What Is Cannabis?

Written by BlackbirdGo May 3, 2018
The Plant

Pot. Grass. Herb. Bud. No matter what you call it, cannabis has been around for thousands of years - meaning many cultures around the world have their own terms and rituals for this pervasive plant. Today, we’re going to dive into the history of cannabis use.

Even if you’ve never touched weed, you’ve likely gleaned bits and pieces of cannabis culture from music, TV, and movies. But most pop culture takes on cannabis never seem to get it right - they’re exaggerated, or they rely on outdated tropes that most people today can’t really relate to. The majority of people who use cannabis, whether for medicinal or recreational purposes, are nothing like Cheech & Chong or Snoop Dogg - they’re students, artists, parents, and working professionals, most of whom use cannabis responsibly. As a consequence of pop culture representations, there is a lot of misinformation on cannabis, even as states across the country actively work to rewrite their cannabis laws. That misinformation can be dangerous, and it can also paint an inaccurate picture of what cannabis is and how it affects the people who use this plant.

So let’s set the record straight on weed.

What’s In A Name?

The word “cannabis” is typically used by most people as an umbrella term to describe any type of cannabis. Cannabis is a Latin word used to name the plant’s scientific genus. You may remember from Biology class that all living things are formally named with both a genus and a species (sort of a first and last name, like the term homo sapiens for humans). The cannabis species you’re most likely to encounter are Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica. There’s also a third variant, Cannabis ruderalis, but experts continue to debate whether ruderalis is its own distinct species or merely a subspecies of Cannabis sativa. For this lesson, we’ll be sticking with the sativa and indica species.

When you buy a bag of weed at your local dispensary, you’re purchasing the dried buds (flower) of the cannabis plant - your selection will be either a sativa, an indica, or a hybrid of the two. You can also buy other non-flower forms of cannabis, such as concentrates (dabs) and edibles (pot brownies, etc.). The bud your dispensary offers should be labeled by strain - for example, Sour Diesel and Blue Dream are two common strains of cannabis flowers. Strains have their own unique properties and effects, but essentially you can think of strains as a varietal of cannabis - the same way Valencia oranges, navel oranges, and blood oranges are all varieties of the same fruit species.

What Is Cannabis Used For?

The earliest evidence of humans growing cannabis took place in China, with archeological records suggesting that the plant was first cultivated around the year 4,000 BCE (about 6,000 years ago). From Asia the plant spread to Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and eventually North, Central, and South America. It has a long, well-documented history of medicinal use to treat pain, digestive problems, and cramping, and through the years its use has expanded to treat the symptoms of many other ailments.

States with medical cannabis laws typically determine which diagnoses and conditions warrant the use of cannabis. Though each state has its own set of guidelines and specific ailments for which doctors can recommend cannabis, some conditions that are commonly treated with medical cannabis include:
amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease)
- Crohn’s disease
- epilepsy
- glaucoma
- multiple sclerosis
- ulcerative colitis
- wasting syndrome

Even if you don’t have a severe qualifying condition, you can still enjoy the medicinal benefits of cannabis (like relief from stress, anxiety, and stomach aches) if you live in a state that has authorized the recreational use of cannabis by adults over 21 years of age.

Not all forms of cannabis are psychoactive - meaning that some types of cannabis won’t get you high. THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) is the main chemical component of cannabis that causes euphoria and intoxication, but it’s not the only one.

You’ve probably heard about CBD (cannabidiol) in the news since cannabis laws began changing over the past few years. CBD is another chemical component, or cannabinoid, found in many strains of cannabis, but it doesn’t make you feel stoned. In fact, research has shown that CBD can relieve the symptoms of anxiety, act as an effective anti-inflammatory aid, and treat seizures, all without causing intoxication.

Many states in America have passed medical cannabis laws that permit the use of high-CBD, low-THC products but do not allow patients to grow, possess, or consume cannabis that contains higher concentrations of THC. So where do those CBD products come from? There are strains of cannabis that have been specifically bred to develop low concentrations of THC and high concentrations of CBD. Some common high-CBD strains include Charlotte’s Web, ACDC, Ringo’s Gift, and Harlequin. CBD oils and tinctures can also be derived from hemp, a non-psychoactive form of the cannabis plant.

Hemp itself has a long history of human use. People also use hemp seeds as a source of nutrition and its oils in skin-care products. The fibers of hemp plants have been utilized in manufacturing, making hemp rope and hemp fabrics/textiles. That tradition dates back thousands of years in China. Hemp also factors heavily into American history - in fact, colonists living in the US before it became a country were actually required by law to plant hemp! The decree started in the Jamestown Colony so that the colonists could manufacture their own ropes and sails for their ships, and it was later applied to colonies in Massachusetts and Connecticut as well. More recently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture actually encouraged farmers to grow the non-psychoactive hemp plant during World War II to help equip naval ships with adequate rope.

Where Does Cannabis Grow?

Cannabis has grown on virtually every continent thanks to human dispersal. Many cultures around the world have used the cannabis plant at some point in history, whether for fiber/fabric, food, medicine, ritual, or recreation.

Certain climates and growing conditions offer different results when growing cannabis. As human cultivation spread across the globe, new strains and hybridizations were formed. Those hybrids were initially bred using landrace strains - these are pure sativa and indica strains that have grown accustomed to specific geographical regions and become native plants in those parts of the world.

The genetics of landrace strains depend upon where they developed and what type of cross-pollination may have taken place over the course of many generations. Each landrace strain is typically restricted to the continent or subcontinent where it developed. Most landrace strains are sativas, though some strains are indicas. Some common landrace strains include:
Afghani (indica - Afghanistan/Pakistan region)
Hindu Kush (indica - Afghanistan/Pakistan region)
Thai (sativa - Southeast Asia)
Durban Poison (sativa - South Africa)
Panama Red (sativa - Panama/Central America)

Using landrace genetics, breeders have been able to hybridize and cross-breed the plants, developing many of the cannabis strains you buy today at your local dispensary! New strains are constantly being bred from existing strains, offering a greater diversity of medicinal and recreational options to better meet the needs of cannabis consumers around the world.

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