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What is CBD in Cannabis?


Cannabis sativa is a plant with a rich history. Its first use dating back thousands of years, it has been criminalized and even demonized, yet now extremely sought after. But what is the difference between cannabis and marijuana? Are they the same? And what are CBD and THC? This article offers an introductory look at what CBD is, the difference between CBD and THC, their medical benefits and uses, and possible side effects.

Cannabis: Hemp Plants and Marijuana Plants

Two varieties of cannabis include marijuana plants and hemp plants. The cannabis plant contains naturally occurring compounds called Cannabinoids. Of the more than 60 cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant, the two most abundant include Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol and Cannabidiol—or simply, THC and CBD. 

While both types of plants can produce high amounts of CBD, the amount of THC differs. A key differentiating factor between hemp and marijuana plants is the amount of THC content in the plant. Hemp plants contain 0.3% or less of THC. Marijuana plants contain a significantly higher amount of THC with some of the strongest strains containing up to 30% THC. 

Hemp and marijuana also differ in their usage. Hemp is used as a sustainable fabric in clothing and building materials. It is also used in food products (hemp-seed based flours or oil), and in medicinal products including CBD infused lotions, edibles, or CBD oil tinctures. Marijuana is frequently used for recreational and therapeutic uses due to its high THC content (more on what this means coming up).    

What is CBD?

What is CBD in weed? CBD is a plant cannabinoid (aka phytocannabinoid) found in many cannabis products. It has a wide range of applications including pain-relieving (analgesic), anti-inflammatory, relief with nausea, anti-anxiety (anxiolytic), reduces drug cravings and effects of withdrawal, and anti-seizure. 

CBD’s therapeutic effects have such a variety due to the various receptors it interacts within the body. Some of these receptors include receptors in the Endocannabinoid system (ECS), opioid receptors, dopamine receptors, and serotonin receptors. Through its indirect interaction (rather than direct) with the CB1 and CB2 receptors of the ECS, CBD provides clear-headed therapeutic effects without being intoxicating. While it has an indirect effect on ECS receptors, CBD has a direct effect on opioid, dopamine, and serotonin receptors. This can possibly be the reason why CBD has shown promising benefits on drug addictions, withdrawal, and disorders of motivation. 

CBD can be used in an ever-increasing number of ways with some of the most popular being an oil form as a tincture, edibles, topical applications, and sprays.   

CBD vs. THC: Similarities and Differences

Chemical Structure

CBD and THC both have the same chemical structure: 21 carbon atoms, 30 hydrogen atoms, and 2 oxygen atoms. With their chemical structure the same, how is it that CBD is non-intoxicating while THC is? It is their interaction with the receptors of the ECS which attributes to their difference in psychoactive effects. CBD has an indirect effect on the CB1 receptor, while THC interacts directly. CBD works to mitigate the possible side effects of THC (such as anxiety) because of its indirect interaction with CB1 receptors. 

Medical Benefits & Uses

The medical benefits and uses for both CBD and THC are high. Some of CBD’s medical uses include:

  • Pain management 
  • Seizures
  • Relief from nausea, including that from chemotherapy 
  • Anxiety
  • Inflammatory Bowel Disease
  • Insomnia 
  • PTSD
  • Opioid use reduction

THC is used for:

  • Pain relief
  • Low appetite
  • Insomnia
  • Glaucoma
  • Muscle spasticity

With pain frequently cited as the number 1 reason for medicinal cannabis use, a great example of cannabis-based medicine is Sativex. It is approved in Canada and uses both THC and CBD for the relief of neuropathic pain due to MS. 

Side Effects

CBD is generally well tolerated, even at high doses. While it itself does not have side effects, possible interactions with other medications may occur. THC, due to its psychoactive components, does have some possible side effects including:

  • Dry mouth
  • Eye irritation (red eyes)
  • Short term memory impairment
  • Anxiety
  • Increased heart rate
  • Slowed reaction times

Final Thoughts

Cannabis is a plant with many therapeutic properties. It has a wide range of medical benefits and uses due to its primary components THC and CBD. These include reduction of pain, seizures, drug cravings, and inflammation. While THC also provides an intoxicated or “high” feeling, CBD offers clear-headed therapy. Hemp-derived CBD legally contains a maximum of 0.3% THC, the main psychoactive component of Cannabis, making it non-intoxicating. CBD can be taken sublingually as a tincture, applied topically as lotions or creams, or even with the use of CBD-infused bath bombs

This handy chart recaps the key similarities and differences between CBD and THC:

Has a psychoactive “high” effect NOYES
Used for medicinal purposes in CanadaYESYES
Has pain-relieving propertiesYESYES
Increases appetiteNOYES
Has possible side effectsNO*YES
Legal for recreational purposes in Canada YESYES
Has anti-anxiety effectsYESYES
Helps with nauseaYESYES
Reduces seizuresYESNO
Helps with insomniaYESYES
Has anti-inflammatory propertiesYESYES
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