The big world of marijuana just keeps getting bigger. Once upon a time, cannabis users didn’t need to be familiar with which strain they were using, or even about cannabinoids. Now, when you enter a dispensary, there are all kinds of options including high THC or high CBD cannabis. Originally, nature intended for these cannabinoids to be used together – that’s why they are both present in a single specimen of cannabis. But as our technology advances, we are creating more and more possibilities in the ways that we can use marijuana.
One of the obvious and observable differences in strains is in the presence of THC and CBD. Some strains are grown for the sole purpose of getting you stoned out of your brains, in which case they contain high concentrations of THC. Other strains are grown for their remedial effects, and sometimes these strains have very little THC concentration. Rather, they have higher CBD levels.
Now, to the regular person, this might all sound like a lot of sciency jargon that has absolutely no practical application whatsoever. But that isn’t true. Even if you are just a recreational cannabis user, it pays to know a little bit about marijuana’s botany and how it elicits certain responses in the human body.
The endocannabinoid system
Before we start talking about THC and CBD and their differences, we first need to know a little something about the endocannabinoid system. The man who discovered the endocannabinoid system is Raphael Mechoulam. In fact, the discovery came after he isolated THC for the first time. He found it a little peculiar that we had a receptor in our brain that almost perfectly fit the THC molecule and assumed there must be a chemical very similar to THC in our very own bodies. And of course, after some research, he proved his hypothesis. That chemical is called anandamide and it is one of the body’s very own cannabinoids.
The endocannabinoid system is a complex network of endogenous cannabinoids and cannabinoid receptors, dotted all around the human body. This system maintains the homeostasis of a lot of different bodily functions, such as the sleep/wake cycle, appetite, immune system, mood and pain sensations.
THC and CBD both interact with the human body in very different ways. Even though they are compounds in the same plant, when isolated, can induce very different effects from each other.
THC in the endocannabinoid system
Even with countless years of research into the endocannabinoid system and how THC works through it, we still can’t say that we know that much about it. The complexity of the human body and how it responds to psychoactive compounds such as THC continues to baffle scientists.
So first things first: THC is psychoactive. It gives you the stoned effect by binding to cannabinoid receptors in the brain and body called CB1 and CB2 receptors. As we mentioned, THC looks a lot like our natural cannabinoid, anandamide. It is usually anandamide that binds to these receptors, but when THC is present, it mimics the behaviour of anandamide. And it does it exponentially stronger and faster.
CB1 receptors on the brain are located in areas related to cognition, memory, anxiety, pain and endocrine (hormonal) function. THC directly interferes with the behavior of this neuron. That’s why it’s very easy to forget where you put your keys after you smoke cannabis. It’s the same reason that people with chronic pain experience some relief when they ingest THC.
Feelings of euphoria, creativity and relaxation are also linked with THC. It makes you high! This also has to do with the ways in which it interacts with the CB1 and CB2 receptors that are located all around the brain and body.
CBD in the endocannabinoid system
Unlike its psychoactive counterpart, CBD is not actually very fond of CB1 and 2 receptors. It works through the endocannabinoid system in a much more peripheral way than THC. This is probably also why CBD doesn’t contribute to the stoned effect that cannabis users love so much.
The main work of CBD is inhibiting an enzyme called FAAH. This enzyme is responsible for breaking down and metabolising endogenous cannabinoid anandamide. With less breakdown of anandamide, and more of it operating in the body, the endocannabinoid system is supported rather than interfered with. You could say that CBD encourages the endocannabinoid system to work in a more efficient way. It enhances the effect of your natural bliss molecule, anandamide.
So rather than mimicking the effects of anandamide like THC does, CBD actually encourages it to do its own thing. There is more time for anandamide to circulate around the body. This is why CBD is thought to have positive effects on a lot of the physiology that anandamide participates in: memory, mood, sleep and pain sensation.
Different cannabinoids have different medical applications
When it comes to the medical application of cannabis, we are thinking about it more and more in terms of THC and CBD rather than marijuana as a whole plant. Since isolating THC and then CBD, we have been able to identify how each of them operates individually. This has opened up a whole new world of potential treatment possibilities using one-cannabinoid medicines.
The medical applications of THC
The most obvious application of THC is for dealing with chronic pain. It is one of the most common reasons to choose a high THC strain of cannabis. Aside from this, THC is psychoactive. It is responsible for the feeling of intoxication after using marijuana. It plays a huge role in why people love to use cannabis. Along with this, there are a number of remedial benefits of THC:
- Antiemetic (anti-nausea)
- Increasing appetite
- Muscle spasticity
What really separates the medicinal quality of THC from its counterpart is the effect it has for insomnia sufferers. When we look at the two cannabinoids, THC really takes the prize for being the best sleep aid. As much as CBD might encourage a healthy circadian rhythm, THC is the cannabinoid responsible for the drowsy effect you get after using cannabis.
Medical applications of CBD
Contrary to THC, CBD has no psychoactive effect. In fact, it is antipsychotic. When you think this through, it’s pretty interesting that a single plant as a psychoactive component and an antipsychotic component. But we’ll get more to that later in the article. Here are some of the reasons that a medical marijuana patient might be using CBD:
- Antiproliferative (anti-tumoral)
- Antispasmodic (anti-epileptic)
- Depression or anxiety
As you can see, some of the remedial benefits of these two cannabinoids overlap, whereas there are certain medical applications that are cannabinoid specific. CBD is a great remedy for many different mood and mental health disorders, including PTSD and depression. The absence of the psychoactive effect makes it a more balanced medicine for those who are prone to anxiety and other emotional disturbances.
The synergy of THC and CBD: whole plant medicine
The marijuana industry has spent a lot of time and money isolating cannabinoids and assessing what they do independently of one another. But in any kind of herbal medicine, it’s unfortunately not that simple. THC and CBD are synergistic in the way that they work, meaning that both of them perform better when they are working together.
It is kind of like taking two of the best basketball players off the court. The rest of the team fails because there aren’t enough players. And, well, basketball is a team sport. So nobody is going to be winning on their own, are they? THC, CBD and the myriad of other cannabinoids in marijuana can be thought of as a team. It just doesn’t make sense to take one out of the game.
The synergy of THC and CBD is called the entourage effect. Basically, the whole thing is worth more than the sum of its parts. We mentioned before that THC is psychoactive while CBD is antipsychotic. This is one great example of how cannabis achieves something like the entourage effect. A delicate balance between different effects is what makes cannabis… well, cannabis!
A common practice in biomedicine is reductionism, where we target a pathogen with a single chemical that we know can act against the pathogen. But herbalists swear by the intelligence of the whole plant. To isolate a compound is kind of like dumbing down that intelligence.
We often think of certain herbs as medicinal. We synthesize a lot of pharmaceutical drugs from plants. But when you think about it, it doesn’t really make sense to assume that 99% of a plant’s chemical material is irrelevant while what we consider the “active” component is all that matters. Somehow, it seems a little bit strange to assume that nature is that stupid or wasteful.
Why do people choose CBD-only medicine?
Just because we’ve identified that the synergistic effect can make cannabis more efficient as a medicine, doesn’t mean that both cannabinoids suit everybody. Despite this, there are still many people who choose a CBD-only product. So why?
Not everybody is well built to handle a full-blown psychedelic experience like THC. And it’s not because they are pansies. Actually, CBD-only medicine has made cannabis available to such a varied demographic. The elderly and children can now get as much out of cannabis as young adults. The absence of a psychoactive element means that the remedial benefits can be achieved without having the stoned side effect.
Fundamentally, some people are looking for the health benefits of cannabis but not for the intoxicating effects. CBD-only medicine has been able to provide an alternative form of treatment for many ailments, without someone having to go through being high.
THC vs CBD legality
Even legally, these two cannabinoids compete with each other. While we know that THC is rife with medicinal benefits for a lot of different people, it is still classified as a Schedule I drug in the USA. That means that any product containing THC is federally illegal, although many states have legalized and proceed to sell cannabis products.
However, when it comes to CBD, it’s a little bit of a different story. If CBD is derived from hemp, then it is legal. CBD derived from the marijuana plant is not. All of this is contained in the US Farm Bill of 2014, stating that it is legal to farm hemp and make products from it.
Hemp usually contains very little THC content, while marijuana is often grown for the fact that it can be rich with the THC cannabinoid. When extractions are made using hemp, there is little to no THC present at all. For a lot of people, the difference between hemp and marijuana is a very blurry line, but botanically the two plants are slightly different.
The fact that marijuana naturally contains higher levels of THC makes it illegal in the eyes of the federal government. Hemp, however, grows bigger, faster, and contains no THC. Its fibers can also be used for industry to make paper, string, clothing and even houses.
The question of whether or not THC is an intoxicant or a medicine creates a lot of controversy and debate in politics. It is not conventional that a medicine should induce the kinds of intoxicating effects that THC has. Even though research has confirmed the possibility of THC to treat many different ailments, CBD is federally legal while THC is not.
THC, CBD and beyond
Cannabis is much more involved than THC and CBD. There are over 400 different compounds in weed, from cannabinoids to terpenoids to flavonoids. Modern science has just begun to touch on the many magica components of cannabis. We often focus our attention on the main cannabinoids, THC and CBD, but there is a whole world of cannabinoids and other compounds that don’t get much attention.
Cannabis still remains such a mystery despite the fact that humans have been using it for thousands of years. Its complexity as a plant, coupled with the complexity of the human body, makes marijuana one of the most pleasurable plants to study – and the most controversial!