The misunderstood molecule

New research reveals that majority of Americans don’t understand difference between CBD and THC


How many people actually know the difference between tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD)?
Ask a chemist, a medical professional or, really, any average Coloradan, and you might get a variety of answers: The chemical arrangement of CBD and THC’s carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms are slightly different, so the body receives them differently; THC bonds strongly inside the cannabinoid 1 receptors in the brain, while CBD bonds weakly to them; THC is psychoactive and CBD isn’t.

All that might seem like common knowledge in a place like Boulder. But, new research from Invisibly, a data analysis and survey company, reveals that a majority of Americans actually don’t know that there’s any difference between CBD and THC at all. That, according to Don Vaughn, a Ph.D. and the head of product at Invisibly, is causing serious challenges for CBD companies and the patients who might benefit from their products.

“Some exchanges let CBD companies run ads, but other ones will say they’re too close to ‘drugs’ and won’t run into that legal gray area,” Vaughn says. That drives a barrier between CBD companies and their customers. “And small or medium business owners don’t have the political sway to go out there and do much about it right now.”

The CBD industry is caught in a strange limbo between being federally legal and being classified as a Schedule I controlled substance, Vaughn says. That prevents a lot of CBD companies from marketing their products like normal companies would, selling their products at certain retailers and shipping their products across state lines — thus adding pressure to an industry that’s already stigmatized.

“So that was the fundamental question we wanted to know,” Vaughn says. “To what degree do people know the difference between CBD and the psychoactive component of cannabis, which is THC?”

The team at Invisibly set to work finding an answer to that question. They made a short survey of five simple questions and polled over a thousand people across the web, from different demographics, age groups, political orientations, geographical regions; collecting data from as diverse a sample as they could get.

And their results were not what they had expected, according to Vaughn.

“We found 58% of Americans don’t know the difference between CBD and THC,” he says. “I was surprised.”
On top of that, they found that 62% of their respondents had never used a CBD product in their life — and 53% said they were unwilling to ever try one. Only 36% of respondents who had taken CBD or THC — and a mere 32% who had never tried either — knew there was difference between the chemicals.

All of which speaks to a widespread misunderstanding of CBD as a chemical, as a medicine and as a product, according to Vaughn. A lot of people are simply grouping CBD and “marijuana” together without understanding that they’re chemically distinct and offer distinctly different physical effects and medicinal uses.

“It’s just much, much less understood than we thought,” Vaughn says. “Lumping CBD in with the rest of cannabis is harming [these companies’] ability to do marketing.”

In turn, the CBD industry’s ability to reach people who could benefit from the medicine is limited, Vaughn points out. Patients suffering from anxiety, chronic pain, inflammation, arthritis and epilepsy across the nation, who might benefit from using CBD, are held back from it due to a lack of understanding, he says.

“A lot of people, even people in my life, are finding real relief from using CBD products in moderation,” Vaughn says. “But if they don’t know about it, they can’t find that relief.”

That’s part of his hope in putting Invisibly’s research on this topic out there. It exposes this lack of understanding that’s getting between people and a medicine that could help them — between CBD businesses and their customers — so that it might be remedied with education and outreach. Bridging that gap and shedding light on this misunderstood molecule could help CBD businesses reach customers and patients across the country and into the future.

“We’re all in a bubble with what information we’re getting. Coming from academia and coming from science, I know the difference between these chemicals,” he says. But as it turned out, outside of Vaughn’s bubble, 58% of Americans didn’t.

“I think that the most important thing about Invisibly’s market research is breaking that information bubble,” Vaughn says. “We really get to know overall what Americans believe, or do or do not understand.”

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