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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?

Understanding CBD:THC Ratios

Selecting quality cannabis products takes some time and careful consideration. Knowing what is in the products you choose is important. Knowing how much of each of those ingredients or components is in a product – not just the amount but also the ratio of one key ingredient to another – is also key to anticipating the potential effects that product may produce.

When we’re talking about cannabis products, the term “ratio” typically refers to the ratio of CBD to THC. These types of ratios can be expressed as CBD:THC (the amount of CBD versus THC).

As we discussed in “The Entourage or Ensemble Effect”, the relationship between THC and CBD is interesting because it is both complementary and antagonistic meaning they both work together in some ways, but in other ways, they work “against” one another – or at least modify the effects of the other.

An example of one way CBD could work “against” THC is by affecting the way THC binds to the endocannabinoid system’s CB1 receptor in the brain and other parts of the body including the central nervous system. CBD can have a tempering effect on THC, that is, make it less powerful in its effects. (1, 2, 3) An example of working “with” one another is that THC and CBD, in combination, could have an even greater anti-inflammatory potential versus CBD alone. (2, 3)

Here are some examples of ratios and what those ratios could mean:

40:1 – 40 parts CBD to 1 part THC. This ratio contains a significantly higher amount of CBD that will impact the way the low amount of THC works overall. The focus of a product with this combination is on the benefits of CBD.

18:1 – 18 parts CBD to 1 part THC. With a higher CBD content compared to the THC content, this ratio is not overly psychoactive and can be a good starting point for someone new to CBD or THC.

8:1 – 8 parts CBD to 1 part THC which is more of a mid-range amount of CBD. Again, the CBD content dominates the THC content for a tempering effect that minimizes overt psychoactivity.

4:1 – 4 parts CBD to 1 part THC. This ratio still has a CBD content higher than the THC, which is in the mid-range, but the THC will produce some more pronounced psychoactive effects.

2:1 – 2 parts CBD to 1 part THC. There could be more overt psychoactivity depending on a person’s THC tolerance level since this ratio is a little more equal, with less CBD to temper the THC.

1:1 – 1 part CBD to 1 part THC. While this ratio looks the most balanced, it will actually produce more of an overall psychoactivity and may be better suited for a person with a higher tolerance to THC.

Some research has shown that THC can have an analgesic quality for certain types of pain, so to reach that type of effect, a higher THC concentration may be necessary. (4) If inflammation is an issue, more CBD could help produce the desired effect. (5) More CBD and less THC could be helpful in avoiding a strong psychoactive effect. (6)

Picking the right ratio is an individual thing – no two people’s bodies or brains (or endocannabinoid systems) are alike. If a person is a novice, a reasonable place to start is at the ratio with the highest amount of CBD versus the THC content. Over time, easing into trying ratios with higher THC will, inevitably, produce different effects but how strong is to be determined person to person.

Selecting quality cannabis products takes some time and careful consideration. Knowing what is in the products you choose is important. ]]>