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Metabolism of THC and CBD in the Body

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As more and more states legalize medical and recreational cannabis every year, legal grey areas have been created that you the consumer need to know. Although cannabis may be legal in the state where you live, its use may be banned by your current or prospective employer. Many state governments, the federal government, and some private companies still bar their employees from cannabis use, even in states where it is legal, so as a cannabis user you need to arm yourself with some facts relating to how Delta 9-tetrahydrocannabinoil (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) are metabolized in the body.

Cannabis is the most commonly detected drug in work place toxicology screens (Goodwin et al. 2008) and although its use is now legal in many states, many employers have not eased up on testing prospective or current employees for its use. This article will examine the details concerning how THC, and to a lesser extent full spectrum CBD, is metabolized with an emphasis on how long it stays in the body. The types of tests done to detect THC in the human body and how accurate those tests are will also be considered. Ultimately the evidence shows that how quickly cannabinoids are metabolized in a human body to the point where they can no longer be detected depend on a number of factors. Since THC, CBD, and other cannabinoids are fat soluble, a person’s size and body mass index play an important role—a person with a higher body mass index will take longer to metabolize cannabinoids. The amount and frequency of use also plays a major role in metabolization and along with it any periods of abstinence. Finally, the type of test given is extremely important, not so much as it relates to the process of metabolism, but more so as it pertains to accuracy and detail. The information in this article has been culled from academic sources and forwarded in an easy to understand manner that is meant to be informative and useful for you the cannabis consumer.

THC and Metabolism

Both the cannabis and hemp plants, like all plants, contains many different chemicals and has several components. Specifically, cannabis has 421 different chemical compounds, of which sixty-one are cannabinoids, which includes both THC and CBD. THC is the component that induces psychoactive effects and a “high” in users. On the other hand, cannabidiols, which are also cannabinoids, do not induce psychoactive effects in the user (Sharma et al. 2012). It is the chemical structure of THC that determines how it is metabolized after ingestion by a user.

Like all chemical compounds, THC goes through a process by which it is metabolized or “broke down” and expelled from the body of the user. Since THC’s chemical structure is that of an oil, it has high lipid solubility and low aqueous solubility (Sharma et al. 2012). This essentially means that THC binds to fat in a user’s body and unlike many other chemical compounds that are aqueous, it takes longer for it to be excreted from the body. Once THC is ingested, it travels through the bloodstream and is absorbed into the tissues, lungs, liver, and spleen, binding with fat (Sharma et. al 2012).

The process of metabolism then begins, but varies according to the frequency of use and size of the user. Scientifically speaking, THC is rapidly metabolized to the inactive metabolite 11-Nor-9-carboxy-9-tetrahydrocannabiniol (THCCOOH) and then excreted in a number of ways (Goodwin et al. 2008). Urine is the primary way in which THC is excreted from the human body, but it is also expelled through feces, sweat, blood, and in the growth of hair and nails. Urine is the most common way that THC is excreted from the body because urination is more frequent and the amount of THC metabolites is much higher in urine than in sweat and the other excretion by-products (Huestis et al. 2007).

Testing for THC

Although THC can be detected in hair, blood, sweat, and nails, urine is most commonly tested because it has the most metabolites (Sharma et al. 2012). The threshold for what is considered a positive test varies according to the company or government agency conducting the test, but most consider a reading of 50 ng/ml or more to be a positive test. Urine testing may be the most common method, but testing sweat is becoming more common because it is much less invasive, usually being administered through a patch, and is “not subject to the periodic fluctuations in concentration found in sequential urine specimens that make identifying new drug use more difficult” (Huestis et al. 2007). With that said, after a week of THC abstinence most people will test negative for THC with a sweat patch.

The half-life of THC in the body – the period in which after ingestion half of the THC level is still detectable – is also an important factor to consider in terms of metabolization. Studies show that for infrequent THC users the half-life is 1.3 days, while for heavier users it is between 5 and 13 days (Sharma et al. 2012). Of course, as mentioned earlier, all of this is contingent upon a number of factors besides frequency of use.

Studies indicate that other factors that influence the rate of THC metabolization include the quality or “potency” of the THC and probably more importantly the size of the consumer. The body mass index (BMI) of the user plays an extremely important role in THC metabolization since THC binds to fat. The greater one’s BMI, the longer it will take to test positive for THC after the period of abstinence begins (Goodwin et al. 2008). Connected closely to BMI and metabolism is diet – less fatty diets results in any THC in the body being metabolized quicker. Of course, though, there is no “magic wand” that will make THC metabolize quicker and the only sure way for the chemical to be excreted from the body is to allow enough time for the process.

Research has shown that after a THC user begins a period of abstinence, there are rapid decreases of detectable levels of THC in the body, which is then followed by a more gradual lessening. Although for most THC users detectable levels are below the threshold after thirty days, there are cases where THC was detectable in heavy users after seventy days (Goodwin et al. 2008). More specifically, one study indicated that cannabis users with an initial THCCOOH concentration greater than 150 ng/ml had detection rates between 60% and 100% for nearly a month (Goodwin et. al 2008). Therefore, a plethora of factors contribute to a negative THC screen but the period of time after abstinence begins should be a paramount consideration.

THC and Cannabidiol (CBD) Metabolism

Although toxicology screens for employment routinely test for THC, the cannabinoid CBD is not usually included because it does not induce the same intoxicating effects as THC. With that said, full spectrum CBD oils include varying amounts of THC so it can be useful to known how CBD is metabolized in comparison to THC. Like THC, CBD is derived from cannabis and hemp plants, but its uses have been primarily medicinal in nature. A number of studies of CBD metabolization have been conducted on animal subjects, but unfortunately none of those studies relate how CBD metabolites work in humans (Ujváry and Hanŭs 2016). Still, scientists have been able to draw conclusions relating to CBD metabolization in humans based on the evidence at hand.

Scientists have been able to identify 100 CBD metabolites with the major ones being derivatives of CBD-7-oic acid (&-COOH-CBD) (Ujváry and Hanŭs 2016). One of the more interesting discoveries made so far pertaining to CBD metabolization includes the fact that unheated CBD ingestion actually increases the levels in the body (Ujváry and Hanŭs 2016), which is something that any consumer should consider when beginning a CBD regimen. Like THC, CBD is primarily excreted through urine, but unlike THC it is metabolized much quicker. One study shows that after a CBD regimen was discontinued it was virtually undetectable after one week (Ujváry and Hanŭs 2016).


The rate and manner in which cannabinoids, especially THC, are metabolized in the human body is a subject on which all CBD consumers - whether cannabis or hemp derived - should have some knowledge.. Although recreational and medical marijuana are now legal in several states, many employers still require a clean toxicology screen to get hired and other employers randomly give their employees drug screens. It is important to know that cannabinoids are fat soluble and therefore take longer to metabolize. Furthermore, the rate at which THC is metabolized depend on many variables, including: the frequency of use, the strength of the THC used, the size of the consumer, and the consumer’s diet. Also, the type of tests given to screen for THC also matter, with standard urine tests being the most common and accurate, but other testing methods, such as sweat patches, are becoming more common. In the end, all of this information should help you the consumer make the right decisions about potential CBD use.


Goodwin, Robert S., William D. Darwin, C. Nora Chiang, Ming Shih, Shou-Hua Li, and Marilyn A. Huestis. 2008. “Urinary Elimination of 11-Nor-9-carboxy-9-tetrahydrocannabinoil in Cannabis Users during Continuously Monitored Abstinence.” Journal of Analytical Toxicology 32 (October). Accessed November 11, 2018.

Huestis, Marilyn A., Karl B. Scheidweiler, Takeshi Saito, Neil Fortner, Tsadik Abraham, Richard A. Gustafson, and Michael L. Smith. 2007. “Excretion of Δ9- Tetrahydrocannabinol in Sweat.” Forensic Science International 174 (May). Accessed November 14, 2018.

Sharma, Priyamvada, Pratima Murthy, and M.M. Srinivas Bharah. 2012. “Chemistry, Metabolism, and Toxicology of Cannabis: Clinical Implications.” Iranian Journal of Psychiatry 7 (Fall). Accessed November 10, 2018.

Ujváry, István, and Lumír Hanŭs. 2016. “Human Metabolites of Cannabidiol: A Review on Their Formation, Biological Activity, and Relevance in Therapy.” Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research 1 (March). Accessed November 13, 2018.


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