Legal or Not: The CBD Confusion


CBD is one of the most abundant cannabinoids in cannabis. Yet, unlike its cousin, CBD is non-psychoactive – while THC is the life of the party, singing karaoke and wearing a lampshade on its head, CBD is standing in the corner, checking its watch and making small talk with the Ficus plant.

None of that means CBD isn’t important – sure, it’s not something you’d bring along to a rave, but it’s something you certainly want in your corner. In fact, the last decade has seen CBD’s popularity explode and for good reason – on the medicinal front, this cannabinoid offers all sorts of benefits.

But packed with these perks is plenty of confusion…especially in terms of legalities.  

The Legality of CBD

The legality of CBD perplexes many people, partly because the government only recently legalized hemp and partly because people erroneously assume that cannabis and marijuana are the same things. Spoiler alert: They’re not.

Marijuana comes from the cannabis plant, but so does hemp. Marijuana and hemp have many things in common, but one drastic difference: THC content; marijuana is high in THC while hemp favors CBD.

Marijuana is what we’re talking about when we speak of pot circles, fits of giggles, and midnight runs to Taco Bell. Hemp, which cannot produce a high, is way more boring.

CBD, whether sold as edibles, tinctures, capsules, creams, or something else, is derived from either hemp or marijuana. When it’s derived from hemp, CBD is federally legal and you can buy it wherever it’s sold, purchase it online, take it on planes, or ship it in the mail. When it’s derived from marijuana, it’s federally illegal, but you can purchase it in dispensaries assuming you live in a recreationally legal state. If your state has only legalized medicinal weed, you can purchase it from medicinal dispensaries, as long as you have a valid medical marijuana card.

However, regardless of local law, CBD that comes from marijuana can’t be taken across state lines (not even if you’re going from one legal state into another (such as driving from Oregon into Washington)), it can’t be taken onto planes, it can’t be sent through the mail, and it can’t be purchased on the internet. It can’t be used at any national parks, either – all this breaks federal law. 

As a result, that vast majority of CBD products are derived from hemp. Because it comes free of illegalities, it’s much easier to purchase and, therefore, much easier to peddle. 

Why Doesn’t CBD Get You High?

As mentioned above, CBD is non-psychoactive and it won’t make you feel high or stoned, not even if you take a lot of it. This isn’t to say that CBD products can’t ever make you high – they can under certain circumstances.

If CBD comes from hemp, it’ll never get you high because hemp – by law – can only contain .3% THC, which is a level too low for people to feel. If CBD comes from marijuana, it still can’t get you high – the plant type doesn’t change the psychoactivity of the compound. But it does change what it’s paired with.

Many of the CBD products made with marijuana also contain THC, a creation that’s intentional as THC and CBD work together synergistically with each compound helping the other. CBD moderates THC, making its psychoactive effects less potent. But the THC levels may still be high enough to leave the user feeling stoned.

For people who are not experienced with marijuana, consuming an edible from a dispensary that contains 10 milligrams of CBD and 10 milligrams of THC will elicit a high – not because of the CBD, but because of the THC. 

So, if you’re wanting to sidestep the stoned effects altogether, either stick to hemp-derived CBD or make sure, when buying at a dispensary, no THC is involved. 

The Hemp Oil Conundrum

As if CBD isn’t confusing enough, hemp oil has emerged to muddy the waters even further. Several companies sell hemp oil online, advertising it as CBD oil. In technical terms, this isn’t accurate (lies, all lies!).

Hemp oil and hemp-derived CBD oil come from different parts of the hemp plant. While hemp oil is made from the plant’s seeds and contains virtually no CBD, CBD oil comes from the plant’s leaves, flowers, and stalks.

Hemp oil does offer some unique benefits – it’s full of polyunsaturated fatty acids (like omega-3s and omega-6s) and, like fish oil, may lower blood pressure, decrease cholesterol levels, lower the risk of heart disease, and reduce the risk of sudden death in those with heart problems.

Thus, hemp oil has its place in your medicine cabinet, but it’s not the same thing as CBD oil.

If you want the best of CBD, look for “Full Spectrum” on the label; this oil contains not only CBD but a variety of cannabinoids, terpenes, and other plant material. CBD works most powerfully when it’s not flying solo and the combination with other elements makes it more potent and more effective. This is known as “the entourage effect” and basically means that the sum of the plant is better than any one part. Just as women understand strength in numbers, so does cannabis.  


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