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CBD vs. THC: Key Difference in Effects, Benefits and Legality

Dr. Saira Zulfiqar, PharmD

Written by: Dr. Saira Zulfiqar, PharmD

Updated on December 26, 2023

CBD vs. THC Key Difference in Effects, Benefits and Legality

In the last few years, cannabis has grown quite popular. One of the main reasons behind this popularity are Cannabidiol and Tetrahydrocannabinol. These compounds have sparked widespread interest and discussion, adding more to the popularity of cannabis. Both of these cannabinoids are found in the cannabis plant, but they exhibit distinct effects. Furthermore, their benefits and legal statuses are different too. If one can understand the disparities between CBD and THC, navigating the realms of medicinal and recreational cannabis use becomes relatively easy. And that is what we will do today in this CBD vs THC debate!

What are CBD and THC?

Tetrahydrocannabinol and cannabidiol are prominent cannabinoids derived from the Cannabis sativa plant. Both of these compounds have unique properties and effects on the human body.
CBD is non-psychoactive, which means that it doesn’t induce a high that is commonly associated with cannabis use. The compound interacts with the endocannabinoid system and influences various receptors, which can potentially alleviate anxiety, inflammation, and pain. Folks often seek CBD for its therapeutic properties. The case is quite different from THC; THC usage is linked with cognitive impairments.

THC is a psychoactive compound that is responsible for a euphoric association that is often associated with marijuana use. THC binds to the cannabinoid receptors in the human brain and alters neurotransmitter release, which can impact mood, perception, and coordination. THC has therapeutic potential, yes, but since its recreational use has led to many side effects, there are certain legal restrictions in specific regions. One must always be aware of the status of these cannabinoids in their region before using them.


Let us have a comparison to elucidate the distinction, the difference between CBD and THC.



CBD is renowned for its non-psychoactive nature; it interacts with the endocannabinoid system, modulating neurotransmitter release. CBD’s interaction with the ECS results in anti-inflammatory, anxiolytic, and analgesic effects. This makes it a favorable choice for individuals seeking therapeutic benefits without the euphoria associated with THC.


You can think of THC as the psychoactive counterpart. It binds to cannabinoid receptors in the brain, inducing a sense of euphoria and altering cognitive functions. This psychoactivity sets THC apart, making it sought after for both recreational and medicinal use.



CBD is widely recognized for its therapeutic potential. It is explored for its anti-inflammatory properties, potential anxiety, and stress reduction. This is why it is now used as an adjunct for various medical conditions.


THC has the power to induce psychoactive effects. THC has demonstrated efficacy in managing chronic pain, nausea, and muscle spasms. The intoxicating properties of this cannabinoid contribute to its appeal to leisure users.



The legal status of CBD varies worldwide. In many areas, CBD derived from hemp with less than 0.3% THC is legal. This is especially true in the United States, where the 2018 Farm Bill was introduced. But of course, the regulations can be stringent for CBD that is sourced from marijuana.


The legality of THC is often restricted; this is primarily because of its psychoactive nature. Some regions do permit its use for medicinal or recreational purposes. However, many jurisdictions maintain strict regulations or outright prohibitions. Moral of the story? Being cautious is the wisest approach!

Chemical Structure 

The divergent effects between Cannabidiol and tetrahydrocannabinol are primarily because of their distinct chemical structures. Both of these compounds belong to the cannabinoid class. They have 31 carbon atoms, 30 hydrogen atoms, and two oxygen atoms. However, there is a critical disparity in the arrangement of these. These molecules have the same molecular formula but exhibit different structures. This influences how they interact with the body’s endocannabinoid system. It is this subtle dissimilarity that results in the contrasting physiological effect. This elucidates the intricate relationship between molecular composition and these compounds’ observed therapeutic or psychoactive outcomes.

Interaction with the Endocannabinoid System

As mentioned earlier, CBD and THC work by interacting with the human body’s endocannabinoid system. Let us have a closer look at this modulation in the following lines.


CBD influences the CB1 and CB2 receptors indirectly. The cannabinoid’s interaction with the endocannabinoid system involves the modulation of CB1 receptors in the central nervous system and the CB2 receptors in the peripheral nervous system and the immune cells. This indirect modulation is associated with the many therapeutic effects of the cannabinoid. These effects include anti-inflammatory, anxiolytic, and analgesic properties.


As compared to the indirect modulation of receptors by CBD, THC operates in a rather direct manner. It mimics the structure of the endocannabinoid anandamide. This allows it to bind directly to the CB1 receptors. These receptors are particularly abundant in the brain. The direct activation of these receptors by tetrahydrocannabinol molecules then leads to the psychoactive effects associated with the compound. These effects include altered cognition, euphoria, and changes in perception. For example, THC oil is known for its psychoactive properties but exhibits therapeutic potential. Its potential is well-defined in managing pain, nausea, and muscle spasms.

We have seen that an indirect modulation of receptors characterizes the CBD’s interaction with the endocannabinoid system. On the other hand, THC directly binds with the CB1 receptors. These distinct interactions provide insight into how these contribute to the unique psychological and physiological outcomes.

Psychoactive Effects

The main difference between Cannabidiol and tetrahydrocannabinol lies in their psychoactive effects. CBD is non-psychoactive. This means that it cannot induce a high or alter cognitive functions. The interaction of this compound with the endocannabinoid system influences receptors without directly linking to them. This results in therapeutic effects without any psychotropic consequences.

Compared to that, THC is psychoactive. It produces the characteristic high that is associated with cannabis use. The psychoactivity of this cannabinoid stems from the cannabinoid’s direct binding to the CB1 receptors in the human brain. This alters the neurotransmitter release. It influences mood, perception, and coordination. The ability of this cannabinoid to induce a high is a key factor in its recreational use. This contributes massively to its popularity among those individuals who seek altered states of consciousness. This fundamental difference between the two compounds makes them so unique, both from a therapeutic and recreational aspect.


Cannabidiol and tetrahydrocannabinol originate from the same cannabis plant. Yet, they exhibit distinctive characteristics which influence their effects on applications. Cannabidiol offers non-psychoactive therapeutic benefits. These benefits appeal to those seeking relief without cognitive impairment. As opposed to that, the psychoactive THC induces a euphoric high, thereby making it a favorite choice for recreational use. Understanding these differences paves the way for exploring these compounds’ benefits and side effects in detail!

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Dr. Saira Zulfiqar, PharmD
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