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The Difference Between CBD and Cannabis, Marijuana, and Hemp

Cannabidiol (CBD) (like Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive chemical in marijuana) is a cannabinoid, a chemical compound found in the cannabis plant. There is a lot of misconception about the difference between cannabis, marijuana, hemp, and all the chemical compounds in the plant and where they come from. It’s understandable that there is confusion as U.S. laws usually group all the types of cannabis together because it all looks like marijuana to law enforcement and consumers.

Breeds of Cannabis

A good way to think about the cannabis plant in all of its manifestations is to compare it to dog breeds. All breeds of domestic dogs are the same species, Canis familiaris, but we all know there are different breeds because we can tell the difference between a Golden Retriever and a Chihuahua. Cannabis, marijuana, and hemp are all part of the same species, Cannabis sativa, but they are bred differently to produce different effects. For example, hemp is a species of Cannabis sativa that is typically bred to produce leaf and stalk that will be processed into textiles, paper, and food stuffs such as hemp oil and hemp seed. Because hemp is the same species as marijuana and cannabis it also produces the chemical compounds we associate with marijuana such as THC and CBD. It just produces them in very small amounts. Hemp plants generally produce THC and CBD at less than one percent by plant weight. The law dictates that THC has to be below .3% in order for hemp to escape the category of a controlled substance. Marijuana and cannabis—both of which refer to the same ‘breed’ of cannabis—can have THC levels of 20% by volume or more. Cannabis is just a more proper term for the word marijuana. They are both essentially hemp plants that have been bred over many generations to produce more THC, which gets recreational users high and gives relief to medical marijuana users.

For decades, consumers of marijuana assumed that plants that got you more high (THC) would be more beneficial and would have a stronger medical effect. But in the last 20 years or so we have discovered that the other cannabinoids in the plant besides THC have medicinal benefits. CBD overlaps with some THC benefits and has been discovered to help with anxiety, pain, sleep, and modulate many other ailments of the nervous and immune system. CBD does not get the user high in the traditional sense. I describe it as an alterant to the system, so it’s effect is usually calming and mellowing. One doesn’t feel much psychoactivity at low doses. A higher dose of CBD (usually over 100mg) can make one feel groggy, melancholy, and heavily sedated. I describe the effect of a high dose of CBD as being similar to Benadryl.

They don’t realize that CBD is already legal and probably sold in natural food stores in their state.

Since CBD (and THC) is produced in all Cannabis sativa plants, and THC is only legal in some states, growers have discovered that they can breed hemp plants to produce more CBD while still keeping THC levels low. The vast majority of CBD-producing hemp is grown outside of the U.S. where hemp is legal to grow. In the U.S., all Cannabis sativa plants are considered a controlled substance even though some can produce low amounts of THC and some produce high amounts. For an example of how confusing the law gets, if you are in a state that has legal marijuana, and you legally grow a strain of cannabis that is high in CBD and low in THC (under .3%) you will still be arrested for selling it even though there is technically not an illegal amount of THC in what you sell. This is because the flowers can look the same as marijuana flowers as well as the fact that the U.S. government doesn’t make a clear distinction between hemp and marijuana when it comes to home cultivation. If you buy hemp with high CBD produced outside of the U.S., then you can sell it. Another example of the confusion around CBD is that since it is produced by the hemp industry it is legal to sell it wherever hemp products are sold such as grocery stores. But some U.S. states have created “CBD-only” medical marijuana legislation allowing CBD to be sold but not THC products. They don’t realize that CBD is already legal and probably sold in natural food stores in their state.

This leads to a common question many clients will ask me; is it better to have CBD from cannabis or CBD from hemp? If we were paying attention to what I’ve written above, we know that hemp, marijuana, or cannabis can all produce the CBD molecule. But, alas, not all CBD is the same. Just as marijuana strains can have different effects on people, CBD from different sources has different effects as well. There is no scientific studies that have mapped this out just as science has not been able to pin down why some marijuana strains are sedative and some are stimulating. But in my practice working with hundreds of clients, I have found that CBD derived from some marijuana strains can have a stronger psychoactive effect even though the THC is still low. These may be very subtle differences and many users may not notice. But if you have one experience with a CBD product, it does not necessarily mean that your experience will be the same with all other CBD products. That’s why I recommend getting to know your bud-tender, practitioner, or cannabis consultant so that they can help guide you through using the various products effectively to treat your ailments.


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