A Beginner's Guide on Cannabis 101

What’s all the buzz about cannabis?

While the existence of cannabis is well-known, people keep learning new information about the plant and how it works. As cannabis becomes more widely legalized around the US, you may want to learn more. Whether you’re a beginner or not, there’s more to this plant than most people know.

In the US so far, 20 states have legalized both medical and recreational cannabis and 48 states have at least decriminalized the substance. More US adults currently use cannabis daily because 77% live in states where it has been legalized to some extent. In addition, the legal cannabis market is expected to reach $33 billion in 2022 – a 32% increase from the previous year.

If you’re reading this guide, you may be looking to learn more about cannabis. Whether you’re wondering which type to buy in legalized states, the history, or how cannabis works (hint: it’s not what you think!), our guide has you covered.

What is Cannabis?

The definition of cannabis, according to the Alcohol and Drug Association, is simply “a cannabinoid drug” that comes from the Cannabis Sativa plant, which belongs to the family Cannabaceae. This plant family also includes hop (yes, the same hop used in beer).

Even in ancient times, the Cannabis Sativa plant was known to have psychoactive and other effects on humans and was used for medical, recreational, and religious purposes.

Marijuana, hemp, cannabis are names used for the same plant, but with various purposes. There’s a reason the names in use for this plant are changing; much of it has to do with education and shifting legalities, which have a tumultuous history. At one point, cannabis was banned from academic study.

Cannabis interacts with the endocannabinoid system (ECS) in humans, a system that was only discovered in 1988. We’ll cover more around the ECS later in this guide.

The Cannabis plant is grown and bred in various subvarieties, which gives each distinguishing features like varying appearances and effects. The effects of cannabis on humans is largely thanks to terpenes, which are the aromatic compounds essential oils are made from.

Cannabis or Marijuana? What’s the difference?

There are many words for the cannabis plant besides marijuana and cannabis, including yarndi, pot, weed, hash, bud, flower, dope, ganja, joint, stick, chronic, cone, choof, mull, 420, dabs, dabbing, and BHO.

While Marijuana and Cannabis come from the same plant, each has different amounts of certain chemical compounds. Here’s how they’re different:

“Cannabis” is a catch-all for anything that comes from the Cannabis Sativa plant.

“Marijuana” in the US refers to cannabis that contains more than 0.3% THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the psychoactive compound in the plant that gives people a high (anything less than 0.3% THC is referred to as “industrial hemp” and is legal.)

 

Where are the origins of cannabis use?

Cannabis is thought to have originated in Central Asia, but it also existed in other parts of the world in ancient times. Here’s what we know about the origins of cannabis use:

In Central Asia:

People used cannabis to make clothing, rope, paper and food. Archaeological excavations found textile fragments made with cannabis fibers from right after the Ice Age.

The first written record of cannabis in China is 5000 years old from Emperor Chen Nong, the “father of Chinese agriculture”. The Chinese character “Ma” was designed to resemble the way people dried cannabis.

Archaeologists discovered evidence of cannabis with higher THC levels, along with vessels like wooden braziers, in a 2500-year-old cemetery that the Sogdian people in China used. These people were followers of Zoroastrianism, an ancient Persian religion whose written records tell about using cannabis to get high.

In the Middle East:

Archaeologists found cannabis residue from the 8th century BC in an ancient Israelite Iron Age temple altar in Tel Arad, Israel along with Frankincense, animal dung and animal fat. The animal dung and fat were used to burn at a high heat, which is evidence that religious ritual involved using cannabis to achieve a high.

In Europe and Africa:

Merchants carried cannabis along the Silk Road from Asia into Europe and Africa in 500 BC.

By the 19th century, cannabis was the industrial crop of the age in the Western Hemisphere. Scholars believe that thousands of cannabis medicines existed during this time.

In the US, Cannabis was regulated in 1937 and then outlawed in 1970 with the controlled substances act.

What do people use cannabis for today?

The main reasons people use cannabis today are for medical and recreational purposes:

Medical Use

 

  • Nausea from chemotherapy and other issues

  • Epilepsy treatment

  • Treating loss of appetite and weight loss in people with HIV/AIDS

  • Multiple Sclerosis symptoms

The possibilities for medical uses of cannabis are just beginning to be uncovered now that the stigma is going away. Raphael Mechoulam, the “father of cannabis research”, has studied cannabinoid acid molecules for years for the purposes of treating addiction and fighting more diseases.

 

Recreational Use

 

Recreational use of cannabis means use that is not for medicinal purposes. This includes:

  • Using cannabis for the sake of enjoyment

  • Use that is not prescribed by a medical professional

  • Use on occasion, particularly in social settings

  • When there’s not a dependence on use

  • Use in small amounts

What’s the difference between Indica, Sativa, and Hybrids?

Indica is said to be relaxing, Sativa energizing, and the hybrid is supposed to be a combined effect.

However, these are just their reputation; these strains don’t have these effects on every user. Sativa, Indica and Hybrids tend to be used like brand names, but they’re produced in various places, so they’re not actually consistent because there is some variance in the level of chemicals each possess. There are two reasons behind the effects’ variance on individuals:

1. The terpene levels. Terpenes are aromatic compounds in plants – they’re used to make essential oils. The chemical compounds in each specific plant will be different depending on where and how it was grown;

2. The endocannabinoid system (ECS) of the individual, which cannabis interacts with differently in each person.

How does cannabis work in the body?

Cannabis works in the human body by interacting with the endocannabinoid system (ECS). The ECS is the neuromodulatory system responsible for central nervous system functions. This system regulates memory, sleep, mood, appetite, immune system and reproduction. Other neuromodulators include serotonin and dopamine.

Endocannabinoids are different from cannabinoids because they’re molecules produced by the human body, whereas cannabinoids are produced by the cannabis plant. They have similar chemical makeup to one another and interact with each other.

The ECS is made up of three elements:

1. Endocannabinoids (short for endogenous cannabinoids). There are two known ones, which are called AEA and 2-AG.

2. Receptors, which the cannabinoids bind to in the body. There are two of these, CB1 (located in the brain) and CB2 (located in the immune system).

3. Enzymes, which break down each kind of cannabinoid. There are two types, which are called fatty acid hydrolase (these break down the AEA cannabinoids) and monoacylglycerol acid lipase (these break down the 2-AG cannabinoids).

Here’s how cannabis interacts with the ECS in the body:

First, Cannabinoids are metabolized by the human body through the liver, and some are stored in fatty tissue.

Next, Endocannabinoids act as lipid (fat) messengers between cells. Endocannabinoids signal molecules to release from a cell and activate the cannabinoid receptors in other cells, which causes effects in the human body.

The ECS is still being studied, but current thought is that its main purpose is to maintain homeostasis, or balance, in the body.

How does the ECS maintain balance?

  • The ECS has a huge network of signals and cell receptors all throughout the body, much  like a highway. The cannabinoid receptors act like traffic lights to regulate the traffic on the highway.

  • There are more CB1 cannabinoid receptors in the brain than most of the other neurotransmitters, so they’re able to control and monitor the others, which allows them to regulate your bodily systems – for instance, they can adjust the level of temperature or hunger in your body.

  • The CB2 receptors in the immune system control your immune functions and conditions, such as inflammation.

Here’s what this looks like in real life:

That “runner’s high” you get? It might actually be from endocannabinoids, not endorphins.

An endocannabinoid deficiency may be the cause of multiple conditions such as migraines and fibromyalgia.

The ECS is now known to be involved in psychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia.

What are cannabinoids?

Most simply put, cannabinoids are compounds found in the cannabis plant. Cannabinoids were first discovered in 1940 by British chemist Robert S. Cahn, who discovered the compound CBN (cannabinol). CBD (cannabidiol), another compound, was discovered in 1942, and THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) was identified in 1964. These are the three major cannabinoids.

Cannabinoids also exist in other plants including licorice, echinacea, rhododendron and liverwort. Here’s how cannabinoids are formed in plants from biosynthesis:

1. An enzyme causes GPP (geranyl pyrophosphate) and olivetolic acid to combine.

2. This combination forms CBGA (cannabigerolic acid).

3. CBGA is converted to cannabinoids.

Cannabis plants produce over 100 different types of cannabinoids. The amount and type of cannabinoids produced by a plant is known as its cannabinoid profile.

People control the cannabinoid profile of cannabis plants in order to use and sell them for specific purposes. This is called selective breeding, and examples include:

  • Hemp, which is bred to be low in THC;

  • Medical strains, which are bred to be high in CBD;

  • Recreational strains, which are bred to be high in THC.

Here’s how THC and CBD cannabinoids work with the ECS in humans:

  • CBD cannabinoids reduce inflammation in the body by binding to CB2 receptors in the immune system. CBD is non-psychoactive and actually counteracts the cognitive impairment of THC.

What are terpenes? Why do they matter?

Terpenes are the components of the cannabis plant responsible for the aroma, or smell, which is unique to each plant. Almost all plants contain terpenes, which are what is made into essential oils (think aromatherapy).

Rather than trusting the strain names of cannabis to predict its effect, what should be looked at is the terpene profile – it’s not as simple as “sativa” or “indica”.

Terpenes are created when plants defend themselves against stressors, both environmental and predatory. You’ve probably heard of these terpenes in various plants:

  • Sulfur in garlic

  • Morphine and codeine in opium

  • Antioxidants in fruits

  • THC (high-producing compounds) in cannabis

  • Limonene, which is found in citrus peels and other plants

The effect terpenes have on humans is called the entourage effect. Think of it like a symphony made up of various instruments and players: Not only do the terpene profiles and fragrances vary per plant, but their effects vary per person. This is because each aspect of the unique profile interacts with the unique aspects of each person’s ECS.

When a plant’s terpene profile is combined with other factors, such as dosage and the individual’s endocannabinoid system, results can vary. For recreational cannabis use, this means that the same strain may produce a relaxing effect in one person and an energetic effect in another!

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