So, you’re wondering how to make edibles. Whether you want to make THC edibles or CBD edibles, you’ve come to the right place. The easiest way to make CBD edibles is to simply buy CBD oil and add a few drops to whatever you’re cooking, but you can also follow the steps below using hemp flower.
THC edibles are any food items that are infused with cannabis. There are two main steps that must be taken when making edibles: decarboxylation and infusion with fat.
In their raw state, cannabis plants contain a cannabinoid called THCA, which has no psychoactive effects. The cannabis needs to be manipulated first in order to get the desired THC. This is why you can’t simply eat cannabis or crumble it directly into your food. The process of manipulating the cannabis and turning the THCA into THC is called decarboxylation. To decarboxylate your cannabis, you apply a specific temperature of heat to the cannabis for a certain amount of time. Once this process is complete, you will have cannabis with THC, the component that gets you high.
After you decarboxylate the cannabis, the other important step is to infuse it into a fat, like butter or oil. Cannabis is a fat-soluble material, so it won’t activate in water, only fats. There are a variety of fats you can use, and once infused, you’ll have a potent oil or butter that you can use to cook your edibles.
What type of cannabis to use for edibles
If you want to make CBD edibles, you’ll need some hemp flower. By law, hemp only contains 0.03% of THC or less, so it won’t make you feel high. CBD edibles are used for a variety of reasons, most often for pain or anxiety relief. If you want edibles that will get you high, you’ll need to use cannabis containing THC (not hemp). Your local dispensary should carry both types.
Step 1: Grind
Once you obtain your cannabis flower, it’s time to grind. Some people prefer to break the flower into large chunks using their hands and others prefer to use a grinder to break it up a little smaller. Both will work, but make sure you don’t grind it too finely. Grind enough so that you’ll be able to pick up a rogue nug and not let a gentle breeze carry away your fine cannabis powder.
Step 2: Decarboxylate
As mentioned, decarboxylation is a major part of the edible making process that you can’t skip. Spread your cannabis out on a baking sheet in an even layer to ensure equal heating. Then bake it in the oven at 225 to 245 degrees Fahrenheit, for around 40 minutes. Different recipes disagree slightly on the exact temperature and time, but the heat must stay below 300 degrees to maintain the integrity of the THC. Make sure to shake the pan or stir the cannabis every so often so it decarboxylates evenly.
Another method to decarboxylate your cannabis is to combine this step with the next, and decarboxylate your cannabis as you infuse it with your fat. To do this, place the ground cannabis and your chosen fat into a slow cooker or crockpot. You’ll want to use a 1:1 ratio, for example 1 cup of ground cannabis and 1 cup of butter. Set the slow cooker to the same temperature as decarboxylation, 225-245 degrees, and cook it for 3-6 hours. This will obviously take longer than the 45 minute decarboxylation process, but it’s an easy way to combine 2 steps and leave the mixture alone for a long period of time.
Step 3: Infuse with Fat
If you chose the first decarboxylation method, you’ll now need to infuse the baked cannabis with a fat. As mentioned, it can be an oil or butter. Butter is always a good choice, but some users prefer to use an oil such as olive oil, hemp seed oil, coconut oil, or avocado oil. Once you choose your fat, put it into a saucepan and let it heat up a little, then add your decarboxylated cannabis. You’ll need to add some water as well, to make sure your butter doesn’t burn. Water is important because it helps regulate the heat, and if your mixture gets too hot the THC will lose its potency. Let it simmer at a low heat, around 170 degrees Fahrenheit. Stir every so often and make sure the mixture does not boil. After 2 to 3 hours, it’s done.
Next, it’s time to strain. Your butter will probably still contain some plant material, and you’ll want to strain that out so that you’re left with a smooth infused butter. Line a funnel with cheesecloth, place it over a jar, and pour your mixture in. Don’t just pour your mixture into a cheesecloth and squeeze, because some of the plant materials will get through.
Step 4: Cook your edibles
Now that you have your cannabis infused fat, you can cook anything you want! If you don’t use all of your cannabutter right away, store it in an airtight container in the refrigerator and use it within 2 weeks. You can also store it in the freezer for up to 6 months. Cannabis infused oil tends to last even longer than cannabis infused butter.
Many users like to bake with their fat, such as brownies and cookies, but it can be used for any food that you would put butter or oil in. Users have made everything from cannabis infused salad dressing to cannabis infused pasta.
Storing your edibles
It is important to label your edibles, so that you or someone else in your household doesn’t accidentally consume them without knowing. If you made a baked treat, they will only last as long as a regular baked treat would, so freezing is ideal. Edibles will last for up to 6 months in the freezer.
Hopefully you learned the basics of how to make edibles. Whether you’re baking up some THC edibles or CBD edibles, enjoy yourself, be safe, and happy eating!
In the United States, cannabis was prevalent for both recreational and medical use until 1906. Hemp was actually one of the first crops in America, grown by George Washington and appearing on the ten dollar bill. It was used to create many items including cloth and rope, and in the mid 1800’s cannabis was used for medicinal purposes as well.
The first regulation on cannabis was the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which required certain drugs to be more accurately labeled. As time went on, restrictions on cannabis began to increase as it was identified as a poison and a “habit forming drug”. By 1920, individual state laws were beginning to prohibit the sale of cannabis.
1925: International Opium Convention
In 1925, the first international drug control treaty was signed, called the International Opium Convention. The treaty banned exporting Indian hemp to countries that outlawed it, and enforced stricter regulations on countries that allowed it. Importing countries would need to have a license approving the import of hemp and confirm that it was for medical use. The United States supported these restrictions on Indian hemp, and restrictions began appearing around the world, making cannabis a controlled substance on a large scale.
1934: Uniform State Narcotic Drug Act
By the 1930’s, cannabis was regulated across the United States. The Uniform State Narcotic Act was created in the late 1920’s, and finalized in 1934. This decided that the federal government should require all states to follow the same restrictions, especially due to the recent 1914 Harrison Narcotics Act which regulated all imports of opiates and coca products. Some believe the real objective of these acts was to be to create revenue generating policies. Taxes were imposed, but states did not have the authority to seize illegal drugs or charge perpetrators of drug crimes.
1937: Marihuana Tax Act
In 1937, the Marihuana Tax Act was passed, enforcing a federal excise tax on hemp sales. This effectively made cannabis illegal by discouraging agricultural growth of hemp. Because the federal government had to allow states to regulate their own medicine, they used this tax as a loophole for regulation. It is theorized that this act was created not only due to misconceptions about cannabis and hemp, but because certain politicians stood to profit off the decrease in hemp production.
Hemp began to make a comeback during World War II. Before the war, the U.S. navy had been using hemp from other countries to make rope and other materials for their ships. During the war, the supply lines were cut off. This forced the U.S. to enact a program to encourage local farmers to grow hemp again, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture lifted the hemp tax. Hemp production increased rapidly, growing millions of acres worth until the war ended. When it did end, the government began to decrease hemp production again since it was no longer needed for war efforts.
1970: Controlled Substances Act
In 1970, the signing of the Controlled Substances Act established five classifications of drugs. Cannabis was categorized as a schedule I drug, which have no medical use according to the DEA and FDA. Schedule I drugs also have a tendency to be abused, and users are more likely to establish psychological and physical dependencies. The Controlled Substances Act grouped all types of cannabis together, even though hemp can’t be used as a drug. Because of this misunderstanding, cannabis was outlawed completely.
1990s – Present
Cannabis remained illegal until the early 1990’s, when Proposition P and Proposition 215 fought to legalize medical cannabis. Prop P obtained legalization for medical cannabis in San Francisco, and Prop 215 finalized it at a state level. Other states began to legalize medical cannabis throughout the 1990’s and 2000’s, and in 2012 Colorado and Washington became the first two states to legalize recreational cannabis. Although medical cannabis is now legal in many states and recreational is legal in some, it is still federally regulated.
There are many arguments for why cannabis should be legalized on a federal level. Some argue that if cannabis is legalized for recreational use, it would reduce violence. Other reasons in support of legalization include that a legal market would eliminate a black market, and ensure safer cannabis. Being one the largest agricultural crops would certainly cause an economic increase in various facets of legal cannabis and create jobs. It would also save law enforcement time and money, allowing them to focus on more important legal issues.
Cannabinoids are compounds that are located in cannabis plants. When cannabis is consumed, cannabinoids interact with the endocannabinoid system in our bodies. Although there are hundreds of cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant, the two most commonly discussed are THC (Delta9 tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (Cannabidiol).
The Endocannabinoid System
The endocannabinoid system is an intricate and complicated cell communication system. It is still not completely understood, but it is known to help regulate a number of bodily functions including sleep, appetite, memory, stress, and mood. Researchers believe that the main role of the endocannabinoid system is maintaining homeostasis, which is the stability of our internal environment. Cannabinoids bind to receptor sites in the brain and body when cannabis is consumed, and different cannabinoids cause different effects.
The endocannabinoid system is made up of 3 main components: endocannabinoids, receptors, and enzymes. Endocannabinoids are molecules just like cannabinoids, but produced by the human body. Currently there are two identified endocannabinoids: AEA (Anandamide) and 2-AG (2-Arachidonoylglyerol). They are produced as much as the body sees fit, so levels vary in different people. Endocannabinoids bind to cannabinoid receptors found throughout the body to signal that help is needed. Enzymes are what break down endocannabinoids when they are done helping. These enzymes are fatty acid amide hydrolase which breaks down AEA, and monoacylglycerol acid lipase which breaks down 2-AG.
The 2 main cannabinoid receptors are CB1 (Cannabinoid receptor type 1) and CB2 (Cannabinoid receptor type 2). CB1 receptors are mostly located on nerve cells in the brain as well as in the limbic system, and CB2 receptors are mainly located in the immune system. Endocannabinoids can bind to either receptor, and the effects will differ depending on where the receptor is located in the body and what endocannabinoid it is bound to.
Cannabinoid receptors are what cause various effects on the body and mind when consuming cannabis. These receptors are part of the G protein-coupled receptor category, known as GPCR and/or 7TM receptors. They are called 7TM receptors because the receptors travel through the cell membrane 7 times. G protein-linked receptors detect molecules outside the cell and activate signal transduction.
Signal transduction occurs when a molecular signal is transmitted through a cell, resulting in a cellular response. This stimulus is detected by proteins, which are referred to as receptors. When the receptors pick up on these signals, they activate multiple signal transduction pathways.
THC and CBD
THC is the cannabinoid found in cannabis that has psychoactive effects, causing a “high” feeling when consumed. It is found in non-hemp cannabis plants, which contain more than 0.3% THC and sometimes containing up to 30% THC. When smoked, THC flows directly to the lungs, which contain a vast number of tiny air sacs called alveoli. These have a large surface area, making it extremely easy for the THC to be absorbed into the body. When you consume THC in the form of an edible, it goes through a process in your liver that turns it into 11-Hydroxy-THC, which is much smaller than delta-9. This makes it easier to penetrate the brain, and has a higher binding efficiency for CB1 receptors. That explains why consuming THC edibles can be a more intense experience that lasts longer than smoking.
THC binds to CB1 receptors in the brain, producing psychoactive effects. Studies have also shown THC to help with symptoms such as nausea and vomiting. THC stimulates neurons to release higher levels of dopamine than would normally be released, causing the sensation of “being high”. It can also cause users to feel anxiety or paranoia.
CBD is a cannabinoid making up 40% of cannabis extract. It is usually extracted from the hemp plant, which is the variety of cannabis plants that contains 0.3% of THC or less. Unlike THC, CBD does not cause psychoactive effects when consumed. CBD ignites our body’s endocannabinoid system by binding to receptors throughout the body, however researchers aren’t sure which receptors it binds to. CBD is often used for pain relief, anxiety, and a number of other ailments, due to anecdotal evidence and some preliminary studies. Many users report that CBD can help with nausea, anxiety, sleep, chronic pain, skin, and mood.
Cannabis research has shown initial evidence of a phenomenon called the entourage effect, in which multiple cannabinoids work together to alter each other’s effects. One of the popular reported effects is that CBD may mitigate some of the negative effects caused by THC, such as anxiety. There are many cannabinoids and various other compounds that may be involved in this effect, but more research will need to be done.
What are Edibles?
Edible cannabis products, commonly referred to as edibles, are food or beverage items that have been infused with cannabis. Cannabis is safe to consume orally, but will not provide any effects in its natural state. It must be manipulated before it can be consumed in edible form.
This article will focus on the consumption of edible THC cannabis products, which cause psychoactive effects. CBD edibles do not cause psychoactive effects and are much simpler to make. Just like with THC oil or tincture, all you need to do is add a few drops of CBD oil to your food or drink (4).
The History of Edibles
Eating cannabis goes all the way back to ancient times. Chinese emperors brewed cannabis tea, Hindus drank warm spiced milk with “gunjah”, and Nomadic tribes in Morocco ate hash jam (1). Cannabis plants seem to have been discovered in India where they were cultivated for medicinal purposes in as early as 900 BC. Hindus offered cannabis to deities during religious ceremonies, and the plant continues to have religious associations in India (5). In the late 1800s, a group of intellectuals in Paris formed a “Club of the Hashish-Eaters”, where they crumbled hashish into their coffee and stayed up late discussing philosophy (1).
The most famous edible in history is the “pot brownie”, which first appeared in 1954. A cookbook was written by Alice B. Toklas, life partner of famous poet and art collector Gertrude Stein. In this cookbook was a recipe called Haschich Fudge, which did not actually contain chocolate, just nuts, dates, figs, and cannabis. The recipe was a gift from painter Brion Gysin, who also included notes on sourcing cannabis as well as when to pick and dry it (1).
In 1978, writer and former sailor J.F. Burke wrote about eating cannabis in an article entitled ‘Eat It!”. Unfortunately Burke was not aware of decarboxylation, which is required to activate the effects of cannabis, and instructed readers to simply crumble up the plant and add it to food. He also did not know that infusing the herb into fat greatly increases its potency and effects. Burke did however offer good advice to new users, and assured them that it is impossible to overdose. Burke wrote, “What if you eat too much? You’ll be drunk. You may barf. You might trip. But you won’t die. The ratio of effective-to-lethal dose of THC is 1 to 40,000… the lethal dose of THC would be 4,000,000 milligrams, an unwieldy mass to get into one’s stomach, much less keep there” (1).
Arguably the most famous person in the history of edibles is “Mary Jane” or “Brownie Mary” as many called her. Mary Jane Rathbun was a middle aged iHOP waitress in San Francisco when she became famous for selling pot brownies (2). Mary ran an illegal kitchen out of her house in the 1980s and 90s to provide cannabis brownies to her friends who were AIDS patients. She became very politically involved in the fight for legalization, and was arrested a few times, completing her required community service by spending time with her friends with AIDS (1). Despite the arrests, Brownie Mary continued baking, motivated by the fact that the pot brownies helped decrease nausea and low appetites suffered by AIDS and cancer patients, whom she referred to as her “kids” (2). Brownie Mary became a leader of the medical cannabis movement, helping pave the way for new laws. In 1991, Mary successfully campaigned to help pass Prop P in San Francisco, which asked California to restore cannabis to a list of available medications. She opened the first medical dispensary with a friend and sold the brownies to anyone who was sick. She also helped fight for Prop 215, the Compassionate Use Act, which passed in 1996 (1). This law gave critical patients in California, including those with cancer, AIDS, arthritis, and chronic pain, the right to obtain and use cannabis medically if recommended by a physician (2).
THC edibles can either be purchased pre-made, or made from scratch at home. If cooking with cannabis at home, make sure to follow the required steps to ensure the edibles have the desired effects, potency, and taste.
Cannabinoids like THC are compounds produced by the cannabis plant (9). When cannabinoids are still in raw cannabis flowers, they contain an extra carboxyl ring or group attached to their chain (7). In this raw or “acid” form as they are called pre decarboxylation, the cannabinoids are THCA, or THC acid (9). So when cannabis flower is purchased, it contains THCA, which has some medicinal properties but no psychoactive effects. It must be converted into its neutral form, THC, for those types of effects to be felt (7).
Decarboxylation is the process of heating raw cannabis so that the chemical structure of the raw cannabinoids change to a neutral form. The raw cannabinoids contain an extra -COOH bond, or carboxyl group, which is a carbon-oxygen-oxygen-hydrogen molecular cluster and needs to be removed (9). If cannabis is not decarboxylated, the psychoactive effects will not be felt (3). Heat and time are the two factors needed to decarboxylate cannabis. When cannabis is smoked, the heat instantly provides decarboxylation, making inhaling the fastest acting consumption method. Drying and curing cannabis alone will achieve a small amount of decarboxylation over time, but the process takes a long time. If making edibles, one should apply a low amount of heat to the cannabis over a long period of time to successfully prepare the cannabis for consumption.
THCA begins to decarboxylate at 220 degrees Fahrenheit and after 30-45 minutes (7). Some edible recipes suggest setting the oven at 230 degrees Fahrenheit (9). Some even bake it at a higher temperature, such as 250, but the temperature should ever exceed 300. Higher temperatures will not only risk the integrity of the cannabinoids, but will also affect the terpenes, potentially eliminating pleasing flavors and leaving a bad taste (7). Around 80% of acid cannabinoids convert to their neutral form during the decarboxylation process (9).
Another important step of decarboxylation is to break or grind the cannabis into smaller pieces. Doing this and laying the cannabis in a flat layer will allow for even heat distribution (9). The cannabis should be ground coarsely, not too fine. If the cannabis is too fine it will introduce chlorophyll to the oil, leaving a grassy, plant-like taste. Cannabinoids readily bind to the fats in oil, so a coarse grind will allow it to absorb without pulling in unwanted plant material (3). In general, a downside of decarboxylating is that some of the more volatile terpenes that give the cannabis its signature aroma and flavor are lost during the process (17).
Once the cannabis cools, the next step is to infuse it with fats (9).
Infusing with Fats
All chemicals that are consumed, whether vitamins or medications, are either water-soluble or fat-soluble. Cannabinoids like THC are fat-soluble, meaning they need to infuse with fat to become available to the body (10).
Most recipes recommend infusing the decarboxylated cannabis into butter or oil.
The recommended ratio of cannabis to fat is one to one, for example one cup of oil and one cup of ground cannabis. Lipids in the oil can only bind with so many cannabinoids, so attempting to increase the cannabis to oil ratio will not work (3).
The processes of decarboxylation and fat infusion can actually be combined. Pre-decarboxylated cannabis can be placed in a slow cooker or sauce pan with whatever oil is being used for infusion. Just like with regular decarboxylation the heat needs to be low, below 300 degrees. This combined process takes around three to six hours (18).
Once infused, the cannabis will need to be strained out of the infused butter or oil. A cheesecloth is recommended, but it is important to not squeeze the cloth, and instead let gravity do the straining. Squeezing it will push some of the plant material through, which defeats the purpose of straining (3).
Potency and Dosage
If making homemade treats, it can be hard to get the edible dosage accurate. It is recommended that consumers test the potency of the cannabis infused oil before cooking with it. To do this, measure out a specific amount of the oil, such as ½ teaspoon, and add it to a snack or drink. After an hour or two, the THC effects should be felt, and it can be decided whether this is the appropriate amount for a single dose. If so, multiply that amount to determine how much is needed for the whole batch (3).
No matter what is being cooked, it is important to stir very thoroughly when cooking. If not, the potency will differ between different parts of what is being cooked. For example, one brownie may cause much more intense psychoactive effects than another if the brownie batter was not stirred well enough. Stir for a long time to ensure that the determined single dose makes it into each individual segment (3).
Overall, dosage will depend on the consumer’s height, weight, metabolism and what they ate that day. There are guidelines of general ranges one can follow to estimate their dose, which are as follows. First time users or users with low tolerance: 1-2.5 mg; Users who smoke a few times a week: 2.5-15mg; Users who have a tolerance: 15-30mg; Users who have a very high tolerance: 30-50mg; Experienced users only, and those who have extreme medical conditions: 50-100mg (15, 16).
Benefits and Downsides to Edibles
There are many benefits to edibles as a cannabis consumption method.
One of the main benefits of edibles is that they come with none of the health risks associated with smoking. Edible cannabis does not affect your lungs in any way, as opposed to smoking cannabis which can potentially damage the lungs (6, 13, 14).
Another benefit is that THC edibles can be very tasty. If made correctly, a brownie or cookie edible should taste similar to its non cannabis counterpart, providing a delicious way to consume cannabis. This is also beneficial if you do not like the taste or feeling of smoking.
Edibles are also beneficial because they are easy to take and consume on the go. When purchased at a dispensary, edibles come sealed in packaging and can easily be stored in your bag. The shelf life and storage location will differ depending on the type of edible, but baked goods will only last as long as normal baked goods last, a matter of days to weeks. The best option is to store baked goods in the freezer, where they last for two to three months (8).
Another major benefit is that the cannabis effects last longer when consumed in edible form. The THC is slowly released into the body’s system as the edible is digested, lasting two to four hours longer than other methods. This may also be considered a downside to edibles. Although the effects last longer, they also take longer to be felt, since it takes time to digest. It can take 90 minutes to two hours to begin feeling the effects of the edible (14).
As mentioned, one potential issue with homemade edibles is that they can be hard to dose accurately (11). Not only might the doses from the same batch differ, but the delayed onset of the psychoactive effects may cause other dosing problems. Consumers are often unaware of how long it takes to feel the effects and may consume more edibles, only to be hit with intense or adverse effects once they kick in. Overall, few research studies have examined how cannabis ingestion differs from inhalation in terms of safety, effects, and therapeutic use (12). It is also very important to label homemade edibles before storage, so as not to mix them up with regular cookies or brownies, especially if there are children in the household.
If purchasing pre-made edibles at a dispensary, there are a few things that should be looked at on the label. The first is how much THC is in the edible, and if it contains CBD as well, what the ratio is. This will tell you how much of a dose to consume, because some edibles are meant to be split up, not eaten all at once. The label should also tell you the serving size.
Another factor to consider is the ingredients. Check to make sure that the ingredients are natural and what you would expect to find in an edible. The final thing to check is when the edible was packaged, and when it expires. Eating an expired edible could have negative effects, just like when eating regular expired baked goods. The potency will remain the same, but eating any expired foods can be a health hazard.
- McDonough, E. (2016, September 20). The history of pot brownies. High Times. Retrieved from https://hightimes.com/edibles/everything-you-need-to-know-about-the-history-of-pot-brownies/
- Alexander, E. (2019, April 17). How one woman’s ‘magically delicious’ pot brownies changed history. Food 52. Retrieved from https://food52.com/blog/24041-brownie-mary-jane-rathbun-history-medical-marijuana
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- Nunley, K. (2020, March 27). Marijuana edibles guide. Medical Marijuana, Inc. Retrieved from https://www.medicalmarijuanainc.com/marijuana-edibles/
- Kuddus, M., Ginawi, I., & Al-Hazimi, A. (2013, June 24). Cannabis sativa: An ancient wild edible plant of India. Emirates Journal of Food and Agriculture, 25(10), 736-745. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.9755/ejfa.v25i10.16400
- Ribeiro, L., Ind, P. (2016). Effect of cannabis smoking on lung function and respiratory symptoms: a structured literature review. npj Primary Care Respiratory Medicine 26, 16071. https://doi.org/10.1038/npjpcrm.2016.71
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- Tully, C. F. (2019, October 18). How to store your edibles for optimal safety and freshness. Leafly. Retrieved from https://www.leafly.com/news/lifestyle/store-edibles-safety-freshness
- Sigman, Z. (2020, February 27). Decarboxylating cannabis. Project CBD. Retrieved from https://www.projectcbd.org/guidance/decarboxylating-cannabis
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- Vandrey R., Raber J.C., Raber M.E., Douglass B., Miller C., Bonn-Miller M.O. Cannabinoid Dose and Label Accuracy in Edible Medical Cannabis Products. JAMA. 2015;313(24):2491–2493. DOI: 10.1001/jama.2015.6613
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- Callaghan, R.C., Allebeck, P. & Sidorchuk, A. Marijuana use and risk of lung cancer: a 40-year cohort study. Cancer Causes Control 24, 1811–1820 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10552-013-0259-0
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Cannabis plants have grown on this planet for tens of thousands of years. It is believed that the plant originated in Central Asia, probably in the Himalayan foothills (5). Archaeological evidence suggests that cannabis plants were used at least 10,000 years ago in Taiwan to make rope and clothing (8). It was also used thousands of years ago for consumption and medicinal purposes (9). The exact number of cannabis plant species is debated, whether it’s one, two, or three, but the general consensus is that there are two main species worth discussing: Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica.
Cannabis sativa is officially called Cannabis sativa L., named after the man who discovered it, Carl Linnaeus. Carl is responsible for modern taxonomic nomenclature, publishing a book about it in 1753, which is why many organisms end in “L”. While Linnaeus gets credit for Cannabis sativa, a man named Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck is responsible for identifying Cannabis indica Lam in 1785, now called Cannabis indica for short. Indica was named after India, where Lam’s specimen was found (10). He considered this a different species from Cannabis sativa, which is largely cultivated in Western continents. The distinction of sativa and indica as separate species is still debated to this day (6).
Many years later in 1924, D.E. Janichevsky discovered a new species growing in Russia that he called Cannabis ruderalis. Ruder means rubble, named because he found the plant growing in rocky landscapes. Janichevsky was a botanist, and ruderal plants are those that thrive in harsh growing conditions. Because Cannabis ruderalis seems to be native to Eastern Europe and Asia, it is believed to be a descendant of indica. Some cannabis researchers and growers consider ruderalis as the third species of cannabis, while others tend to ignore it. It is still undecided whether there are three distinct species of cannabis, or whether indica and ruderalis are merely subspecies of sativa (18). Regardless, Cannabis ruderalis is often left out of the cannabis conversation altogether because of its lack of value in terms of fiber or THC (11).
Pure forms of sativa or indica are referred to as landrace or heirloom strains. This means that the plants grow undisturbed and maintain their natural characteristics (7, 19). Technically all cannabis we see today is some form of hybrid, because growers manipulate the plants to achieve certain strains (13). Unfortunately some of the natural plant characteristics are lost when the plants are moved from their natural environments. More on hybrids will be discussed later.
Sativa v. Indica
The most apparent difference between sativa and indica plants is how the plants look visually. Sativa is a taller, slimmer plant with narrow leaves and random branches. It originates from hot, dry climates and can grow over 12 feet tall. Sativa plants have a 10-12 week growth cycle before producing their buds (17).
Indica is a shorter and stockier plant, more cone shaped and bushy with wide leaves (10). Indica plants have adapted to harsh, dry climates and produce more buds (4). They are also faster to grow with only a 6-10 week cycle. Indica plants are often covered in thick THC trichomes, tiny cannabinoid producing appendages, which protect the plant from unstable weather conditions (17).
The two main cannabinoids found in cannabis plants are delta 9-tetrahydrocannabinol and cannabidiol, known more commonly as THC and CBD respectively. Although there are hundreds of other cannabinoids and terpenes, none with psychoactive effects or other significance have yet to be studied. Other cannabinoids may play a role in the effects of cannabis by interacting with each other, which is referred to as the entourage effect. It has been found that certain compounds in cannabis boost the effects of THC and CBD, like a symphony in harmony (5). Other cannabinoids found in cannabis include CBG and CBN, but researchers are still exploring what effects these have, both individually and when interacting with others (4). In sativa, the ratio of THC is much higher than CBD, while indica normally has more CBD (4).
Terpenes & Flavonoids
In addition to all of the cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant, there are also various terpenes and flavonoids that have different effects on the human body. Terpenes are oils that exist in many plants including cannabis, and provide a signature aroma. Plants use their terpenes as a basic defense tactic for survival. The strong smell keeps plant-eating predators away, and attracts pollinators such as bees and other insects. These smells can resemble mint, sweet fruits, pine, citrus and more. The terpenes that appear in cannabis are determined based on a variety of factors such as soil, nutrients, climate, maturity, and sunlight. One of the most common terpenes is called Myrcene. It has an earthy and herbal aroma, and has reported effects of reducing anxiety and insomnia. Another terpene is called Limonene, which is bright and citrusy, and reported to reduce stress and improve mood (3).
While there aren’t any consistent terpene differences between sativa and indica, they certainly play a role in effects. Terpenes are one of the major factors that cause two strains containing the same THC percentage to have different effects when consumed. One study actually found a point of variation with the terpene called terpinolene. It seems that when this terpene is found in high quantities, it’s always in a sativa or similar hybrid strain. Even though that’s just a correlation, it shows that like cannabinoids, terpenes are a more reliable source for potential effects than indica versus sativa (20).
Like terpenes, flavonoids are not specific to cannabis plants, and exist in many parts of nature. Fruits, veggies, and flowers all contain flavonoids, and the primary function is to provide color pigmentation that attracts pollinators. The unique flavonoids found in cannabis are called cannaflavins, and interact with terpenes to create specific aromas. Some cannabis strains will appear purple, which is an example of a certain type of cannaflavin affecting pigmentation. Cannaflavins account for around 10% of the known compounds found in cannabis, but are severely understudied. Initial research shows that they may actually provide some pharmacological benefits, such as anti-inflammation (14).
Depending on the type of cannabis being consumed, users might experience a wide spectrum of psychological, physical and emotional effects. Cannabis is categorized into the three species of sativa, indica and hybrid, but the differences go beyond those categorizations. Within each species there are many strains of cannabis, which are the unique breeds with names such as “purple kush” or “northern lights”. Strains are determined by their cannabinoid and terpene makeup, and those combinations cause different effects (4). Effects can differ greatly per actual strain of cannabis, so it’s difficult to identify common effects from all sativas.
In general, users tend to say that sativas cause more of a “head high” and an energizing effect (4). Many people call sativa the “daytime” cannabis, because they find that it increases alertness and creativity, and causes uplifting and euphoric feelings (7). Some users turn to sativa when they want to reduce anxiety or stress (4). Because it’s more of a head high, it can provide some nice visuals and giggles, but it can also stimulate paranoia (17).
Examples of popular sativa strains include acapulco gold, panama red, and durban poison. Users can get an understanding of expected effects by knowing the THC and CBD percentage, understanding the terpenes, and by reading reviews. Strain guides will combine user reviews to create easily understandable guidelines. For example, acapulco gold is noted to be peppery, with the top reported feeling as “happy”, and “energetic” coming in fifth. Durban poison on the other hand has “energetic” listed as it’s number one reported feeling, with strong fruity flavors (15). This shows that not all sativas provide the same effects, smells, or tastes.
To reiterate, it is difficult to generalize the effects of all indica strains, however users do tend to report some similarities. Many associate indica strains with a full body effect, including deep relaxation and better sleep (4). It is referred to as the opposite of sativa and a “nighttime” strain. Users have reported intense calmness, increased appetite, better sleep, and pain relief (7). Indica could be more relaxing because it tends to contain more CBD than sativa (17).
Some popular strains of indica include hindu kush, afghan kush, and granddaddy purple (4). Hindu kush has reported calming effects, with a strong citrus aroma and 18% THC. Afghan kush on the other hand, is not quite as calming, and has stronger herbal scents with 17% THC. Hindu kush includes a reported feeling of uplifting, while afghan kush reports hunger instead (15). This is another example of how to begin understanding the effects of different strains.
When discussing cannabis strains, it would be an injustice to leave out hybrids. Breeding plants together is called hybridization, and farmers use this technique on many types of plants to increase quality. One female plant and one male plant is used to create the hybrid (16). After breeding the hybrid, growers will check for the desired traits and breed them again. Once the right effects are achieved, they will “cube” the strain. This means breeding the child hybrid with the parent to reinforce the traits. The process is usually repeated across a few generations to stabilize the characteristics (19).
Technically speaking, all cannabis being sold at dispensaries are hybrids, because the cannabis is no longer a pure, landrace strain (19). Regardless, hybrid has now become its own type of cannabis, sold alongside sativa and indica. A hybrid can be any cross breed of cannabis, whether it’s indica and sativa, two indicas, two sativas, or even cannabis ruderalis. Cannabis ruderalis would never be consumed on its own since it doesn’t offer medicinal or recreational benefits, but it is sometimes mixed in for its autoflowering quality (4, 19). Unlike sativa and indica, the Ruderalis strain does not rely on external cues to start flowering; it happens automatically after a certain amount of time (12). The most common type of hybrid is a mix of indica and sativa.
Hybrids are made because growers want to extract specific qualities from various types of cannabis, and cross breed them to achieve a hybrid plant with those qualities. The goal could be to target a specific ailment or achieve a certain emotional feeling. Another reason would be to create a certain size plant, since indicas are shorter and some growers are limited to indoor space. Resin, terpenes, and bud yield are other reasons that hybrids might be created. New hybrids are being bred all the time (19).
A high sativa hybrid is referred to as sativa-dominant or sativa-dom, and a high indica strain is referred to as indica-dominant. In a sativa-dominant strain, the sativa may increase mental awareness and decrease the calming effects of that indica. On the other hand, adding indica to a sativa may relieve anxiety because the indica offsets the stimulation of anxiety that sativa gives. If the levels are equal, it may be referred to as balanced, or a “true” hybrid (16). There is also usually a percentage associated with hybrids. For example, a label may say “sativa-dom 70/30”, indicating 70% sativa and 30% indica. It is important to know the hybrid combination before consumption, so the potential effects are understood (2). Examples of popular hybrid strains include pineapple express, trainwreck, and blue dream. According to some users, blue dream is good for daytime anxiety reduction (16). Pineapple express is said to be a much more energizing hybrid, and better for treating depression (15).
Hybrids have many benefits. In a perfect world, a hybrid will include the best medical traits of the pure strain to produce the most efficient medical outcome, or the best recreational effects without any potential side effects. As research evolves and cannabis is better understood, hybrids will continue to transform. The best thing a user can do to understand how cannabis affects them specifically is to keep track of how they feel after consuming a particular strain. This will help researchers and users understand cannabis effects.
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