Article at a Glance
This article breaks down the cannabis sativa plant, focusing on the CBD and THC compounds and the effects both have on the body and mind.
1. What is Cannabidiol (CBD)?
- CBD is a compound in cannabis
- CBD, like cannabis in general, is the subject of many myths go back all the way to the 1930s.
2. Cannabis Compounds
- Cannabidiol (CBD) is one of hundreds of compounds in the cannabis sativa plant. If offers many of the medical benefits of cannabis without the psychoactive side effects.
- Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the compound most closely associated with the euphoric “high” one gets from marijuana. It is also responsible for the bulk of negative side effects associated with pot.
- Another plant in the cannabis sativa family, hemp is different than marijuana.
- Hemp contains almost no THC
- Some varieties of hemp are rich in CBD
4. CBD vs. THC
- CBD and THC share an almost identical atomic makeup, with the only difference being the arrangement of atoms.
- CBD and THC interact with the body’s Endocannabinoid System.
- THC forms a very strong bond with endocannabinoid receptors, causing the marijuana “high” and negative side effects like anxiety and paranoia.
- CBD binds weakly to these receptors and can even interfere with THC’s binding to receptors. This lessens the negative effects of THC.
5. The Entourage Effect
- This thesis states that cannabis compounds like CBD, THC, and others work together in benefitting the overall physiological state.
6. THC Was the Most Popular Compound
- The psychoactive effects of THC made it a highly sought-after compound.
- As THC levels rise, CBD levels decrease. This phenomenon has led to dangerously strong strains of marijuana. Between 2004 and 2011, marijuana-related ER visits increased by 43 percent.
7. CBD Makes a National Impact
- In 2018, the FDA approved the first-ever cannabis-derived treatment for epilepsy containing CBD.
- For years, CBD was lumped with THC under the cannabis umbrella as a Schedule I drug by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). But the DEA recently reclassified CBD as Schedule V, loosening the legal binds.
- Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018 recognizes industrial hemp as a legal agricultural product. However, the FDA warns against unapproved CBD products.
8. Ancient and Current Uses of Cannabis
- Ancient Chinese and Indian medical texts dating back thousands of years mentions cannabis as an application for numerous ailments, including pain and mental illness.
- Modern medically approved use includes the FDA-approved epilepsy medication, which incorporates CBD.
- The FDA’s decision was influenced in part by the story of Charlotte Figi, a child born in 2004 with Dravet syndrome.
9. The Future of CBD
- State laws concerning CBD and cannabis in general are shifting.
- A cannabis industry analyst estimates the CBD market could hit $22 billion by 2022.
- CBD is available from numerous companies as gummies, tinctures, balms, etc.
One of the naturally occurring compounds found in the resinous flower of the cannabis sativa plant, CBD has crossed over from the fringes of society to the mainstream medical community in recent years. And putting this shift into motion is a mounting combination of scientific research and anecdotal evidence.
But what exactly is CBD? How does it differ from other marijuana compounds more associated with “getting high?” And how is it administered? There are a lot of false narratives about CBD, and cannabis in general, floating through the ether—along with some targeted misinformation campaigns. However, scaring the public away from marijuana in general is not a modern phenomenon. After early decades of wide acceptance in the American medical field, marijuana was demonized in the “Reefer Madness” craze of the 1930s, with certain corners of the government executing some truly heinous tactics to discredit the plant’s positive usages.
While the days of straight vilification of marijuana might be drawing to a close, there is still a lot of confusion surrounding cannabis, marijuana, hemp, CBD, and THC. It’s high time the distinction between CBD and the other components of cannabis were made clear. Someone needs to cut through the haze, open a window, and clear the air.
The Compounds Of Cannabis
Cannabis produces hundreds of compounds, with one class of those diverse compounds called cannabinoids. Another class, called terpenoids, are actually found in a bevy of plants and are responsible for the taste and aroma of marijuana. But the bulk of scientific research, consumer interest, and governmental litigation revolves around two specific cannabinoid compounds: cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
The differences between the two compounds are stark. THC is the cannabinoid most associated with all of the classic pothead troupes. There’s the euphoria and the oftentimes uncontrollable giggles, along with less-than-ideal side effects of paranoia, bloodshot eyes, mind fog, and the general inability to properly function. THC is that one ne'er-do-well family member—a constant source of disappointment and the target of familial ire.
On the other end of the spectrum is the lesser-known CBD—the studious, yet hip, sister compound with new-wave appeal and a creative streak that never disappoints. In essence, it allows you to benefit from the medical applications of cannabis without having to endure the psychotropic side effects that can be harsh to someone with a mellow vibe.
Where Does Hemp Fit Into the Cannabis Equation?
Hemp and marijuana are different plants that are both members of the cannabis sativa family. Consequently, this has created a lot of confusion for anyone without a degree in botany—and that includes government officials. However, the two plants are visually very different. And when you dig just below the surface, the chemical differences become apparent as well.
When comparing the chemical composition of hemp and marijuana, it’s important to understand that hemp contains miniscule concentrations of THC—around 0.3 percent. In contrast marijuana is a THC factory, with natural concentrations ranging from 15 to 40 percent.
This distinction makes hemp ideal for industrial purposes like paper, rope, clothing, and more, signaling exactly why people have cultivated hemp for thousands of years. But then there’s CBD-rich hemp, which is used to produce a wide variety of THC-free products that claim to deliver a range of physical and mental benefits.
CBD vs. THC: What is the Chemical Difference? How Do CBD & THC Each Interact With Your Body?
On the molecular level, CBD and THC are nearly identical. (Put your lab coat on, this is about to get technical.) Both cannabis compounds possess 21 carbon atoms, 30 hydrogen atoms, and 2 oxygen atoms. CBD and THC diverge thanks to a microscopic difference of atomic arrangement, which influences the effect of each compound on the human body and mind.
Interacting with these compounds is your body’s Endocannabinoid System (ECS. This vital chemical signaling system houses a network of receptors that cooperate with the incoming cannabinoids in CBD and THC, dispersing the compounds throughout your body for a range of influences like mood regulation, appetite stimulation, and pain relief.
When THC enters your body, it binds with your cannabinoid 1 (CB1) brain receptors, making you feel the euphoric “high.” CBD, on the other hand, barely binds with those same receptors, and it can even interfere with THC’s binding efforts, easing those often unpleasant psychoactive effects.
Examining The Cannabis “Entourage Effect”
It’s clear that CBD and THC produce different body and brain reactions. But one theory proposes that the two cannabinoids actually work in concert with one another, along with a cocktail of other cannabis compounds, to achieve greater physiological benefits. The thesis, dubbed the “Entourage Effect,” is the trend within the larger CBD movement.
It was first mentioned in relation to cannabis in 1998 by a team of researchers that included medical marijuana pioneer and Israeli biochemist Dr. Raphael Mechoulam. Subsequent research posits that the Entourage Effect gathers those hundreds of compounds in marijuana and hemp, and initiates interactions that could potentially create positive results to help manage pain, inflammation, bacterial infections, anxiety, depression, epilepsy, and more.
A study from 2011, “Taming THC: Potential Cannabis Synergy And Phytocannabinoid-Terpenoid Entourage Effects,” concludes that select high-terpenoid and high-phytocannabinoid strains have shown promise in approaching treatment-resistant ailments like depression and dementia—though further research is needed to unlock the full capacity of the Entourage Effect.
How Did THC Become the Go-To Compound?
Prior to cannabidiol sprouting into the mainstream, THC was easily the most sought after compound in weed. In fact, the psychoactive effects of THC became so popular that cultivators in northern California—America’s marijuana breadbasket—actively worked to amp up THC potency in marijuana strains, nearly decimating natural CBD levels in the process. And since the mid-1990s, research has shown that when THC rises, CBD falls.
In a study, conducted from 1995 through 2014, a total of 38,681 samples of cannabis preparations were analyzed. The results showed that in 1995, there was 14 times more THC than CBD in cannabis. By 2014, that number had skyrocketed to 80 times more THC than CBD. Meanwhile, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the potency of an average joint has increased from roughly 3 percent THC in the early 1990s to 12.5 percent in 2013. The NIH also states that during that same period, the potency of marijuana extracts (hash oil) jumped to mind-bending levels—containing more than 50 percent THC, with some samples creeping to more than 80 percent THC.
The increase in medical marijuana usage is a factor in the rise of strong weed, as patients need instantaneous and potent pain relief, which is much harder to achieve with low grade cannabis.
But, as stated before, when THC goes up, CBD goes down. And with CBD’s anti-psychoactive properties absent, THC’s darkside is given room to propagate. The dramatic increase in concentrations of marijuana’s main psychoactive ingredient has coincided with cannabis-related emergency room visits, with a study showing that, between 2004 and 2011, marijuana-related ER visits increased by 43 percent.
Incidents of high anxiety, intense panic, increased blood pressure, and the general feeling of abject terror are clearly byproducts of today’s potent, THC-rich marijuana. For order to be restored and CBD’s protective shield to return and regulate THC, a major paradigm shift is needed.
CBD Shifts the Paradigm
In 2018, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a new drug to treat epilepsy. Normally, such an event would only be newsworthy in the health services industry and to those battling the various epileptic diseases, but the nature of that new treatment makes it a national news story. The FDA-approved drug in question, Epidiolex, is the first-ever cannabis-derived medicine, which the FDA says drastically reduces seizures in children with epileptic syndromes.
The drug contains CBD, which, up until last year was classified along with THC under the cannabis umbrella as a Schedule I drug according to the Controlled Substances Act. This classification defines substances as having no accepted medical use with high potential for abuse, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). But the FDA’s research moved the needle just enough, prompting the DEA to reclassify CBD as a Schedule V drug, along the same lines as certain cough medicines—that is, as long as the drug is a “finished dosage formulation” with THC levels below 0.1 percent.
As the pot pendulum swings toward CBD as an accepted substance, the legality of it all is still hazy. When the federal government passed the Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018 in December, it meant that hemp was now fully recognized as a legal agricultural product. This does not necessarily include CBD-rich hemp, which the FDA says still requires study. But the FDA’s relatively newfound belief that scientifically valid research is the best way to determine the benefits of drugs derived from marijuana is a promising step on the road to wider acceptance—and that is largely thanks to the still-evolving benefits of CBD.
The Past And Present of CBD & Medicinal Cannabis
The medical benefits of CBD, and of marijuana in general, is an ongoing area of research that has been active for decades, even centuries. The use of cannabis fiber and flower properties have been recorded in Chinese medical texts going back nearly 2,000 years, with pain and mental illness mentioned as benefiting from the plant’s application.
Cannabis use also crossed continental borders in the ancient world. In the Atharvaveda, the fourth book of the Vedas, a large body of religious texts from ancient India, writers refer to bhang, a paste made from the hemp plant and other ingredients. Bhang first pops up around 1400 B.C. and is referenced in treatment for anxiety, mood, overall mental state, and upper respiratory issues. To this day, bhang is often made into a smoothie type drink and is usually consumed during springtime Holi celebrations.
But one of the most important medical applications of cannabis occurred in much more recent times—and it led directly to the FDA’s aforementioned approval of CBD-infused epilepsy treatment. Charlotte Figi was born in 2004 as a healthy baby girl in Colorado, but when she was 3 months old she was hit with seizures that got progressively worse. When she was 2 ½ years old, doctors diagnosed her with Dravet syndrome, a rare, severe form of epilepsy.
At the height of her suffering, Charlotte was being attacked by 300 grand mal seizures every week. With traditional forms of treatment wearing thin, her parents decided to go the unconventional route. They reached out to a medical marijuana dispensary in their home state whose low THC, high CBD strain showed the potential to help Charlotte. The CBD application was a success, drastically reducing the severity and frequency of the seizures—from 300 per week down to two or three a month. The dispensary named the strain “Charlotte’s Web” in honor of the young girl.
The Future of Cannabis And CBD
We are now more than 80 years removed from the days of Reefer Madness, with states decriminalizing cannabis for both medical and recreational use. Now, the laboratory doors are wide open for research as illustrated by the FDA and DEA’s recent collective action. Finally, it seems, the theories posed by anecdotal evidence and very real scientific studies are being put into practice—and capitalism seems ready to pounce.
According to cannabis industry analysts the Brightfield Group, the CBD market could hit $22 billion by 2022—yeah, that’s $22 billion, with a big, fat b. This should come as no surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention. The industry has exploded in the past couple of years, with hundreds of companies peddling CBD products in the form of gummies, tinctures, balms, and more. And since the legality surrounding THC is still in flux around the country, these CBD products are mostly derived from hemp-based cannabis strains, rather than marijuana-based strains.
But with the legal landscape of cannabis forever shifting, what the law deems unacceptable today might be commonplace tomorrow. All we can do as health-conscious consumers is make sure we are armed with knowledge.