An Introduction to the Components of the Plant
Cannabis 101 – Components of the Plant
If you’ve ever ventured into a dispensary or listened to cannabis enthusiasts talk about their favorite plant, it’s likely that you’ve heard terminology like THC, CBD, cannabinoids, terpenes, strain, indica, sativa, and hybrid. What, you might be wondering, does it all mean? And is it actually important to understand these terms?
The short answer is yes; it’s helpful to have a basic understanding of the components of the plant because—depending on what’s in it—cannabis can cause many different effects for patients and consumers. When you understand the basics, you can best plan your consumption for needs as diverse as treating anxiety, pain, insomnia, inflammation, nausea, seizures, depression, and migraine—or whatever else you seek from the plant. Our guide to the essential components of cannabis can help you get started.
Cannabis is a very general term referring to all varieties of the species Cannabis sativa L., including types that will—and won’t—get you “high” or “elevated.” The plant probably originated in Central Asia, and there’s plenty of archaeological evidence showing humans’ longtime use of it for needs as diverse as nutrition, textiles, medicine, and ritual. The amount of THC expressed in a plant determines whether it’s considered hemp (a low-to-no-THC variety that may feature other helpful components, like CBD), or marijuana.
This Spanish colloquialism for THC-rich cannabis made it into the English lexicon in the 1930s and generally refers to “mind-altering” or psychoactive cannabis varieties. You’ll hear the word regularly in some circles, and most state-level medical programs operate under the “medical marijuana” rubric. However, many people are moving away from the term marijuana because of its association with rhetoric from the 1930s that ultimately led to cannabis prohibition in the U.S. These days,
cannabis is the most widely accepted term for all varieties of the plant, whether or not it contains a psychoactive level of THC.
THC stands for tetrahydrocannabinol—the famous molecule composed of 21 carbon atoms, 13 hydrogen atoms, and two oxygen atoms—discovered in 1964 by Israeli scientist Dr. Raphael Mechoulam. It’s produced in the small, sticky hairs, or trichomes, of the cannabis flower, and to a much lesser extent in the plant’s leaves and stems. THC is psychotropic, meaning that it affects the function of your brain and nervous system such that—in the right quantities—it will change your perceptions and experience. In other words,
THC is responsible for that “high” feeling.
THC also has a number of researched therapeutic applications for pain, nausea, muscle spasticity, glaucoma, PTSD, depression, and anxiety, among others. As the primary controlled substance within the cannabis plant and the most therapeutically researched, THC is the focus of medical marijuana programs. It’s important to note that THC, when obtained through a licensed dispensary, is legal to medical card holders in 36 U.S. states and adults 21 and over in 18 states. But because it remains federally illegal, be sure you know your state’s laws, including the legal amount of THC you can possess and where it’s lawful to consume.
You may also hear the term “delta-9 THC” (also sometimes known simply as delta-9). This refers to the same THC molecule we’ve been talking about here, though there are also other, less-well-researched THC isomers—such as delta-8 THC and delta-10 THC—emerging in the consumer marketplace.
On a technical note, it’s the non-psychoactive THCA (tetrahydrocannabinolic acid) that occurs naturally in cannabis or marijuana plants; the conversion to psychoactive THC happens when THCA is heated (aka “decarbed”) by setting the flower material aflame (i.e., when you smoke cannabis), or by baking flower and infusing it in oil for making edibles or other products. Handling (or eating!) fresh cannabis flower, no matter how much THCA is present, won’t cause a high.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard of CBD, or cannabidiol. This trendy cannabinoid is legal under federal law (as long as it contains .3% or less THC) and has been finding its way into everything from skincare products to drinks to underwear. CBD is considered non-psychotropic, meaning that it does not cause a high, but it may help with sleep, pain, anxiety, schizophrenia, and certain autoimmune conditions, among other issues. At the moment, the only FDA-approved indication for CBD is the pharmaceutical Epidiolex® that’s been shown to treat severe forms of epilepsy. More rigorous research is needed to back up the many health claims circulating about CBD; for now, we rely mostly on preliminary studies and consumers’ reported outcomes.
It’s important to note that, while CBD is legal, there is little federal oversight in the marketplace. That means that quality varies from brand to brand, and
CBD labeling is not always accurate. Your best bet is to stick with CBD from a licensed dispensary and to ask your budtender about reputable brands. You can find out more about your CBD by learning to read its certificate of analysis.
It’s also important to note that CBD affects the same liver enzymes that grapefruit does, so if you’re taking a pharmaceutical and have been advised to avoid grapefruit, you should likely also avoid CBD.
THC and CBD may be the MVPs, but they’re not the only important players on Team Cannabis.
They are two of 113 distinct cannabinoids (related signature molecules found in cannabis plants) that have been identified in the lab. Some of these other cannabinoids are also psychoactive—though usually to a lesser degree than THC—while others have little to no psychoactive properties but may have a host of therapeutic effects yet to be fully explored.
For instance, CBG (cannabigerol) is a cannabinoid that doesn’t cause a high but may have anti-inflammatory and even anti-cancer properties. THCV (tetrahydrocannabivarin) is under investigation as a blood sugar stabilizer and appetite suppressant with the potential to help in diabetes treatment; it’s also touted by some as a booster for mental focus. CBN (cannabinol) is increasingly being utilized as a sleep aid, and THCA and CBDA (the acidic precursors to THC and CBD, respectively) are also being considered for their therapeutic applications. As cannabis science progresses, we’re learning more and more about the roles these, and many other, cannabinoids can play in health and wellness.
Indica – Sativa – Hybrid
Indica and sativa are two cannabis subspecies with distinct appearances; sativa plants are tall, with long, thin foliage, while indica plants are shorter with broad, squat leaves. Cannabis folk wisdom says that sativa strains induce a more energetic “head high” while indica strains evoke a mellow, soporific, “body high” (thus its humorous “in da couch” reputation). It follows, then, that hybrid strains are somewhere in the middle—producing a balanced body and head experience that’s appealing to many people. In a dispensary, you’ll often see cannabis flower strains classified in one of these three categories.
The truth is that most cannabis flower on the market today is actually a hybrid of some kind, and that “sativa” and “indica” mean less now than ever. Cannabis’s effects on the consumer will vary based on many factors including the percentage of THC, CBD, and other cannabinoids, as well as—potentially—its terpenes and other plant components. To top it off, set and setting, i.e., the consumer’s mood environment and mood, play a role. So, while it’s helpful to know what most people mean when discussing indica, sativa, and hybrid strains, those in the know understand that this classification is only one part of the whole picture.
Terpenes are the aromatic compounds produced by cannabis and many other common plants. For instance, linalool, the terpene responsible for lavender’s soothing scent, is also detectable in certain strains of cannabis. Limonene is another cannabis terpene that emits the bright, citrusy scent you’ll also find in lemons, oranges, and other citrus peels. Myrcene, the most common cannabis terpene of all, is often described as “earthy” or “skunky” and is also found in plants as diverse as mango, hops, thyme, and lemongrass. There are numerous other terpenes detectable in cannabis flower that enthusiasts enjoy identifying.
Each strain of cannabis features its own combination of terpenes, known as its terpene profile. And while it’s not yet proven, a theory called the “entourage effect” says that terpenes influence the tone or the “direction” of the cannabis experience. To that end, limonene is associated with more of an upbeat, enlivening experience, while linalool and myrcene are both considered to lend a soothing and relaxing tone. Terpenes derived from cannabis and other plants are known therapeutically as antifungal, antimicrobial, and anti-inflammatory agents.
Strain refers to the specific, named varieties of cannabis, like Super Sour Diesel, Northern Lights, and OG Kush. Each of these (along with hundreds more named strains) has a unique cannabinoid and terpene profile, and a unique suite of possible effects and benefits—at least in theory.
In reality, strain names aren’t wholly reliable because plant genetics are a bit more complicated. Still, it’s helpful to get to know a few strains you favor because there will likely be many similarities between the Blue Dream you find at your neighborhood dispensary and the one you find at the dispensary across town. In the eastern U.S., you’ll hear “strand” and “strain” interchangeably, while cannabis growers tend to prefer the term “cultivar.”
While it’s true that the cannabis name game can be a little confusing to novices, mastering these terms will bring the subtleties of calibrating your own experience into focus. Once you’ve got an understanding of the basic components of the plant, you’ll be on your way to talking about cannabis— and consuming it—like a pro.