Why Is THC Intoxicating And CBD Is Not?


How can one cannabinoid alter the mind so profoundly, and the other seemingly not at all?

It is common to hear CBD referred to as ‘non-psychoactive,’ but this is incorrect. The term psychoactive means to ‘affect the mind or behavior.’ In other words, anything that affects your mind is technically ‘psychoactive,’ but it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are high.

As there are a range of neurotransmitter systems that CBD could interact with, it is clear that cannabidiol does affect the mind. According to Dr. Ethan Russo, in fact, CBD should be referred to as ‘non-intoxicating.’

Also, if we go further, we can see that CBD is psychoactive in several specific circumstances, for instance:

  • When used by someone with a mental health issue such as schizophrenia.
  • If it is used in an anxiety study where the patients were deliberately made anxious to test the anti-anxiety properties of CBD.
  • If it is combined with THC.

There have been dozens of studies that clearly show CBD does not possess the same intoxicating effects as THC.  The reason for the difference lies primarily in how both compounds react with the body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS). Scientists only discovered the ECS when they began in-depth research on the effects of marijuana on the human body. Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, the man who found and identified THC back in 1964, also played a prominent role in the ‘discovery’ of the ECS in 1992.When we’re talking about cannabis and euphoria, we’re dealing exclusively with CB1 receptors, which are concentrated in the brain and the central nervous system.

Why Doesn’t CBD Get You High?

Think of it like an electrical plug connecting to a wall socket. A THC molecule is perfectly shaped to connect with CB1 receptors. When that connection happens, THC activates, or stimulates, those CB1 receptors. Researchers call THC a CB1 receptor agonist, which means THC works to activate those CB1 receptors.

The sensitivity of each neuron to a neurotransmitter depends on whether it has a receptor that properly fits the transmitter. You can think of it like finding the right plug to fit into an electrical socket – if there is a match, the neuron can directly respond to the neurotransmitter. Not only are brain receptors sensitive to the neurotransmitters produced naturally within the brain (such as serotonin or dopamine), but they are also sensitive to chemical messengers created outside your body (such as CBD and THC). Once these compounds travel through your bloodstream, they arrive at the brain and influence brain activity by acting on receptors.

Why THC Does Get You High

In contrast to CBD, the shape of THC’s molecule means that it is ideal for CB1 receptor connection. When that connection happens, THC activates the CB1 receptors. The naturally produced neurotransmitter anandamide is known as the ‘bliss molecule,’ and THC copies it partially. Anandamide also activates CB1 receptors and is known for, amongst other things, increasing the level of pleasure that we receive when consuming food. It also plays important roles in memory, pain, and motivation.

Overall, CBD does not stimulate the CB1 or CB2 receptor, but it does activate other receptors such as serotonin and adenosine. A good example of CBD in action is its impact on the TRPV-1 receptor, which ensures it plays a role in inflammation and pain perception. CBD also inhibits the FAAH enzyme which is a compound that activates the CB1 receptor. As a result, CBD minimizes THC’s activation of CB1, which reduces its psychoactive effects.

Left: THC directly stimulates the CB1 receptor. This interaction underlies the major psychoactive effects of Cannabis consumption. Right: CBD reduces, or “antagonizes,” THC’s ability to stimulate CB1 receptors. This can decrease some of THC’s effects, especially negative effects like anxiety and short-term memory impairment.

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How does that work in real life? Let’s say you vaporize cannabis flower with 24 percent THC. If that flower has 0.2 percent CBD, the THC is going to excite your CB1 receptors with almost no interference from CBD. You may feel extremely high, and you might also experience some of the less desirable effects of THC, such as a heightened feeling of paranoia. If you consume cannabis with 24 percent THC and 6 percent CBD, though, the CBD should have a dampening effect on the THC. You’ll still feel high, but perhaps not stupefyingly so—and the CBD should help keep the paranoia in check.

This difference has had profound political implications. As the founders of Project CBD have noted, some have mistakenly labeled THC the “bad cannabinoid” and CBD the “good cannabinoid.” Legislators have passed many “CBD-only” laws in Southern states in an effort to allow patients access to this potent cannabinoid while prohibiting its euphoric sibling. But the pioneering cannabis researcher Raphael Mechoulam has often spoken of the “entourage effect,” the idea that cannabinoids and terpenes may work better together than in isolation. The GW Pharma product Sativex, for example, is a drug approved outside the U.S. for treatment of MS-related muscle spasticity. Sativex contains with a nearly 1:1 CBD-to-THC ratio.

We now realize that cannabinoids can modulate various physiologic systems in the human body and brain. The U.S. Government has sponsored a large amount of pre-clinical research which shows that CBD has enormous potential, including anti-tumoral, anti-psychotic, and anti-convulsive properties. Scientists working with the International Cannabinoid Research Society (ICRS) have discovered a variety of molecular pathways (at least 60) that CBD has a therapeutic effect on.

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