By Katie E. Golden, MD

While marijuana is stuck behind a legislative roadblock in North Carolina, CBD products are quickly finding their way into grocery stores, mainstream shops, and bars across the state. CBD in your coffee, CBD in your cocktail, mixed into a muscle rub, infused into candy, sprinkled over your dog food – its purported benefits are endless and yet poorly understood. So before you accidentally get Fluffy high, let’s take some time to better understand cannabis products.

What is CBD?

CBD stands for cannabidiol, which is a molecule found in the cannabis plant. First, let’s get some definitions straight (warning: chemistry ahead).
● Cannabis refers to a group of plant species, some of which contain compounds with medicinal and mind-altering properties. It is the proper, scientific name of the ‘marijuana plant.’
● When you harvest and dry the cannabis plant (the flower of the plant, more specifically), you have marijuana.
● Hemp is another name for the cannabis plant; however, it refers to a version with low THC content (technically defined as cannabis that contains 0.3% or less THC by dry weight.)
● So then what is THC? THC stands for tetrahydrocannabinol and is a natural molecule found in the cannabis plant that is responsible for the ‘high’ people experience when they smoke or eat cannabis.
● Quick Recap . . .
○ Marijuana = Hemp = Cannabis
○ More specifically, Marijuana – THC = hemp = the boring version of dried cannabis
○ (You can’t do chemistry without a little math)

Now let’s talk about CBD, which is another molecule found in the cannabis plant. While it also has an effect on the chemicals in our brain, it does not produce the same ‘high’ that results from THC. Think of CBD as THC’s gentle, legal, straight-laced friend.

How does CBD work?

The CBD and THC molecules have a very similar structure, and both act on special receptors in the brain (called cannabinoid receptors). When these receptors are activated, they stimulate the release of several different ‘neurotransmitters’ in the brain (like serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine – the chemicals in our brain that affect our mood, thinking, and behavior). While both CBD and THC act on the same receptor, they bind to it in different ways, and CBD does not produce the classic ‘high’ that accounts for marijuana’s recreational use and popularity. In other words, while THC gives those brain receptors a nice big hug, CBD gives them a casual fist bump.

There is still A LOT to learn about how CBD affects the body, its therapeutic use, and the side effects. While we are only beginning to understand the product, there are claims it has the potential to alleviate symptoms that range from depression and anxiety to headaches and chronic pain, to inflammation and autoimmune disease. Scientists, however, are still trying to catch up to marijuana enthusiasts to study these claims (you think it wouldn’t be that hard . . . they don’t tend to run too fast).

How is it sold and dosed?

CBD is incorporated into products that you eat or drink, smoke (most often vaping), or apply to your skin. The typical ‘dose’ is highly variable and poorly studied, and depends on the person, the route of administration (oil, edible, topical cream, etc.), and the desired effect. It is also important to understand that these products are not regulated, so the listed concentration or dose may not be accurate or reliable. In fact, studies have shown that a CBD-labeled product may not even contain any CBD at all. (The sugar in regular gummy bears releases dopamine in the brain too, ya know.)

A word of caution . . .

Given the cannabis industry is not regulated, anyone choosing to use CBD should do so with caution. Not only can the dosing be unreliable, but many CBD products may contain unwanted THC. In a recent study, researchers found that THC was detected in the urine samples of 78% of participants using CBD-dominant products. So the take home point? You can’t always trust drug dealers, even if they are selling their products in the shape of gummy bears at your local grocery store. Be safe out there, Charlotte.