CBD has been the motor powering the cannabis legalization movement. As the part of the plant deemed ‘non-psychoactive’, CBD has gotten a pass that the rest of the plant has not. And this is great! But it’s also led to some rather intense confusion, and longstanding misconceptions.
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Why are we talking about CBD?
CBD – cannabidiol – came into the spotlight around 2018, with the advent of the most recent US Farm Bill. The US Farm Bill is a range of legislation that governs the agricultural world, like what can be grown and how, crop insurance for farmers, farmer training, sustainable farming practices, and ways to get healthy food for low-income families. Basically, anything covered under farming and food, is governed by the Farm Bill, which is put out every five years (approximately).
The 2014 Farm Bill legalized ‘non-viable hemp material’ sales in states with participation in the Hemp Pilot Program. The 2018 Us Farm Bill removed hemp from the Controlled Substances list, making the production and sale of products possible on a large scale. Since cannabis is federally illegal, in order to do this, the definition for ‘hemp’ was set at the following, allowing for a break from the rest of the plant and the ability for a different set of regulatory laws:
“…the plant Cannabis Sativa L. and any part of that plant, including the seeds thereof and all derivatives, extracts, cannabinoids, isomers, acids, salts, and salts of isomers, whether growing or not, with a delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol concentration of not more than 0.3 percent on a dry weight basis.”
Effects of the Farm Bill
This, of course, opened up a huge debate about the legality of compounds like delta-8 THC, which is minutely different from delta-9 THC. Though delta-8’s illegality is based on several factors including the Federal Analogue Act, and the inability to have more than .3% in a finished product (as specified by the Interim Final Rule and Final Rule), the US government did make a quiet move to ban it fully by officially putting the words ‘delta-8 THC’ on the Controlled Substances list (page 17). It was updated to include in ‘other names’ for ‘tetrahydrocannabinols’, “THC, Delta-8 THC, Delta-9 THC, dronabinol and Others”, with the ‘and others’ denoting any other relevant compound with the same chemical formula.
However, though delta 8 THC didn’t make it, it did create itself a little industry. And more importantly than that, CBD became the new darling of the medical world. The basis for this is that CBD is not psychoactive like other components of the plant. Since CBD can be easily sourced from low-THC hemp plants, the compound was able to slip through to legalization, even getting a global legalization by being rescheduled in the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs treaty in 2020.
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What does ‘psychoactive’ mean, and does it apply to CBD?
According to ScienceDirect, the definition of a psychoactive drug is a “chemical substance that acts primarily upon the central nervous system where it alters brain function, resulting in temporary changes in perception, mood, consciousness and behavior.” The site goes on to make this statement, which is highly important:
“These drugs may be used recreationally to purposefully alter one’s consciousness (such as coffee, alcohol or cannabis), as entheogens for spiritual purposes (such as the mescaline-containing peyote cactus or psilocybin-containing mushrooms), and also as medication (such as the use of narcotics in controlling pain, stimulants to treat narcolepsy and attention disorders, as well as anti-depressants and anti-psychotics for treating neurological and psychiatric illnesses).”
If you’ll notice, this includes some of the main functional medical components of CBD – it controls pain, can treat attention disorders, and is considered for its anti-depressant effects. In fact, I doubt there’s anyone out there who can say they took CBD, and didn’t feel different. That feeling different is a psychoactive effect, and CBD most certainly creates it. CBD is a psychoactive compound, and I say this as a statement, since it meets the medical definition of psychoactive. It just doesn’t cause euphoria.
Where did this ‘non-psychoactive’ idea come from, when it so obviously is by definition? The term ‘psychoactive’ in the context of CBD, seems to have been confused with the idea of being ‘very high’ or intoxicated. My guess, is that to show CBD doesn’t create the same kind of high as other parts of the plant, the term ‘non-psychoactive’ was applied. Does it really not make a person high? I’ve taken it plenty of times, and I’d say the feeling it gives is tantamount to a minor high, and even without that, it certainly changed how I was feeling.
Unfortunately, with a massive market out there that depends on marketing strategies to sell products, and tons of writers trying to make a buck, these inconsistencies have been repeated over time until they became a part of standard culture, so much so that they’re not questioned anymore. Until someone like me feels like writing about it.
CBD might be a THC
This to me is the much more interesting misconception about CBD. The term ‘THC’ is often used colloquially to refer specifically to ‘delta-9 THC’, the standard THC associated with cannabis plants. But that’s the equivalent of using slang, it doesn’t modify the actual definition. In fact, the term ‘THC’, simply denotes the term ‘tetrahydrocannabinols’. The term ‘tetrahydrocannabinols’ – which is the term found in the Controlled Substances list as a Schedule I substance, regulated by DEA criminal code 7370 – refers to many different compounds.
The reason for this, is that it denotes a chemical formula. All drugs on the Controlled Substances list, are ultimately attached to their chemical formulas. The chemical formula for tetrahydrocannabinols is this: C21H30O2. If you’re thinking ‘that makes sense, that’s the chemical formula for THC’, you’re correct! That goes for delta-9 THC, delta-8 THC, delta-10 THC, or any other delta THC. This is because they are all isomers of each other, in this case, stereoisomers, that are completely identical except for the placement of a double bond.
An isomer in general, refers to two compounds that have the exact same chemical formula, but differ in structure. There are different kinds of isomers depending on how the structures differ from each other. Delta-8 and delta-9 are double bond stereoisomers because they differ only in the placement of a double bond.
This is where it gets trickier. CBD has the same chemical formula as delta-9 THC. The two compounds are isomers of each other. By definition of having that chemical formula, CBD could be defined as a tetrahydrocannabinol as well. Much like with the term ‘psychoactive’ to denote ‘high’, it seems this may have been made purposefully confusing to users, but not for a bad reason. Let’s be honest, chemistry ain’t easy, and most people aren’t functionally trained to understand it.
Trying to explain to the masses – who are only just becoming okay with cannabis – that the component being pushed for its medical benefits is the same chemical formula as the part of the plant that’s been demonized for decades, would’ve been more difficult.
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The idea that CBD fits under the umbrella term of tetrahydrocannabinols is backed up in the medical-dictionary, where the first definition of ‘tetrahydrocannabinol’ is: “the active principle of cannabis, occurring in two isomeric forms, both considered psychomimetically active.” This implies both delta-9 and CBD, though neither is directly stated.
The second definition is: “A compound, C21H30O2, obtained from cannabis or made synthetically, that is the primary intoxicant in marijuana and hashish.” It could be argued this only relates to delta-9, but as ‘delta-9’ isn’t specifically stated, and the wording is ‘a compound’ with the chemical formula, it doesn’t rule out other compounds then delta-9. The idea that CBD IS psychoactive means it can be called an ‘intoxicant’. Let’s remember that caffeine is considered an intoxicant, and it doesn’t make a person high.
And a third definition: “Tetrahydrocannabinol – Any of a family of compounds present in Cannabis sativa var indica, the major constituent of which is the Δ1-3,4-trans isomer, 9Δ-THC.” Though this doesn’t rule out that only delta THCs are included, along with the other two definitions, it points to both CBD and delta-9 being included.
When looking at the DEA’s 2003 Clarification of Listing of “Tetrahydrocannabinols” in Schedule I, it actually specifically says this: “Furthermore, the commonly understood meaning of “Tetrahydrocannabinols” includes both natural THC and synthetic THC, since “Tetrahydrocannabinols” is simply a name that refers collectively to a category of chemicals–regardless of whether such chemicals occur in nature or are synthesized in a laboratory.” While this is technically talking about classifying synthetic THCs, it also backs up the idea that the term ‘tetrahydrocannabinols’, refers to a ‘category of chemicals’, NOT specifically delta-9 THC.
Why doesn’t the public know this?
By creating this separation, it allows the public to think of CBD differently. Part of the reason for this separation might have been for defining CBD as ‘non-psychoactive’, without the confusion of its half-brother delta-9 getting in the way. By creating a definition for hemp, CBD was able to legally move away from its delta half-brothers in terms of what it’s regulated by, but this does nothing to change the fact that its chemical definition, seems to be as a tetrahydrocannabinol. When looking back at the Farm Bill and the definition of hemp, you’ll notice it doesn’t use the term ‘THC’, it specifically names ‘delta-9 THC’, since simply saying ‘THC’, could include so many other compounds.
It should be mentioned, just because two compounds share the same chemical formula, it doesn’t mean they ever have to be scheduled the same. Delta-9 THC and CBD have different effects, related to their different configurations, so it does make sense to view them differently. In reference to drug scheduling lists, the DEA makes this statement: “These lists describe the basic or parent chemical and do not necessarily describe the salts, isomers and salts of isomers, esters, ethers and derivatives which may also be classified as controlled substances.” This means that though similar, related substances might be controlled the same way, they don’t have to be.
This is shown in this Wikipedia listing of different drugs that fall under the chemical formula of C21H30O2. Some of the entries on this list are actually hormones, which quite obviously would not put them under the title of tetrahydrocannabinols. In this listing, tetrahydrocannabinols are separate from CBDs, which does give more credence to the idea of them being two completely separate groups of cannabinoids.
In the end, it can probably be argued in either direction, as there is plenty to back up CBD as a tetrahydrocannabinol, and as a separate cannabinoid not under that heading. Of course, the medical dictionary definition does state that tetrahydrocannabinols are anything with that chemical formula that come from marijuana or hash (its good to remember here that ‘marijuana’ used to be the only term to denote the plant), and this would imply that even with non-cannabinoid compounds under the same formula that are obviously not THCs, that CBD is.
CBD, and its closely related isomers form their own group of cannabinoids. In today’s world, this category is looked at as being different from tetrahydrocannabinols, however, medical definitions seem to point in a different direction. Much like with ‘psychoactive’ starting to denote the term ‘high’, even though this is not a medical definition, so has ‘tetrahydrocannabinols’ been altered in common slang to denote only delta-9 THC, when in fact, it applies to many other compounds.
The idea that CBD is indeed psychoactive, or technically fits under the umbrella category of tetrahydrocannabinols, doesn’t make a lot of difference for most people, and it shouldn’t. I point this out today as a way of showing how information gets shifted, changed, and then repeated into what seems like truth. However, simply repeating things lots of times doesn’t make it true. CBD is psychoactive, and though it is within its own set of cannabinoids, it still remains the same chemical formula denoted by ‘tetrahydrocannabinols’.
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Disclaimer: Hi, I’m a researcher and writer. I’m not a doctor, lawyer, or businessperson. All information in my articles is sourced and referenced, and all opinions stated are mine. I am not giving anyone advise, and though I am more than happy to discuss topics, should someone have a further question or concern, they should seek guidance from a relevant professional.