Why Isn’t CBD Intoxicating? [The Science Behind It]

At the time of writing at least, cannabidiol (CBD) is legal for use in most locations within the United States, as long as it comes from industrial hemp and contains 0.3% of THC or less. It is one of over 100 compounds that have been identified in the marijuana plant, and the differences between these ‘cannabinoids’ are the reason why some get you ‘high’ and others don’t. Despite the fact that CBD comprises up to 40% of the cannabis plant’s extract, its multitude of uses has only been uncovered relatively recently.

Suggesting that CBD doesn’t have psychoactive properties is technically incorrect for reasons we will explain a little later on. However, CBD does not provide a ‘high’ to users which is why it has been used frequently as a medicine and therapy for children.

The recent impact of cannabidiol on Charlotte Figi, for example (the girl who used it to all but eliminate the hundreds of seizures she had each week as part of Dravet’s Syndrome), means it is now second only to tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in terms of famous cannabinoids. Of course, though, the legality of THC varies across the United States because it provides a ‘high’.

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.

It turns out that the ECS plays a major role in regulating our mood, physiology, and much more. Scientists discovered the CB1 and CB2 receptors in the body, which have a pharmacological response to cannabis.

Thanks to this research, 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.

Why Doesn’t CBD Get You High?

CB1 receptors are typically found in the central nervous system and brain, while CB2 receptors are in the immune system and vital organs for the most part. When it comes to getting ‘high,’ we are focusing on the CB1 receptors only. CBD is an antagonist of the CB1 agonists, which is just a fancy way of saying that it doesn’t suppress or activate CB1 receptors directly. In fact, it actually suppresses the CB1-activating capabilities of cannabinoids such as THC.

As a result, CBD works to counteract the psychoactive effects of THC. Therefore, you could smoke a high THC strain, but it wouldn’t get you especially high if it also contained an appreciable level of CBD.

As well as influencing receptor systems in the body, CBD does the same with the brain which has a huge number of neurons; these are specialized cells. Each neuron connects to others via structures known as ‘synapses.’ At these sites, neurons communicate by releasing neurotransmitters which are chemical messengers.

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.

The Entourage Effect

The rather confusing classification of CBD means we could be missing out on a substance with tremendous medicinal value. While CBD is effective as an isolated compound, it works even better when it operates in concert with other compounds in the marijuana plant. In what is known as the ‘entourage effect,’ the various therapeutic properties of the plant have a greater level of efficacy when combined and used together.

Why Calling CBD Non-Psychoactive is a Misnomer

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.

In short, here are three specific ways that CBD can effect the brain:

Elevated Mood

While it’s true that CBD doesn’t provide you with the same euphoric ‘high’ as THC, it does cause an increase in serotonin, which is the same compound impacted by anti-depressants. CBD engages the 5-HT1A receptor, which is one of the brain’s many serotonin receptors. A 2016 study by Linge et al. showed the effects of this impact on rodents.


CBD also reduces anxiety levels significantly. In a 2011 study by Bergamaschi et al., 12 people were given 600mg of CBD before they had to speak in public, and 12 others were given placebo. The CBD users reported major decreases in anxiety, while the placebo users showed no significant improvements. (Also, it is important to note that none of the users had ever tried CBD before).


The Charlotte Figi case is probably the best-known instance of CBD effectively reducing seizures. Figi has Dravet’s Syndrome, and before she started using CBD as a therapy, she was suffering hundreds of seizures a week. After receiving CBD from a strain renamed ‘Charlotte’s Web’ by the Stanley Brothers of Colorado, though, her seizures were reduced to only a handful per month, and they mainly occurred in her sleep.

Studies That Prove CBD is Non-Intoxicating

On December 13, 2017, no less an entity than the World Health Organization (WHO) published details of a report on CBD. They determined that CBD is not addictive, has no potential for abuse, and has shown ‘promise’ as a medical solution in a variety of trials. It followed on from a recommendation from the Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD), which concluded that there is no justification for classifying CBD as a Scheduled drug.

There have been dozens of studies that clearly show CBD does not possess the same intoxicating effects as THC. One of the earliest studies came way back in 1979 when 15 volunteers consumed 22mg of CBD. The subjects were tested at three intervals, the last at 220 minutes after consumption, and they did not display any slow down in motor coordination, reflex speed, or steadiness when standing.

Additionally, a 2012 study showed that CBD did not possess ‘sedative’ properties. 16 men were tested; one group received a placebo while the others consumed 600mg of CBD. They were tested 1, 2, and 3 hours after taking the CBD, and the volunteers showed no sign of physical or mental sedation.

And lastly, a 2017 study showed that CBD had no signs of abuse liability: a group of cannabis smokers were given CBD doses of between 200mg and 800mg, and in terms of measuring the high or the ‘street value’ assigned to the drug, the volunteers showed no difference from those on placebo.

Final Thoughts on CBD & Psychoactivity

CBD has a wide range of effects on the ECS, and although scientists have yet to grasp the entirety of CBD’s functions, all studies to date show that it has no intoxicating effects, nor is it harmful or addictive in any way. Epidiolex is a pure CBD product that is currently in Phase III trials, and it can be used by patients who suffer from epilepsy.

Other conditions that can be aided by CBD include anxiety, chronic pain, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and inflammatory bowel disease. Exciting new research also suggests that CBD could ultimately be used to fight against opioid addiction, and it may even be useful against psychosis (which coincidentally is a condition often linked with excessive THC consumption).

However, the conclusive evidence that CBD does not get you ‘high’ and only has good properties, hasn’t been enough to get the DEA to back down. CBD is still of course a part of the marijuana plant, so unless it comes from industrial hemp with less than 0.3% THC, it is subject to the same scheduling as cannabis.

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