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0.3%, the Magic Number: What This THC Threshold Is All About
If you know anything about cannabis law, you’re probably aware that the federally-legal limit for THC in your CBD products is 0.3%. This may have your noggin noodlin’ over why — what’s the reason for that specific amount of THC?
Have confidence. There is significance to the 0.3% THC cap (though possibly not what you think it is). We swear it wasn’t just some rando person selecting a figure out of the blue. So, let’s see what’s behind this THC threshold….
Cannabis vs Hemp vs Marijuana & Cannabinoids vs CBD vs THC
To really grasp the THC threshold thing, it’s key to understand what the components of the discussion are. And frankly, different sources may use terminology in slightly divergent ways.
So, back to basics just to make sure we’re all swimming in the same pool of knowledge.
Here’s what you need to know about this fine flora for the moment:
- Cannabis is a species of plant.
- Marijuana is a subspecies of cannabis, reputed for the psychoactive response it can produce in consumers due to its THC content.
- Hemp (aka industrial hemp) is another subspecies of cannabis. It has much lower THC and much higher CBD proportions than marijuana.
- Cannabinoids are natural compounds found in cannabis. They can trigger or enable all kinds of bodily responses and potential health benefits.
- THC (aka tetrahydrocannabinol) is the leading cannabinoid in marijuana and is what can make users feel high. THC is also present in hemp, but in much lower amounts.
- CBD (aka cannabidiol) is the most prevalent cannabinoid in hemp, but is in other varieties of cannabis as well. While there are three types of CBD — each offering a unique experience and menu of possible health benefits — CBD’s most known for its calming effects.
CBD & The THC Threshold To Behold
Now that we’re all trekkin’ along the same trail, we can get to the heart of our topic.
What Is The THC Threshold?
The THC threshold is a marker that’s been chosen to classify and regulate cannabis. This edge point — set at 0.3% max THC by weight — is used in many legal definitions of “what is hemp” versus “what is marijuana.”
The federal government uses this THC threshold to demarcate between legal hemp/CBD and illegal hemp/CBD. Several states explicitly articulate that any cannabis with 0.3% THC or less is considered “hemp” while any cannabis exceeding this THC limit is deemed “marijuana.” (This can be a bit confusing because this method of categorizing sort of ignores that hemp and marijuana are actually different subspecies.)
Why’s There a THC Limit?
Having a THC threshold can be useful for several reasons. As you’ve probably gathered, people have lots of different views on the merits of THC and CBD as well as whether or not it should be legal and how. Heck, they can’t even seem to agree on how to refer to the plants!
All this leads to the idea that a well-defined THC threshold is a concrete starting point. Legislative bodies were able to rally around this number and start creating laws, regulations, and other guidelines for industrial hemp programs, medical cannabis programs, recreational marijuana, etc. Producers and marketers can take this info and create products to sell.
Why Is THC Capped At 0.3%, Specifically?
Believe it or not — this is kinda a scenario in which a single, accurate phrase got stretched into a giant fish tale. It took on a life of its own — classic snowball effect, amirite?
Here’s what happened.
Dr. Ernest Small, a Canadian scientist, initially defined the 0.3% threshold in his 1976 study, A Practical and Natural Taxonomy for Cannabis, as a means of distinguishing higher-THC-containing cannabis from those with lower THC quantities. This figure was based on many years of real-world cannabis plant use patterns. It was not derived from THC’s potential for abuse or intoxication.
The 0.3% THC threshold was meant for this study alone. It was never intended to be used elsewise or elsewhere — like for differentiating marijuana from hemp in modern-day legislation.
But, despite not necessarily being an appropriate metric, this one isolated piece of info in a specific context was repeatedly interpreted and appropriated — to the point of losing its original narrow scope. Now it’s been given more weight (pun intended!) than is maybe due.
As such, it’s been adopted in the US, Canada, Europe, and parts of Australia as a sort of gold standard. That’s why the 0.3% THC limit pops up all over the place.
THC Cutoff Level — Ahem, There’re Issues….
Unsurprisingly, this approach to putting a lid on THC levels gets a little messy and controversial. Like a daytime soap opera…. (We know, you’re totally shocked that there’s Drama! surrounding this matter.)
So what’s got people in a tizzy? There are a few main areas of debate.
- Misguided measure. Many in the cannabiz reject the 0.3% THC threshold amount altogether due to its origins. These folks would prefer a THC threshold that reflects the level at which THC starts generating those euphoric reactions.
- Testing methodology. Only hemp that has 0.3% or less THC by weight can be harvested and made into goods, including CBD oil. The current testing process adds up the THC and THCA (delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinolic acid, a precursor to THC) content in the hemp. Critics don’t like this method of testing THCA only becomes THC if it’s heated. That THCA can essentially make the hemp crop register at higher THC levels than it would be if processed. Crops that test “hot” can’t be gathered — they have to be destroyed, which can be a huge hit to growers.
- Penalties. Hemp growers whose crops test above 0.5% (yes, another THC threshold) are at risk of incurring fines and legal troubles. The law views this like the producer was intentionally growing illegal plants. According to growers, this seems unfair because it can be incredibly difficult to consistently produce hemp crops that will test at 0.3% or less THC. There are so many variable at play that the grower has little or no control over.
How ‘Bout A Different THC Threshold?
Detractors of the 0.3% THC maximum would argue that, just because this threshold amount has broad global acceptance, still doesn’t make it an effective measure. Ya just can’t force some things — especially if they aren’t grounded in scientific fact or economic practicality.
Instead, the movers and shakers in the cannabis industry (and sympathetic enthusiasts!) advocate for increasing the THC threshold. They’d like to see the THC threshold that splits hemp from marijuana go from 0.3% to 1.0%.
Aha! Where’s that 1.0% figure come from? you ask. You are so catching on!
Take It To The (1.0% THC) Limit
There are a couple of sources or influences:
- A 2002 article, by Dr. Small and a colleague, states that 1.0% THC is considered to be the level around which THC has the potential to intoxicate. A THC content of 1.0% is still way below the average “street” marijuana (which often has 5%-25% THC) or medical cannabis (which frequently has 5%-30% THC). This is the data cited by Congress in its 2019 fact sheet on hemp.
- Other countries — like Mexico, Switzerland, and Thailand — adjusted their THC caps for hemp upward to 1.0%. This means there’s precedent for a greater THC threshold.
So, there’s a decent chance that a CBD product with 1.0% THC wouldn’t cause you to have a psychoactive response or create any additional harm. Meanwhile, it’d give hemp growers some extra breathing room — they’d be less likely to have to demolish hot crops. Backers of this expanded THC limit see this as an all-around win.
The 1.0% THC Threshold Movement
There have been attempts to revise the THC threshold. Though it died in committee, the Hemp Economic Mobilization Plan (HEMP) Act of 2020 was introduced last year in Congress. If enacted, it would have:
- Increased the THC limit for hemp to 1.0%
- Changed how plants used for hemp-derived products are tested
- Widened the testing margin of error
This suggests that there’s industry, political, and popular support to up the THC limit. Ya might wanna keep your eyes on this movement!
CBD, The THC Threshold & You
All of this means that — until the laws say otherwise — only hemp-derived CBD with 0.3% THC or less are (federally) allowed. To ensure you’re getting CBD oil products that fall on the favorable side of the rules and regs:
- Only buy from a reputable and trustworthy retailer.
- Be sure to read the product labels and packaging to see what kind of CBD you’re getting,
- Consult the Certificate of Analysis (COA) to confirm the actual THC level in the CBD product.
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Does CBD Show Up On a Drug Test?
Sherry Christiansen is a medical writer with a healthcare background. She has worked in the hospital setting and collaborated on Alzheimer’s research.
Verywell Health articles are reviewed by board-certified physicians and healthcare professionals. These medical reviewers confirm the content is thorough and accurate, reflecting the latest evidence-based research. Content is reviewed before publication and upon substantial updates. Learn more.
Femi Aremu, PharmD, is a professional pharmacist with experience in clinical and community pharmacy. He currently practices in Chicago, Illinois.
Despite the fact that cannabidiol (CBD) is derived from cannabis—the same type of plant that marijuana comes from—CBD should not show up on a drug test. That said, it is possible.
Drug tests check for tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) because that is the cannabis compound that makes people feel high. CBD products are typically THC-free.
However, CBD products can contain 0.3% of THC by law. In some people, that may be enough to yield a positive drug test result.
This article explains why CBD products may show up on a drug test as THC. It also details what to look for in CBD products so you can prevent a positive drug test.
Does CBD Oil Contain THC?
The active chemical in marijuana that gets detected in a positive drug test screening is THC. Most people are under the impression that CBD oil is THC-free, which is generally true. But not always.
As it turns out, depending on the source of the cannabis that is used to produce the CBD oil, some products do contain traces of THC. This includes low-quality isolates and many full-spectrum tinctures. A full spectrum oil contains other active plant compounds in addition to CBD.
Cannabis is the umbrella term describing hemp and marijuana plants—two different varieties of the Cannabis genus. Both marijuana and hemp can be described as cannabis, but they are two different plants.
CBD is one of many active chemical compounds in cannabis plants. One reason it’s becoming more popular is that it’s said to lack THC.
The primary difference between hemp and marijuana is that hemp is nearly void of THC. In fact, a cannabis strain must contain less than 0.3% THC to be classified as hemp. This is why hemp can be legally sold in various products.
Most CBD products are made from hemp, not marijuana.
There are many distinctions between marijuana and hemp that relate to CBD oil. Marijuana contains both THC (the “high”-inducing element) and CBD. Hemp contains CBD and only trace amounts of THC.
Hemp also contains many cannabinoids, which is a name for the compounds found in cannabis. CBD is only one example.
There are several techniques for extracting CBD oil from the cannabis plant. The extraction method determines whether the CBD oil is an “isolate” or a “full-spectrum oil.”
A CBD isolate is a pure compound with no other active compounds or cannabinoids. The full-spectrum compounds may include other active chemicals, such as cannabinol and cannabis terpenes (the part of the plant that gives the plant its aroma).
Study of CBD Oil
While some CBD oils claim to be isolates, they may be full-spectrum oils and actually contain more cannabinoids (such as THC) than they claim.
A study conducted at the internationally known Lautenberg Center For Immunology and Cancer found that CBD was more effective at treating inflammation and pain when used with other cannabis plant compounds.
These compounds were derived from a full-spectrum product rather than a CBD isolate product alone. This is one reason that full-spectrum products (those containing THC) are popular.
However, the distinction between full-spectrum oils and isolates makes all the difference if you are being tested for drug use.
Reasons for Failing a CBD Drug Test
There are several common reasons a person can test positive for THC after taking CBD.
Using Product With THC
The most common reason for a failed CBD drug test is that a person is using a CBD oil product that contains THC. This may be a full-spectrum product. Sometimes, though, it could be a low-quality isolate product that contains a small amount of THC.
Although most manufacturers claim their products do not contain THC, this is not always the case.
Cross-Contamination of THC
Very small amounts of THC present in the material that CBD is extracted from can get into the CBD oil in high enough amounts to result in a positive drug test. This scenario may be more likely to occur when CBD oil is purchased from cannabis dispensaries in places where cannabis is legal.
Mislabeling of Products
CBD oil extracted from hemp is not supposed to contain more than 0.3% THC. However, it’s not uncommon for sellers to mislabel their products as THC-free hemp when, in reality, it’s a low-quality oil extracted from marijuana. And marijuana does contain THC.
In fact, one study discovered that almost 70% of the CBD products sold online were mislabeled. This caused “potential serious harm to its consumers.” The reason for this widespread mislabeling is that CBD products are not strictly regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Secondhand Exposure to THC
Inadvertent exposure to marijuana (via secondhand smoke) is unlikely to be enough for a person to get a positive drug test result. But it is possible. Being in a room with heavy pot smokers for several hours may cause the inhalation of enough THC-containing smoke to result in a positive test result.
A more likely secondhand exposure scenario is a positive marijuana hair test. This results from direct contact with marijuana paraphernalia or from another person having THC on their hands.
For instance, say that someone who had direct contact with marijuana then touched your hair. You could feasibly receive a false positive on a drug screening that tests your hair.
CBD Oil Breakdown in the Digestive System
Some sources report that in rare cases, false positive test results have come from CBD oil that breaks down into very small amounts of THC in the stomach. Other studies, however, have refuted this finding.
The conclusion is that it’s still theoretically possible for traces of THC to be present in stomach acid when “less-purified CBD productions” are ingested.
How to Avoid a Positive CBD Drug Test
If you take CBD oil, you can take steps to try to prevent failing a drug test:
- Do thorough research to ensure the CBD product you’re using is pure and that the company is legitimate.
- Look for manufacturers that have been accredited by the Better Business Bureau.
- Ensure that the CBD oil is an isolate product extracted from a viable industrial hemp supply. It should not be a low-quality tincture.
- Ask questions about product processing techniques and the possibility of cross-contamination.
- Avoid secondhand exposure to marijuana use via pot smoking or hair contact from THC users.
CBD oil is usually marketed as THC-free, but that’s not always the case. Full-spectrum CBD oils contain other cannabinoids, which may include THC. Isolate products may be contaminated with THC, as well.
You have to be proactive to avoid failing a drug test if you’re taking CBD oil. Most important: Ensure that you’re using a pure product made by a reputable company.
A Word From Verywell
In theory, getting a false positive on a drug test from CBD oil should be relatively impossible from pure CBD oil containing less than 0.3% THC. However, because CBD oil is not well regulated, there is no guarantee that a product contains pure CBD oil or that its concentration is safe or effective.
Use the utmost caution and do your research when purchasing a quality CBD oil product to ensure its purity, especially if you need to undergo a drug screening.
Frequently Asked Questions
Drug tests look for tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is the element in marijuana that causes a high. CBD oils can have trace amounts of THC even if they’re labeled “THC-free.”
Yes. If the products contain THC, you could test positive. If you know you’ll need to take a drug test, avoid full-spectrum CBD products that may contain small amounts of THC. Be sure you purchase products from a reliable source. And be wary of online retailers; researchers have found that 21% of online CBD and hemp products were mislabeled.
Drug tests do not typically measure CBD. Most tests check for THC, the psychoactive component in marijuana. Depending on the frequency of use, THC can be picked up on a test anywhere from a few days for a single use or over a month for heavy daily pot smokers.
CBD edibles take about 30 to 60 minutes to start to take effect. They last five to six hours, depending on your metabolism and dose. A CBD edible may show up on a drug test as THC metabolites for three days. However, if you frequently take CBD edibles, it can take up to 15 days to have a clean urine test.
The FDA strongly advises against taking CBD or THC products while nursing. Cannabis products can be excreted through breastmilk and are not safe for the baby. Cannabinoids can stay in your milk for up to six days, so “pumping and dumping” may not be a good option.
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
Huestis MA. Human cannabinoid pharmacokinetics. Chem Biodivers. 2007;4(8):1770-804. doi:10.1002/cbdv.200790152
Nahler G, Grotenhermen F, Zuardi AW, Crippa JAS. A conversion of oral cannabidiol to Delta9-Tetrahydrocannabinol seems not to occur in humans. Cannabis Cannabinoid Res. 2017;2(1):81-86. doi:10.1089/can.2017.0009
Bonn-Miller MO, Loflin MJE, Thomas BF, Marcu JP, Hyke T, Vandrey R. Labeling accuracy of cannabidiol extracts sold online. JAMA. 2017;318(17):1708. doi:10.1001/jama.2017.11909
Crippa JA, Guimarães FS, Campos AC, Zuardi AW. Translational investigation of the therapeutic potential of cannabidiol (CBD): Toward a new age. Front Immunol. 2018;9:2009. Published 2018 Sep 21. doi:10.3389/fimmu.2018.02009
By Sherry Christiansen
Sherry Christiansen is a medical writer with a healthcare background. She has worked in the hospital setting and collaborated on Alzheimer’s research.