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The Beginner’s Guide to Cannabis

Read up on the basics of cannabis — from cannabinoids to product categories — and what to know when shopping for desired effects.

Culture shifts so quickly that even one of the fastest-growing U.S. industries is still a considered a federally illegal substance. There’s no shame in feeling a bit overwhelmed when trying to understand cannabis

Ten years ago, Americans were still wrapping their heads around the idea that marijuana, then known as a dangerous drug, could be of real, life-changing use for the chronically ill. Today, over half of the U.S. states have legalized cannabis for medical use, and 18 have fully legalized it for anyone over the age of 21.

Modern cannabis is a multifaceted realm of medicinal breakthroughs, complicated concentrates, and high-tech smoking accessories —not to mention plenty of tax revenue and cash flow.

It takes some time (and some highs) to really understand what all is happening in the world of weed — and why. This guide will lay a baseline of understanding to help you navigate it more confidently.

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What is cannabis?

First and foremost, cannabis is a plant. It’s also been known as a medicine, clothing material, religious sacrament, and more uses —long before the whole “drug” thing came about.

Humans have had a relationship with the plant for thousands of years, but American prohibition really changed the course of history. Now that widespread legalization is opening up avenues for modern research and more comfortable consumption, we’re learning more about how it interacts with our bodies every day. This will hopefully lead us back to the point where cannabis can be treated more like a healing, recreational plant, and less like heroin. 

Cannabis in Conversation

To break down the complex world of bud, this is your dictionary of essential basic botanical terms. Once you understand these, you can chat about cannabis with anyone, anywhere.

  • Flower: This describes weed itself—the buds, also known as “nugs,” of the plant that are dried, cured and trimmed to smokable perfection.
  • Trim: The bits of leaf cut away from the plant during post-harvest pruning before it hits shelves. The trim is typically sold to a processor, which extracts the good stuff out of the raw material for use in edibles, vape pens, and other concentrate products. 
  • Kief: You know how your fingertips get sticky when handling weed? That’s the resin that coats each bud. When buds are ground up, kief is the glittery, light green powder that collects in the recesses of the grinder. It contains high concentrations of the aforementioned good stuff, and thus packs a desirable punch when sprinkled into a joint or atop a bowl. 
  • Cannabinoid: This is part of that “good stuff”— the influential compounds that contribute to weed affecting the body and mind. THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) is a cannabinoid, as is CBD (cannabidiol). We only understand a fraction of the 113 distinct cannabinoids we’ve identified so far, but we do know they interact with our bodies in a range of profound ways.
  • Terpene: Terpenes are other naturally occurring compounds, more prominently contributing to the aroma and flavor of cannabis. They have some degree of effect on how different strains hit different people, akin to aromatherapy enthusiasts huffing essential oils. Terpenes make up much of essential oils.
  • Concentrate: The good stuff, squared. Super potent and super dense with those special compounds, the concentrate world is a complex subsystem of its own. Processors experiment on new ways to extract the most of the cannabinoids and terpenes out of the plant material as possible. It’s also about retaining as much of the flavor and compounds as possible as it’s distilled, pressed as rosin, processed with a solvent or CO2, or via another one of the myriad ways that gooey goodness gets gathered.
  • Edibles: Food or candy that has been cooked with cannabis inside. Brownies made with classic weed butter can still be found on legal shelves, but the edibles realm has exploded to become an umbrella for everything from infused toothpicks to THC-spiked seltzers, and stony, tangy hot sauce

Different Names, Different Strains

Platinum Girl Scout Cookies.

Ghost Train Haze.

Cherry Kush.

The names of weed strains may sound like nonsense, but, traditionally, the names were actually carefully crafted to reflect the genetic lineage that led to that plant.

See, we’ve been crossbreeding cannabis plants more fervently than corn the past 50 years — and none of that was tracked or collated in any shared database. In fact, most growers didn’t really talk to one another until the past few years. They were too busy making sure their electricity bill didn’t tip off the cops. 

Old-school growers drove long distances with precious cuts and seedlings from legendary mother plants and smuggled them across borders. In some cases, they renamed the end result as something totally different.

In other words, names don’t always help you find the effects you seek. Two buds going under the same name but grown by two different growers can taste totally different and have totally different effects.

Factors like cultivation style as well as environmental conditions such as temperature and humidity — and yes, genetics — determine the cannabinoid and terpene contents of each plant from each batch of plants. Those can totally vary from batch to batch.

It’s important to understand the language of cannabis, and it’s important to understand how to best use it as well. Take advantage of the test results that accompany all legal products, and remember to note which strains hit you more favorably. That way, you can track the dominant terpenes and cannabinoids in your favorite strains. Seeking out those same ratios and cannabinoid contents can be a more effective guide towards products that will work for you than sticking to one strain based on one enjoyable experience.

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