Cannabis 101

by Caitlin Podiak

Have you heard about how marijuana is pretty much legal in California now? Not fully or federally legal, but still, pretty much legal. It’s also pretty much legal in Colorado and sort of legal in a bunch of other states, but it’s the most legal in California.

First, you’ll need a medical marijuana recommendation (and here I should note that I’m neither a doctor nor a scientist), which you can easily obtain by explaining to a “pot doctor” that you already use marijuana to alleviate symptoms of “cancer, anorexia, AIDS, chronic pain, spasticity, glaucoma, arthritis, migraine, or any other illness for which marijuana provides relief.” (I use it to relieve back and neck pain, muscle soreness, headaches, nausea, cramps, anxiety, stress, bad moods, and lack of creative inspiration.)

Then you can bring your recommendation to a dispensary, where you’ll encounter a variety of strains, edibles, and concentrates. You’ll feel like a kid in a candy store as you explore your options, assisted by helpful labels, detailed menus, and friendly budtenders.

Cannabis can do wonders for your quality of life, from alleviating boredom to easing the symptoms of cancer. Since different strains and consumption methods produce different effects, you’ll need a basic understanding of how cannabis works in order to make an informed selection.

If you’re part of the unfortunate majority without access to legal medical marijuana, even if your only resort is mystery weed from an unsavory character under a bridge somewhere, you can still benefit from a more mindful approach to cannabis consumption.

When you smoke pot, you are burning the dried and cured flowers of a female cannabis plant to inhale THC, CBD, and other cannabinoids. Cannabinoids are the chemical compounds that give cannabis its unique effects, and are mostly found in the sticky, sparkly resin that oozes from glands known as trichomes, which coat the plant’s flowers and leaves. The ratio of THC to CBD and other cannabinoids helps determine the character of a particular strain.

For decades, growers have sought to maximize the presence of THC, since THC makes users feel intoxicated and euphoric. As a result, there are few strains with a high percentage of CBD. This is a shame because CBD seems to cancel out many potentially negative effects of THC. While some studies link THC with schizophrenia, CBD has an anti-psychotic effect. THC may induce a panicked sensation, but CBD calms that feeling. CBD acts as a neuroprotective agent, reducing short-term memory loss caused by THC.

CBD is not psychoactive, but offers excellent therapeutic benefits. The medical marijuana community has created a demand for CBD-rich strains, which can provide relief from pain, inflammation, anxiety, or spasms without disorienting or sedating the user. (Queen Victoria is said to have used CBD-rich cannabis for menstrual cramps.)

It’s impossible to know the THC and CBD content of a particular strain without laboratory tests that are not yet widely available or consistently reliable. Instead, growers and dispensaries categorize strains as indicas, sativas, or hybrids. This categorization is based partially on a strain’s genetics, but also on the strain’s characteristics and effects. Even if you don’t know anything about the genetics or chemical makeup of your mystery weed, you draw reasonably reliable conclusions based purely on your own observations.

Cannabis indica is a shorter, bushier plant with a relaxing, sedative body effect. Indicas get you “stoned” and are more likely to induce sleepiness or “couch lock.” This type of cannabis is good for pain, nausea, insomnia, anxiety, and tension. An indica strain’s effects are longer lasting, and indicas are usually best in the evening. Indicas tend to be richer in CBD.

Cannabis sativa is a tall, spindly plant with longer, thinner leaves and an energetic, uplifting mental effect. Sativas get you “high” and are more likely to induce paranoia or anxiety. This type of cannabis is good for depression, lethargy, headaches, mental stress, and lack of focus. A sativa strain’s effects have a shorter duration and are usually best during the day. Sativas generally contain more THC.

Pure indica and sativa strains have been crossed to create hybrids. Most strains you encounter will be hybrids, which can be indica dominant, sativa dominant, or evenly balanced. Ideally, hybrids combine a mood-enhancing sativa high with a physically relaxing indica stone.

A heavy indica, like Grand Daddy Purple, Romulan, or Purple Urkle, offers long-lasting pain relief and deep relaxation, and can help combat insomnia, but may be overly sedative. If you want physical relaxation and pain relief while remaining mentally clear and functional, you need an indica dominant hybrid, like Hindu Skunk or Bubba Kush. For a balanced high with a range of mental and physical effects that won’t make you too tired or too wired, try an even hybrid like Silver Haze or Bubblegum. Sativa dominant hybrids like Sour Diesel and Chemdog are physically soothing and mentally uplifting. Potent, nearly pure sativas like Headband and Green Crack offer a creative, stimulating, sometimes psychedelic high with little or no physical effect. If you want pain relief without the high, keep an eye out for CBD-rich strains like Harlequin, Omrita Rx3, or Cannatonic.

If strain names like these mean nothing to you or your dealer, you might try specifying whether you are primarily looking for a body stone or a head high. You can also evaluate mystery weed’s smell and appearance. The buds should be as intact as possible, as any physical damage decreases potency. They should be properly cured but not overly dry, otherwise the smoke will be harsh and unpleasant.

You may want to inquire as to whether your cannabis was grown indoors or outdoors. The difference is negligible as far as effect is concerned, but indoor-grown cannabis is generally prettier, with a thicker coat of resin, while growing outdoors is cheaper and more environmentally friendly.

If you’d rather not risk damaging your lungs or throat, you could try using a vaporizer, which creates water vapor instead of smoke. Or you might prefer edibles or concentrates.

Many medical marijuana patients favor edibles because they are more discrete and practical than smoking, especially for those who require all day pain relief. Of course, pot brownies are the most iconic edible, but almost any food can be made with cannabis-infused butter or oil. When marijuana is eaten rather than smoked, the effect may take up to an hour to be felt, and tends to be longer, stronger, and more sedative. Approach edibles with caution, as it’s relatively easy to overmedicate and become uncomfortably high.

Cannabis flowers can be sifted or tumbled to collect the resin that contains the highest concentration of cannabinoids. This potent powder is known as kief. Kief can be vaporized, smoked, or pressed and baked to create hash.

Cannabinoids can also be extracted using alcohol to create a tincture. Tinctures are quite strong and allow users to measure doses more precisely. Before marijuana was prohibited in 1937, cannabis tinctures were widely available for medical purposes. Some dispensaries also sell topical oils, which offer localized pain relief and subtle mood enhancement.

To learn more about individual strains, check out Leafly or just Google, as there are dozens of less comprehensive review websites. When smoking mystery weed, take note of its distinguishing characteristics, including appearance, aroma, flavor, potency, and effects. And support legalization efforts, so that eventually we can all benefit from the life-enhancing potential of this marvelous plant.

Caitlin Podiak tumbls, tweets, and brags about the dankness of her weed at Pot Couture.