It’s a new day for marijuana in America. More than 65 million Americans live in one of the eight states where cannabis is legal for adults 21 and over, and more than half of the country has laws on the books allowing medical marijuana in some form. This means more people than ever may try cannabis for the first time, or for the first time in several decades—which may as well be starting out all over again, given the light-years of progress in the ensuing generation.
So this is for you—you, the unstoned, who hasn’t seen a joint in 30 years or a dab, ever. (Yes, we’ll explain what a “dab” is.)
Suggested further reading: Cannabis Pharmacy: The Practical Guide to Medical Marijuana by Michael Backes and the National Institutes of Health’s searchable database of studies.
OK, there used to be marijuana. But now there’s cannabis. And hemp too. What’s cannabis, and what’s hemp?
Let me start this answer with a question: Would you believe they’re all the same thing?
They are, at least as far as science is concerned. Law enforcement is another matter, but we’ll get to that later. Cannabis, marijuana, reefer, bhang, weed, pot, grass… all different names for the same game.
Cannabis is a plant, obviously, one of the members of the Cannabaceae family of plants, a set that also includes hops. Famed biologist and namer-of-everything Carl Linnaeus identified just one species of plant under the genus cannabis in 1753: cannabis sativa. This is what we know as “marijuana” or all the other names, some pretty, some tawdry, some annoying.
Today, some biologists identify three distinct species in this genus—cannabis sativa, cannabis indica and cannabis ruderalis—although some scientists believe these to be merely subspecies or variants of the same plant, cananbis sativa. At the most, they are similar, but slightly different-looking and with slightly different effects.
OK. So what’s hemp?
Remember a minute ago? Like I said, hemp is cannabis. Here’s the difference: The marketplace, and law enforcement, use words like “marijuana” and “cannabis” to refer to plants bred or naturally high in psychoactive cannabinoids like THC.
You see, marijuana plants can be male or female. The female plants—
Male or female plants?
Botanically speaking, yes, there are male and female plants; we’re in the realm here of basic plant reproductive morphology. The female plants are the ones with THC in them. The male plants don’t produce smokable marijuana; they just produce the seeds to grow more.
These days, the female plants have been grown for their resinous flowers, which are then dried and smoked or cooked into food or made into topical applications.
Male plants with seeds are used for breeding, and “hermaphrodites”—female plants that start “throwing bananas,” or turning male and producing seeds—are often discarded.
The old Mexican term, sinsemella—literally, without seeds—was used to refer to only female marijuana that had been carefully kept that way and harvested, but now everything you see in a dispensary and pretty much anything you’d buy on the street meets that definition.
Hemp. I want to know about hemp.
We’re getting there. When we say “hemp,” in crude terms, we’re talking about cannabis that’s low in psychoactive cannabinoids and specifically raised for the use of its seeds or stalks for food, fiber or fuel. This use of the plant goes back to ancient times; it cultivation by patriotic farmers was encouraged by the U.S. government during World War II—evidence of which grows wild along roadsides in Middle America to this day.
In many circles, hemp is viewed as a miracle plant, and perhaps rightly so. Dr. Bronner’s Soap is derived from hemp. (It’s not for nothing that modern-day Bronners are among the main drivers of legalization.) Hemp is a durable fabric, hemp is high in omega fatty acids and hemp can even be made into fuel that can drive certain combustion engines. Hemp is such a big deal that Jack Herer, one of the first heroes of the modern-day legalization movement, wrote a whole book about it.
So it used to be legal?
All cannabis used to legal—in fact, cannabis was legal for much longer than it wasn’t.
Didn’t it become illegal because it’s bad for you?
If that were the case, tobacco, a pure killer, would be illegal and not a key cash crop. We would be saying “regulate alcohol like marijuana” rather than the other way around.
As for cannabis, it’s illegal because of who used it.
The first laws outlawing the use and possession of “marihuana,” or “Mexican loco-weed” were passed in California in 1912 and directed at the state’s Latino population, just as, at the same time, the state Board of Pharmacy outlawed the opium smoking favored by the Chinese.
As you can deduce, these laws were aimed at marginalizing these two particular minority communities—two communities without whom California would be unrecognizable. Similar “reefer madness” was repeated decades later by original drug czar Harry Anslinger, who spun wild tales of white women smoking “reefer” and suddenly listening to jazz music, hanging out with black men and other racist agitprop.
In case you are still unconvinced, it’s good to consult the interview that Richard Nixon aide John Ehrlichman gave to a Harper’s magazine reporter. He admitted that Nixon’s War on Drugs, and subsequent Controlled Substances Act, targeted hippies, leftists and black people by design. Nixon, by the way, formed a government commission to study the plant—which returned a recommendation that it’s mostly benign and should be decriminalized. Not the first time, nor the last, that sound, rational advice on marijuana was ignored.
Back up. I get that it was illegal. Why did people use it anyway, under penalty of prison, fines and general trouble?
They love it. People love it.
In a sense, because we are designed to love it. Depending on who you ask, the plant has either evolved to react to our bodies, or our bodies have evolved to react to the cannabis plant.
Each of us have a network of receptors called the “endocannabinoid system,” located in our brain and throughout the nervous system. Turns out that the compounds in the cannabis plant “turn on” this system—and that our bodies produce similar compounds that also activate these receptors.
These receptors regulate mood, appetite, sleep cycles, manage pain, alter our perception…People, if you haven’t noticed, seriously like to alter their reality, whether it’s to eliminate pain or suffering, achieve a state of bliss, help go to sleep or just change the channel of life for a moment.
Step back again. You’re telling me my body makes weed?!
Your body makes endocannabinoids, many of which serve the same or similar functions as phytocannabinoids, which are found in plants.
I’m full of THC right now??
No—unless you just took a monster dab before figuring out what it was.
We’ll get to dabs in a minute. Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is only one of the many active compounds in the cannabis plant—but you won’t find any THC in a raw cannabis plant. Instead, you’ll find its biosynthetic precursor, THC-A, or tetrahydrocannabolic acid. THC-A has impact as well, but not the psychoactivity of THC. In order for marijuana’s psychoactive properties to be unlocked, you must apply heat to THC-A.
OK, too much detail, but the overarching point is important to know: Raw cannabis has no psychoactive properties without the application of heat.
All you need to know is that your body produces compounds that activate the same receptors activated by the cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant once they are heated up. Cannabinoids in the body are endocannabinoids; cannabinoids found in plants are phytocannabinoids.
How many different cannabinoids are there?
More than 80. The two you’ve probably heard of are THC and CBD.
THC was first isolated in the 1960s, and for a long time we thought it was “the” active ingredient in cannabis. It’s the bit that makes you high, it gives you euphoria, inattentiveness, daydreaming, the munchies. But it turns out, when you just take THC by itself, the effect is different from when you consume the entire plant. Scientists have figured out there are many more cannabinoids, like the anti-anxiety, anti-inflammatory, non-getting-you-high CBD. We have CNN medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta to thank for giving CBD its worldwide PR debut in his 2013 television special, Weed, though people in cannabis knew about it for years before then.
Are they in the leaves or the stalk, or where?
The cannabis plant’s “active ingredients” are concentrated in the flowers, in tiny “hairs” or outgrowths called “trichomes.” These produce resin, and, as Michael Backes writes in Cannabis Pharmacy, “The medicine [is] in the resin.” That’s where the action is.
So all this over some goop in a plant that grows wild all over the world.
Is this a new thing?
Hardly. In fact, this is one of the oldest things there is. Again, cannabis has been used medicinally (marijuana) and for clothing fiber and for food (hemp) for more than ten thousand years.
You may recall the 2,500-year-old tomb in China in which 2,500-year-old cannabis flower was found. That, friend, was for smoking—but the story begins much, much longer ago than that. One researcher found 27,000-year-old hemp fibers in a European tomb. You hear a lot about a tract dating from ancient China extolling the plant attributed to the Emperor Shen Nung, but most researchers agree Shen Nung was a mythical figure and his treatise was written much later.
Whoever was first doesn’t really matter—what’s interesting is that cannabis use caught on all over the world, pretty much wherever the plant ended up—everywhere except northern Europe, really.
There’s a reference to marijuana in the Atharva Veda, a religious text from ancient India, and the Greek scholar and historian Herodotus has an account of the Scythians, a warlike tribe in the ancient Grecian world, having regular sessions.
“The Scythians then take this seed of hemp and, creeping under the mats, they throw it on the red-hot stones; and, being so thrown, it smolders and sends forth so much steam that no Greek vapour bath could surpass it. The Scythians howl in their joy at the vapour bath.”
Weed steam baths.
When did people start smoking it like tobacco?
Don’t mix your hemispheres. Tobacco is indigenous to the Western Hemisphere—it was one of the reasons why what’s now the U.S. was colonized. Though tobacco was probably smoked a little bit earlier, the two substances became constant human companions around the same time.
Cannabis appears indigenous to Central Asia, either the steppes or the foothills of the Himalayan mountains, though the plant advanced all over the globe within a few thousand years, appearing in Thailand, Korea, India, Brazil, Jamaica, Africa and points in between. Again, notice how cold northern Europe is left out, though the people there certainly knew about hemp as a fiber for rope and clothes.
But back to the beginning: People started smoking it at least as early as 2,500 BC, as the dried flowers in the tomb discovered in the Gobi desert were female flower buds, with resinous trichomes, just like what we buy in dispensaries today.
When did white people get hip?
White people didn’t really catch onto the habit until the 1830s, when W.B. O’Shaughnessy, an Irish doctor working in British India stumbled across the stuff. He published his account of “The Indian Hemp, or Gunjah,” in 1843.
“There was sufficient to show that hemp possesses, in small doses, an extraordinary power of stimulating the digestive organs, exciting the cerebral system, of acting also on the generative apparatus,” he wrote, surely with a properly Victorian straight face. “The influence of the drug in allaying pain was equally manifest.”
Heh-heh. He said “generative apparatus.”
Very funny. He thought it was legit. And soon enough, it ended up in Western medicine… for a bit.
Marijuana landed in the United States sometime after the Civil War… or perhaps during. There are ads in San Francisco newspapers in the 1860s advertising “hasheesh” candies, and Mark Twain famously wrote about a night stoned out of his gourd in North Africa. In the late 1800s through the early part of the 20th century, you could buy medicines at drugstores and pharmacies containing cannabis.
Anyway, people have used it and loved it for millennia, so to act as if they’ll stop now just because it’s illegal was clearly a foolish notion. You could make the argument that the wave of legalization sweeping the nation is conservative in nature—we’re just returning to the way it was.
It was always medicine?
Yep, and science is beginning to corroborate folk knowledge—and to explain why and how it happens. This ties back to the endocannabinoid system—different cannabinoids will activate different receptors. Knowing which ones do what is what the research is all about, but since the plant has been illegal in the U.S. for so long, research has been stunted.
Yes, it doesn’t get talked about much in all the legalization coverage, but along with all the other federal hostility to marijuana, university study of the plant has been stuck in a draconian Catch-22. For decades, the only institution allowed to grow any cannabis for study has been the University of Mississippi. Ole Miss is the only place with a license from the National Institutes on Drug Abuse (NIDA) to grow research-grade cannabis.
And coincidentally, if you’re doing research on the plant in the U.S., one of the only sources of research funding is NIDA. Oddly enough, NIDA tends to like to fund studies that make marijuana look bad. Some other research is ongoing outside of this negative feedback loop, but not enough to please the bureaucrats at the DEA, FDA, NIDA and elsewhere.
In August, the federal government announced that other universities would be allowed to apply to grow an alternate supply, but it’s not clear how many licenses they’ll dole out or who will get them. If marijuana is reclassified from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act to Schedule II or lower, it’ll be even easier, but until then, this is the reality we’re dealing with.
Among other absurdities, you’ll continue to have researchers in universities in states where marijuana is legal having to treat the stuff like plutonium in the lab, even while it’s available for public sale down the street.
Anyway, this all took a while, but we know now that an oil low in THC and high in CBD will aid seizures; a cannabis plant of roughly equal levels THC and CBD will be great for pain and PTSD; and a cannabis-derived mixture that’s high in THC will be good for cancer treatment.
You’re telling me it treats cancer now.
Don’t take my word for it. Take a look at what’s been dug up by GW Pharmaceuticals, the British drug company blowing up the NASDAQ after its cannabis-derived drug had success treating kids with epilepsy. Not marijuana smoking, mind you, but doses of highly concentrated cannabis oil have, anecdotally at least, helped cancer patients also pursuing a modern Western treatment heal more quickly.
But why do doctors and law enforcement say marijuana is bad?
Smoking is probably the worst thing about cannabis, since it can damage the lungs. But even that damage is supposed to be reversible and is not linked to major, long-lasting respiratory illnesses like COPD or lung cancer the way cigarette smoking is. That said, scientists insist that marijuana smoke does do harm, and if you’re smoking 10 joints a day, you’re probably hurting something.
Right now, there’s little science as to the long-term effects of heavy use of cannabis concentrates.
So is it actually bad for you at all?
It can be! About 10 percent of people who use cannabis will become dependent. If you’re a heavy overuser, you might develop respiratory problems like we just mentioned. Most medium-to-long term cannabis issues go away once you stop using, though there is a body of science that suggests cannabis is not good for developing brains—i.e. adolescents and teens—and may exacerbate mental-health issues in people already suffering from or prone to issues like schizophrenia.
Let’s not minimize the potential dangers at all. That said, however, let’s remember that there are a number of legal things that are bad for you, and a lot more that can be bad for you. And ditto for things that are legal and widely available that kids should stay away from. In that contest, marijuana is an also-ran.
What about a “bad trip”?
Player, please. This isn’t acid. Some negative short-term effects of cannabis include rapid heartbeat, lightheadedness or dizziness, and dry mouth. Have a glass of water, take a seat and you’ll be fine. Even the DEA concedes that there’s no record of anyone dying from marijuana by itself.
So now I know what it is and what it does. Let’s go get some.
So what’s this I see on a dispensary menu? Flower?
Weed. Whenever you see little green buds in bags or jars or rolled up into a joint, you’re looking at cannabis flower. Most dispensary menus refer to it as such. A “flower roll” or “flower pre-roll” is what is also known as a joint.
I hear it’s stronger than it ever was before—they call it “kush” now?
You’re half-right. Most dispensary cannabis you see does have higher THC content than the cannabis seen in the 1960s and 1970s, mostly because it’s been bred to be more powerful and less mellow, thanks to it being illegal. THC content in flower can run from 10 to 12 percent on the low-end and up to 25 percent or higher.
That sounds… strong.
It is. Take too much, and it could knock you out, man. Best to go slow.
This menu has indoor and outdoor cannabis. What’s the difference?
One was grown under the sun, the other was grown in a controlled environment using grow lights. You may also see greenhouse-grown cannabis, which was grown in a –
You’re catching on.
Which is best?
Depends who you ask. For a long time, indoor was king because breeders were able to more easily coax huge flavors and big loads of THC in a controlled environment, but now many connoisseurs prefer outdoor. It’s more natural, it has different flavors—and they even like the high better.
So what’s hash, then?
Remember our little talk about trichomes earlier? Hash is cannabis flower that’s gone through a mechanical process to separate the plant material from the resinous bits that contain all the medicine and the active compounds.
The process can be as simple as running the flowers through a sieve, or washing them in water to remove the plant material before running it through other filters. You can also buy home machines—literally, repurposed lingerie washing-machines—and do it yourself that way. Either way, the end result—a fine, sand-like material—that’s mostly trichomes. Hash can also be rolled into balls.
The umbrella term for hash in dispensaries these days is “concentrates.” Hash is the most ancient form of “concentrated cannabis.” People in mountain valleys in Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Nepal and North Africa have been consuming cannabis in this form for thousands of years. You could even buy weed in this form in India up until the 1980s—when America bullied them out of their ancient mystical rite.
So what are “dabs”?
Dabs are concentrates, too. So are wax, budder, shatter, butane honey oil, butane hash oil, honeycomb and myriad of other names. The names usually have something to do with the finished product’s consistency.
So dabs—the same idea, much different way of getting there. Instead of a solely mechanical process, a chemical solvent that’s not water is used to separate the plant material from the cannabinoids. It’s usually a hydrocarbon like butane.
Butane?! You smoke that?
Well, you don’t exactly smoke it. When you consume concentrated cannabis you typically vaporize it, or vape it, through one of those “vape pens” you’ve heard about. You can also place a small amount on a superheated surface on a device that resembles a bong and inhale the resultant plume of vapor. That’s why you see kids in hoodies carrying blowtorches around.
But back to the butane—that’s supposed to be removed from the finished product using vacuum ovens. If your dab is overly shiny and oily, glistening and viscous, it may not have been purged properly. In some areas, regulations will require the end-product to be fully purged, but not everywhere.
Great—but look at this menu! It’s worse than a wine list.
What do you mean?
“OG Kush,” “Sour Diesel,” “Humboldt Royal Kush.” What are all these things, and what’s this all about?
Oh, I get it, you’re looking at a sheet of available product at your local dispensary. Those are all the different strains the store has to sell.
The wine list is not a bad analogy. Like grapes of different varieties grown in different areas under different conditions, different cannabis plants will look, smell and taste different. Different strains will have different effects, some of which are bred in or bred out of them over multiple generations of breeding by the grower.
Which ones are the best?
That’s one of the amazing things about the Brave New World of Cannabis. It’s not really what’s best—it’s what’s best for you. It all depends on what you want out of the cannabis. If you want a sleep aid, you’ll want a different strain than if you want to be the energetic, loquacious life of the party at your next afternoon barbecue.
How do I tell which one is which?
That’s what the names are for. They also smell differently.
What? Why and how?
Along with different levels of cannabinoids, different strains have different terpenes, at different levels. Before you ask: terpenes are organic compounds found in every plant that has a smell. Lemons, pine trees, grapes—some of the same terpenes found in these common plants appear in cannabis, and research (as well as trial and error) seems to indicate that the net effect on the brain and body is tied at some level to the terpene composition.
Most dispensaries are highly attuned to the new user. They have a friendly and knowledgeable staff who are there to help you find the strains that do what you want them to do. If your dispensary isn’t helping you, go to another one that will.
I heard that sativa was for partying and daytime use and indica was for sleepytime.
That’s somewhat true. Back in the day, tropical-grown sativas were known for clear-headed, buzzy highs, and mountainous, cold weather-borne indicas were known for heavy, sedative effects.
But hybridization makes that dichotomy hazier and hazier. OG Kush, one of the most popular strains, is a hybrid. And there are dozens of OG Kush varietals—Skywalker, Tahoe, San Fernando Valley—that might be advertised as an indica, a hybrid, or sativa-dominant.
These days, you want to pay attention to the terpenes and might even want to ask about the parentage of some strains to get an idea of what it’ll do to you.
What about edibles? I hear Maureen Dowd nearly died after eating a candy bar in Denver. Will that happen to me?
First of all, she did not die. Poor Maureen—we’re talking about the New York Times columnist—ate too much of a marijuana candy bar, got uncomfortably high and then wrote a column raving about how people who smoke marijuana kill their spouses. She did this despite fairly detailed labeling in Colorado product, and according to the people who took her around Denver, being warned about this specific possibility.
Her evening sounded like anguish and we do not care to experience it, ever—and neither will you, not if you’re careful and not a dummy. She ultimately made the valid point that the in this brave new world, we might err on the side of “conservative cautions.”
The strength of what’s in an edible is, in most places these days, printed on the packaging. Look for a number indicating how many milligrams of THC is in the edible. A good rule of thumb is to try 10 milligrams, wait two hours and then try more if it’s not working out for you.
This says 100 milligrams. Should I eat the whole thing?
Sure, if you have nothing to do for the next 12 hours or longer.
One hundred milligrams is a powerful dose—probably a quadruple dose for experience stoners and 10 times too strong for most people. In other words, you are about to go to the Dowd zone if you eat that.
Start with 10 milligrams, wait a little while to see how you’re doing and then ramp up from there if it’s not too much.
Shouldn’t these things be labeled better?
Yes and no. There’s no uniform dose, just as there isn’t one for alcohol. Look at how hard liquor is sold—in big bottles and labeled inscrutably in terms of “proof,” which you might or might not know is based on a non-intuitive scale of 200. (“100 proof” equals 50 percent alcohol.) You don’t see people up in arms about that.
In Oregon, edibles are labeled according to strict, detailed rules that result in something akin to a combination of a prescription label on a pill bottle and the nutrition facts on a cereal box. The cannabinoid content as well as the dose per piece of cookie or candy or whatever—as well as some rudimentary directions for how much to take and how long to wait to take some more—are all there for you. Right now, with so many new users, maybe it’s not a bad thing.
What are these little pens with what looks like oil on the ends for?
Those are vaporizer pens that take cartridges of cannabis oil. Lots of people like them because they are easy, not messy, and very portable, but other people think they taste funny and that the producers use B-grade cannabis to make them.
How can you tell if it’s bad or good?
Most states now require cannabis sold in stores to be lab-tested, for impurities and possible adulterants, as well as THC and CBD content.
Very. Hope this all helped.