What Is Cannabis?

A family of flowering plants with industrial, medicinal, and recreational uses

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Cannabis is the name used to describe a family of flowering plants that come from the Cannabaceae family. There are several different species of cannabis, all of which contain more than 100 cannabinoids. Cannabinoids are naturally occurring compounds that bind to cannabinoid receptors throughout the body leading to a number of possible effects, including feelings of intoxication and pain relief.

Types of Cannabis

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The History of Cannabis

Cannabis is believed to have originated in Mongolia and southern Siberia, although some maintain that the plant could be found in the early years in South Asia, Afghanistan, and the Huang River Valley in northern China. Professor Ernest Abel believed that the plant was among one of the first widely cultivated in the world and is over 12,000 years old.

Ancient cultures used cannabis for its medicinal properties. Burned seeds in graves of shamans could be found as early as 500 B.C. suggesting that the psychoactive properties could have been utilized during ceremonies and healing rituals.

In America, the plant was grown by colonists in the 1500s for use in creating textiles and rope, with the seeds being consumed as food. Some evidence suggests that the medicinal use of cannabis could have begun as early as 400 A.D.

However, it wasn’t until the middle of the 19th century that the United States saw its use as medicine in the United States. This was following the discovery made by an Irish doctor studying in India, who found that the use of cannabis extracts could relieve gastrointestinal symptoms in those with cholera.

The recreational use of cannabis is thought to have begun as early as 900 B.C. when the Scythians, a group of Iranian nomads, were believed to have burned the seeds to inhale the smoke containing the psychoactive ingredient.


There are four main types of cannabis and they all have their own active compounds. Each type or strain can be used for a variety of different things depending on their levels of each ingredient and how they are harvested.


Cannabis sativa is a species of cannabis plant that tends to be higher on the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) scale than other variations, although it does contain cannabidiol (CBD) as well.

It is used for medicinal, recreational, and industrial (hemp) purposes. C. sativa plants are tall and lankier than other cannabis plants and can reach up to 20 feet in height.


Cannabis indica plants are lower in THC and higher in CBD when compared to C. sativa. This gives them less psychoactive properties and they are often used for medicinal purposes in people who wish to avoid feeling intoxication but would like the same ailment relief.

The C. indica plant is short and bushy in appearance and takes less time to reach maturity.


Cannabis ruderalis is the type of cannabis plant used the least. The plant is low in THC like the indica plant but does not contain adequate levels of CBD when it comes to medicinal effects.

It is often in conjunction with the C. sativa or C. indica types of cannabis to create hybrid versions as it doesn’t have a high potency unless mixed with other strains.


A hybrid version of cannabis occurs when two or more of the types of cannabis plants are crossed, creating a new species. They are generally equated to being the offspring of cannabis parents from two different categories.

Hybrid strains are created when farmers want to take the best of both plants to encourage the growth of a superior plant. The breeding of different types of cannabis plants is always experimental, and there are endless variations to choose from depending on the type and strain of the cannabis plant being used. 


Cannabis plants have many different uses depending on the species, extraction method, dosing form, and amount. Each part of the plant has a different level of chemical compounds making it versatile for use across a wide variety of mediums. The uses of cannabis are also highly dependent on the extraction process.


Hemp comes from the Cannabis sativa variation of the plant and is widely used for industrial purposes, although the seeds have been cultivated as a food. Hemp contains bast fiber and its physical properties are different from other types of cannabis plants.

The cannabis plant that can be used to create hemp is generally slender with small flowers and spike-like clusters. The fibers are taken from the plant following an extensive process.

First, the stalks are retted, dried, and crushed. They are then shaken to separate from the wood portion of the stem with the fibers being released. Each plant can produce a fiber strand that is up to 5.8 feet. Hemp fibers can be used for:

  • Twine
  • Yarn
  • Rope
  • Cable
  • String
  • Artificial sponges
  • Course fabrics such a burlap and canvas
  • Fabrics
  • Bioplastics

Hemp seeds are rich in protein, magnesium, and fiber and are often sold as a health food. They can be added to smoothies and salads, or transformed into a dairy-free milk alternative. Hemp can also be used to create an oil substance that is used to make different types of paints and varnishes, or soaps and cooking oil.


The medicinal use of cannabis has been a controversial topic because of legal issues surrounding its use. Medical cannabis is derived from the Cannabis sativa plant, and both THC and CBD can be used for a variety of different ailments.

The most common use for medicinal cannabis is the management of chronic pain in efforts to lessen the need for opioids or over-the-counter drugs such as ibuprofen. Research has found that both THC and CBD can have a direct and positive effect on neuropathic pain, however, evidence to support its efficacy on other types of pain is not conclusive.

There have been major studies regarding the use of medicinal cannabis for a variety of other conditions, especially with the substance being decriminalized and legalized for medicinal use in many states and countries. Evidence suggests that the following conditions could benefit from the use of medicinal cannabis including:

People with these health conditions saw relief from their chronic pain because of the common pathway that leads to the worsening of their symptoms and the effect that cannabis has on neuropathic pain.

Medical cannabis has also been the subject of research to determine if it can help people manage other conditions such as: 

  • Nausea
  • Glaucoma
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Wasting syndrome associated with HIV
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • Crohn’s disease
  • Rare forms of epilepsy
  • Dravet syndrome
  • Lennox-Gastaut syndrome
  • Cancer
  • Eating disorders
  • Muscle spasms

Although more research is needed and will continue to be done with the widespread legalization of cannabis for medical use, the only uses that have seen a vast confirmation are chronic pain, nausea and vomiting, and tight or stiff muscles caused by MS.


Since cannabis can provide a level of intoxication, many Americans have used it as a recreational drug. Over 94 million Americans have admitted to using cannabis as a recreational drug at least once in their lifetimes, with 11.8 million young adults admitting to using in 2018 alone.

Although some evidence suggests that the use of cannabis can benefit those with mental health disorders, it has also been found that recreational and regular use can lead to the onset or worsening of symptoms associated with depression, anxiety, and psychosis.

Cannabis for recreational use can act as both a depressant and stimulant. This means that the desired effects differ from person to person and from type of cannabis used.

As a depressant, cannabis can slow brain function that leads to calmed nerves and relaxation. As a stimulant, cannabis can increase heart rate and blood pressure. It’s been suggested that the stimulant effects of cannabis can have a positive effect on both energy levels and attention span.

The way cannabis affects people will vary widely, so no one person can tell how the level of intoxication will affect them. Research has shown that up to 30% of people who use cannabis recreationally develop an addiction or dependence on the substance due to the brain adapting to having it in the system.

Forms of Cannabis

The different forms of cannabis are derived from the plant in various ways and for various uses. Almost all forms of the plant have psychoactive properties when ingested, however, the strength of intoxication felt through ingestion will vary depending on the level of THC.

Dried or Powdered Leaves

Perhaps the most popular form used, the buds and leaves of the Cannabis plant can be dried. The buds, leaves, and stems contain the active chemicals that lead to feelings of pain relief or intoxication, and thus, many people opt for this form of cannabis for both recreational and medicinal uses.

One downside to the dried leaves method of ingestion is that they are more likely inhaled through burning, which can lead to the ingestion of harmful chemicals created in the smoke. When the smoke comes into contact with the lungs, the chemical ingredients are easily absorbed into the body.

Oil or Tincture

Cannabis can also be extracted into a tincture or oil for ingestion. Tinctures are used more commonly in medicinal areas because they have a high concentration of the active compounds that lead to therapeutic effects. They also offer an easier way to control the dosage, thus limiting adverse side effects.


Hashish is created using the sticky resin of the cannabis plant. It is generally smoked in the same way that the dried leaves are. It is also considered to be of a higher potency because it lacks inactive organic ingredients that can be found in the leaves, buds, and stems of the cannabis plant.

Tea or Juice

For digestive issues, tea or juice using the cannabis plant can be an effective method of ingestion. This method is used to avoid harmful irritations caused by the inhalation of smoke.

Cannabis is more often seen in tea form in cultures outside of the United States. The effects of cannabis when ingested through tea form take longer to come on but last longer than when smoked. The dried leaves are steeped.

Topical Applications

Cannabis-infused lotions, balms, and oils are absorbed through the skin for localized relief of pain, soreness, and inflammation. Topicals are often chosen by people who want the therapeutic benefits of marijuana without the mood-altering effects.


Although new research suggests that the use of cannabis can benefit those with certain health conditions, there are many health risks to consider. The side effects of using cannabis on a regular basis will affect different people in various ways, but some common short-term side effects of the use of cannabis include:

  • Paranoia
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Anxiety
  • Racing heartbeat
  • Sleepiness
  • Short-term memory loss
  • Dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Impaired cognition
  • Damage to blood vessels and lungs if smoked
  • Decreased blood pressure
  • Delusions

When the use of cannabis is continued over a longer period of time, other effects can occur. The long-term risks for using cannabis either recreationally or medicinally include:

  • Loss of memory
  • Loss of concentration
  • Lowered IQ
  • Diminished decision-making abilities
  • Bronchitis, increased chest mucus, and frequent lung infections when smoked

Some research also suggests that the prolonged and frequent use of cannabis can lead to a heightened risk of developing psychosis or other mental health-related diseases, although more research is needed in the area to see why that is and how the outcomes are affected by cannabis use.


The use of cannabis has been a hot button topic across the United States because it has been largely illegal in many states. Currently, it is legalized, approved for medicinal use, or decriminalized in many states, although it is still fully illegal in eight states. Federally, it remains classified as a Schedule I drug with no recognized medical use and a high potential abuse.

For states such as Colorado and Washington, the full legalization of cannabis has led to a boom in recreational, medicinal, and industrial uses. It has also opened up doors to an economic market that has been largely untouched due to the legalities that surrounded the use and production of cannabis.

A Word From Verywell

It has been reported that almost 100 million Americans now live in an area where access to cannabis is easier than ever. The use of marijuana for medical reasons could be a turning point when it comes to battling diseases and the opioid crisis that has plagued the country for decades.

While more research needs to be done in the realm of the use of cannabis, a few things are clear. Pain relief is on the list of things it can definitely do. The fact that hemp can be a catalyst for creating biodegradable plastics and other textiles that are better for the environment should be more than enough to have people give the plant another look.

Cannabis isn’t just a plant that can cause intoxication. It’s a versatile gift from Mother Nature that, when used correctly, could be the next big thing in medicinal and industrial products.

12 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Angelica Bottaro
Angelica Bottaro is a professional freelance writer with over 5 years of experience. She has been educated in both psychology and journalism, and her dual education has given her the research and writing skills needed to deliver sound and engaging content in the health space.