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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?

10 CBD-dominant weed strains that our users love

Cannabidiol, or CBD, is the second most common cannabinoid found in cannabis. Unlike its euphoric sister, THC (or tetrahydrocannabinol), CBD plays it cool, offering relaxing, non-intoxicating effects that lend themselves to a variety of personal and medicinal uses. Because CBD lacks the stoney side effects typical of high-THC strains, it’s a great choice for patients needing to keep a clear head while treating pain, nausea, headaches, stress, anxiety, muscle spasms, epilepsy, and more.

It’s clear that many people have experienced the upsides of CBD, but with so many high-CBD strains hitting the market today, it can be difficult to choose the one for you. Here, we’ll go over what it means for a strain to be high in CBD along with identifying which high-CBD strains are the most popular and easy-to-find based on Leafly user-submitted reviews.

What does it mean for a strain to be high in CBD?

CBD stands for cannabidiol, a non-intoxicating cannabis molecule with a variety of anecdotal and studied benefits. Strains high in CBD are popular with users for help with:

Just as you can search for strains high in THC, sativa, or indica, you can also search for strains high in CBD – and Leafly users do just that.

If you’re interested in finding high CBD strains yourself, look for strains that contain only circles in their Leafly strain flower. This will help you find strains that consistently express high levels of CBD, which is more likely to bring you clear-headed relief. But if you’re ready to cut to the chase, here are the top picks from our users:

1. Harlequin

Harlequin is one of the most popular CBD strains available. Typically testing around the 5:2 CBD/THC ratio, it exhibits a clear-headed alertness with only mild euphoria. Harlequin has a happy bent that most will find enhances whatever activity they are engaged in.

Find Harlequin nearby

2. Ringo’s Gift

Ringo’s Gift—named for activist, CBD specialist, and founder of SoHum Seeds, Lawrence Ringo—is a hybrid cross of Harle-Tsu and ACDC. It keeps on giving to patients seeking a nearly full-on CBD-driven strain, with an average ratio of 24:1 CBD/THC.

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3. Sweet and Sour Widow

Sweet and Sour Widow lands in the middle ground with a 1:1 CBD/THC ratio. This even split offers first-time cannabis consumers an enjoyable entry point to both THC and CBD without sending them into orbit. It also makes for good medicine while being slightly euphoric and stoney.

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4. Stephen Hawking Kush

Stephen Hawking Kush offers mild, relaxing effects while doling out a healthy dose of CBD, too. This indica-dominant strain is one of the more unique CBD cuts out there, offering both heady and soothing effects.

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5. ACDC

ACDC makes an easy favorite.The cannabinoid content is usually heavily CBD-dominant, sitting on average at 20:1 in its CBD/THC ratio. An imperceptible amount of THC makes ACDC an outstanding companion for daily medicinal cannabis consumers seeking to relieve tension, pain, or anxiety.

Bonus staff review: “Known for its keen ability to lift anxiety of all shades, this strain is a godsend to consumers susceptible to the side effects of THC. This strain allows you to harness many of the desirable traits of cannabis, like light-footed physical relaxation and gentle mood elevation, without the cost of a clear, calm mind.”

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6. Cannatonic

Cannatonic isn’t nearly as sedative as the name implies. This strain usually brings a smaller CBD/THC split, ranging from 5:1 down to 1:1. This even-keeled cannabinoid profile gives consumers a great deal of flexibility to use Cannatonic as medicine or as an enjoyable, mild mannered strain to unwind with.

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7. Harle-Tsu

Harle-Tsu, one of a few lovingly handcrafted strains created by the late Lawrence Ringo, is an outstandingly functional CBD cut. By combining Harlequin and Sour Tsunami, Harle-Tsu achieves a pleasant disposition without encumbering the consumer with strong sedation.

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8. Canna-Tsu

Canna-Tsu is a more balanced CBD/THC strain that offers a unique bouquet of smells. With aromas of citrus and sweet earth, Canna-Tsu gives the CBD enthusiast a complex palate of flavor and terpenes to enjoy.

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9. Sour Tsunami

Created by the larger-than-life grower and activist Lawrence Ringo, Sour Tsunami was brought into being by combining Sour Diesel and NYC Diesel. This unlikely pair of stimulating plants bred the high-CBD phenotype that has since redefined the medicinal qualities of cannabis.

Bonus staff review: “This strain has become a household name among high-CBD strains. This variety tends to produce less than 1-2% of THC, so you can reap its medicinal benefits without the high. Sour Tsunami is fairly prolific, so keep an eye out for this strain at your next dispensary visit if you’re looking to quell pain or anxiety symptoms without the interference of THC.”

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10. Pennywise

Pennywise certainly has the scariest of all the names that made this list, or at least it does for those familiar with the Stephen King book responsible for its namesake. But fear not, Pennywise truly gets its name from its genetic cross of Harlequin and Jack the Ripper. It synthesizes Jack the Ripper’s mental clarity and an even 1:1 CBD/THC to make a strain that is functional and enjoyable at almost any dose.

CBD can offer relaxing or non-intoxicating effects when used. Discover 10 of the best high-CBD and low-THC strains that our users rave about from Leafly.