Despite the fact that cannabis has been legal in Canada for nearly three years, there’s still a ton of misinformation out there. Part of this comes down to our society’s negative perception of cannabis consumption. While it’s certainly nowhere near as bad as it used to be, legalization hasn’t totally eliminated the pervasive stigma.
In addition to this, many people are simply intimidated by all of this. This is a new and rapidly evolving industry, with new strains, products and consumption methods constantly hitting the market. For someone just getting started with cannabis, walking into a dispensary can be a frightening prospect.
We’re here to fix that. The following is a brief, beginner-friendly guide to the fundamentals of cannabis.
Don’t worry; this isn’t going to be a long, rambling science lecture – just the basics of what you need to know to be an informed, educated consumer. This guide will allow you to make informed decisions and ultimately help you find the best cannabis products for you.
The Endocannabinoid System & Cannabinoids
The endocannabinoid system is an intricate network of receptors and enzymes in the human body. Found in all humans and animals, this amazing system is spread throughout the entire brain and body, covering all 11 physiological systems. It’s responsible for the regulation of a number of functions and impacts everything from memory to stress.
It’s also the thing that makes cannabis work, and it’s where the magic all happens.
When you consume cannabis, a number of compounds are released. These compounds (called “cannabinoids”) bind to and interact with your endocannabinoid receptors, producing a number of profound effects in the brain and body.
There are over 100 different cannabinoids that we know of so far, but the two we know the most about are THC and CBD.
THC stands for tetrahydrocannabinol (we know, it’s a mouthful). This is the main psychoactive compound in cannabis. It binds mainly to the receptors in your brain and produces a number of effects ranging from euphoria to changes in time perception.
Simply put, THC is the compound responsible for most of the short-term effects that we all associate with cannabis (in other words, it’s the part that gets you “high”). These effects are highly variable, and each person will respond slightly differently.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably noticed that there’s been an absolute explosion of CBD products over the last few years. Oils, creams, gummies, shakes – you name it, there’s a CBD version of it out there.
CBD stands for cannabidiol. It’s the second most abundant cannabinoid after THC, but it works a little differently. Rather than bind directly to the receptors, it interacts with them indirectly.
As a compound, CBD is quite different from its rambunctious big brother THC. It’s not “psychoactive” in the sense that it won’t get you “high” – but that doesn’t mean that it’s not working on the brain.
CBD is believed to have certain mood-altering properties and can potentially have an impact on the way you feel. Since it’s naturally occurring in most cannabis products, it also has the potential to “balance out” some of the effects that THC can have.
Not all cannabis is created equal – just like you wouldn’t go to the grocery store and find one kind of apple, you also won’t find one kind of cannabis in a dispensary.
A cannabis strain (or “cultivar”) is just that – a specific variety that’s been cultivated for specific characteristics. While one strain may be loaded with THC, you may find another one that’s lighter and more balanced by a higher CBD content.
There are an absolute TON of strains on the market today (over 700, to be exact). But to keep it simple, we can break these strains down into three categories – Indica, Sativa and hybrid.
Sativa, Indica & Hybrid Strains
Sativa is a type of cannabis that tends to thrive in hot, humid climates. These plants tend to be tall and lanky, with thin branches, pointy leaves and a lightish green colour.
Indica, on the other hand, is believed to have originated in the Indian subcontinent (hence the name). These plants are usually shorter and thicker than Sativas, with bushier leaves and a darker green colour.
While some strains are strictly from Indica or Sativa plants, a lot of what we have on the market today are hybrids. These are exactly what they sound like – variations of cannabis that have characteristics of both Indica and Sativa plants.
There’s a belief out there that Indica and Sativa strains have dichotomous effects – you may have heard that Indica plants will produce a relaxing “body high” while Sativas will produce a buzzing “head high”.
While this was considered common knowledge for quite some time, the reality is that it’s a bit more complicated than that. Cannabis is indeed a highly variable plant, but the idea that you can determine its effects strictly by looking at its appearance is questionable, and there’s likely a lot more going on beneath the surface.
Terpenes: The Little Compounds That Makes Cannabis Strains Unique
When asked about the smell of cannabis, most people imagine the classic “skunky” aroma as being a distinctive aspect of the plant. In fact, different strains of cannabis contain an incredibly wide variety of scents, ranging from skunky, sweet, citrus, piney, floral, and earthy, among others.
This is because of terpenes. These are the aromatic compounds found in cannabis, and they’re responsible for giving it its unique scent and flavour.
But what’s REALLY cool is that each strain of cannabis has its own unique terpene profile. Just like each bottle of wine gives off its own combination of notes, cannabis does the same thing – while one strain may come off as sweet and fruity, others may smell dark and herbal.
These differences and distinctions can change and enhance the entire experience you have with a strain and may even impact how you ultimately feel.
The difference may be subtle at first, but as you progress on your cannabis journey, you’ll start to pick out all the wonderful little nuances that these aromatic chemicals have to offer.
The Different Ways Of Consuming Cannabis
Gone are the days where smoking a joint or a bong were your only options.
We’ve come a long way since the days of prohibition. Legalization has created an entire industry of innovative and creative technologies, and we now have a multitude of ways to consume and enjoy this wonderful plant.
This is the “old school” option and probably the most straightforward, as humans have been smoking cannabis flower for thousands of years. And despite the advances made in consumption methods, that ritual of sparking up a joint, pipe or a bong will probably never die.
A relative newcomer vaping involves battery-powered devices that allow you to inhale vaporized cannabis liquid.
Vaping really gives you the best of both worlds. It simulates the act of smoking and allows the cannabinoids to rapidly enter the bloodstream and take effect quickly. At the same time, many find it to be a cleaner experience, particularly if you’re concerned about the smell (while it will still release terpenes, the scent is generally much milder).
Dabbing is a slightly different consumption method than you may be used to. It makes use of concentrated doses of cannabis in the form of shatter, wax, oils and other products.
While this method definitely gives you the most “bang for your buck” it’s definitely not for beginners – because of its concentrated nature, THC levels can get extremely high (although high CBD varieties do exist), and it’s really something you’ll want to ease yourself into.
In 2019, Health Canada officially approved the sale of edible cannabis products. From drinks to brownies, these are a fantastic option with endless possibilities, particularly for those who don’t like smoking or vaping.
While these products certainly are popular, they really should come with a bit of a warning – edible cannabis works a little bit differently than most of the other options.
Since the cannabinoids need to pass through your digestive system, it will generally take longer for them to kick in. And thanks to the chemical changes that THC goes through in the liver, the effects may also be stronger than what you’re used to.
Sublingual cannabis is any kind of cannabis taken under the tongue and includes tinctures and sprays. These products are quite convenient because they’re smoke-free, highly portable and kick in quickly because they don’t have to pass through the digestive system.
Cannabis-infused creams, balms and lotions do not have any of the psychotropic effects of the other consumption methods since the cannabinoids don’t end up reaching the bloodstream. Rather, these topicals are absorbed through the skin, binding to local cannabinoid receptors and can potentially provide relief from soreness, inflammation and other issues.