THC and CBD: What Is the Difference Between Hemp and Marijuana?

Wednesday, July 17, 2019 9 min

There was a time, before the discovery of active cannabis components like THC and CBD, when people would judge a strain based on its subjective effect alone. Then, medical marijuana paved the way for standardized testing procedures, and now the terms THC and CBD seem to surface in all corners of the media. Yet even now, there are many who are unsure about the distinctions between major types of cannabis.

In this article, we’ll take a look at what separates THC from CBD and the difference between hemp and marijuana. We’ll also talk about the legality of hemp under recent federal legislation and take a look at the CBD extraction process.

Talking about cannabis is like talking about roses. Most people have an idea of what cannabis is, but there are hundreds of varieties, each with different characteristics. Some have large amounts of THC, and some have large amounts of CBD. Some have negligible amounts of both and are used for other industrial applications. The market for cannabis products is as varied as the plants themselves, so let’s start with some cannabis biology basics.

Cannabis: The Difference Between CBD and THC Explained

Cannabis plants contain at least 113 compounds found to affect the human body on a neurological level, and these are known as cannabinoids. Cannabinoids interact with the human body’s endocannabinoid system by binding to receptors throughout the nervous system. However, this does not mean all 113 of these compounds are psychoactive or that their effects are even perceptible to users. Only a few cannabinoids produce noticeable effects, and cannabis plants are cultivated to emphasize these components.

THC is the primary compound responsible for the psychoactive effects of cannabis. The modern recreational cannabis market boasts a plethora of THC products — everything from high-potency flower strains to THC-infused baking ingredients. However, THC is still a Schedule 1 controlled substance under federal law and is only legal or decriminalized in certain states.

The other major cannabinoid cultivated for its effects is CBD. CBD is used to treat chronic pain, insomnia, and some forms of epilepsy. CBD on its own has no psychoactive effect and appeals to people looking for treatments that won’t alter their state of mind.

In fact, the FDA approved a CBD treatment called Epidolex in 2018. It was the first CBD treatment to be approved by the FDA and is used to help patients with two forms of epilepsy: Dravet syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome. Because CBD is non-psychoactive, this treatment is even approved for use with children.

 To better understand the difference between CBD and THC, let’s touch on the plant varieties that they can come from: hemp and marijuana.

 Hemp and marijuana are both general terms that have historically been used to talk about cannabis as a whole, as well as to distinguish between varieties of cannabis. In the past, hemp commonly referred to cannabis that was cultivated for non-psychoactive use, while marijuana stood for cannabis grown for the opposite purpose.

The cannabis industry is becoming more standardized each year; with the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill (more on that below), the definition of hemp was refined further. Hemp now includes any strain or variety of cannabis that contains 0.3% THC (at dry weight) or less. Any variety of cannabis containing more than 0.3% THC would not be considered hemp.

Hemp can have low THC and high CBD, or it can have low levels of both. Hemp plants with insignificant levels of both cannabinoids are used for other applications (hemp milk, clothing, building material), while high-CBD hemp is used for CBD products like tinctures, oils, and topical ointments.

In addition to cannabinoids, cannabis plants also contain a class of compounds called terpenes. Terpenes are primarily known for their flavor and scent characteristics, though their potential medicinal effects are also being studied. Terpenes are responsible for the scents of citrus fruits, pine trees, lavender, and more. In cannabis, terpenes give different plants particular flavors and smells. As the cannabis market becomes more sophisticated, consumers begin to look for extracts that are enhanced with the plant’s terpenes. Many extraction methods destroy terpenes, but it’s possible to save and isolate terpenes using supercritical CO2.

CBD Without THC: Is Hemp Legal?

In recent years, the market for CBD products had expanded dramatically. However, until recently, hemp-derived CBD was still controlled by the federal government as a Schedule 1 substance. Certain states had decriminalized or legalized it, but it was still technically illegal according to Washington. This created problems for the industry as a whole, from growers to consumers, and many people who would otherwise have used hemp CBD chose to go without it.

Enter the Hemp Farming Act of 2018. This act removed hemp plants from the Schedule 1 substance list and legalized the production of low-THC hemp at the federal level. It became law as part of the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (also known as the 2018 Farm Bill).

The bill did not delineate which strains of cannabis are considered hemp, but rather clarified the definition of hemp by THC content — less than 0.3% by dry weight, as mentioned above. This change in hemp’s legal classification gave it full status as an agricultural product. Under the law, hemp-derived CBD products are now regulated as health supplements rather than illegal substances. People are free to produce hemp CBD in the US, and consumers are free to purchase and use it.

The 2018 Farm Bill affected more than just the production and consumption of hemp products. The bill also made the national banking system accessible to hemp farmers. It allowed farmers to market their products, apply for research grants, and obtain crop insurance. Previously, all these areas were off-limits to hemp farmers.

How to Separate CBD and THC: Supercritical CO2 Extraction

Cannabis plants can be cultivated to contain as much as 20% CBD, and people can use or consume a high-CBD strain of cannabis on its own using traditional methods like vaporization or ingestion. However, today’s consumers look for reliable products that offer a higher potency of CBD. They may also seek a cannabis product that doesn’t carry the cultural stigma that unrefined marijuana does. People who want to cater to this market need to know how to separate THC and CBD by extraction.

Extracting different compounds from a mixture is nothing new. Brewing coffee or tea uses heat and liquid to extract flavors and caffeine out of plant material. In industrial applications, extraction is often accomplished by using a solvent such as butane or ethanol.

Both butane and ethanol are used for cannabis extraction. However, these solvents pose safety hazards if not handled properly. Even if a butane extraction lab is monitored successfully, consumers may also have apprehensions about purchasing a product that came in contact with butane.

One of the best ways of separating CBD and THC is supercritical CO2 extraction (also called scCO2 extraction). The CO2 extraction process has all the benefits of using a solvent without the significant safety risks. The properties of scCO2 make it “tunable” for the purpose of extracting specific compounds. This means an extraction can increase the extraction efficiency of CBD only, on CBD and terpenes, or just on terpenes.

Supercritical CO2 has also been used in the food and beverage industry for many years because of its safety. Caffeine can be separated from coffee beans using scCO2, and scCO2 is used to remove pesticides from herbs. It’s also used to decrease the amount of fat in certain cheeses.

This extraction method uses heat and pressure to transform CO2 into its supercritical state. In this state, CO2 behaves like both a liquid and a gas when dissolving certain compounds from plant matter. Specifically, the surface tension of scCO2 is lower than that of regular liquids, which allows it to penetrate pores in plant material more rapidly. With slight variations in temperature and pressure, the phase of the scCO2 can be changed to dissolve specific organic compounds while leaving others.

Supercritical CO2 is also known for being a green solvent and is carbon neutral; CO2 is captured from the environment, used one or more times, and released back into the environment. The result of the process is a pure extract, whereas products obtained using other solvents need to be purified after extraction. This makes scCO2 a safe and reliable way to create high-potency CBD oil without THC. Once the oil is extracted, a secondary process called fractional distillation can be used to refine the extract even further.

In the past, the CO2 extraction process was cost-prohibitive for smaller operations. However, recent improvements in technology now allow for the production of safe, tabletop scCO2 extractors like the SuperC Extractor. A tabletop CO2 extraction kit allows for the creation of small batches without specialized facilities.

Tabletop CO2 Extractor: The SuperC Tabletop Supercritical CO2 Extractor

Thanks to the 2018 Farm Bill, the hemp market is booming and should continue to do so for the foreseeable future. The market hit $3.74 billion in 2018 and is expected to grow to $5.73 billion by 2020. Hemp-derived CBD gives consumers a way to enjoy the medicinal benefits of CBD without THC. A recent study found that 9% of people under 35 have tried CBD products, and that number can be expected to grow as CBD becomes available to more people.

Supercritical CO2 extraction lets companies and startups get in on the action. The SuperC Tabletop Extractor from OCO Labs doesn’t require an expensive installation; it can run on a standard power outlet and any standard CO2 tank. An operation outfitted with the SuperC can produce high-grade concentrates and extracts to satisfy the evolving CBD consumer.

The approval of Epidolex signifies that the FDA is ready to view CBD as a safe and effective option for consumers. It may only be a matter of time until the FDA approves CBD as an ingredient in general, and when that happens, CBD may become the new Ibuprofen. A tabletop scCO2 extractor is the best way to take advantage of the CBD market now and prepare for the future.

We update our blog regularly, so stay tuned for the latest on how to separate THC and CBD, cannabis-derived extracts, supercritical CO2 extraction, and much more!