Marijuana or cannabis?
The scientific name for the plant is Cannabis Sativa L. and falls under the Cannabaceae family. The Cannabaceae family includes 12 genera and about 102 species, including other economically important species such as Humulus lupulus L. (hop producing beer) and Pteroceltis tatarinowii (blue sandalwood producing essential oils).
Marijuana is a made-up word gaining traction in the USA in the early 20th century. The word marijuana was used as a tool to dehumanise and ostracise southern American migrants travelling for work and settling into different cities (Bewley-Taylor, Jelsma, Blickman, 2014).
A common perceived hypothesis (gateway theory) which continues to survive till this very day is that the use of cannabis would lead to a life of misery, debauchery, ill-health, escalation of drug use, and crime. Nonetheless, this hypothesis has been proved wrong and the pharmacological structure of cannabis has not been attributed to cause the use of other drugs or lead to a life of crime.
What is Cannabis?
Cannabis is a natural product with the main psychoactive cannabinoid tetrahydrocannabinol (Δ9-THC) producing the sought-after mind-altering effects (feeling high). The cannabis plant (Cannabis sativa L.) is broadly distributed and grows in temperate and tropical areas. Together with tobacco, alcohol and caffeine, it is one of the most widely consumed drugs throughout the world and has been used for spiritual, for recreational purposes, and as a source of fibre (Hemp) since historical times. Herbal cannabis consists of the dried flowering tops and leaves. Cannabis resin is a compressed solid made from the resinous parts of the plant, and cannabis (hash) oil is a solvent extract of cannabis (EMCDDA, 2021).
Other closely related substances that occur in cannabis include cannabidiol (CBD) and, in aged samples, cannabinol (CBN), both of which have quite different pharmacological effects to THC. Other compounds include the cannabivarins and cannabichromenes; they are all collectively known as cannabinoids. Unlike many psychoactive substances, cannabinoids are not nitrogenous bases (EMCDDA, 2021).
Cannabis sativa is dioecious: there are separate male and female plants. The THC is largely concentrated around the flowering parts of the female plant. The leaves and male plants have less THC, while the stalks and seeds contain almost none. Plants have characteristic compound leaves with up to 11 separate serrated lobes. Imported herbal cannabis occurs as compressed blocks of dried brown vegetable matter comprising the flowering tops, leaves, stalks and seeds of Cannabis sativa. Cannabis resin is usually produced in 250-g blocks, many of which carry a brandmark impression. Cannabis oil is a dark viscous liquid (EMCDDA, 2021).
Cultivars or strains?
Cultivars also called Strains are unique in their cannabinoid and terpene combinations. You’ll often hear or see terms like “Indica” (known for its relaxing effects), “Sativa” (known for its uplifting effects), and “Hybrid” (somewhere in between) to describe the effects of a particular cannabis strain. Nonetheless, this distinction is not very useful to give an indication of the effects. The following items could be more useful: Cultivar Name / Product potency (THC %) / Cannabinoid Content / Terpenes Present (Office of Cannabis Management NY, 2023).
The Endocannabinoid System (ECS)
The ECS helps regulate the central nervous system and secondary systems (like the respiratory and muscular systems) that help communicate information throughout the body. Cannabinoid receptors are found throughout the body. Phytocannabinoids and endocannabinoids bind to receptors in the body like a lock and key. Cannabinoid Receptors are categorized as Cannabinoid (CB) Receptors 1 and 2. CB2 receptors are primarily found in cells that are a part of the immune system and regulate secondary systems like the respiratory system or muscular system and are responsible for how information is communicated through our body. Though there is more for researchers to discover about the endocannabinoid system, it is understood that both THC and CBD can act on these receptors but behave in different ways. When CBD interacts with these receptors, it can produce anti-inflammatory effects, help prevent spasms, and help with pain. CB1 receptors are found all over the body and affect areas of the brain that regulate appetite, memory, fear and motor responses in the central nervous system. CB1 receptors are also found in the gastrointestinal tract, fat cells, liver, and skeletal muscle. THC tends to bind to CB1 receptors which explains its psychoactive effects (Office of Cannabis Management NY, 2023).
What are THC and CBD?
In its raw state, cannabis has THCA (Tetrahydrocannabinolic acid) which is a non-psychoactive substance. It is only upon heating and combustion that it transforms in the sought-after cannabinoid – Tetrahydrocannabinol – THC. Another important cannabinoid is Cannabidiol – CBD. This is a non-psychoactive substance and has the potential to balance the effects of THC. Unfortunately, the illegal market has always sought to make a profit from increasing THC levels (more potency is less bulky to smuggle and yields higher prices at sale), with the ultimate result of destabilising the natural state of the cannabis plant (THC:CBD ratio). Luckily, and thanks also to more countries moving to a regulated cannabis market, grow shops and seed banks are providing more strains with a balanced THC:CBD ratio, thus giving cannabis consumers the option to consume a strain with a lower THC content.
Cannabis has over 100 cannabinoids, and together with terpenes and other parts of the plant create a particular taste and experience (Entourage Effect). There are thousands of different strains. To mention just a few: Banana Purple Punch, Afghan Kush, Mimosa, Dosidos, Amnesia.
What are terpenes and flavonoids?
Botanically derived terpenes are naturally occurring organic compounds found in practically all plant life, including cannabis. Terpenes are similar to essential oils and are responsible for the scent of cannabis and contribute to its flavour. For example, some common terpenes give the scent of citrus (limonene), pine (pinene), lavender (linalool), and black pepper (caryophyllene). Some research indicates that terpenes have the potential to influence the effects of cannabis by interacting with cannabinoids – creating a therapeutic effect. Flavonoids are a group of compounds that have been found in foods and plants, including cannabis. They affect the taste and smell of cannabis and may be responsible for some antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. Researchers are studying how cannabinoids and terpenes work together to create the unique medicinal effects of the cannabis plant. This is referred to as the “Entourage Effect (Office of Cannabis Management NY, 2023).
The different forms of cannabis
Cannabis comes in different forms, nonetheless, in its natural and raw state, cannabis is a plant with flowering tops (bud). Both THC and CBD dominant strains produce flowers, which can then be used directly or transformed into another product, such as oil or tincture.
CBD dominant strains or Hemp, and therefore cannabis strains with very low levels of THC, have been used for manufacturing purposes, such as hemp paper, ropes, and clothes. More recently, hemp and CBD are being used in cosmetics, and other industries such as sustainable living spaces (hempcrete). Chapter 628 Act to establish the Authority on the Responsible Use of Cannabis (ARUC) and to amend various laws relating to certain cannabis activities, enacted into law on 18th December 2021, established that cannabinoids with a lower THC percentage of 0.2 have no potential for abuse and should no longer be considered as a narcotic drug. These changes follow regional and international developments considering cannabinoids with a low THC percentage as falling outside the scope of the UN Drug Control Conventions of 1961, 1971, and 1988.
People who consume cannabis for recreational purposes usually divide cannabis strains into two predominant categories: Sativa and Indica.
Nonetheless, years of crossbreeding and the predominance of hybrid strains, make it difficult to classify cannabis under this categorisation. Cannabis is also transformed into hash a practice mostly popular in the southern hemisphere (the majority of hash in Europe originates from Morocco). Hash is made from the plant resin or pollen and is transformed into a bar – in Maltese this is called sapuna or blokka. It is usually of brown, greenish or yellow colour and in its raw state, it has usually a less pungent smell than cannabis flowers.