Cannabis, marijuana, weed, hemp, dope, pot, ganja… you get the point. Cannabis/marijuana has accumulated quite the list of nicknames over the years. Regardless of the name you know it by, you’ve likely been hearing more and more about this controversial plant recently.
Along with its various nicknames, cannabis has also accumulated a variety of myths, stereotypes and questions surrounding it. So, let’s try and get to some of those questions, define cannabis, and help you understand what is cannabis, and all its components.
How do we (and the law) define cannabis?
There are two main ways that one can technically define cannabis: scientifically, and legally. And, it’s a vitally important distinction.
Scientifically, we define cannabis as any plant (or part of the plant) belonging to any of these three species: Cannabis sativa, Cannabis indica and Cannabis ruderalis. These species of plants belonging to the genus Cannabis, all share several characteristics, though most notably that when these plants begin to produce flowers, they also produce the cannabinoid THC, the main component of the cannabis plant that has psychoactive properties (meaning it gets you high). If it’s easier to think about, some people simply consider all three Cannabis species to be either subspecies of the Cannabis sativa plant.
Wait – you mean there’s no difference between Sativa & Indica? They’re all Sativa? What about Hybrids?
This isn’t really the time or the place to start this debate – since we don’t 100% know for sure whether indica, sativa and ruderalis are not they are true species or subspecies. They certainly do look quite different, and depending who you ask, can have very different effects (“Sorry bro, I only smoke indicas”) but it’s just not that simple. You’ve probably heard that indicas will have a sedating effect, while sativas will have an invigorating effect. It seems this has nothing to do with the species itself, but rather a phenomenon called the Entourage Effect. More on that later…
Rather than think of indica, sativa as distinct species, and hybrids a mix of the two, think of indicas as purebred bernese mountain dogs, sativas as purebred boston terriers, and hybrids as whatever the result of breeding those two would be. You’d get a little bit of each, but they’re all still dogs – canis familiaris – not a different species altogether.
Cross an indica like Blueberry with a sativa like Haze, and what do you get? The infamous hybrid, Blue Dream.
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Hemp & Cannabis
However, there are some cultivars of Cannabis sativa that do NOT produce THC, or at least not large amounts of it. These C. sativa plants grow tall, lanky and are grown primarily for their seeds, fiber and CBD, a non-psychoactive cannabinoid, and these plants we call hemp. This is where the legal definition of cannabis enters the playing field.
Legally, in the USA, we define cannabis as any cannabis plant (of the three species listed above) that possesses a THC content of greater than 0.3% by weight. Any cannabis plant that has less than 0.3% THC is considered to be hemp.
Cannabis Anatomy 101
One very interesting thing about the cannabis plant is that it’s what we call dioecious, which is a fancy word for saying that the male and female of the species are separate organisms – like us humans, but unlike many other plants. Even your zucchini in your garden which produces a male flower and female flower does so on the same organism, while cannabis plants are strictly dioecious in that a male is male, and a female is female (with some minor exceptions). When a male and female cannabis produce flowers near one another, a seed is formed with a 50% chance of being male or female, and 50% of genes from each parent – just like us.
The Male Cannabis Plant
The male cannabis plant typically grows tall and lanky, produces very little (essentially zero) cannabinoid (either THC or CBD) and produces flowers that open up to release pollen, that travels the air to find a female plant to pollinate. While male plants do produce some trichomes, the glands where cannabinoids and terpenes are produced and stored, the plants spend most of their resources on pollen production.
The Female Cannabis Plant
The female cannabis plant will typically grow shorter and squatter than the male, and produces a small flower that emits two pistils (the botanical equivalent of fallopian tubes) that reach out to catch any pollen it may catch. These flower pods stack into large flowering tops, known as a cola. If the female pistils catch any pollen, the pollen travels down the pistils to the ovary and fertilizes it, eventually producing a seed. A fertilized plant will produce significantly less cannabinoids and terpenes, as it will divert its resources to producing seeds, instead of these secondary compounds in trichomes. An unfertilized flowering top or cola is also known as a sensemilla.
Female plants produce a large amount of trichomes, the sticky glands that coat a cannabis plant. Contained within trichomes are the cannabinoids and terpenes giving cannabis its characteristic stickiness, smell and psychoactive effects. It’s widely accepted that cannabis produces trichomes and the compounds inside as a defensive mechanism, most likely to defend the developing seed.
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Why We Only Grow Female Plants (Usually)
Typically, cannabis growers will opt to grow only female plants, as opposed to the males. Male plants produce little cannabinoid and thus have little value for their chemical makeup. They also produce pollen, which fertilize the female plants, reducing the female’s potency of cannabinoid and terpene. Thus, most growers will opt to remove (and cull) any males from their grow area prior to flowers developing to avoid the potential of this happening.
There two general exception to this rule of growing females only, as cannabis breeders will intentionally pair a selected male with a female plant to select for specific characteristics, as well as produce seeds for growing future generations. Another exception is in the cultivation of hemp. Growing hemp at large scale (think thousands of acres) it’s not feasible to remove every male from a field! However, because hemp is grown primarily for seeds and fiber, this is actually a good thing. And if the hemp in question is being grown for its CBD, the sheer scale of the field will make up for any loss of potency.
So Back up a Minute -Hemp & Cannabis are one and the same?
So, technically, yes. But also, no.
Hemp and cannabis are by all scientific and biological definitions considered to be the same plant, it’s just the cultivars of cannabis that have anything greater than 0.3% THC to be considered cannabis. When the senate approved the national production of hemp in 2018, the legal definition used to define hemp was based on that 0.3% mark. The use, sale and possession of cannabis greater than 0.3% THC remains federally illegal, though some states have individually legalized or decriminalized.
But, hemp is just a specific cultivar of cannabis bred to have low THC in addition to having characteristics that make it more industrially valuable: tall and lanky for high density, large seed production and strong fibers and most recently, CBD production.
Cannabis and hemp are thus related in the same way that your friend’s tiny Chihuahua and that Great Dane you saw the other day are technically the same species (Canis familiaris) just different cultivars, bred for different characteristics, and different functions. They’re both dogs, but they sure have different traits. Kale, cabbage, broccoli, brussels sprouts and cauliflower are another great plant-based example.
So does that mean CBD is legal?
Again this should be a straightforward answer, but it’s not. CBD is federally legal in the USA, so long as the produce has <0.3% THC. However, some states have placed additional restrictions on the purchase and sale of CBD.
In addition, CBD is not currently federally regulated by the FDA, except for the specific use as a topical ingredient for application on the skin. Everything else is at your own risk, so to speak, so keep that in mind and be wary of anyone explicitly advertising the use of CBD for anything other than that.
Okay, so Hemp & CBD are Legal in the USA, are Cannabis & THC legal?
This depends on where you live in the world. And even then, it can be confusing and dependent on the context of use and origin of the product. At the time of writing this article (October 2020) – yeah, it’s been quite a year), cannabis is legal for medical use in over 30 countries, including in 33 states of the USA. However, cannabis has been legalized for recreational use in only 5 countries plus 11 states, two territories and DC, in the United States.
Why is Marijuana illegal in the first place?
Cannabis has a fascinating history, and it’s much more in depth that we can cover in this article. What you need to know is this, though. We’ve traced cannabis use in some Eastern cultures as far back as 2000 BCE. Cannabis was used primarily as an “entheogen,” a psychoactive substance used in a religious or spiritual context. We also need to keep in mind that cannabis looked, grew and acted much differently back then, than it does now. While it was very likely intentionally and traditionally grown for the psychoactive resin, cannabis was (and still is) a very useful agricultural crop for industrial purposes, producing strong, commercially valuable fibers and nutritious, calorie-rich seeds. That being said, cannabis legalization is on the forefront of many governments to-do lists, to legalize or decriminalize either THC or CBD.
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THC vs CBD
THC and CBD, tetra-hydrocannabinol and cannabidiol, are the two most common cannabinoids produced by a marijuana plant. These two active ingredients are what give cannabis and hemp their medicinal properties. THC is well known for its psychoactive effects (it gets you high) among other potential benefits. CBD products on the other hand, doesn’t have the same effects on the brain due to how it interacts with the body.
THC and CBD are both cannabinoids – which we define as molecules that interact with our own endocannabinoid system. The endocannabinoid system is a biological pathway in the bodies of mammals consisting of two primary cannabinoid receptors, CB1 and CB2. The endocannabinoid system is a complex neurotransmitter system that has shown to have critical functions in a variety of bodily functions including fertility, metabolism, memory, cognition and many more. There are many different cannabinoids we know about, and potentially more to be discovered. CBG, CBN, THCV and CBDV are a few of the more well known cannabinoids.
Terpenes are another class of chemical compounds found in cannabis, but also all many other plants. They are considered secondary metabolites in plants (meaning they are not directly required for their survival) but are integral in providing protection from predators or attracting pollinators. Terpenes are primarily what gives common herbs like peppermint, basil, thyme, oregano or dill their unique smells and tastes, even though they all contain similar terpenes, just in different proportions. This is the same for lemons, limes and grapefruits. And of course, cannabis.
Terpenes are what gives a strain like Skunk it’s skunky smell (primarily the terpene humulene), or a strain like Sour Diesel its citrusy smell (primarily the terpene limonene). Terpenes are also the reason behind each strains unique effects on a user, which can range from invigorating and creative to relaxing and lethargic, through what we call the entourage effect.
Side note: Cannabinoids vs Terpenes
Where things can get a little confusing is that the actual definition we use for a cannabinoid can also change what we include in this family of molecules. Technically, a cannabinoid is a molecule that interacts with the endocannabinoid system’s CB1 or CB2 receptors. The terpene beta-caryophyllene (found in cannabis, black pepper and many other plants) acts on CB2 receptors, and is therefore technically a cannabinoid. For now though, it’s easier to leave terpenes in terpenes and cannabinoids as cannabinoids.
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The Entourage Effect
It’s now fairly well understood that consuming THC isolate will have a very predictable effect on the body. However, consuming THC in conjunction with a specific ratio of terpenes – which can vary from strain to strain – can often produce very different responses in a user. This is where we observe the entourage effect: the coordinated effects of cannabinoids and terpenes has on a human body. Because the human body, the endocannabinoid system and other neurotransmitter systems are quite complicated, and since they can often overlap as we learned above, we’re still learning a lot about the entourage effect.
The Entourage Effect & You
You’ve likely heard the general categorization that indicas will put you “in da couch” and “sunny” sativas will perk you up. Rather than species differences, this is likely due to the entourage effect. Due to where one would traditionally find sativas (in hot, tropical climates) and indicas (cool, mountainous areas) the physical characteristics that they developed differed, as did their chemical characteristics. So, sativas generally have invigorating terpenes like limonene, pinene and terpinolene, while indicas will contain more sedating terpenes like myrcene, caryophyllene and linalool.
Types of Cannabis Products
Knowing what you know about indicas, sativas, terpenes and cannabinoids, you can now go into your product selection with a little more background knowledge.
Arguably the most commonly consumed type of cannabis is the dried flower of a female plant. The (hopefully) unseeded flowers are dried and cured to around 8-12% moisture content. At this point the flowers can be ground up to increase surface area and be rolled into a joint, packed into a bowl for a pipe/bong, or used in a vaporizer. Smoking flower is a very traditional way to consume the plant. There is little evidence that smoking cannabis has the though there is some concern that smoking
Because the cannabinoids and terpenes actually reside in the trichomes, many cannabis concentrates or extracts have been developed over the years, that extract or distill these compounds out of the glands, leaving the leaf material behind. Hashish, hash oil, shatter, budder, wax, distillate, live resin and rosin are a handful of these concentrates, all produced in various ways. Each has a unique process to produce, accompanied by a unique texture, taste, consistency and effects, based on the concentrations of cannabinoid and terpene in the extract.
Cannabis infused edibles can also take many shapes – really any type of food can be made into an edible, though it is typically reserved for gummies, brownies and infused oils. Ingesting cannabis has a very different effect than inhaling it. When ingested, THC passes through your digestive system and your liver, converting it into 11-hydroxy-THC, a molecule that’s much stronger than THC. While it is a stronger and longer lasting high, many people prefer the effects of edibles, in addition to a more convenient and less smelly consumption method.
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What are the benefits of cannabis?
Cannabis produces a wide variety of cannabinoids, terpenes and other phytochemicals (chemicals produced by plants) that have an array of benefits when ingested, inhaled or applied. The two most infamous cannabinoids, THC and CBD have been found to show promise in treating a wide variety of diseases and disorders including glaucoma, chronic pain and inflammation, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, anxiety, depression and potentially more.
In addition to these potential medical benefits, many people cite the general wellness effects of their cannabis consumption, to provide an overall sense of well being. Cannabis was traditionally used as
Are there any side effects of cannabis use?
The ol’ adage that “too much of a good thing can be bad” seems to hold true with all things, including cannabis. While many people who use cannabis will frequently spout a never-ending list of benefits, there are some potential health effects that one needs to be aware of. And, it might not be for everyone.
The short term effects of cannabis consumption include general impairment of motor function and thinking, a distortion in time perception (wait, how long have I been sitting here?), memory loss and in higher doses and extreme cases, severe paranoia, anxiety and psychosis. Marijuana use increases your heart rate putting people with existing coronary or vascular issues at risk of further complications.
Depending on how you actually consume the cannabis can also produce unwanted side effects. Because cannabis is typically smoked or inhaled, this may produce irritation or damage to the lungs and put people with existing issues at further risk. Consuming orally (eating) large amounts of cannabis has also been shown to have adverse effects, like psychosis, heart attack or irregular heartbeat. A meta analysis in 2012 also showed an increase risk of vehicle collision after cannabis use, so by no means should you be driving while impaired from any substance, and cannabis is no exception.
At the end of the day, just like alcohol, caffeine and any other “mainstream” drug, there are always risks and moderation seems to be key, and we always recommend consulting with your doctor or a medical professional to discuss these types of concerns!
At the end of the day, cannabis has tremendous economic value, and shows promise in treating a wide variety of medical ailments as well as improving many facets of every day life. That being said, the long term effects of cannabis have not been well documented to date, and so it is still worth mentioning to approach it with caution and in moderation, especially since some potentially serious side effects have been well documented. As more and more countries around the world continue to decriminalize and legalize cannabis, it should only increase our understanding of the plant and its potential benefits.