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After a long prohibition, Western society is beginning to embrace the benefits of cannabis. Whether hemp or marijuana, the hundreds of cannabinoids and terpenes that compose the leaves of cannabis plants have some seriously beneficial properties. Two of the most popular of these molecular components are CBD and THC.

A Summary of CBD vs. THC

Before we get into the details, let’s cover the basics. Here is a general outline of the differences when it comes to CBD vs. THC.


  • Does not have any psychoactive effects
  • Has many potential medical benefits
  • Is legal in most states
  • Has not yet been researched extensively


  • Is psychoactive (it produces a high)
  • Has many potential medical benefits
  • Is illegal in most states and at a federal level due to its psychoactive properties
  • Has been researched more thoroughly than CBD.

Hemp: A History

Before getting into the differences between CBD vs. THC, it may be useful to have some historical context. Cannabidiol, known now as CBD, is one of the hundreds of cannabinoid components of the hemp plant. The hemp plant has a sister–marijuana. Both of these plants belong to the cannabis family.

Cannabis has been used medicinally for ages. It came up in Ancient Greece, when Herodotus wrote about witnessing Eastern foreigners inhale the smoke of burnt cannabis leaves.

Centuries later, it continued to be widely used throughout the Middle East. The holy text of Islam, the Qur’an, explicitly prohibits intoxicants like alcohol, but does not outright prohibit cannabis. As such, many who follow in Islamic tradition are comfortable with using cannabis.

Mexico brought cannabis to America in the early 20th century, and the American government very quickly tried to cast it out. Shortly after the “Reefer Madness” of 1936, the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was put in place by Franklin D. Roosevelt, regulating growing, buying, selling, or dealing of marijuana. Richard Nixon would later go on to sign the Controlled Substance Act, listing marijuana as a Schedule I drug in 1970.

Despite the ban, marijuana has still been exceedingly popular in America for decades. In the 1940s, there were already several names for it including–and certainly not limited to–Mary Warner, Mary Jane, Indian hay, loco weed, love weed, mohasky, and grass.

In 1944, La Guardia released an extensive research report discounting claims that marijuana induced violence and recklessness. By the 1950s, it was met with back-to-back Acts, intensifying the prohibition by mandating prison-sentencing for marijuana possession.  


The Father of Marijuana

Still, in the 1960s the young scientist, Dr. Raphael Mechoulam was fascinated by biology and the structure of plants. Science had already uncovered that plants can be broken into smaller, isolated compounds to elicit different effects. Morphine had been drawn from opium, cocaine was derived from coca, and aspirin had been derived from willow, so why did we not know what parts there are to cannabis?

The little scientific knowledge on cannabis was due in part to the general fear surrounding the plant as a drug. By the time Mechoulam came around to considering it, it was illegal in the US. There was a taboo surrounding marijuana and no one was sure they wanted to fund such research.

It was only when he went back to his home country of Israel that he was able to find people who had faith in his idea and funds to support it–as well as some friends at the police station to donate to the cause. He successfully isolated cannabidiol, now better known as CBD, among hundreds of other terpenes and cannabinoids.

Struck by its benefits, he was inspired to unlock the secrets to the various other cannabinoids. He also marked his place as father of marijuana for uncovering THC.


Today’s understanding of marijuana is widely associated with THC. Smoking the full plant produces psychoactive effects, getting you high. But it was the father of marijuana who was able to reveal why.

Raphael Mechoulam was able to isolate the components of marijuana, but he wanted to know exactly which one gave the high-inducing effects. Calling upon the support of other researchers, they extracted all of the compounds they could and tested each one on live subjects–rhesus monkeys.

Of all of the components they isolated, only tetrahydrocannabinol–THC–had any effect. This was the first time anyone could explain what it is about cannabis that induces the high.

But THC is also known to have a host of other beneficial properties. It acts to suppress nausea and vomiting, and as such is used to treat eating disorders. Its antiemetic property has also been used for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy.

THC is also responsible for the munchies. Just as it suppresses nausea, it increases appetite. This has been a useful contribution to cancer and eating-disorders patients as well.

Because of its psychoactive properties, THC is still widely regulated. It remains a Schedule I drug in many states, and as-such cannot legally be sent or distributed across state lines. Though there are limitations, the ban seems to gradually be lifting as more states move to legalize recreational marijuana.

However, even in the early times of political uncertainty surrounding cannabis there were positive attributions with using it. Now that we’re embracing it even more, we’re beginning to lay to rest its reputation as the “gateway” drug. Even in 1943, it was noted that people who participated had “no particular craving for the drug. They just enjoy its effects.”



CBD is most often derived from industrial hemp, which contains only small amounts of THC. CBD itself has no psychoactive properties, and the trace amounts of THC in industrial hemp mean that even full-spectrum oils can’t get you high. CBD is legal in most states and can be distributed across state lines.

The growing interest in CBD on the part of legislators, medical professionals, and the general public, can be attributed both to CBD’s medicinal properties and its lack of psychoactive effects. Raphael Mechoulam in his early research uncovered that CBD is a potent anti-inflammatory, especially in cases of rheumatoid arthritis. He also found that it’s an anticonvulsant, making it a strong combatant of seizures.

It seems that his research was ahead of its time. Just this year, the FDA approved its first drug using CBD. The drug is intended to treat the violent seizures associated with Dravet Syndrome, which can be extremely debilitating. With CBD, patients reportedly experience about 50% fewer seizures.

CBD is also noted in connection with the suppression of anxiety and reduced symptoms of schizophrenia. CBD is currently being studied for its potential benefits in relation to a wide variety of illnesses, from chronic pain to dementia.

The US Government recently acknowledged the benefits of hemp with the Agriculture Improvement Act. This new law took hemp off of the Controlled Substances Act, recognizing its benefits and its difference from marijuana. What differentiates hemp from marijuana is the THC content. To be considered hemp, the plant has to have a content of 0.3% THC or less.

Most producers of CBD use hemp for this reason. The extraction process provides an abundance of concentrated CBD. The popularity of CBD has increased its market presence and, as such, the demand for hemp.

Final Thoughts CBD vs. THC

CBD has a host of potential benefits and, while not yet well-studied, shows promising potential. It is incapable of producing a high. Generally speaking, CBD is derived from industrial hemp, which includes only tiny amounts of THC. However, both hemp and marijuana contain CBD. CBD is legal in most states.

THC is the chemical in marijuana that produces a high. It too may have many medical benefits, but its use is far more controversial due to its psychoactive effects. Marijuana and products containing THC are still illegal in most states.

There is much yet we do not know about cannabis. For a plant that have been inhaled for centuries, it’s surprising that we only know much about two of its components. CBD and THC are popular only because they have been researched. It’s quite possible that there are other mysteries lying in the cannabis leaf.

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Last modified: June 3, 2019