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Understanding the confusing world of CBD and THC ratios

The world of CBD-rich marijuana products is getting bigger.

This post is part of our High-tech High series, which explores weed innovations, and our cultural relationship with cannabis, as legalization in several U.S. states, Canada, and Uruguay moves the market further out of the shadows.

There’s a flurry of new numbers on marijuana product labels, and the ratios can feel like a confusing math problem.

But there’s a method to the madness — one based more on anecdotes than broadly recognized scientific research.

A variety of vape oils, tinctures, salves, and edibles with numbers like 18:1, 4:1, and 1:1 — noting the amount of CBD to THC — have been showing up at dispensaries in recent years in both medical and recreational states. THC will make you high, while its sister compound CBD generally won’t — and has therapeutic potential. Most marijuana strains have around 18 percent THC with less than 1 percent CBD (with THC sometimes being pushed beyond 20 percent).

The cannabis companies behind the trend aren’t chucking THC; they’re just flipping the ratios. For decades, growers have focused on breeding weed with increased amounts of THC. That’s still the case to a large degree, but a sliver of the market sees big things for CBD-rich marijuana products.

“They kept getting bred to go higher and higher in THC, so most strains have very low CBD,” said Dennis Hunter, cofounder of Cannacraft, a Santa Rosa cannabis producer with a line of CBD-rich products under the brand name Care by Design. “Now they’re starting to breed those to be higher and higher in CBD.”

Care by Design, and other companies like Pure Ratios in San Diego, use previous customers’ experiences to guide new users toward their preferred ratio.

But with scant evidence-backed scientific research regarding the impact of each ratio, consumers resort to trial and error to see what works for them.

A 1:1 CBD to THC vape pen.

Image: Care by Design

An 18:1 CBD to THC vape pen.

Image: Care by Design

CBD-rich products are marketed toward those seeking relief from anxiety, arthritis, seizures, stress, inflammation, and overall wellness, not necessarily a high. They’re also being used to ease those once spooked off by a bad marijuana experience back in. Baby boomers are Care by Design’s biggest growing customer base.

There are plenty of anecdotes from customers reporting life-changing relief with unregulated CBD-rich products, but it’s still a gamble and you’re the guinea pig. And these products aren’t cheap. Care by Design’s cartridges are $50 and its droppers are $40. Pure Ratios’ droppers are around $30. CBD oil made from hemp, which has less than 0.3 percent THC, from Bloom Farms, for example, ranges from $60 to $90.

Cinnamon Bidwell, a neurobiologist at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Institute of Cognitive Science, cautions not to get swept up in the testimonials promoted by cannabis manufacturers.

“The marketing and the consumer lure is far ahead of what the research can really support,” said Bidwell. That seems to be the case for marijuana in general since its classification as a so-called Schedule 1 drug — which means the federal government believes it has “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse” — makes it difficult to study. Bidwell’s lab, which is in a state that has legalized recreational marijuana, is conducting a 5-year study comparing the cannabinoids subjects ingest to what shows up in their bloodstreams in relation to clinical outcomes.

What’s more, all the ratios can be hard to understand. Care by Design offers five (18:1, 8:1, 4:1, 2:1, and 1:1), while Pure Ratios cut down to three (18:1, 4:1, and 1:1) because customers were confused by the variety, said CEO Chad Conner.

Image: Bob Al-Greene / Mashable

Here’s a rule of thumb: The higher the CBD, the less of a high you’ll get from the THC, both because there’s less of it and CBD generally combats THC’s psychoactive effects, depending on the amount of THC you’ve consumed, according to cannabis researchers and producers.

When you’re deciding which ratio is right for you, it’ll take some experimenting. Both Hunter and Conner suggest starting with a high-level of CBD and working your way down to a more balanced product. You’ll have to play around with the amount, too, but take it slow.

Care by Design sells a sampler pack to help in the guessing game. The ends of the spectrum, 18:1 or 1:1, are its best sellers; either consumers don’t want to feel psychoactive effects or they do, it seems.

The trial and error, Bidwell said, is what happens when cannabis products rush into the market before there’s sufficient research.

There is, however, a prescription 1:1 CBD to THC mouth spray called Sativex made in the UK and available in several countries including Spain, Germany, Canada, and Brazil that’s meant to treat spasms in MS patients. It’s undergoing clinical trials in the U.S. Epidiolex, the first FDA-approved cannabis-derived drug in the states, is high in CBD with trace amounts of THC (not enough to have any pharmacological effect). It’s used to treat seizures.

“We’re starting to understand what CBD does, but even that is very minimal. And in terms of these different ratios, there’s an idea or a hypothesis that there’s something there in terms of THC facilitating CBD’s action in a different way, if not more in different amounts. But in terms of the science being able to contribute to that in any kind of clear way, we’re not there yet,” Bidwell said.

Elliot Altman, biology director of the Tennessee Center for Botanical Medicine Research, disagrees with that assessment when it comes to CBD’s therapeutic benefits. His lab at Middle Tennessee State University studies CBD and hemp. Marijuana isn’t legal in Tennessee, but hemp is. Most CBD products are made from hemp extract, while the ratio products tend to include a variety of cannabis strains to get the right proportion.

It’s clear to Altman, who does not study THC, that CBD provides relief for those with inflammatory or autoimmune conditions, but if you’re looking for pain relief, that’s going to come from THC. Altman’s lab works with private groups looking to sell CBD from hemp as a nutritional supplement.

“THC is for pain, and CBD is for when your immune system is compromised,” Altman said. His take on these emerging products is pretty simple: “If what you’re really after is CBD, but you’re in a marijuana state, take a little THC to take the edge off, don’t take excessive THC.”

What do CBD to THC ratios mean and what can they really do?

04: CBD:THC Ratios, How to NOT get High with Cannabis

In today’s episode of “How to NOT get high with cannabis,” we’re exploring cannabinoid ratios. In Video 1 we talked about hemp CBD, and in Video 3 we talked about finding your minimum effective dose of THC — but at the end of the day, if we’re really trying to use cannabis as medicine, then we want to use both THC and CBD together .

In our video about Hemp CBD products, we mentioned that ideally you want to be looking for “full spectrum” or “whole plant” extracts that have trace amounts of THC, as they’ve been found to be more effective than CBD isolates — and this is because of a concept in cannabis called the “entourage effect.”

The Entourage Effect

The “entourage effect” theorizes that all of the compounds in cannabis (cannabinoids, terpenes, flavonoids, and more) work best when used together, enhancing one another’s effects to maximize therapeutic benefits. When it comes to using cannabis as a medicine, choosing a CBD:THC ratio has a big impact on the level of intoxication or “high” you experience.

If you recall from our hemp CBD video, THC binds to endocannabinoid system receptors primarily found in our brain and central nervous system, which is why it can create intoxicating experiences — while CBD’s primary function is to slow the breakdown of our body’s own naturally produced endocannabinoids so that we can use more of them.

But when THC is consumed with CBD, CBD is actually able to bind to our receptors as well — and it changes their shape, weakening THC’s ability to bind to the receptor and ultimately impacting how “high” we feel.

When used together, CBD can reduce the negative side effects of THC such as anxiety, paranoia, elevated heart rate, memory loss, and sluggishness while THC can help to increase the therapeutic benefit of CBD. This is important information for patients who truly need the therapeutic properties that THC has to offer, but don’t want to feel “high.” And if you are someone who uses THC recreationally, keep this in mind if you do happen to get uncomfortably “high.”

So what’s this look like in practice?

Well, if you walk into a dispensary, you’ll probably see products labeled as Sativa, Indica, and Hybrid — but this doesn’t tell you anything about the CBD:THC ratio, so you’ll likely need to ask your budtender about which products offer the CBD:THC ratio that you’re interested in. This is known as a cannabinoid profile, and all cannabis products fall into three general categories:

  • CBD-dominant
  • Balanced
  • THC-dominant

Generally speaking, if you don’t want to get “high” then you should look for a CBD-dominant or balanced product, but it’s important to note that cannabis affects everyone differently; depending on your condition and dosing, a THC-dominant product may be an effective medicine without producing a “high.” See Video 03 on Finding your Minimum Effective Dose of THC for more information.

You can typically find CBD:THC ratios such as 1:1, 2:1, 1:2, 3:1 or even 10:1 or 20:1. When shopping, know that CBD-dominant products are relatively new; most cannabis strains have been bred to be THC-dominant — but as more research is done on the benefits of more balanced and CBD-dominant strains, this is changing. Ask your budtender to direct you to the CBD-dominant options in your dispensary.

Now, if you have no experience with THC and are particularly concerned about getting “high,” then starting with the highest CBD:THC ratio available is the way to go. Many medical patients have reported that a 20:1 CBD:THC ratio has been helpful for their symptoms without making them feel intoxicated at all.

Even with this ratio, you’ll still want to start low and go slow, paying attention to how many milligrams (MG) of THC is in the dose you are consuming. For tips on getting started with dosing THC, check out Video 03 on Finding your Minimum Effective Dose of THC here.

If this ratio doesn’t work for you, slowly start increasing your ratio of THC, again starting low and going slow. This may feel tedious and perhaps even expensive as you try new products, but know that as long as you’re careful with your math, you can always combine products to create your own perfect CBD:THC ratio.

On the flip side, if you are already experienced with THC and are looking for a product ratio that would allow you to get the relief you’re seeking while still remaining alert and productive during the day, you may want to start with a bit more THC in your ratio, perhaps 2:1 or even 1:1 parts CBD:THC.

Know that your perfect ratio may change based on the symptoms you’re dealing with. For example, I personally find that a 1:1 ratio of CBD:THC does wonders for my migraines, but if I’m struggling with back pain, a 2:1 ratio allows me to keep a clearer head.

Either way, always be sure to track your dose and the effects you feel — this is important for recreating or avoiding experiences in the future!

To learn more about the science behind using CBD and THC together, click here.

04: CBD:THC Ratios, How to NOT get High with Cannabis In today’s episode of “How to NOT get high with cannabis,” we’re exploring cannabinoid ratios. In Video 1 we talked about hemp CBD, and in