Cannabis Definition, Effects, Uses, Benefits, & Legality

Green foliage with cannabis leaf

What Is Cannabis?

Although many people know that CBD is derived from cannabis, there are still a number of misconceptions about precisely what that means. Many, for instance, are unaware that THC and CBD are different chemicals, or of the difference between marijuana and hemp. If you haven’t taken the time to get acquainted with the intricate details, then it’s easy to get lost in the weeds.

Colloquial use of the term “cannabis” has stigmatized the word and led to a wealth of misinformation and half-understandings. This misinformation is all the more problematic given the recent surge of interest and use in cannabis products; indeed, cannabis has become so popular that there are even cannabis-derived products for pets.

This article will work to disambiguate the term, identify the various subspecies of cannabis, and discuss the various uses thereof. After all, knowledge is power — and understanding the ins-and-outs of cannabis, its various compounds, and its effects is the best way to decide whether cannabis-based products are a fit for your lifestyle and needs.

Types of Cannabis

The term cannabis refers to a genus of flowering plants that is believed to originate from Central Asia. The genus includes either two or three subspecies, but the precise number is a matter of scientific debate. The types of cannabis are Cannabis sativa, Cannabis indica, and Cannabis ruderalis (though some argue that ruderalis should be classified as a subset of sativa).

  • Cannabis sativa: Native to more tropical climates with long periods of intense sunlight. Can grow up to 18 feet in height. Has large, long, pointed leaves. Requires large space, ample light, and a long flowering period to cultivate.
  • Cannabis indica: Likely native to dry, subtropical climates such as Pakistan and Afghanistan. Grows into a short, stocky, and densely packed shape resembling a small Christmas tree. Leaves are short with broad fingers. Responds poorly to humidity, and requires a comparatively short flowering period.
  • Cannabis ruderalis: Native to central and eastern Europe and Asia and capable of growing with poor light or other hostile conditions. Very short, generally growing to a maximum of 4 feet. Has small, thick leaves and comparatively few branches.

Cannabis Effects

Although these plants have a number of important differences, each produces varying amounts of chemical compounds known as cannabinoids and terpenes. There are over 100 known cannabinoids, each of which can have a different set of effects when ingested into the body.

The two most famous cannabinoids are undoubtedly THC and CBD. Both are used for a variety of purposes, either recreational or medicinal. High THC products are illegal under U.S. federal law, though many states have legalized them for either medicinal or recreational use. CBD derived products are legal throughout the U.S. and are made into an increasing number of therapeutic products, including oils, edibles, vaporizers, topicals, and pet products.

         –Short-Term Effects of Cannabis Compounds

Because THC and CBD have different effects, they are typically used for different purposes. Although both have significant medical and therapeutic potential, THC is often used recreationally for its intoxicating effects; CBD is non-intoxicating, and therefore has little to no recreational value.

It’s important to note that individuals may react differently to cannabis use, but it is possible to generalize the effects that most users experience.

Short-term effects of THC use may include:

  • An intoxicating psychoactive “weed high”
  • Increased appetite, often referred to as “the munchies”
  • Relaxation
  • Giddiness
  • Increased anxiety at high doses
  • Lightheadedness
  • Dry-mouth
  • Drowsiness

Short-term effects of CBD use may include:

  • Reduced anxiety
  • Reduction in severity of pain symptoms
  • Reduced inflammation
  • Reduced nausea
  • Minor drop in blood pressure
  • Lightheadedness
  • Dry-mouth
  • Drowsiness

         –Long-Term Effects of Cannabis Compounds

Unfortunately, the long-term effects of cannabis use are still poorly understood. That’s largely due to marijuana’s classification as a Schedule 1 banned substance and the decades-long prohibition on formal research in the U.S. There’s still a lot to learn about cannabis products.

Much of the existing research on cannabis use has focused on marijuana specifically, and it has often been restricted to animal studies. As with all things cannabis, further research on human subjects is necessary before conclusions can be definitively drawn. 

Existing research does show that long-term cannabis use has the potential to cause a number of negative side effects. The research, however, overwhelmingly associates these negative effects with THC use (and not with CBD), claiming that most “acute effects may subside after THC is cleared from the brain.”

Long-term effects of cannabis use may include:

  • Risk of addiction
  • Effects on brain development (particularly with adolescent users)
  • Increased risk of anxiety or depression
  • Respiratory issues (for cannabis smokers)

Uses & Benefits of Cannabis

Despite the potential for some adverse effects resulting from cannabis usage, both high-THC and high-CBD varieties of cannabis have been found to offer a number of significant health benefits and medicinal uses.

Depending on how they are formulated and used, cannabis-derived products can have a number of different therapeutic functions; for instance, CBD topicals can soothe and relieve pain in specific areas of the body, while CBD oil tinctures or edibles can be consumed to affect the body’s entire endocannabinoid system.

Some of the most significant benefits of medical cannabis use include:

Is Cannabis Legal?

In short: it depends on your location, the type of cannabis, and a huge variety of other factors. Cannabis varieties and their derivative products operate in something of a murky legal area, though legality of CBD products was recently made official by federal law.

Marijuana (that is, cannabis high in THC content) is still illegal in the U.S. under federal law — but a number of states have legalized it for either recreational or medical use.

Hemp (that is, cannabis with very low THC content) is now legal throughout the U.S., thanks to the 2018 Farm Bill (full text available here).

The legality of cannabis in the U.S. is constantly evolving. As more research into its therapeutic potential is performed, and as more states vote to legalize it, it is likely that cannabis’s legal status will continue to change.

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