What is Cannabis?

How We Identify, Classify, Label, and Cultivate the Cannabis Plant

Throughout the weeks, months, or years that you’ve been using cannabis, you’ve probably encountered an overwhelming cross section of terms and labels, both for the cannabis plant and its byproducts. Perhaps it took you a while to grasp the interchangeability of terms like “marijuana” and “weed,” or understand the difference between “hemp” and CBD. You may even have found yourself asking, “What exactly is cannabis? And what isn’t it, for that matter?”

The confusion is understandable. The cannabis world has its own rich, frequently evolving language — making it difficult for beginners and intermediate users to feel like they’ve fully grasped how everything fits together.

Marijuana, weed, hemp. Indica, Sativa, Hybrid. Hash, flower, bud. It all fits under the cannabis umbrella. So how do we define cannabis in a way that’s both clear and practical?

Let’s break down the science, etymology, cultivation, and distinguishing characteristics of cannabis to find out.

Cannabis Classification

In scientific classification, both hemp and marijuana are part of the Cannabaceae family. As such, both are considered cannabis.

In the United States, the term “hemp” is used to describe a cannabis plant that produces no more than 0.3% THC, which is the molecule that causes the euphoric effects associated with medicinal and adult-use cannabis. The classification does not take into consideration any other cannabinoid. Therefore, if a plant produces 20% CBD and only 0.29% THC, it’s still legally considered hemp.

Hemp has many uses; its fiber can be used for canvas, paper, rope, and other textiles, it is an incredibly efficient bioremediator (pulling toxic substances out of the soil), and it is increasingly being used as a construction material and biofuel. Hemp seeds have long been used in many cultures for their nutritional benefits to animals and people alike.

Many laws have been created based on this definition of hemp. It’s the level of THC the plant variety produces that differentiates it from cannabis’ intoxicating variety, “marijuana,” and allows for its legal classification as a commodity crop.

“Marijuana,” or “drug cultivars” are the terms used in reference to the variety of cannabis that produces more than 0.3% THC. There is a staggering diversity of molecules that plants in this legal category are capable of producing. Among these are the cannabinoids CBD, CBG, and CBC, which are valued for their medicinal properties.

In fact, cannabis produces more than 100 unique cannabinoids that mimic compounds produced in the human body. These plant-based cannabinoids (phytocannabinoids) can work in place of endogenous cannabinoids when the body experiences a deficiency in its endocannabinoid system.

Cannabis cultivars (commonly referred to as strains), also produce terpenes, the aromatic molecules that are the primary ingredient in the essential oils produced by many species of plants. Different cannabis cultivars have unique terpene profiles, which determine the aroma and flavor of the flower. Although research is still ongoing, we know that terpenes can enhance or alter the psychological and physiological effects of phytocannabinoids. When whole-plant cannabis is consumed, there is a unique interaction between all of these molecules that appears to have superior medical benefit compared to consuming isolated molecules.

Cannabis Cultivation

Cannabis is a versatile crop that can grow in many climates. It’s a sun-loving annual plant that thrives under a variety of conditions, depending on the cultivar. Cannabis can be male or female, with reproductive organs, the male staminate (stamen) and female pistillate (pistils), usually occurring on different plants. In the presence of a male pollen, the female will begin to produce seeds.

Cannabis grown from seed starts with germination, a process through which the seed is “sprouted” then nurtured in starting material, which can range from soil to rock wool. At this stage, the plant is considered a seedling.

For more uniformity, some cultivators start with clones, which are clippings from a cannabis “mother plant” that’s been kept in a vegetative state. Clones are genetic copies of the mother plant and will exhibit more predictable growth and flowering patterns as well as cannabinoid and terpene profiles if grown under the same conditions.

Cannabis is typically grown in soil or hydroponically in indoor or outdoor conditions. A number of factors affect the success of cannabis growth, including, but not limited to: climate, nutrients used, water quality, and consistency of irrigation.

The light cycle to which a cannabis plant is exposed during its lifetime has a marked impact on the plant’s growth. The number of hours in the day to which cannabis is exposed to light will determine the type of growth the plant will experience: vegetative (engaged in growth functions) with over 16 hours of light and flowering (engaged in reproductive functions) when the light is limited to 12 hours.

Once cannabis has been successfully grown and flowered, it’s ready for processing. Flower needs to be dried and cured for consumption or concentrate production. The freshly-harvested plant can also be sent immediately to processing for concentrate production. After the cannabis has been processed in the desired manner, it’s ready to consume.


SOURCES

“Larsen, Lucas. “The Cultivation of Weed.” Nature, vol. 525, no. 24, Sept. 2015.
United States Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service