the spread of cancer.
CBD is hands down the most popular component of this herbal remedy. Largely because CBD doesn’t have a psychoactive component, which appeals to a range of enthusiasts — including those who aren’t trying to get high or who might have adverse reactions to THC (more on that later).
If you’re a CBD or THC rookie (and these acronyms are totally throwing you off), don’t worry: We’ve got a primer. Here are the basics. No bong required.
Cannabinoids (the compounds in cannabis plants)
Depending on the type of cannabinoid, it’s either a chemical compound in a plant or a neurotransmitter in your body (part of the endocannabinoid system).
“A cannabis plant has over 100 components,” says Perry Solomon, M.D., anesthesiologist, and former chief medical officer of HelloMD. “The primary [components] that people talk about are the active cannabinoids in the plant, known as phytocannabinoids. The other cannabinoids are endocannabinoids, which exist in your body.”
Yes, you have a system in your body to interact with cannabis! “The phytocannabinoids you’re used to hearing about are CBD and THC,” adds Dr. Solomon. Now let’s get to those.
CBD (short for “cannabidiol”)
A compound (phytocannabinoid) found in cannabis plants.
CBD is what touts the aforementioned benefits associated with mental health, neurological diseases, and other illnesses. The best part? It’s not addictive like some prescription medications can be.
The CBD compound can be put into oils and tinctures for sublingual (under-the-tongue) delivery, as well as in gummies, candies, and beverages for consumption. Looking for faster relief? Try vaporizing the oil. Some patients find that topical CBD products can provide anti-inflammatory relief for skin ailments — and there are studies that verify these claims.
“People are looking to use cannabis for medicinal purposes, but don’t want to experience high or psychoactive effect,” says Dr. Solomon. He did mention that CBD can be more effective when used with THC (more on that later). But on its own, it touts bonafide healing properties. (Here’s a full list of CBD’s proven health benefits.)
That being said, it does not work for everyone. Factors like your age, lifestyle, gender, and overall health will have an impact on how your body metabolites the compound. It’s also worth noting that CBD is not regulated by the FDA, which means there are no official dosage recommendations. So it’s important to talk to your doctor before adding any kind of medication into your regimen, including natural, plant-based medicines. (See: Your Natural Supplements Could Be Messing with Your Prescription Meds)
THC (short for tetrahydrocannabinol)
A compound (phytocannabinoid) found in cannabis plants, THC is known to treat a number of maladies and to be exceptionally effective. And yes, this is the stuff that gets you high.
“THC is commonly known and is helpful for pain relief, anxiety control, appetite stimulation, and insomnia,” says Dr. Tishler. “However, we’ve learned that THC does not work alone. Many of those chemical [compounds in marijuana] work together to produce the desired results. This is called the entourage effect.”
For example, CBD, though helpful on its own, works best with THC. Indeed, studies show the synergy of the compounds found in the entire plant deliver enhanced therapeutic effects versus when they’re used solo. While CBD is often used as an isolated extract, THC is more frequently used for therapy in its whole flower state (and not extracted).
“Start low and go slow” is the term you’ll hear from many doctors when it comes to medicinal THC. Because it’s a psychoactive compound, it can cause feelings of euphoria, a head high, and in some patients, anxiety. “Everyone’s reaction to THC is variable,” says Dr. Solomon. “A tiny bit of THC for one patient won’t make them feel anything, but another patient could have the same amount and have a psychoactive response.”
Laws are continuing to change but, currently, THC is legal (regardless of medical necessity) in 17 states. In 37 additional states, you can use THC with a doctor’s prescription. (Here’s a full map of every state’s cannabis rules.)
Cannabis (the umbrella term for marijuana or hemp)
A family (genus, if you want to get technical) of plants, comprising both marijuana plants and hemp plants, among others.
You’ll often hear a doctor use the term cannabis in lieu of more casual terms like pot, weed, etc. Using the term cannabis also potentially creates a softer barrier to entry for those who have been a bit apprehensive when it comes to using marijuana or hemp as part of a wellness routine. Just know, when someone says cannabis, they could be referencing either hemp or marijuana. Keep reading for the difference between those.
Marijuana (a high-THC variety of cannabis plant)
Specifically the cannabis sativa species; typically has high amounts of THC and moderate amounts of CBD, depending on the strain.
Stigmatized and outlawed for decades, marijuana receives a bad rap thanks to government efforts to crack down on its use. The truth is that the only potentially “negative” effect of consuming medicinal marijuana is intoxication, but for some patients, that’s a bonus. (Keep in mind: There aren’t enough long-term studies on marijuana to know if there are negative effects from prolonged use.) In certain cases, the relaxing effects of THC in marijuana can also alleviate anxiety.
However, smoking marijuana could have negative implications, as with all types of smoking (this is as opposed to consuming marijuana via an edible form or tincture). The smoke itself “contains a similar range of harmful chemicals” that could lead to respiratory disease, according to the University of Washington.
Side note: CBD is found in marijuana, but they’re not the same thing. If you’re interested in using CBD on its own, it can come from either a marijuana plant or a hemp plant (more on that, next).
If you want to use marijuana therapeutically, you’ll reap the benefits of the aforementioned entourage effect. Consult with your doctor (or any doctor you trust who’s versed in cannabis) to determine the right combination for your needs.
Hemp (a high-CBD variety of cannabis plant)
Hemp plants are high in CBD and low in THC (less than 0.3 percent); a chunk of commercial CBD on the market now comes from hemp because it’s super easy to grow (while marijuana needs to be grown in more controlled environments).
Despite the higher CBD ratio, hemp plants don’t typically yield tons of extractable CBD, so it takes a lot of hemp plants to create a CBD oil or tincture.
Keep in mind: Hemp oil doesn’t necessarily mean CBD oil. When shopping online, it’s important to know the difference. What’s even more important is to know where the hemp was grown. Dr. Solomon warns that this is imperative because since CBD is not regulated by the FDA, it could put your body at risk if it was derived from plants grown overseas.
“Hemp is a bioaccumulator,” he says. “People plant hemp to cleanse soil because it absorbs anything the soil has in it — toxins, pesticides, insecticides, fertilizers. There is a lot of hemp that comes from overseas, and it may not be grown in a [safe or clean] way.” American-grown hemp-especially from states that produce both medically and recreationally legal cannabis tends to be safer because there are stricter standards, according to Consumer Reports.
He advises that when buying and using a hemp-derived product, to make sure the product has been “independently tested by a third-party lab,” and to “find the COA (certificate of analysis) on the company website,” to ensure you’re consuming a clean, safe product.
Some brands willingly provide the COA so you can ensure you’re getting a safe (and potent) hemp- or marijuana-derived medicine. Leading the market is what’s considered the Maserati of CBD, Charlotte’s Web (CW) Hemp. Pricey but powerful, their oils are known for being effective and clean. If a gummy-vitamin style is more your speed, try Not Pot’s CBD gummies (a portion of the proceeds go to The Bail Project, an organization that works towards mitigating the effects of the criminalization of marijuana) or AUR Body’s sour watermelons which are an exact replica of Sour Patch Watermelon with CBD. If you’d rather try a beverage, try Recess’s superfood-powered, full-spectrum hemp-derived CBD sparkling waters for a La Croix-meets-CBD refreshment.
CBD Oil With THC or Without? What You Need to Know
CBD, or cannabidiol, has become the most popular of all cannabinoids because it doesn’t get you high like its counterpart, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
But what happens when you combine it with THC?
Although THC is psychoactive, some people may even require medications containing high doses of THC. In such cases, consuming products containing a combination of both cannabinoids is ideal.
Understanding the type of cannabis extract you need can get confusing very fast, especially with many terms thrown around. So, here’s an article to help clear your doubts and much more.
You will learn everything about CBD oil with THC and whether they can work independently or not. You will also learn about the benefits of using both together or isolates (containing only one cannabinoid), legalization, side effects, and much more.
Does CBD Need THC to Work?
The short answer is no. CBD does not need THC to work. However, it gets a bit complicated since they both have a lot more to offer when combined.
When you understand the entourage effect, everything makes more sense. We will get to this later on.
Many studies emerging now show that CBD can work as a stand-alone cannabinoid. Moreover, it’s been found effective for treating notoriously difficult to treat conditions such as Dravet’s syndrome.
A clinical trial conducted in 2017 revealed that isolated CBD minimized seizures by at least half in about 43% of the volunteers . Although a single trial is not considered absolute proof, it shows how CBD can be used alone with promising benefits.
THC-free products have gained traction because CBD can effectively alleviate many conditions, including anxiety, diabetes, and neurological disorders.
However, many people may benefit from THC to help with specific issues like glaucoma, insomnia, increasing appetite during chemotherapy, etc. — this is where you may want to switch from CBD to THC.
Suppose you cannot use THC at all due to legal complications, or you have an intolerance to the compound. In that case, you can opt for broad-spectrum products containing a host of other minor cannabinoids, including CBN, CBG, and CBC, compared to full-spectrum containing trace amounts of THC.
Relationship Between CBD and THC
There’s a reason why CBD and THC are called the yin and yang of cannabis.
The significant difference is that while THC in high doses produces some intoxicating effects, including paranoia and hallucination, CBD is non-psychoactive with negligible side effects.
Here’s a closer look at both compounds and how you can use them to maximize the benefits of your cannabis treatment.
What is THC?
Also known as Delta 9 THC or tetrahydrocannabinol, THC is the primary psychotropic cannabinoid produced in cannabis. Its concentration in plants also determines whether it’s considered a marijuana plant or a hemp plant. In North America, cannabis plants containing more than 0.3% THC by dry weight are considered marijuana and may be illegal in some regions.
The most noticeable effect of THC is the euphoric sensation it brings by interacting with CB1 receptors in the brain that triggers the release of dopamine. Dopamine plays a crucial role in regulating your feelings, moods, and pleasure.
What is CBD?
CBD, also known as cannabidiol, offers many of the health benefits THC offers, but it is non-psychoactive and the second most abundant cannabinoid produced by the plant. Usually derived from the hemp plant, it’s used to treat a variety of conditions.
How CBD & THC Work
THC and CBD have chemical structures that are very similar to the endocannabinoids present in the human body.
Now, what are endocannabinoids? Your body has an endocannabinoid system (ECS) — a complex biological network consisting of cannabinoid receptors, endocannabinoids (neurotransmitters), and enzymes that metabolize them.
Endocannabinoids are neurotransmitters that send signals to regulate many vital processes, including fertility, immunity, the nervous system, etc. These endocannabinoids bind to CB1 and CB2 receptors located throughout the body to maintain homeostasis (balance). So whether it’s regulating pain, stress, or mood, they play a crucial role in how your body reacts to the environment around you.
Since THC and CBD display chemical structures that mimic the body’s natural endocannabinoids, THC binds to the receptors present in the body and causes various physiological and psychological responses.
Both CBD and THC have the same molecular structure — 2 Oxygen, 30 Hydrogen, and 20 Carbon atoms — but they are arranged slightly differently.
While THC binds directly to the receptors, CBD does it indirectly. CBD affects how the receptors send signals, explaining why it doesn’t produce psychoactive effects like THC. Thus, CBD works not only to reduce painful inflammation but also to bolster the immune system and regulate anxiety and depression.
CBD inhibits enzymes responsible for breaking down endocannabinoids and also elevates endocannabinoid levels produced by the body naturally.
Interestingly, it influences even non-cannabinoid receptors, including opioid receptors sensitive to various neurotransmitters present in the brain. Like THC, CBD also interacts with dopamine receptors that regulate cognitive and motivational behavior.
Benefits of CBD & THC Together
You may have heard various misinformation about CBD‘s effectiveness without THC or other compounds roaming around the internet. However, numerous studies show that CBD and THC can help cope with several issues when used as a combination.
CBD can combat anxiety, migraines, depression, and nausea or vomiting. THC can produce a relaxing or drowsy effect that can help you with specific challenges like insomnia. THC has a cerebral impact, while CBD works on your body and soothes your stressed muscles.
So, what happens when they are combined?
Scientists term this as the “entourage effect.” It’s a mechanism where the plant’s naturally occurring cannabinoids work in synergy to produce more potent and well-balanced effects compared to what one concentrated or isolated compound can do on its own. All the cannabinoids work as a unit to reduce the psychotropic effects produced by THC.
CBD is said to be more effective when it gets help from other cannabinoids and terpenes produced in every area of the plant. That being
Meaning CBD performs well along with the other members of the band rather than performing solo.
How to Use CBD Oil With THC
You can use CBD oil with THC by consuming full-spectrum products.
Cannabis extracts can be divided into 3 categories:
- CBD isolates
CBD isolates contain nothing but one specific cannabinoid (usually CBD).
Full-spectrum includes a mixture of all cannabinoids and terpenes naturally present in CBD oil.
Broad-spectrum contains all cannabinoids and terpenes except THC.
Many companies sell all three types of products in various forms, including capsules, oils, tinctures, gummies, and a lot more.
If you plan to use full-spectrum products, you will need to pay special attention to the onset of the time required for the cannabinoids to start working, dosage, specific areas of the body they travel (pathway), and the duration until the effects last.
Maximizing the efficacy of CBD also requires scheduling your daily intake as the amount of CBD and the time of the day can affect how your body responds to CBD oil.
Although many people tend to avoid THC altogether, certain conditions may need higher doses. Of course, your physician will be a better judge of the dosage you need.
Let’s take a look at all types of products along with their effects.
CBD & THC Edibles
- Onset – 30–60 minutes
- Pathway – Edibles travel to the stomach first, then to the liver, and later circulated in the bloodstream.
- Dosage – Starts from a minimum of 1 mg up to 500 mg for extreme measures.
- Duration – Depends on the dosage, but the effects should subside within 6-12 hours.
Edibles are slow to work because the cannabinoids first travel through the digestive system and are then sent to the liver for processing. Once the liver breaks down the cannabinoids further, it enters the bloodstream.
You may also feel a pronounced high when the liver metabolizes the cannabinoids. While small doses are best for inexperienced beginners, higher doses above 100 mg are for those who have experimented with THC. It’s used only for severe conditions requiring urgent medical attention.
The same theory applies to oils and tinctures because it takes time for the liver to process it. Although the effects last longer, they are weaker compared to other methods of consumption.
If you want the effects to kick in a little faster, try sublingual absorption that begins working within 15 minutes. You could do this by placing drops of oils or tinctures under the tongue. Wait until it dissolves in salivary secretions naturally. Sublingual absorption does not go through the liver but is absorbed quickly by the oral mucosa, making it much more effective.
You will feel the effects at least one hour after consuming an edible. Some may even take longer to start working, which is why you should never consume another edible in succession, with a wrong assumption that the first one isn’t working.
If your doctor prescribes high-THC medication, you should start with the lowest dose to understand your tolerance.
CBD & THC Inhalation
- Onset – 5 – 15 minutes
- Pathway – The smoke or vapor travels to the lungs and circulates to the rest of the body.
- Dosage – Depends on the vape or bud you’re vaping or smoking, which is usually a gram of cannabis.
- Duration – Depends on the dosage, but the effects should subside within 1 – 2 hours.
Inhalation refers to smoking or vaping. Not all “oils” are made for vaping, so choose accordingly.
Inhalation is the fastest way of absorbing cannabinoids as it enters the bloodstream via the oxygen exchange pathway in the lungs.
You will feel the effects as soon as you inhale one puff, but the disadvantage is that the effects fade away quickly. Therefore, inhalation works best for those looking for quick relief from chronic conditions, including pain.
Can Your CBD Product Contain THC?
Whether or not your CBD contains THC will depend on the extract you’ve purchased.
Isolates and broad-spectrum extracts should contain 0% THC.
Unfortunately, we can’t always take a company’s word for this, so it’s best practice to read the independent lab testing on its site to ensure that it contains the advertised cannabinoid levels.
Some products contain THC in psychoactive concentrations. Inspect the bottle before you buy it — there should be a note saying 0% THC or THC free if it’s a pure CBD product.
Sometimes you’ll find products that list a ratio of 1:1, 1:2, or 1:10 — this is a strong indicator that the bottle you’re looking at contains THC. These ratios usually refer to the concentration of CBD to THC, so a 1:1 ratio would have just as much THC as CBD inside the bottle. These products will be psychoactive.
The laws surrounding THC can vary from state to state, so always refer to your local laws before purchasing a product online that may contain even traces of THC.
Is CBD Oil with THC Legal?
As long as the percentage of THC remains below 0.3%, the product is federally legal according to the 2018 Farm Bill .
The legality also differs from one state to another, and while most states have great medical programs, states like Nebraska do not support them. Some states even allow recreational use, which means you can buy products that contain both CBD and THC legally without a medical license.
Summary: CBD Oil With THC
CBD is a non-psychoactive compound that regulates the endocannabinoid system. Not only does it inhibit the breakdown of endocannabinoids, but it also helps to increase their production in the body. CBD influences even non-cannabinoid receptors and produces many positive effects on both the brain and the body.
On the other hand, THC is a potent cannabinoid with positive effects too, but it’s infamous for the psychoactive “high” it produces.
What happens when you combine them both?
You will undoubtedly benefit even if you ingest isolated CBD, but the entourage effect unlocks much more potential to heal your body.
Full-spectrum products offer well-balanced effects compared to broad-spectrum and isolated products. They are more robust and also work synergistically to reduce the psychotropic effects THC produces.
Overall, it’s safe to say that using CBD, THC, and other cannabinoids combined seems like a better option. This is because they encapsulate the goodness of the entire plant. However, if you cannot use THC for various reasons, you can use isolated and broad-spectrum extracts with 0% THC.
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- Ferber, S. G., Namdar, D., Hen-Shoval, D., Eger, G., Koltai, H., Shoval, G., … & Weller, A. (2020). The “entourage effect”: terpenes coupled with cannabinoids to treat mood disorders and anxiety disorders. Current Neuropharmacology , 18 (2), 87-96. 
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Nina created CFAH.org following the birth of her second child. She was a science and math teacher for 6 years prior to becoming a parent — teaching in schools in White Plains, New York and later in Paterson, New Jersey.