Medical cannabis vs CBD Oil: Same Plant, Different Effects

Alternaleaf Team
Written by
Alternaleaf Team
Dec 29, 2022
Last updated:
May 2, 2024

One of the most common questions we’re asked is, “What’s the difference between medical cannabis and CBD oil?” Australian doctors can prescribe both medicines, but in many ways, they’re very different. Similarly, patients often ask us to explain the benefits of marijuana vs. hemp.

This confusion isn’t surprising. Medicinal cannabis products are new to Australia, and patients don’t always have the information they need, which is why we’ve created this handy explainer on the differences between medical cannabis and CBD oil to help you choose the proper treatment for you.

Cannabis: A Plant with Many Applications

Let’s start by getting to know the cannabis plant.

Medical cannabis, CBD oil, and hemp are different products derived from the same species of plant: Cannabis sativa L. It’s a plant that evolved in Eastern Asia but has been grown all over the world for millennia.

It’s easy to cultivate cannabis to have specific properties. So throughout history, humans have cultivated cannabis plants for particular purposes. Some were bred for fibres, seeds, or oils, while others were bred for their medical or psychoactive properties.

Today, there are hundreds of different types of cannabis plants. Each has a unique set of properties and can be used for specific and varying purposes. Crucially, each plant contains a different combination of the phytochemicals that make cannabis unique: cannabinoids.

THC and CBD: The Key Cannabinoids

seaweed and plants in scientific glasses
Cannabis sativa L is a highly variable species. Humans have bred many types of cannabis over the years, for hemp, medicine, and oils.

Cannabinoids are compounds that occur naturally in the cannabis plant. They’re unique because they interact with our endocannabinoid system, which is why cannabis has medicinal benefits. Cannabinoids have similar structures to vital chemicals in our bodies, called endocannabinoids.

The most common cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). THC is psychoactive, while CBD interacts with our immune and nervous systems but is non-intoxicating.

Each medical cannabis product contains a different combination of CBD, THC, and other cannabinoids. That’s why each product has slightly different effects and benefits. If you want to dive deeper, take a look at our complete guide to medical cannabis to learn more.

Hemp and Cannabis Are the Same, But Different

As we mentioned, although all cannabis plants are the same species, they have their differences. Marijuana vs. hemp: they’re both variations of the Cannabis sativa L. plant, but they play very different roles.

The most important difference between hemp and marijuana is the THC content. Because there are fewer restrictions on growing hemp plants than there are for cannabis plants, there are strict laws on how much THC can be present in hemp. While exact amounts vary by state, typically hemp plants contain less than 0.005 percent THC.

CBD content, on the other hand, isn’t as strictly regulated, at least from a cultivation perspective. Hemp plants can contain high enough concentrations of CBD to use to create CBD oil. So while some CBD oils may come from cannabis plants, others may be refined from hemp.

Hemp plants are also grown for their fibres, seeds, and oils. In fact, humans have been growing and using hemp for millennia. It’s an incredibly versatile plant — today, hemp can be found in textiles, clothing, building materials, foods, and health and beauty products.

Medical Cannabis vs. CBD Oil: What's the Difference?

Unlike hemp, medical cannabis can contain any amount of THC, CBD, and other cannabinoids. In Australia, medical cannabis products are scheduled into categories depending on their THC content as a proportion of the total cannabinoid profile. For example, Category 1 medicines contain no THC, while Category 5 can contain up to 98 percent THC.

These medicines will have very different effects. A Category 1 product that’s high in CBD can be used to treat a variety of conditions without any psychoactive effects. Most CBD oils would fall into this category as they tend to contain minimal THC. CBD oils are still regulated by law,, which is why you can’t buy CBD oil over the counter in Australia.

Most medical cannabis, on the other hand, will have psychoactive effects, which some patients find beneficial for their condition. The term “medical cannabis” is usually used for these products that contain some THC and cause a high. Your doctor can help you understand which medicine is right for you — many patients benefit from both THC and CBD in different quantities.

A growing number of medical cannabis products are available today. As well as varying cannabinoid profiles, different treatments also contain different amounts of other compounds and come in various forms. Flower, oils, capsules, lozenges, and hash are all available to Australian patients.

What’s the Right Option for You?

Both medical cannabis and CBD oil can offer symptom relief for a wide variety of conditions. The best way to find the right treatment is to speak with a doctor. They’ll ask you questions to understand your condition(s), medical history, and needs and then recommend the appropriate product.

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