Ask a budtender: Does CBD really counteract the effects of THC?

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Lorena Cupcake, voted “best budtender in Chicago,” has answered hundreds of questions from cannabis shoppers and patients during their time as a budtender. And now they’re turning that experience into a monthly advice column, Ask a budtender. Got a question for Cupcake? Submit it to
Dear Cupcake,
I know that CBD blocks THC from binding with CB1 receptors. I’ve even heard that if you accidentally get too high, CBD can help sober you up.
Does that mean products with CBD in them get you less high than the same product with no CBD? I don’t want to waste my money on less effective products.
— High Guy
CB1 receptors, an essential part of the body’s endocannabinoid system, are found primarily throughout the brain and nervous system. THC binding to these receptors is the miracle of nature that causes us to feel high.
Besides THC, over one hundred cannabinoids have been identified. Some of them are known to influence how effectively THC can bind to CB1 receptors. For example, the non-intoxicating trace cannabinoid THCV is a competitive antagonist, which means it physically blocks access to the receptor, like the goalie on an opposing hockey team.
CBD, the primary cannabinoid found in low-potency hemp flower, is a non-competitive negative allosteric modulator. In layman’s terms, it binds to CB1 receptors at a totally different site than THC does, making it just a little bit harder for THC to lodge into its usual spot. The researchers who demonstrated this interaction didn’t see it as a drawback; instead, they speculated that this biological mechanism might explain CBD’s “utility as an antipsychotic, antiepileptic, and antidepressant.”
To get to the bottom of your question, High Guy, I spoke to psychopharmacology researcher Dr. Ethan Russo, MD. His study, A tale of two cannabinoids, published in 2006 with co-author Geoffrey W. Guy, provides evidence that combining CBD with THC prevents negative effects — like intoxication, sleepiness, or a racing heart — while increasing positive benefits.

When asked directly if CBD reduces the feeling of being high, Russo said, “Yes, but only to a small degree.” He points to the Emerald Cup, a Californian cannabis competition where strains that contain equal levels of CBD and THC have made notable wins. From High Times magazine, a CBD-dominant strain was once entered into a THC-dominant category by accident — and it swept away most of the judging panel.
I’m a big fan of classic CBD strains like AC/DC and Harle-tsu. I’ve previously written that I don’t feel less high after smoking them; I just feel high in a different way. The sharp corners of the world seem softer, smoother; insulated from anxiety, I can enjoy my high from a place of complete comfort and peace.
According to Dr. Russo, CBD influences a high in three major ways:
In 1974, forty Brazilian men were given varying ratios of THC and CBD, with the largest THC dose equalling 30 milligrams. At these higher doses, subjects reported “waves” of strong anxiety reaching a near-panic state. However, when CBD was administered alongside THC, the subjects demonstrated less anxiety and reported more pleasurable effects.
“CBD works directly on another receptor, 5-HT1A (serotonin 1A) that mediates anxiety, thereby … allowing intake of a higher dose without provoking psychoactive side effects like nervousness, panic, and rapid heart rate,” added Dr. Russo.

Finding yourself one toke (or brownie, or dab) over the line can be an unpleasant experience, resulting in spiraling thoughts, paranoia, and a solemn promise to calculate your dosage more carefully next time. Just like you, I’ve heard a number of folk remedies for sobering up, from smelling black pepper to ingesting additional CBD.
Dr. Russo noted that CBD and THC should be administered simultaneously to maximize their synergistic potential. Taking CBD first could mean it blocks much more of your THC high. By contrast, if you get too high off THC and later take CBD, it may be too late to noticeably diminish your THC-induced intoxication.
Personally, I think it’s counterintuitive to treat someone who has ingested too many cannabinoids by giving them additional cannabinoids, and it may have unintended effects. One study showed that, while high doses of CBD decreased THC intoxication for some regular cannabis users, small doses of CBD actually increased intoxication, especially for those with less experience with cannabis.
“The question that consumers should be asking is not, ‘What will get me the most high?’ but rather, ‘What preparation is going to provide me the best experience?’” Russo said. “Different preparations will best address particular targeted symptoms or planned activities. People are likely going to enjoy their session more with a balanced preparation with a variety of cannabinoids and terpenoids.”
For example, if your plans for the day include a hike, it might be best to avoid a high-THC strain that’s rich in myrcene, a spicy, earthy terpene known for inducing the sedated laziness known as “couch lock.” In this case, terpenes would have a larger effect on your enjoyment than cannabinoid ratios.
Avoiding CBD completely would be placing too much importance on its ability to reduce peak intoxication while ignoring its ability to reduce anxiety, increase pleasure, prolong highs, and induce relaxation. When taking a holistic view, the benefits of adding CBD to your experience might outweigh any potential drawbacks.
Lorena Cupcake is a Chicago-based culture writer and marketing specialist. Their work examines how cannabis intersects with music, food, fashion, community and more.
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