What’s the difference between CBD and medical cannabis?

cbd vs medical marijuana

What’s the difference between CBD and medical cannabis?

  • CBD is a non-intoxicating cannabis compound derived from hemp (low-THC cannabis)
  • Medical cannabis may contain higher levels of THC and is prescribed for certain health conditions
  • Medical cannabis may have intoxicating effects, causing a high, whereas consumer CBD products have non-detectable levels of THC, so they won’t cause a high
  • Medical cannabis and CBD share some uses and benefits, while others are distinct
  • CBD products are easier to access because they’re considered food supplements

You’ve probably heard of medical cannabis and/or CBD. CBD products are being increasingly bought and used, as people are learning about their potential health benefits. Many people are seeking more natural ways of supporting their health and are turning to CBD.

But many people are confused about the difference between the two. Although CBD and medical marijuana are both derived from the Cannabis sativa plant, they’re distinct preparations. 

Here’s a look at their key differences, including effects, uses, consumption methods, and more. 

What is marijuana and where does it come from?

There are two kinds of cannabis (Cannabis sativa) plants: hemp and marijuana. Hemp plants used to extract CBD oil must contain no more than 0.2% tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the compound that gets you high. Meanwhile, marijuana is cannabis rich in THC, containing an average of about 14%.

The term also refers to the dried flowers of these high-THC plants, which are typically consumed by smoking for their intoxicating and medical effects. This is what most people mean when they talk about marijuana.

What is medical cannabis?

Medical marijuana refers to Cannabis sativa preparations utilized as medicine. Marijuana has been used to relieve symptoms and treat conditions for centuries, with records going back as far as Ancient China and Egypt

cbd vs medical cannabis

What is the difference between marijuana and medical marijuana?

The only major difference is that regular marijuana is used recreationally whereas the other is taken for medical reasons. Marijuana is typically smoked, with all the health risks of tobacco smoking. Medical cannabis may be taken in several ways, such as by vaping or in spray form.

There are also three prescription-only medical cannabis drugs: Sativex, Nabilone, and Epidyolex. But they’re not usually considered medical Cannabis.

Is medical cannabis safe?

Medical cannabis may have unwanted effects, such as causing a high or inducing anxiety, but careful adjustment of the dosage by the prescribing doctor can avoid this.

Is medical cannabis legal?

Medical cannabis was legalized in the UK in 2018. It’s also legal in most U.S. states and many countries around the world, including Canada, Israel, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, and much of Europe. But it does require a doctor’s approval and prescription.

What is medical cannabis used for?

Medical cannabis is most commonly prescribed for:

  • Chronic pain
  • Glaucoma
  • Alzheimer’s disease, Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and other neurodegenerative conditions
  • Nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy
  • Muscle spasms and multiple sclerosis
  • Poor appetite and weight loss associated with HIV/AIDS and other serious conditions
  • Insomnia and other sleep disorders
  • Anxiety, depression, and PTSD
  • Epilepsy

Does it have any side effects?

The possible side effects of medical marijuana include:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Dry mouth
  • Dizziness
  • Impaired concentration, memory, and motor coordination
  • Slowed reaction time
  • Altered perception of time
  • Increased appetite
  • Hallucinations and psychosis
  • Anxiety, paranoia, and panic attacks

The extent of the side effects depends on many factors, including the dose, THC and CBD content, and individual biochemistry. Medical cannabis also has the potential to be addictive and cause withdrawal symptoms when discontinued. 

You should always talk to your doctor to get a better understanding of how medical cannabis might affect you.

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What is CBD?

Alongside THC, cannabidiol (CBD) is one of the main active compounds found in the Cannabis sativa plant. Both belong to a group of over 140 substances called phytocannabinoids, which can produce a wide variety of health effects by interacting with our body’s receptors. 

But unlike THC, CBD is non-intoxicating so it doesn’t cause a high. CBD is present in both marijuana and hemp varieties of cannabis, although most CBD products are derived from hemp.

This also explains why CBD products don’t necessarily contain just CBD. Depending on the type of extract used, they can also contain other cannabinoids, terpenes, flavonoids, and other natural hemp compounds.

CBD products are treated as food supplements, so you don’t need a prescription to buy them.

Interested in delving into the world of CBD? Explore our article titled “What is CBD” for comprehensive insights and information.


What are the potential benefits of CBD?

Similar to THC and marijuana, CBD has a long list of potential health benefits. Research suggests that it may be helpful for:

Some of these uses are backed by high-quality clinical evidence while others have only been investigated in animal or cell culture studies. Further human research is needed

Is CBD legal?

Hemp-derived CBD is legal in the UK as long as it meets some requirements:

  • It’s sourced from hemp containing no more than 0.2% THC
  • CBD products can’t contain more than 1mg THC per container
  • CBD flower products are illegal

Hemp and by extension CBD are also legal in the United States, Canada, and many other countries.

Does CBD have any side effects?

Although researchers consider CBD a safe substance, it can cause some mild side effects, including:

  • Fatigue
  • Diarrhoea and nausea
  • Dry mouth
  • Low blood pressure
  • Lightheadedness
  • Changes in appetite or weight
  • Drug interactions

But these side effects have only been reported in studies using high oral doses of purified CBD. These doses are higher than the recommended max daily dose of 70mg, so most CBD users are unlikely to experience adverse effects. 

CBD vs medical cannabis: The main differences

CBD and medical cannabis differ in many ways, including their effects, uses, consumption methods, and accessibility. 

The most important difference is that medical cannabis is available only on prescription, whereas CBD products may be bought over the counter and online.

Although CBD products can contain up to 0.2% THC, it’s not enough to cause intoxication in most people. That’s why those looking for the benefits of marijuana without the high opt for CBD instead.

medical cannabis vs cbd

One cannabinoid vs the whole plant

Another important difference is that CBD is a single cannabinoid, whereas medical marijuana is typically a whole-plant preparation or extract rich in THC and dozens of other phytocannabinoids, terpenes, flavonoids, and more. Medical marijuana also contains CBD but usually in small amounts.

But keep in mind that CBD products can also contain other cannabinoids and terpenes if they’re made with whole-plant hemp extract. Such products are called full-spectrum or broad-spectrum.

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Benefits and uses

The benefits also differ. While many of the uses of CBD and medical cannabis overlap, such as supporting healthy sleep and lowering inflammation, some are distinct. 

For example, CBD is commonly used for anxiety, whereas medical marijuana is more popular for treating chronic pain, nausea, and low appetite.

Consumption methods

CBD and medical cannabis are also consumed in different ways. CBD is most commonly taken in the form of CBD oil, as well as gummies, capsules, and vape products.


CBD and medical marijuana both come from the Cannabis sativa plant. But they’re distinct remedies. CBD is a single cannabinoid that’s sourced from hemp (low-THC cannabis), whereas medical cannabis is a whole-plant preparation derived from marijuana (high-THC cannabis). 

CBD products are usually chosen by people who want to avoid the intoxicating effects of marijuana, with CBD oil being the most popular product. 

Meanwhile, medical marijuana is the more common choice for serious issues that haven’t been effectively addressed by standard medicine, such as chronic pain.

Disclaimer: There is currently insufficient evidence to support the use of CBD in the condition(s) mentioned above and this text by no means reflects recommended uses. Always seek the advice of your healthcare professional if you are taking prescribed medication or are thinking of using CBD for your condition.

Written by Gleb Oleinik and reviewed by our qualified expert, Moyra Cosgrove, Head of Nutrition at Naturecan, SENR Registered Nutritionist and DProf candidate at LJMU


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