Space & Innovation

We Have No Idea What Kind Of Cannabis We're Buying

As cannabis becomes a legitimate, legal, and highly profitable crop, scientists are finally beginning to analyze and understand it. Continue reading →

As the ban on cannabis lessens, scientists are finally sweeping away the popular understanding of the crop and how it works, which has largely been informed by guesswork and superstition. Case in point: the divide between indica and sativa strains, which a team from various Canadian universities recently examined.

There are three species of plant in the cannabis genus: Cannabis sativa, Cannabis indica, and Cannabis ruderalis. (The latter is lower in the active chemical THC than the former two species, and so is less commonly grown.)

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Sativa and indica species can be cross-bred, producing mixed strains, but many dispensaries (both legal and not) identify products as being mostly or entirely sativa or indica.

Popular lore holds that the two species have different effects when imbibed. Sativa is allegedly a more active, stimulating species, while indica is believed to produce more sedentary, sleepier effects.

But the Canadian researchers delved into the genotypes of a whopping 81 marijuana and 43 hemp samples to find out exactly what heritage they are, and discovered that in many cases, these plants are totally mislabeled.

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In fact, the researchers found "only a moderate correlation" between the history of a product as told by a retailer and the product's DNA history.

"For example, a sample of Jamaican Lambs Bread, which is classified as C. sativa, was almost identical at a genetic level to a C. indica strain from Afghanistan," according to a media release from the University of British Columbia.

The study shows just how poor the state of cannabis labeling is, even as it rapidly becomes legal. It's as if, after Prohibition ended, we had no idea which raw materials were used to create liquor, how strong the liquor was, or whether the distilling process was done safely.

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Past studies have indicated that the strength and cleanliness of cannabis is basically totally unregulated, and this new study adds to that list the problem of not knowing a product's provenance. As cannabis takes its place as a high-value, legal cash crop, it's going to need some serious regulation to ensure safety and reliability.

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Medical marijuana gets all the headlines, but many legal weeds have traditions as medicines too. Although homeowners often consider these plants as lawn outlaws, weeds can serve as a floral pharmacy. However, would-be patients of the plants should consult a doctor before self-medicating.

Chicory

Cichorium intybus, the light blue flower frequently seen along roads, provides the main commercial source of the compound inulin. Patients take inulin to fight high blood fats, including cholesterol and triglycerides, according to WebMD. Research published in Diabetes & Metabolism Journal suggests that inulin intake benefits women with type-2 diabetes by reducing the rate of blood sugar increase after eating. Inulin promotes the growth of certain bacteria in the intestines. While some believe this can help digestion, others suffer serious flatulence when the inulin-fed bacteria build up.

Some people add the dried and roasted root to coffee. Chickory coffee is especially popular in New Orleans.

Red Clover

Trifolium pratense contains chemicals known as isoflavones. These chemicals can act like the female hormone estrogen in the body. Doctors have examined the clover chemicals as a treatment for hot flashes and other symptoms of menopause. However, doctors warn that women with a history or risk of breast cancer should avoid isoflavones, since estrogen-like chemicals have been associated with increased incidence of some cancers.

Milk Thistle

Silybum marianum has a 2,000 year history as a liver medicine. Modern research has looked at thistle extracts as a treatment for alcohol-induced liver damage. Substances in milk thistle, particularly the chemical silymarin, may protect the liver from damage after a person takes an overdose of other medications, including acetaminophen (Tylenol). Milk thistle may also be an antidote to poison from the deathcap mushroom (Amanita phalloides). Animal studies found that milk thistle completely counteracted the poison if given within 10 minutes of poisoning, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center.

Milkweed

Native Americans used the milkweed (Asclepias sp.) as a contraceptive, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The milky, white sap that gives the plant its name served to remove warts. However, milkweeds also contain chemicals known as cardiac glycosides. These chemicals can cause severe illness in humans and livestock. Monarch butterfly caterpillars eat milkweed and build up high concentrations of glycosides, which makes the insects nasty tasting to predators.

Horsetail

Ancient Greeks and Romans used horsetail (Equisetum arvense) to stop bleeding, heal ulcers and wounds, and treat tuberculosis and kidney problems. My wife drinks horsetail tea to flush out her body’s system and help lose weight. The tea has a mildly bitter flavor, similar to chamomile. Research published in Ethnopharmacolgy found that horsetail tea increases urination which corroborates my wife’s contention that the plant is a diuretic, or a substance that increases urination. However, doctors recommend taking a multivitamin when drinking significant amounts of horesetail tea, because it can flush nutrients, such as vitamin B1, thiamin and potassium, out of one's system as well.

Dandelion

In the past, Europeans used remedies made from dandelion (Taraxacum sp.) roots, leaves and flowers to treat fever, boils, eye problems, diabetes, and diarrhea, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine take dandelions for stomach ailments and breast problems, such as inflammation or lack of milk flow. Dandelion leaves taste similar to spinach and contains vitamins A, B, C, and D, along with iron, potassium, and zinc.

Stinging Nettle

Urtica dioica can put the hurt on an hiker in shorts, but historically the plant has served to treat aching muscles and joints, eczema, arthritis and gout. People still use the plant to treat joint pain, and some studies have suggested that the plant can treat arthritis. Another study found that capsules of dried stinging nettle may reduce the symptoms of hay fever. Europeans frequently use stinging nettle root to treat bladder problems. Boiled nettle makes a side dish similar to collared greens.

For those who brush alongside stinging nettle, a remedy to the sting is often found growing nearby. Applying crushed up dandelion, horsetail, Aloe vera, jewelweed or the leaf of a dock or lock plant can counter the acid in the sting.

Purslane

Like many of the medicinal weeds in this list, purslane (Portulaca oleracea) also makes a healthy snack. The plant contains a high content of omega-3 fatty acids. I ate some that grew in my yard and found it was somewhat sour. A little bit was good, but too much would be overpowering in a salad. In traditional Chinese medicine, purslane treats genito-urinary tract infections. Research published in Phytomedicine found that the plant reduced problems with cognition in older mice.

Plantain

Since the age of the ancient Greek doctors have used plantains (Plantago sp., the weed in sidewalk cracks, not the fruit) to speed wound healing. In the training manual Survival, Evasion and Recovery, the U.S. Department of Defense recommends plantain as a poultice on wounds or as a nutrient-rich tea to treat diarrhea.

Burdock

Traditionally, healers use burdock (Arctium sp.) to clear toxins from the blood and increase urination, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. The plant also is used to treat skin ailments, such as eczema, acne, and psoriasis. The leaves and roots of burdock are edible and contains inulin, like chicory, so they may aid digestion and/or cause a nasty case of flatulence. Burdock also contains high quantities of antioxidants that can prevent damage to cells.