It’s a new world of cannabis out here; gone are the days of unidentified shake in ziplock bags. Today, Canadian dispensary shelves are brimming with choices. So many choices, in fact, that it can be pretty overwhelming for old-school smokers and newbies alike. One fun way to get to know cannabis is this cool cannabis card deck. But if you don’t have one, we’ll help you get a basic understanding of the science behind cannabis right here right now. Before you know it, you’ll be cruising through dispensary menus and choosing products like a pro!
Cannabis is a long-cultivated plant with over 400 chemical compounds, of which over 100 are “cannabinoids;” cannabis compounds that interact with our bodies. So it goes without saying that the effects of cannabis can vary greatly depending on the balance of cannabinoids in a particular plant.
If you’re researching beginner’s information on cannabis, you may have run into advice about choosing a cannabis strain based on whether it’s “indica” or “sativa.” It’s commonly repeated that indica strains are more relaxing and sedating, while sativa strains are cerebral, uplifting, and energizing. However, this isn’t always the case.
Indica, sativa, and hybrid are terms that are much more useful to describe the characteristics of a plant to growers than to consumers. What are the real differences, and how can you use the information on the dispensary menu to make the right choice for you? Read on to find out.
Human intervention has changed the cannabis plant a lot in the past few hundred years. Before modern breeders and technology, it may have been more accurate to say that the effects of indica plants were felt more in the body and less in the mind than their sativa counterparts.
Modern breeding is usually aimed to increase the psychoactive effects of cannabis, so this is rarely the case any more. It’s very common to find indica strains from dispensaries that are more than “heady” enough for any seasoned smoker, like this Marmalate . So what is an indica?
When they’re growing, indica plants are shorter, wider and darker than sativa plants. The leaves are also broader with shorter digits (think maple leaf). Indicas generally have shorter grow cycles and better yields than sativa strains, so they’re a favorite for new growers.
Sativa strains, like Durban Poison or Strawberry Cough, are generally considered to be more energetic and uplifting with less of a body high compared to indicas. However, dispensary veterans can attest to smoking a supposedly cerebral sativa with the intention of getting something done, only to find themselves still on the couch hours later, elbow deep in a bag of Cheetos.
To growers, sativa plants grow taller and skinnier than indicas. Their leaves are lighter green and more spindly (think japanese maple leaf) than indica leaves. In nature, sativas grow in warmer climates than mountainous indicas, causing them to develop distinct physical differences since they’re not required to adapt to the cold. This can also make them more of a challenge to inexperienced growers.
If we’re being honest, every strain you encounter in a dispensary is actually a hybrid on a genetic level. Cannabis has been used in human culture for so long, and been subject to so much scientific interference, that there are almost no pure indicas and sativas today in the same way they would have occured in nature. Strains have been bred and cross-bred a hundred times over, so even plants that are very characteristic of indica, like Grandaddy Purple for example, are almost guaranteed to have a sativa great-great-great grandparent, or at the very least a sativa great-aunt twice removed.
When a strain like Alien OG is labeled as hybrid on a dispensary menu, it means that it’s an intentional crossbreed of an indica strain and a sativa strain. Breeders love hybrids and are constantly creating new varieties, because crossbreeding can improve the effects of existing strains. Hybrids are created to get the best of both worlds from their indica and sativa parents, and often have highly specialized effects and flavors due to their intentional breeding.
Now you may be thinking, “I don’t plan to grow any of my own cannabis, so what should indica and sativa mean to me? The answer is honestly not that much. There’s a better way to get an accurate reading of the effects of a strain, and that is the strain’s cannabinoid makeup.
Know your cannabinoids!
There are 2 main chemicals found in high concentrations in cannabis: THC and CBD, as well as other cannabinoids found in smaller concentrations that can also change the effect of a strain. This ratio of cannabinoids is what you should pay attention to when choosing a strain or product for yourself.
THC is the most famous of all cannabinoids, because it is the chemical that creates cannabis’ psychoactive effects. Generally speaking, the higher percentage of THC a strain has, the more you will feel its effects mentally. Levels of THC are generally marked with the strain description, but if not, a quick search with the strain name followed by “cannabinoids” will return lab tests with accurate percentages.
Commercial cannabis flower tends to range anywhere from 8-35% THC, with 10% being fairly weak and 30% exceptionally strong. Products like vape cartridges and extracts are concentrated to contain higher THC levels. This is why many users report a clearer and more energetic head high using concentrated cannabis.
CBD has become a topic of discussion in recent years due to its unique medical value to developing treatments for a variety of conditions. It occurs in most cannabis strains in second highest concentration after THC, usually about 1%. Recent developments on the science of cannabis have piqued consumer interest in CBD. It’s now common to find strains bred to have higher levels of CBD, as much as 8%, and low or equal levels of THC. These strains provide more of the bodily effects of cannabis like relaxation, hunger, and sleep, without as much of a head high.
Even more commonly found in most dispensaries are concentrated CBD oils. Oils can have much higher CBD percentages than flower, and are formulated with either no THC, low THC or equal ratios, depending on your exact needs.
Other than THC and CBD, the actual smell of a cannabis strain changes its effects. Crazy, right? That’s because of terpenes, chemicals which produce all sorts of smells in nature. You may see strains described referencing pine, mango, or lavender. That’s because these cannabis strains actually have the same smell-producing chemicals in common with other plants.
Some common terpenes you might come across are pineine, limonene and myrcene. Pinene is found in pine trees and can increase the anti-inflammatory effects of cannabis and decrease short-term memory loss. Limonene is found in all citrus fruits and can increase the uplifting and energetic effects of cannabis. Myrcene is an earthy smell found in hops, mangoes and “skunky” strains, which increases the relaxing and stoned feeling of cannabis.
Choosing the right strain
Dispensaries marking strains primarily by indica and sativa can leave us without much of a guideline for the expected effects of that strain. That’s why as smart consumers, it’s important to look closely at strain descriptions. Individual descriptions of each strain provide a lot more information about the strain’s actual effect than relying on indica and sativa stereotypes alone. It’s especially important to pay attention to THC and CBD levels and anything smell descriptions that indicate which terpenes a strain contains. Have any questions for your online budtender? Weed be happy to help! Check out our FAQ to get started.
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