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Cannabis 101

A beginner's guide to weed: Formats, potency, dosage, + more 

Gregg PadulaJanuary 22, 2021

For newcomers and those becoming reacquainted with the ever-evolving world of retail cannabis, navigating a cannabis product menu can be daunting for both patients and recreational users alike. 

You may be dazzled by products you never knew existed – accompanied by a dizzying array of percentages and ratios that may look intimidating. But, fear not. Most labels simply list a handful of active cannabinoids, including familiar friends, THC and CBD

Below, we guide you through how to get started with cannabis, from understanding potency and product details, to how to purchase flower, product formats, and consumption methods. 


What determines cannabis potency?


One of the first questions often asked is: “Will this get me high?" / “How high will this get me high?" Potency is determined by the percentage of THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or simply, tetrahydrocannabinol) in a cannabis product, as well as several different cannabinoids, including CBD (cannabidiol). 

Cannabis strain potency has increased significantly during the last few decades, averaging around 4% THC in the 1980s to 15% THC today. Cannabis concentrates and extracts, used in edibles and dabs, can be as high as 50% to 90% THC (no pun intended). 

So it's important to understand the cannabinoid composition of the products and formats you're using to achieve the intended effects you want. These are a few cannabinoids listed on almost any legally-purchased cannabis product descriptions: 

CBD – Cannabidiol – the cannabinoid that is believed to reduce the psychoactive effects of THC, while unlocking the full potential of cannabis as a medicine. CBD is believed to inhibit cancer cell growth, ease pain, and regulate the body's homeostasis.

CBN – Cannabinol – A psychoactive cannabinoid that is born from old, degraded THC. CBN potentiates the effects of THC and is now being sold as an isolate for its sleep aid effect.

THC – Tetrahydrocannabinol - the most abundant and widely known cannabinoid, responsible for the main psychoactive effects.

THCA/CBDA – THCA converts to THC, and CBDA converts to CBD when heated via smoking, vaporizing or baking.

TAC - Total Active Cannabinoids in a Cannabis Product.

For starters, in order to avoid becoming overwhelmed, it's best to first become familiar with the different types of products, different ways to consume cannabis, and what to expect when experimenting with new forms of cannabis.

Products most commonly found on almost any dispensary or online menu are flowervapeedibles (including tinctures), topicals, and concentrates like shatter, sugar and wax.


How to choose cannabis flower and other formats


Flower

When choosing a flower strain, you will be faced with many options – many of which don names which provide little indication of its effects. The flower strains will be broken down into three types: Sativa, Indica, or Hybrid. 

Sativa – Great for focus, energy, and warding off depression. Uplifting, and generally best in the morning. May cause anxiety to those who may already experience it.


Indica – Great for sleep, anxiety relief, and pain reduction. May leave users fatigued and ready for bed.


Hybrid – Often a combination of an indica and a sativa, resulting in an endless arena for new strains with effects deviating from simply sativa and indica.


And while these strain classifications may indicate intended effects, many strains today regardless of their type have been bred for specific potencies, flavors, and aromas. As well, even the same strain can vary from grower to grower. 


When choosing a strain, it's also important to consider what dosage may be best for you, its cannabinoid profile (verified by the dispensary via lab testing), terpene composition (which determines each strain's aromas, flavors, and can influence the effects of some cannabinoids), and reported common effects when making your decision. 


Vape cartridges

Cannabis oil cartridges are a very potent and discreet way to consume your product. Vape cartridges come in many forms – but possibly the most important distinction is whether the product is “distillate" or “full spectrum."


Full Spectrum Oil versus Distillate

Cannabis oil can come in different forms – but a major distinction is whether they are full spectrum or clear distillate. Full spectrum implies that many beneficial cannabinoids and terpenes are preserved intact through the extraction process. Full spectrum oil is lower in THC than distillate, but can still offer many of the benefits of flower. High heat distillation uses intense heat which strips away most of the cannabinoids and the terpenes, leaving very potent, concentrated levels of THC.


Cannabis Concentrates

Cannabis concentrates pack the hardest punch, often testing at over 90 percent THC, with strong flavors and aromas depending on the format. The most commonly sold concentrates are shatter, sugar, and wax. 

Shatter has a hard consistency like glass, while sugar's consistency is more like a combination of shatter and wax. Wax is derived from freeze-dried cannabis flower and sugar, with a semi-solid texture that lends to an easy extraction process. All three contain very high levels of THC and are not for the beginner.

Other forms of concentrates include resin, formed from the fresh sugars and flowers of cannabis plants, this product is flash-frozen to preserve flavor and experience. Kief is the sticky crystal found on the cannabis flower that contains all the feel-good stuff: terpenes and cannabinoids. Budder is extracted from cannabis flower and has the texture of, you guessed it, butter. This malleable product contains all the flavor and oil of a plant but none of the crumbly mess.


Edibles

Cannabis-infused edibles, including tinctures, are wildly popular, and offer a wide variety of options from baked goods to candy to beverages. Edibles often provide more of a body high and last much longer than cannabis traditionally smoked. 

Cannabis tinctures are alcohol-based cannabis extracts that are administered orally or sublingually via a dropper. Tinctures are generally high in potency and are intended to give consumers a sugar-free, gluten-free, inhalation-free cannabis experience.

Many beginners opt to start with edibles instead of flower because edibles offer an easier and more convenient method of ingesting cannabis products (versus smoking or vaporizing).

There are many factors to consider when determining which dosage is right for you, including your tolerance, body chemistry, and your desired effect/goal. Edible dosages are measured in milligrams of THC, with low doses typically ranging from 1 mg-10 mg/serving, and high doses at 10mg+/serving. 

Low-dose edibles are ideal for first-time consumers, beginners and those wanting to start microdosing, to understand how well your body tolerates THC. The higher percentage of THC in a product, the increased risk there is that you may experience some of the more negative effects of cannabis, such as paranoia, nausea, and GI issues. 


Topicals

Cannabis-infused topicals can come in the form of creams, lotions, salves, and oils. Topicals are applied directly to the skin, where it penetrates both the dermal and subdermal layers to help with a range of issues. Its CBD to THC ratio varies, making it easier to find the right topical to meet your needs.


Ways to consume cannabis products


Flower can be smoked the good old fashioned way, via joint, blunt, or pipe - or, alternatively, it can be vaporized using one of many highly advanced portable flower vaporizers available. 

Vaporizing flower tends to be easier on the lungs, and also retains the unique flavor of a strain's terpenes. 

Vaporizer cartridges are used by attaching them to one of the many styles of rechargeable batteries, most sharing the same 510-thread configuration, making them universal to all cartridges.

Concentrates can be dabbed in a traditional quartz “rig" or used in a portable concentrates vaporizer.

Edibles, including tinctures, are consumed by mouth, and will often contain further dosing instructions on the package. As they are digested and absorbed by your stomach and liver, the effects often take longer to feel compared to other consumption methods, so start slow and enjoy!

As the demand for new cannabis products continues to expand at a rapid pace, we are likely to see many new innovations in the upcoming years, as the plant's potential is infinite.



Gregg Padula
Gregg Padula
Gregg Padula is a cannabis columnist with industry roots reaching back to Humboldt County, CA in the early 2000’s – and later as one of the first cultivators in Massachusetts’ medical cannabis industry. This unique vantage point is explored in much of his work for Gatehouse Media and WickedLocal.com.