What Is CBD and Is It Legal? What You Need to Know

If you have questions about CBD, where it comes from, whether it’s legal or not, and others then you’ve come to the right place. Much of the misunderstanding about hemp stems from its close relationship with marijuana over the years and, yes, they are different. CBD is largely derived from hemp. The only way to truly understand how CBD and THC are different, and hemp and marijuana are different, is to compare them side-by-side.
 
Some of the information we cover can be quite technical. There are links to resources throughout that may help you to understand or provide you additional information you might be looking for.
 
Below, we will cover:
  • Definitions of hemp and marijuana
  • Non-CBD uses of hemp
  • Types of hemp derived CBD products
  • Scientific differences between CBD and THC
  • The human endocannabinoid system
  • Hemp derived CBD benefits
  • The legality of hemp, marijuana, CBD, and THC
 

Answering the Question: What is Hemp?

Even with the increasing popularity of hemp derived CBD products, many aren’t aware of just what hemp is or who misunderstand the difference between hemp and marijuana. Much of the misunderstanding stems from the close relationship between the two, both scientifically and legally.
 
To truly understand what hemp is, then, we must take a look at marijuana as well.
 

Hemp vs Marijuana

The Congressional Research Service made the difference between marijuana and hemp clear in their “Defining Hemp: A Fact Sheet” report, published in March of 2019. They state: “…marijuana generally refers to the cultivated plant used as a psychotropic drug [and] hemp is cultivated for use in the production of a wide range of products…”
 
The term marijuana should only be used when talking about Cannabis sativa plants that have been grown only for their psychoactive properties. This means the cannabis plants that get you “high” or make you feel “stoned.”
 
Hemp refers to a separate variety of plants within the same species. Hemp plants may still contain THC but only as much as 0.3%. However, the levels of CBD that are present are much, much higher than those in marijuana. Not only can hemp be used to produce CBD oil and other CBD products but many other non-CBD products as well.
 

Non-CBD Uses of Hemp

While the use of hemp as a medicinal treatment due to its high CBD content can be traced back over thousands of years, its cultivation for use as fiber can be dated as far back at 8,000 BCE to ancient Mesopotamia. Hemp can be utilized for everything from making cloth or rope to construction materials that are used to build homes and other buildings. Likely, hemp was first used for non-CBD purposes long before medicinal effects were realized.
 
  • Construction Materials: While growing, the hemp plant pulls silica from the soil. This silica builds up inside the core of the trunk and branches of the plant and can be mixed with lime to create a material like cement. This material is ideal for home construction because it’s fireproof and waterproof.
  • Fiber: The same qualities that make hemp a waterproof construction material also makes it a waterproof fiber that can be used to create textiles such as fabric, canvas, and carpet. Due to the cannabis plant being made illegal in the early 20th century, both marijuana and hemp, its place as a strong, natural fiber was nearly forgotten.
  • Food and Nutrition: Most of the nutrition of the hemp plant is found in its seeds. The seeds contain no CBD but contain high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids and other nutrients that make them a healthy addition to your diet. Hemp seed oil can be used when cooking as well as on the skin and hair.
 

Common Hemp-Derived CBD Products

Today, hemp’s growing popularity is due to its high levels of CBD. While many civilizations throughout history realized that the hemp plant had medicinal properties, no one knew just how or why it worked. It wasn’t until 1944 AD that the cannabinoid compound was discovered and then referred to as CBD. While it still took several decades for CBD to carve out its place in the medical world, many CBD products became available.
 
  • CBD Oil: The oil is naturally present and must be extracted from the plant. This can be done in many ways, but the most common ways are to use CO2, olive oil, or ethanol. These methods leave minimal residue, if any, which makes the final product as pure as possible.
  • CBD Topicals: It is the extracted oils that are incorporated into a neutral topical base that produces the lotions, creams, salves, or balms that many people use for targeted pain relief. The base for the topical may provide additional benefits such as moisturization or essential oil fragrance.
  • Edibles: Depending on what type of edibles are being produced, the recipes may call for CBD oil, CBD butter, or other ingredients that can be created from the hemp plant. Hemp derived CBD oil is used to make the butter that can then be used in more traditional food recipes.
  • Vaping and Smoking: Hemp derived CBD oils can be produced for the sole purpose of vaping. Because vaping requires heating the oil to a point where the vapor is produced, these oils have a higher heat threshold. They can reach a higher temperature without burning. The flower of the hemp plant can be smoked in many of the same ways as marijuana. These hemp plants are grown specifically for their high CBD content.
  • Capsules and Pills: Hemp derived CBD can be incorporated into many other products to be consumed for medicinal benefits. Capsules and pills containing the oil from the plant are a popular consumption method as its discreet and can allow for much more exact dosing.
 

Answering the Question: What is CBD?

We’ve answered the question of “What is hemp?” by defining it in comparison to marijuana. Now, we can answer the question of “What is CBD?” by comparing it to THC, it’s close cousin that is very different in very important ways.
 

CBD vs THC: Scientific Similarities

Once scientists realized there was a difference between CBD and THC in 1944, even more scientific studies have helped to pinpoint just how different or similar the compounds are. This research has been vital in discovering how each compound works in the body to produce various effects.
 
On a molecular level, CBD and THC are made of the same number of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms. The only difference at this level is the location of just one of these atoms. However, this small difference in the arrangement of the atoms makes a big difference when it comes to how each compound affects the body.
 
It was over 40 years after the discovery of CBD that the human endocannabinoid system was discovered. Only then could scientists truly understand how and why CBD affects the human body.
 

The Endocannabinoid System

The cannabis plant contains 85 cannabinoids that we are aware of currently. There may be more that have yet to be found, but the most well-known and abundant cannabinoid compounds are THC and CBD. Scientists have discovered two different cannabinoid receptors in the human body that interact with CBD. However, because of the slight difference in the molecular structure of THC and CBD, these receptors cannot interact with THC.  The location of just one atom changes the way our bodies are affected by each compound.
 
The first endocannabinoid system was discovered in 1988 and was named CB1. The receptors that make up this system are largely found in the brain. They are responsible for basic psychological functions like memory, emotion, cognition, and motor coordination. Five short years later, the second endocannabinoid system was discovered and named CB2. These receptors are found throughout the entire nervous system and affect the body’s immune function as well.
 
Scientists have theorized that the endocannabinoid system is what is responsible for the positive effects we see from the use of hemp derived CBD products like oils, tinctures, topicals, and more. For example, a CBD lotion applied to an achy knee will quickly reach the nervous system in that area and affect how the body feels pain in that specific location.
 

Benefits of CBD

Now that scientists understand how CBD affects the body, it’s easier to understand how the use of hemp derived CBD results in so many benefits. CBD affects the brain and nervous systems that run throughout the entire body. CBD is being studied extensively by government-backed agencies and even private institutions all over the world. While many medical uses are still being investigated, many have already seen positive effects of CBD for many physical and mental ailments.
 
  • Chronic Pain and Inflammation: While medical studies have only proven that hemp derived CBD reduces pain and inflammation in lab studies, many users advocate for CBD use having experienced it firsthand. Still, the National Institutes of Health is already well into their research to discover the exact link between hemp derived CBD and chronic pain.
  • Anxiety and Mood Disorders: Through the CB1 receptors in the brain, hemp derived CBD can help to calm strong emotions such as anxiety. While scientific and medical research is still being conducted to help determine the best strains, forms of consumption, and dosages for the treatment of anxiety disorders like PTSD and mood disorders like depression, many are already using CBD products to reduce anxiety and regulate mood.
  • Seizure Disorders: The FDA has approved a medication that is based on the compounds present in cannabis, namely CBD, for use in treating rare and severe seizure disorders. There has been overwhelming evidence through many case studies that CBD affects the nervous system in a way that reduces instances of seizures. The most notable case is that of Charlotte Figi who began having seizures at just 3 months old.
  • Substance Abuse Withdrawals: The National Institutes of Health has already begun intensive medical studies, trying to determine the exact benefits of CBD for addicts looking for a path to sobriety. There is already significant evidence that hemp derived CBD can reduce the severity of addiction withdrawal symptoms and lower the risk of the addict returning to the harmful behavior.
  • Heart and Brain Health: Studies currently underway sponsored by the National Institutes of Mental Health, or NIMH, are already showing promising results as they analyze the effects of CBD on better circulation to the brain and how higher levels of antioxidants can help reduce the chance for stroke. The British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology has published a report detailing their findings of reduced inflammation and tissue damage in the heart through a pharmaceutical CBD oil. The National Institutes of Health back up these findings.
 

Is CBD Legal?

During the 1950s, the US turned hemp from an agricultural commodity into an illegal product. It was then strictly controlled by the DEA, or Drug Enforcement Agency. Before then, the US Department of Agriculture not only supported hemp as a crop but encouraged it. When things changed, there were no distinctions between CBD and THC or between hemp and marijuana. They then had the same categorization under federal law.
 
Things changed with the 2014 farm bill where industrial hemp was given its own definition that helped separate it from its cousin, marijuana. While this distinction helped relax some of the regulations that were previously placed on hemp, it was the Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018 that brought real change.
 
The original definition of hemp that was made law in 1946 is similar to its definition now. In summary, hemp is the Cannabis sativa plant, all parts of the plant, and everything made from the plant that contains no more than 0.3% THC, measured by dry weight. It can be cultivated legally as hemp with USDA approval.
 
Marijuana, now separated at the federal level from hemp, is still a Schedule I controlled substance due to its psychoactive properties, or ability to give you a high. There are no limits placed on marijuana for just how much THC or CBD it can or can’t contain.
 
After the Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018 went into effect, hemp now has the same standing it did before the 1950s when regulations regarding the cannabis plant, including hemp, were put in place.
 
What do all these new definitions, laws, and regulations mean? It means that CBD produced from hemp that contains no more than 0.3% THC is legal in the United States at the federal level while marijuana is still a controlled substance.