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What Is CBD Oil? Is It Legal & Does It Get You High?

Written by Carlos Tello, PhD (Molecular Biology) | Last updated:
Puya Yazdi
Medically reviewed by
Puya Yazdi, MD | Written by Carlos Tello, PhD (Molecular Biology) | Last updated:

CBD is a compound from cannabis that, unlike THC, won’t get you high. With the recent legalization of medical marijuana in many states worldwide, the market of therapeutic CBD oil is booming. But is this product legal in your country? Does it show up in drug tests? Read on to find out.

What Is CBD Oil?

Cannabidiol (CBD) is a chemical compound naturally found in the cannabis plant (Cannabis sativa). It belongs to a class of 113 different compounds called cannabinoids, of which THC – the one that gets you high – is best-known [1+].

CBD oil is made by extracting CBD from the flowers and upper leaves of cannabis and dissolving it in a carrier oil such as olive or coconut oil. With the growing interest in researching its effects and the legalization of medical marijuana in many countries, CBD oil is emerging as a new investigational therapeutic agent mainly used for [2+, 3+]:

Here’s where it gets tricky: both hemp and marijuana are cannabis. However, marijuana and hemp are completely different varieties. Marijuana is much higher in THC, while hemp is low in it. CBD oil is usually made from hemp to meet strict regulations about low THC content.

In June of 2018, the FDA approved a medicine with pure CBD oil (Epidiolex) for the first time. Epidiolex is used in children over 2 years old for seizures caused by two rare types of epilepsy [4].

While CBD oil is being studied for a wide range of conditions, including arthritis, multiple sclerosis, depression, anxiety, and insomnia, research supporting its benefits is still limited. Talk to your doctor if you plan to use CBD oil.

CBD oil is CBD typically extracted from hemp and dissolved in a food-grade oil. A medicine with CBD oil is approved for seizures and some people use this oil for a range of problems – from anxiety to depression to chronic pain.



  • Approved for two types of epilepsy
  • Can be used legally for several conditions in many countries
  • Won’t get you high


  • Insufficient evidence for some uses
  • May be illegal to transport across borders
  • Banned in some countries (or if its THC content is above a threshold)
  • THC traces may show up in a drug test
  • Poor quality of some supplements (less CBD than stated on the label)

Does CBD Oil Get You High?

Although both THC and CBD belong to the same family of chemicals (cannabinoids), they work in different ways.

THC binds and activates two types of cannabinoid receptors on brain cells (CB1 and CB2). This is how it causes a rewarding and psychotropic effect, giving rise to the “high.” But according to the research, this effect also increases the risk of abuse of other drugs such as opioids [5, 6].

CBD is less likely to bind to these receptors and slightly blocks rather than activating them. It also prevents the breakdown of the main cannabinoid the human body produces called anandamide. Anandamide is also known as the body’s natural “bliss molecule” (ananda is Sanskrit for bliss) [5, 7, 8].

Unlike THC, CBD also stimulates pathways that lower pain, inflammation, and anxiety (TRPV1, PPAR-gamma, and 5-HT1A). Plus, it blocks receptors involved in neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Huntington’s [9+, 10].

Read this post to learn more about the health benefits and dosing of CBD.

Not only will CBD oil not get you high, but it may also reduce pain, inflammation, anxiety, the progression of neurodegenerative diseases, and drug addiction.


SelfDecode has an AI-powered app that allows you to see how CBD may benefit your personal genetic predispositions. These are all based on clinical trials. The orange neutral faces denote health conditions that I have a typical likelihood of developing, which CBD may counteract.

Is CBD Oil Legal?

Legality across the US

Can you legally use CBD oil? This question is on the minds of many Americans. Most would guess affirmatively, as CBD won’t get people high, seems to be safe, and has strong medical potential. But with the changing regulations and different laws in each state, the answer is not as straightforward.

Confusion about the legality of CBD dates a while back. In the past couple of years, it has spurred horror stories in some states – reports of arrests, people being prosecuted for a felony, and authorities seizing CBD products.

Most people don’t want to take risks. With CBD oil, you want to have a peace of mind knowing you’re not breaking any laws.

Let’s first take a look at the cannabis legislation in the US throughout history to understand why it’s not as simple as it may seem at first glance.

Historical Legislation (1970-2000)

The Controlled Substances Act (CSA) of 1970 classified cannabis derivatives such as CBD as Schedule I controlled substances by both the FDA and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). This classification applies to all substances with [11]:

  • No accepted medical use
  • Lack of safety under medical supervision
  • High potential for abuse

Schedule I substances are considered the most dangerous. They can’t be prescribed and their manufacture, transport, use, and possession require a specific registration. Heroin, for example, belongs to this class [2+].

The Hemp Industrial Association (HIA) filed a couple of cases against the DEA in the early 2000s. These were resolved with the approval of non-psychoactive cannabis imported from Canada and Europe. In turn, the CBD oil market started thriving. However, growing cannabis remained illegal in the US except for industrial hemp cultivated as part of an official research program [12, 13].

In the early 2000s, it became legal to import non-psychoactive cannabis to the US. Until then, all cannabis derivatives were classified as Schedule I controlled substances.

Current Legislation

Oil from Hemp

The Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 – also known as the Hemp Bill – was approved in December of the same year. It clearly defined hemp as cannabis with less than 0.3% THC (as opposed to marijuana), removed it from the Schedule I substances list, and allowed its growing, possession, and transport across borders in all states [11].

This means that adults can buy and use hemp-derived CBD oil in all 50 states. CBD can only be obtained from plants of a licensed grower under the federal regulation. However, the FDA doesn’t allow its marketing for unapproved health claims or as a food supplement [11].

CBD oil from hemp with less than 0.3% THC is legal in all US states if obtained from a licensed grower. However, it can’t be marketed for unapproved health claims
Oil from Marijuana

The legislation of marijuana-derived CBD oil is more complex. Although not approved by the FDA, the oil is allowed for a broad range of conditions in [14]:

  • All states where both recreational and medical marijuana are legal (Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont, Washington, and the District of Columbia)
  • Some states only allowing medical marijuana (Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and West Virginia)

A few states (Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming), only allow it for very specific conditions. Typically, this means meeting strict medical requirements, such as failing to respond to other therapies for a specific health condition.

Conversely, marijuana-derived CBD oil is illegal in Idaho, Nebraska, and South Dakota.

Carefully check the legislation in your state before purchasing marijuana-derived CBD Oil. It might be better to go with hemp-derived oil instead to stay on the safe side

States where marijuana is only approved for medical use will normally require you to obtain a medical marijuana card. Even in those without this restriction, consulting your doctor to see if CBD oil is beneficial and safe for you is highly recommended.

Because marijuana use and possession are not approved at a federal law level, flying with marijuana-derived CBD oil or transporting it across state borders remains illegal.

CBD oil from marijuana is not legal in all US states. Go with hemp-derived oil instead or check the legislation in your state before purchasing any marijuana-based products.

Other Parts of the World

Rest of North America, South & Central America

In Canada and Uruguay, both recreational and medical marijuana (including CBD oil) are legal [15, 16].

Recreational marijuana is illegal (although often decriminalized) in all other South and Central American countries, but many of them allow its medical use. Countries where CBD oil is legal include Argentina, Belize, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Jamaica, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, and Puerto Rico.

Panama has signed a bill for the approval of medical marijuana, but the law remains pending.

CBD oil is legal in most of the Americas, while both medical and recreational marijuana is legal in Canada and Uruguay.

European Union

The EU only allows hemp products obtained from plants with a THC content below 0.2% and registered in the Common Catalogue of Varieties of Agricultural Plant Species. Most products don’t require specific testing or quality controls, except for prescription CBD oils prepared by pharmacists in Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands [17, 18].

Three countries (Austria, Czech Republic, and Luxembourg) allow a slightly higher THC limit (0.3%) in hemp varieties, while Italy allows up to 0.6%.

In early 2019, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) released a new guidance considering hemp products as ‘novel foods’. This applies to all foods that were not commonly eaten in the EU before 1997 or used safely in third countries for at least 25 years [19].

Although EU countries do not have to follow EFSA guidance, they usually do. And if they do, such categorization will strongly influence the CBD oil market. ‘Novel foods’ can’t be approved until their safety is proven in a process that normally takes 3 years! This could mean the temporary removal of CBD oil from the EU market in the near future.

Although hemp-derived CBD oil is currently legal in most of the EU, new guidelines may take these products off the market until they pass extensive safety checks.

Non-EU European Countries

The UK has announced that it will put the EFSA guidance into practice even after leaving the EU, meaning it will ban unapproved CBD products.

In Switzerland, CBD is not subject to the Swiss Narcotic Acts. All cannabis products with less than 1% THC are legal [20].

Norway allows medical CBD products, but they must be 100% THC-free.

CBD oil and other cannabis products are legal for medical use in North Macedonia. If their THC content is higher than 0.2%, they can only be obtained with a prescription.

Although they don’t have specific legislation on CBD oil, cannabis use and possession is illegal in Albania, Iceland, Kosovo, Montenegro, Russia, Serbia, and Ukraine. An initiative to legalize CBD oil in Serbia was called off in March of 2019.

CBD oil is illegal in some non-EU European countries, while others set varying THC limits.


In Australia, CBD oil is allowed but only if prescribed by a doctor after a complicated and expensive authorization process.

In New Zealand, CBD is no longer a controlled substance and its medical use is allowed if prescribed. CBD products must contain less than 2% THC [21].


Most Asian countries are very strict when it comes to cannabis. This plant is normally illegal and people who use CBD oil can be sentenced to jail and even death in some countries [22, 23].

The medical use of registered CBD oil products is only allowed in Georgia, Hong Kong, Israel, Japan, the Philippines, Thailand, and Turkey.

In China, CBD is approved for use in cosmetics but not in foods or medicines. However, some provinces allow the growth of plants with less than 0.3% THC for exportation.

In India, it’s allowed to use imported CBD products if prescribed by a doctor. The country is working on legalizing cannabis growth for medical research and medicine development.


Similar to the case of Asia, cannabis is generally banned all over Africa. CBD oil is only legal in South Africa, where the medical and even recreational use of marijuana is also allowed.

Drug Test

Drug tests for marijuana detect the drug in urine, blood, and saliva. Because they are based on antibodies or analysis techniques specific to THC and its breakdown products, they won’t detect CBD. However, CBD oil and other hemp products often contain traces of THC. Taking high amounts may cause this chemical to show up in a drug test [24, 25, 26].

People required to pass frequent drug tests (e.g., athletes) should reduce their use of CBD oil or stick to THC-free products.

Although still not widely used, the tests can be adapted to detect CBD and evaluate the quality and therapeutic potential of hemp-derived medicines [27, 28, 29].


CBD oil is becoming legal in a number of countries as the research behind its safety and medical potential is emerging. Unlike THC, CBD won’t get you high.

CBD oil is usually made from the hemp plant, which is low in THC. This type of oil is legal in all US states if purchased from a licensed grower. Most oils should contain 0.3% THC or less.

The marijuana plant is much higher in THC than hemp. It’s possible to make CBD oil from marijuana and reduce its THC content. However, marijuana-derived CBD oil is still a gray zone in many US states and countries around the world.

If you plan to use CBD oil, go for hemp-derived products and double-check the legislation in your state or country to stay on the safe side. If you need to pass frequent drug tests, choose 100% THC-free CBD oil.

About the Author

Carlos Tello

Carlos Tello

PhD (Molecular Biology)
Carlos received his PhD and MS from the Universidad de Sevilla.
Carlos spent 9 years in the laboratory investigating mineral transport in plants. He then started working as a freelancer, mainly in science writing, editing, and consulting. Carlos is passionate about learning the mechanisms behind biological processes and communicating science to both academic and non-academic audiences. He strongly believes that scientific literacy is crucial to maintain a healthy lifestyle and avoid falling for scams.


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