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What is cannabis and what is a cannabis strain?

June 14, 2018
Cannabis is a fascinating plant genus best known for its mind-altering and medicinal properties. Its use and cultivation date back as far as written language itself, and its therapeutic and spiritual utility spans many cultures around the world throughout history.

But despite its ubiquity, you may not fully understand what cannabis is or why there are thousands of different named strains flooding markets worldwide. Here, we’ll take a dive into how the plant is defined, how cannabis has been used, and why it’s taken on so many forms since its earliest uses in human society.

What is cannabis used for?

Today, cannabis consumption is generally divided into two primary uses: recreational and medical. Recreational cannabis consumers may use cannabis for a variety of purposes, such as enjoyment, stress relief, and creative stimulation. Medical consumers use cannabis to alleviate symptoms such as pain, anxiety, insomnia, appetite loss, and more.

Cannabis contains hundreds of active compounds (e.g., cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids) that provide a range of medical benefits. THC and CBD are two of cannabis’ most well-known compounds, although there are many more that offer a unique range of effects.

The cannabis plant is also an important agricultural resource. The strong fibers of hemp have been used to make ropes, clothing, textiles, building materials, and more. It also produces nutritious consumable seeds filled with essential amino acids, protein, and other valuable minerals. Cannabis byproducts can also be manufactured into cooking oils, and can even function as a sustainable biofuel.

Getting to know the cannabis plant

Cannabis is an annually flowering plant that displays either male and female reproductive organs, meaning a male must pollenate a female to create seeds (unless the plant expresses rare hermaphroditic features).

A female plant that does not receive pollen within its reproductive cycle is often referred to as sinsemilla, a Spanish term that means “without seed.” These seedless females produce the large, resinous buds that are commonly smoked, vaporized, or processed into oils.


Leafly’s Visual Quality Guide to Selecting Cannabis

Hemp refers to a different subspecies of cannabis most commonly cultivated for its fiber and seeds. It also produces a modest amount of CBD that can be rendered into cosmetics, oils, and other consumables.

What is a cannabis strain?

Cannabis is believed to have originated in Central Asia, but over the course of millennia, conquest and exploration would carry the plant to virtually every continent. Cultivators selectively bred their plants to suit the needs of their communities.

Over many generations, variations within cultivars began to develop in each pocket of the world where cannabis had taken root. These variations became known as landrace strains.

Many of these landrace strains were collected from their native habitats and brought to the West, where they were crossbred with one another by horticulturists seeking to explore the plant’s potential. This process of hybridization—breeding different males with different females—has given rise to the thousands of named varieties we consume today.

You’ve probably also heard the terms “indica,” “sativa,” and “hybrid” when discussing cannabis strains. These three types primarily refer to the various plant shapes and structures, features that are important for growers. Consumers have long thought that indicas have sedating effects, sativas promote energy, and hybrid effects fall somewhere in between. However, research has largely debunked this effects-based classification.


Indica vs. sativa: What’s the difference between cannabis types?

Today, cannabis classification more or less operates in the following categories:

  • High-THC, low-CBD (more euphoric)
  • High-CBD, low-THC (more clear-headed)
  • Balanced CBD and THC (mildly euphoric)

Each of these three “chemotypes” offer unique medical benefits and effect profiles. Learn more about how CBD and THC strains differ here, and try experimenting with different strains and potencies to find what works best for you.

Explore cannabis strains & products near you

Patrick Bennett's Bio Image

Patrick Bennett

Patrick lives with his wife and daughter in Denver, where he spends his time writing, photographing, and creating content for the cannabis community.

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  • shjacks55

    You didn’t mention that THC is not active in the body until the liver oxidizes it to 11-HydroxyTetraHydroCannabinol. Hence the delay from toke to high. Apparently some people do not have the enzyme necessary so may only get sedation and no high or pain relief. Scientifically, there are two types of cannabinod receptors in the human brain, CB1 & CB2. CB1 is associated with pain relief (cf Wikipedia) and CB2 with the “unwanted” mental effects. (author) Raphael Mechoulam also noted anticholinergic effects (like dry mouth) from THC. The body’s natural cannabinoids are called Anandamides, notably found in chocolate.

  • shjacks55

    THC is about 10x more potent than CBD so need higher dose of CBD. CBD can be purchased in many states where THC is illegal. Note that the FDA still allows sales of Kratom, a leaf that kills pain like an opiate. Apparently no high/addiction and must be orally administered.

    • Meh

      doof, cbd is non psychoactive. scientifically it does not bind to the same receptors.

  • Commended for a great post here!

  • Thanks for this Information lots of people smoke cannabis but the can’t really explain what cannabis is , Leafly is really good at cannabis great job..

  • Leafly can best answer this question the are good in cannabis domain

  • My first I smoke weed was in Jamaica about 15 year’s ago I could not tell how I felt but I only found my self waking up from my hotel room the next day, the power inside cannabis is still untold, I read a magazine it says even snakes and borrowed ground animals do eat this plant , if animals can depend on cannabis plant why not of human? I feel the should make this legal.

  • Thanks for the information.

  • susannni

    Thanks for the information.