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What Is Marijuana and How Is it Used?

As support for cannabis legalization shoots through the roof, it might be time to finally learn more about the plant - and its surprising versatility.
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The stigma around marijuana began eroding slowly over a couple of decades, but in the past several years it has been vanishing far faster.

Entirely illegal in the United States for most of the 20th century, cannabis products are now medically available in 29 states. Canada may see country-wide legal recreational marijuana later this year. Many anti-cannabis laws, once standard, are now seen as archaic at best and unjust at worst.

Despite Attorney General Jeff Sessions's objections to it, the push for cannabis legalization is on the rise. This has major implications not only for users, but for businesses and the industry as well. Legal sales of cannabis bring in billions of dollars annually in the United States, and that's with most states having a ton of limits on where and how it can be sold. As voter support for the cause increases year after year, businesses see profits and investors see a new addition to their portfolio.

What complicates things for interested businesses, investors, and even just general enthusiasts is that in the U.S., cannabis is still technically illegal at the federal level. You can't bring legally purchased marijuana across state lines.

Still, there is hope that widespread legalization can come sooner rather than later. Legalization could lead to more research on cannabis (its federal classification as a Schedule 1 drug makes it harder to study medical benefits), which in turn could help more accurately determine the benefits and detriments and allow for proper regulation and an expansion of the cannabis industry.

You may have heard about the benefits from your friends, how you can take it and what it can help you with - after all, people on both sides of the political spectrum support it. But as it becomes more commonplace, we should examine just exactly what cannabis is and what it can do.

What is Cannabis?

Maybe you've smoked marijuana before but you're not too familiar with the details - you just know it got you high. So when a dispensary opens near you and you find yourself surrounded by gummies, balms, and teas, you might be surprised at the versatility of a single plant.

At its most basic, cannabis is a plant. This plant secretes hundreds of chemical compounds that give the drug many of its most defining traits. One group of compounds are terpenes, most known for giving cannabis a variety of distinctive scents and flavors. Due to the lack of abundant research on the subject, there are varying thoughts on how large a role terpenes play in the mental and physical effects of cannabis. Another compound, cannabinoids, is what is known for creating these effects.

What are Cannabinoids?

There are at least 113 known cannabinoids in marijuana plants, but just two that get primary focus when discussing it: cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). CBD provides many of the medical benefits that have allowed legal cannabis to gain traction, but it remains more well-known for THC, the psychoactive component that gets you high - though it may hold medical uses as well. There are several notable differences between CBD and THC - not just in terms of getting high, but also side effects, methods of ingesting, and the legality of the two. Still, they are the two cannabinoids most widely known and frequently associated with cannabis.

Cannabinoids causes these effects by interacting with a number of receptors in a person's body that make up the endocannabinoid system. There are two known types of cannabinoid receptors: CB1, found mostly in the nervous system and in the brain, and CB2, found more in the immune system throughout the body.

Since CBD and THC are the most well-known compounds in cannabis, the majority of studies that have been done on the effects in marijuana have involved cannabinoids.

What are Terpenes?

Terpenes, however, may also provide effects that are known for occurring after ingesting marijuana. Terpenes are hydrocarbon compounds that are actually not limited to cannabis - plenty of other plants have terpenes, as do fruits. They give all these things the distinct aroma and flavor that are associated with the plants; because they share these terpenes in common with trees, flowers and fruits, many strains of cannabis will have similar fruity, earthy, floral and pine flavors to them. One popular terpene in cannabis, myrcene, is said to have a citrus-like flavor; another, pinene, has an aroma of pine to it.

The research that suggests terpenes may also provide effects in cannabis also suggests that it does this by working in tandem with cannabinoids to cause them, in what is known as the "entourage effect."  The entourage effect suggests that without terpenes, certain cannabinoids don't have quite as strong an effect.

Since terpenes are so associated with aroma and flavor, they've become important not just to cannabis enthusiasts, but growers and marketers, as a good scent can make it much easier to market the product.

Because compounds can be found throughout marijuana plants - from the buds to the leaves, even the stem - there are many different ways people choose to extract the compounds, some simpler than others.

Sativa vs. Indica

What strain are you looking for? The two most common ones you've likely heard before: sativa and indica. There are also hybrids of the two. Some prefer strains that are more dominated by THC, while others prefer a high concentration of CBD.

The genus classification for cannabis is Cannabis sativa, but the sativa strain is just one of the strains of Cannabis sativa. The taller strain of cannabis and the one that takes longest to fully grow, sativa strains are known to be more uplifting and energizing, stimulating the mind much more than the body. Its ability to make you more alert means its suggested to be used in the daytime.

Indica is pretty much the opposite of all that. A shorter and broader plant, those who prescribe legal cannabis suggest taking indica strains at night. The relaxing sensation it provides the body is often used to help people get to sleep. Hybrids, as a mix of sativa and indica, are thought to potentially offer a combination of the qualities from each strain.

You can go more in depth on the differences between the two in our comprehensive guide: What's the Difference Between Indica vs. Sativa?.

What is Cannabis Used For?

Depends on who's using it. Some people use it for pain relief, and others use it to fall asleep mid-movie with pizza in their hand. It's most common legal usage is medicinal, but the eroding stigma has caused an uptick in legal recreational use as well.

Medical Marijuana

There are a number of ways for someone who needs medical marijuana to take it, though state-to-state differences and bizarre intricacies in laws mean it can differ. There are some states where even with medical cannabis, you can't smoke it, which may surprise people. Edibles are a particularly popular alternative, while cannabis oils and tinctures are becoming increasingly popular. Depending on the location and the potency of cannabis required for an ailment, local dispensaries may have what patients need.

Often, medical cannabis is made from extracted CBD. Containing no or trace amounts of THC, CBD won't give you the psychoactive high, and many studies done have shown CBD's medical potential in conditions like epilepsy. A recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine tested CBD treatment on 120 children with Dravet syndrome, a rare form of epilepsy. Cannabidiol decreased the number of seizures significantly.

People have been known to take cannabis for anxiety-related purposes, and many of the studies toward this have been related to anxieties in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) victims. Pain relief, such as for migraines, is a common use as well, though studies are limited on the effectiveness.

Cannabinoids have also been used as an aid in the treatment of cancer, a factor that has helped efforts to destigmatize the drug. Dronabinol is a THC drug that has actually been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The drug is used to treat side effects of chemotherapy such as nausea and vomiting, and has also been used as an appetite stimulant for HIV patients. Nabilone is a drug that provides similar treatments but is a synthetic cannabinoid.

Recreational Marijuana

As of this writing, support in the U.S. for marijuana legalization is up to 63% according to a Quinnipiac poll. The support for medical marijuana in particular is through the roof - 93%! - but for general legalization to be so high, it's clear that the stigma of recreational use is also fading.

Part of this support is likely practicality; legal cannabis brings in incredible tax revenue for states ($30 million in the first six months in Nevada, for example) as well as new businesses, which can bring in new jobs. But as studies have come out that there are medicinal benefits and rebutting the infamous idea that cannabis is a "gateway drug," fewer people have an ethical issue with recreational marijuana use. In a move perhaps unthinkable back in the 1930s when marijuana was first criminalized in the country, 9 states have now legalized it recreationally, and more states could be on their way as politicians run on a platform of legalization.

How is Cannabis Taken?

Cannabis has turned out to be a very versatile plant, so it's no surprise that there have also turned out to be a lot of ways to ingest it.

What are the options for getting legal cannabis into your system? Here are some of the most popular options.

Smoking. I mean, are you surprised? Of course this is the most widely recognized method. Even when using medical marijuana, often patients end up smoking it in order to feel the effects of it. 

Vaping. Vaping, though, has become arguably a more popular choice for medical marijuana users. Vaporizing concentrates (often in oil or wax form) is seen as a more convenient way to smoke than having to roll up your own marijuana. Just buy a pen and a cartridge.

Edibles. In the wake of increased cannabis usage, there has been an increased popularity in edibles. No longer just known for hacky "weed brownies" jokes in movies, edibles have instead become a growing industry. Legal dispensaries may have not just brownies but gummies, chocolate bars and much more. And cannabis-infused drinks like lattes and beers have become the talk of every food website aimed at people who live in Brooklyn.

Tinctures. Tinctures are droplets that are often placed under your tongue to most strongly experience the effects. Though the effects will take longer to experience if ingesting tinctures via food and drink, it is possible to place them in as well.

Topicals. Studies have shown that cannabis can have not just pain-relieving properties but anti-inflammatory properties as well. As such, one growing product in the world of legal marijuana are topical products. Lotions, balms, shampoos, bath bombs and many other topicals are being created and sold as having therapeutic effects.

Effects of Marijuana

Effects of marijuana on the mind can often be very pleasant, per numerous studies. These range from relaxation to elation, but there are negative effects as well, like anxiety, paranoia and short-term memory impairment.

What causes these, and what can counter them? Often it is said that paranoia and anxiety are due to particularly high concentrations of THC in the strain of marijuana; CBD is said to have more relaxing, anti-anxiety properties to it.

The sedating effects of weed can be physical as well; indica strains are nicknamed "in da couch" for a reason. But the rise in medicinal usage of it is in large part due to the effects it can have on pain relief and inflammatory disorders. It can also have have affects on muscles, used for muscle spasms, and nausea. It is often prescribed to cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, as it can help not just with pain but the nausea that comes with treatment.

Of course, with studies remaining limited, there is still quite a lot that we don't know about what marijuana can do.

Popularization of Cannabis Culture

"Cannabis culture" is a pretty dorky way of putting it, but the use of marijuana in popular culture has no doubt played a role in increasing public opinion that cannabis is not as harmful drug as once believed. Pop culture went from movies about the dangers of marijuana driving you insane to television shows where suburban mothers sell it in a 70 year span, and though it hasn't solved everything relating to the stigma, it mainstreamed the idea of marijuana users not being criminals or degenerates, but everyday people.

What is the Cannabis Cup?

The mainstream nature of all this has turned once underground festivals into massive national events. Notable marijuana magazine The High Times has held the Cannabis Cup, a multi-day festival dedicated entirely to weed, since 1988.

The Cannabis Cup used to be only in Amsterdam, but in the 2010s expanded to 3 cities in California and 1 in Michigan. The event allows growers and manufacturers compete to win Best in a number of categories - indica, sativa, CBD oil, edibles, vape pens, and more. These festivals have expanded not only to fit the evolving landscape of marijuana, but also by adding performers. The 2018 Cannabis Cup in San Bernardino was headlined by Nas, Lil Wayne, and 2 Chainz. When hip-hop legends are headlining expos dedicated entirely to marijuana, it's clear it's no longer seen as the scary gateway drug it once was.