A consumer’s guide to cannabis basics
Your long weekends, dinner parties, poker nights and book-club meetings are about to get a whole lot more interesting, according to Matt Ryan.
As the vice-president of marketing for National Access Cannabis, a company that provides cannabis education and services, Ryan says he believes the legalization of cannabis, expected on Oct. 17, will change the dynamics of Canadians’ social gatherings.
For the uninitiated, however, the ins and outs of how to purchase and use marijuana can be daunting. Here, we provide a consumer’s guide to the basics.
How to purchase it
When Bill C-45, the Cannabis Act, becomes law, Canadians will be allowed only to buy limited amounts of fresh or dried cannabis, cannabis oil, cannabis seeds or cannabis plants from authorized retailers. Other products such as edibles, beverages, many topical creams, suppositories and concentrates will not yet be legal, but many of these are expected to be allowed to be sold by next year.
If you’re new to cannabis, and are looking to use it rather than grow it, you’ll most likely encounter cannabis oil or dried cannabis that is either sold as “whole flower,” which are entire buds, or “milled flower,” which is ground up, Ryan says. Cannabis oil is an extract from the plant that is diluted with other oils and is typically either taken sublingually – that is, administered under the tongue with a dropper – or by adding it to food, he explains.
Dried cannabis is typically smoked, vapourized (which means it’s heated at a low temperature and inhaled) or decarboxylated – that is, heated, often in an oven, to activate the compounds within it and then added to food, he says.
Deciding on whether to buy whole flower or milled flower is similar to deciding whether to buy your coffee as whole beans or ground, Ryan says. Some people prefer whole flower, since it allows them to appreciate the beauty of the product, and to enjoy the aromas and experience of grinding it themselves, he says. Milled flower, on the other hand, is more convenient to use.
Each province will have its own regulations on where to buy cannabis for recreational use. For instance, British Columbia will have a mix of public and private retailers. In Alberta, cannabis will be sold in private stores, but online sales will be controlled by the province. And in Ontario, you’ll only be able to buy it in person or online through the government-run Ontario Cannabis Store.
When you’re purchasing cannabis through a licensed producer, you can be assured the product is held to a high standard, says Lorilynn McCorrister, co-founder of Weedbox Inc. (WDBX), a lifestyle cannabis-brand company.
Licensed producers will also be able to provide details on what you’re getting, including levels of active compounds such a THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol), and the terpene profile or the various aromatic oils it contains, McCorrister says. (More on that later.)
It’s yet unclear whether government-controlled retailers will let you handle or smell the product before you purchase it, says Dana Larsen, director of the cannabis advocacy group Sensible BC. But Larsen says the cannabis you buy should have a strong, pleasing scent.
“If you don’t like the smell, you’re not going to like smoking it,” he says.
Larsen says you can tell whether cannabis has been properly dried and cured by the way it feels; the stalk should snap between your fingers. If you look at the buds under a microscope, you should be able to see trichomes, the tiny resinous glands where most of the resin and active compounds are produced, he says. These trichomes start off white, and turn an amber colour as the plant matures and is ready to harvest. Since the resin glands contain “all the good stuff,” he says, make sure they’re all intact and that the buds are free of mould, mildew and insects.
The ABCs of CBD and THC
While there’s an entire alphabet soup of compounds, known as cannabinoids, in cannabis, THC and CBD are the two key ones and are currently the most well-understood, Larsen says.
THC is the compound responsible for the “high,” or euphoric sensation, associated with cannabis. CBD does not produce this effect, but is believed to have anti-inflammatory, anti-nausea and other therapeutic properties.
Typically, the more THC a plant has, the less CBD it has, and vice versa, Larsen says.
Traditionally, cannabis has been categorized into three basic plant types or “strains”: indica, sativa and hybrid. Indica plants are generally short and squat and produce bigger, denser buds, Larsen says. Sativa plants tend to be taller and their buds appear more wispy. Hybrid plants are crossbreeds of sativa and indica.
Indica is typically associated with producing a relaxing effect, while sativa is thought to be energizing, so some cannabis users smoke sativa during the day and indica at night, Larsen says. But, he says, these purported effects fall more under the realm of folk knowledge rather than science.
Moreover, many people are now moving away from talking about sativa, indica and hybrid strains, as this method of categorization is rather simplistic, adds Abi Sampson, interim executive director of the cannabis-advocacy group NORML Canada. There is instead a greater focus on the different compounds in a given product, including THC and CBD, and the terpene profile.
Terpenes are the aromatic oils that give cannabis its distinctive scent and flavour, McCorrister explains. And each terpene is also believed to be associated with certain effects.
The terpene limonene, for example, can also be found in grapefruit, lemon and other citrus fruits, and it’s believed to have an uplifting or mood-enhancing effect, McCorrister says. Myrcene, which has a musky, earthy and citrus-y scent, is also found in mangoes, thyme, lemon grass and hops, and it’s thought to have a sedative effect. Meanwhile, alpha and beta pinene, which are also found in pine and herbs such as dill and parsley, are thought to produce alertness, she says.
How to consume it
Whether you smoke or vapourize it, you’ll feel the effects of the cannabis almost immediately when you inhale it, Sampson says. For first-time users, inhaling may be the most appealing method of consumption, since you can sense right away how much you feel comfortable taking, she says.
(Note: Products such as vape pens, which contain cannabis concentrates, allow users to inhale discreetly since they’re easily portable and produce no smoke. But while they are readily available and popular, they will not yet be legal under the Cannabis Act.)
When you ingest cannabis, it takes some time to kick in, she says. It varies from individual to individual, but ingesting it can take around an hour before you start to feel it.
To avoid consuming more than you can handle, stick to the adage: “go low and go slow,” Sampson says. In other words, start with a low dose and wait before taking more.
There have been no reported fatalities from consuming too much cannabis, but if you happen to ingest a larger-than-intended amount, it can produce some unpleasant effects, such as dizziness and vomiting, she says. Should this happen, Sampson suggests going to a safe location where you feel comfortable, having a glass of water and perhaps taking a nap until your discomfort subsides.
How to store it
As long as your dried cannabis is stored in an air-tight container, in a cool, dry place, it can keep for more than a year, Larsen says. If it’s exposed to too much moisture, it can get mouldy, and if the container is not air-tight and the cannabis gets too dry, the trichome glands will degrade and break apart, losing their flavour and potency.
Many people like to store their cannabis in mason jars, which works well, Larsen says. Sticking it in a plastic bag and keeping it in your pocket is fine, too, but not for long.
Larsen advises not to put your cannabis in the fridge, where there’s too much moisture. The back of your kitchen cupboard is a better place for it, he says.
There’s a big difference between using cannabis for recreational purposes versus for medicinal purposes, Ryan says. If you’re using it medicinally, make sure you’re the only one who uses it.
“It’s just like any other medicine. You don’t share your medicine with others,” he says.
When using cannabis recreationally, don’t share it with individuals under the legal age, and don’t get behind the wheel of a vehicle, he adds. It’s important to use it safely and responsibly, Ryan says.
Otherwise, when you’re using in a social setting, take a puff or two and pass it along, McCorrister says.
Don’t hog it or skip anyone or share your germs if you’re sick. And try not to get too much saliva on it; nobody likes a soggy joint.
If you’re bringing cannabis to a party, arm yourself with information about it, just as you might do with the tasting notes for a fine wine, Ryan says. Being able to share that information “is going to make you an interesting person in the room,” he says.