Cannabis may seem straightforward enough on the surface—it’s a plant that you consume, like tobacco. But its psychoactive and medicinal effects are one-of-a-kind, and the ways in which we can consume and enjoy it, are seemingly endless. So what’s a newcomer to the cannabis world to do? There’s a ton to learn, and even walking into a medical dispensary or recreational cannabis retailer can be extremely intimidating.
While there is enough information to learn to fill a master’s program, there is also some basic knowledge that can make navigating a cannabis store less overwhelming and more enjoyable. Whether you’re a cannabis novice looking to start from the beginning, or a cannabis expert looking to brush up on the basics, here are some facts to help improve your cannabis experience, just in time for 420.
The Anatomy of a Cannabis Plant
The first and most basic cannabis product is good old-fashioned cannabis flower. Cannabis flower is the flowering tops of the cannabis plant that is harvested to be smoked or vaporized. The flower is harvested from a much larger plant. The anatomy of the cannabis plant is helpful in understanding how it all works.
Flower, Calyx and Trichomes
Emma Chasen, Co-founder of Eminent Consulting, graduated from Brown University with a B.A. in medicinal plant research and ethnobotany, and is an expert on the cannabis plant and how it affects the human body. Chasen was kind enough to impart her cannabis wisdom to CULTURE. “The female cannabis plant is the plant that produces the flower we consume in the form of ‘nugs’ or ‘buds’,” Chasen explained. “The flowers of the female plant are pistillate flowers because they contain pistils. A pistil is meant to catch pollen.”
The pistil is the female reproductive organ which contains the highest concentrations of cannabinoids that make humans love it so much. Cannabis growers only cultivate female cannabis plants for this reason. “At the base of the pistil is a calyx. A calyx is made up of plant tissue that is meant to nourish and protect a seed,” Chasen described. “When the pistils are not exposed to pollen, the calyxes swell with plant tissue instead of seeds and these make up the flowers that we consume.” You may hear a budtender or other cannabis expert talking about calyxes, this is what they’re referring to.
“On the surface of the flower are trichomes—glandular structures that hold the secondary compounds (cannabinoids, terpenes, etc.),” Chasen explained. “They are the reason why we have a unique psychoactive experience with each cannabis variety.” These compounds are evident in the crystal coating you’ll see on cannabis flower.
Stalks and Leaves
The rest of the cannabis plant consists of stalks, which Chasen described as the “main woody stem with lateral branching,” and the leaves. The stalks are not psychoactive, but can be used in the same way hemp is used to make fiber, mulch and other products. The fan leaves, which are the big pointed leaves synonymous with cannabis, can be used to make edibles or salves, but are not powerful enough to be consumed on their own. Fan leaves can grow anywhere up to 13 pointed fingers. Sugar leaves are the smaller frosty leaves that grow off the buds. These leaves are trimmed once the buds are harvested, but due to their high tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content, they’re almost always saved and used for either making hash or edibles.
Cultivars refer to different types of cannabis. Like roses, tea, tobacco or pretty much any plant that humans enjoy, there are a huge number of cannabis varieties. These strains come in three basic types, which are sativa, indica or a hybrid of the two. Most strains are a hybrid, with one or another being dominant. While the difference between an indica’s or sativa’s effects are debatable, these types of strains are generally agreed to provide, generally not uniformly, two different experiences.
Sativa plants tend to be taller and skinnier, and their buds are similarly more skinny, fluffy and less dense. The effect sativas are known for providing is similarly light and airy, with less lethargic effects. A sativa high tends to be more giggly, energizing and creative. If you’re the type of person who wants to paint a picture or go on a hike after you’ve consumed cannabis, look for a sativa strain.
Indica plants are shorter and fatter than their sativa counterparts, and they also mature more quickly. Their buds look more dense and squat. An indica high is known to be more on the relaxing side, with stronger depressant effects. Indicas have been reported as better for pain relief and anxiety relief and tend to be more for chilling out than enhancing an active experience.
Nearly all modern cultivars are hybrids of sativas and indicas. Growers have taken the best parts of cannabis plants and crossbred them to come up with thousands of cultivars that provide as many different effects, aromas and flavors. While most hybrids are listed as either sativa- or indica-dominant, you can’t rely on those categorizations alone to determine what kind of effects the flower will provide. It’s the cannabinoids inside of it that really count.
What gets you high?
If it’s not strictly a sativa or indica that determines the type of effect a cannabis product provides, how can you tell? Product reviews can help, but more importantly, lab testing has given us the best predictions of all, by isolating each mind-altering cannabinoid and measuring its amounts in any given cannabis product.
The psychoactive compounds in cannabis are known as cannabinoids. The chemistry of cannabinoids goes far beyond what any basic description of cannabis can provide. There is a long list of cannabinoids present in any given cannabis plant, and each plays a different role.
There are two popular cannabinoids that make a difference for cannabis consumers, however, and those are THC and cannabidiol (CBD). In addition to cannabinoids, terpenes also affect cannabis in both flavor and the effects. These chemicals interact with cannabinoid receptors, which are found throughout the human body, and each has different characteristics and provides different effects. Having a basic understanding of what they are, and their effects will provide you with enough information to make an informed choice.
The main psychoactive compound is THC. THC is the chemical that when smoked or ingested, after binding to a fat, makes you giggly and happy. It also has been reported to relieve pain and nausea, stimulate appetite, and it can even provide a little energy boost. Basically, THC is what gets you high. On a package, the THC content will often be labeled as THCA, that’s because THCA is the molecule found in cannabis, that when smoked, or exposed to heat in another way, will become THC. THCA requires conversion to THC in order to cause effects, which is why eating cannabis flower on its own will not get you high.
CBD is the other important cannabinoid. While CBD doesn’t get consumers high, it has been reported to provide relief from anxiety and seizures in those with epilepsy and other neurological conditions, and it may even work as a powerful anti-inflammatory when bound with small amounts of THC. CBD is one cannabinoid in particular that makes cannabis so effective as medicine.
Terpenes are the chemical compounds responsible for giving cannabis its flavor and scent. Varying levels of different terpenes in cannabis is why each cultivar has a unique fragrance and taste. Terpenes play another role in cannabis too—in that some of them help us absorb THC, and others help bind to the cannabis receptors in our bodies.
Commonly found terpenes include myrcene, limonene, linalool, caryophyllene and pinene. Each terpene has its own unique scent and flavor, and each plays its own unique chemical role in the effect of cannabis. Terpenes aren’t unique to cannabis, as they’re found in many plants and even insects.
When it comes to consuming cannabis—you’ve got plenty of options. For newcomers to cannabis, edibles are popular. If you’re looking for something a little stronger and more discreet than flower, there are extracts including concentrates or hash. You can even buy topicals that you can rub onto your body for some of that canna-goodness without feeling a psychoactive effect. The choice is yours—but here’s some information to help you decide.
For those who want to get high, but don’t want to smoke or vape, edibles are a great option. Edibles provide a different, arguably more powerful effect than smoked or vaped cannabis. Lab-tested edibles are dosed accurately, so beginning cannabis consumers don’t run as high of a risk of overdoing it if they’re mindful. Edibles are made when either cannabis plant matter is simmered at low heat with an oil or butter (THC is fat soluble), or more commonly in legal cannabis markets, a concentrate is infused into an edible product.
Aside from personal taste preferences, tolerance to THC is the most important consideration to make when selecting an edible. If you’re just starting out, start with a small dose like 5mg of THC or less and wait up to two hours to see how the edible affects you. Like alcohol, how full or empty your stomach is will impact how fast-acting and hard-hitting the effects will be. If you don’t feel anything right away, wait before eating more. Sometimes edibles can take some time to take effect.
Extracts or concentrates, also known as a hash, are a world in and of themselves. But to give you the cliff notes version—concentrates are created when the cannabinoids are separated from the plant matter, making for a more powerful and potent product.
In order to separate the cannabinoids from the plant, in most cases, a solvent is used. Solvents include CO2, butane, propane and alcohol. A commonly used solvent is butane, and his extract is known as butane hash oil, referred to as BHO. Hash extracted with alcohol is known as Rick Simpson Oil (RSO), and it is commonly used for medical purposes. Concentrates also come in a variety of different textures, including sugar wax, honey oil, crumble, shatter, etc. Different extraction methods and temperatures create different textures. There’s also solventless concentrate, which uses either ice (bubble hash) or heat (rosin) to extract the cannabinoids.
The extraction process typically eliminates terpenes from the final product. Concentrate producers have figured out how to infuse terpenes back into their products, however.
There are several ways you can consume concentrates. One of the most popular ways is the vape pen. Some vape pens require using concentrates that are sold in special cartridges, and some can take the raw product. There are other more advanced ways to consume cannabis, but they’re not for beginners.
As an option for those looking to benefit from cannabis without the high, topicals are a good choice. There are lots of lotions, salves and balms on the market that can be rubbed directly on the skin and absorbed. These topicals as they’re called, are effective, and since they’re not ingested they will not get you high, they’ll just provide pain relief in the area they’re rubbed on. Topicals are great for elderly patients looking to take advantage of the medicinal properties of cannabis, without it affecting their mind.
There is a lot to learn when it comes to cannabis. But your relationship with cannabis doesn’t need to be complicated. With this basic background knowledge, you can navigate your cannabis experience with confidence. Don’t let the abundance of products and terminology overwhelm you.