With the countdown to cannabis legalization Wednesday, some novices may feel lost navigating the new world of government-sanctioned bud. Whether you're a first-time user, coming back to cannabis after a hiatus, or looking for a refresher, experts say there are basics bud beginners need to know in order to achieve their best buzz.
The chemical "orchestra" of cannabis
Oyedeji Ayonrinde, a psychiatry professor at Queen's University, says cannabis consists of hundreds of chemical substances, more than 100 of which are known as cannabinoids, which act on receptors in the body to alter a range of physiological processes.
Among this "orchestra" of cannabinoids, said Ayonrinde, there are two main soloists: tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). Ayonrinde said THC is the more psychoactive compound that creates the euphoria commonly associated with "the high," while CBD is more "chill," inducing a relaxing effect.
For new cannabis users, Ayonrinde recommends selecting a strain with less than 20 per cent THC. This may be represented on labels as a CBD-to-THC ratio, he said, and it's important to know both numbers, because a higher potency of CBD can rein in the effects of THC.
As an analogy, he said to imagine THC being the accelerator of a car, and CBD as being the brakes. A three-to-one THC-to-CBD ratio would be your standard car; a 30-to-one ratio would be like a car with the brakes of a motorbike; a 300-to-one ratio would be like a car with bicycle brakes.
Start low, go slow
This is a common refrain among cannabis connoisseurs, but for Adolfo Gonzalez, co-founder of CannaReps, a Vancouver-based training program for dispensary workers, it serves as a mantra. His philosophy is to encourage users to start with the lowest possible dosage to achieve their desired high.
"To consume responsibly and to stop when you have enough, that's the cornerstone of the teaching when it comes to safe and effective use, and that's always where we start," said Gonzalez.
Gonzalez said finding your "minimum effective dose," while most often used in a medical context, has important benefits for recreational users. If a cannabis user keeps consuming past the point of getting high, said Gonzalez, their tolerance will go up, and it will take a higher dose — and therefore more money — to achieve the same effect the next time around.
Is it a sativa or an indica? In most cases, both
Ayonrinde said cannabis strains have traditionally been sorted into two categories: sativa and indica. Sativa plants tend to be associated with more cerebral effects, while indica strains were thought to produce more of a bodily sensation.
However, Ayonrinde said with the cross-breeding of cannabis plants, most of the strains on the market are not purely indica or sativa, but a hybrid. "If we look at for instance dogs, there may be breeds of dogs, but then with more and more cross-breeding ... there may actually be more mongrels than thoroughbreds."
This cross-breeding, however, has allowed for more potent strains of cannabis — some with THC levels tens of times higher than in decades past, said Ayonrinde.
For baby boomers who are reacquainting themselves with Mary Jane for the first time since their youth, he warned that weed may be stronger than they remember.
"This isn't grandma or grandpa's weed. This is very different," he said. "If a person probably smoked casually 20 or 30 years ago, and tried to smoke heavily with some of the contemporary preparations of hybrids, they may find themselves quite surprised."
Trust your nose, and your friends
If deciding between strains like blue dream, sour diesel and purple haze fills you with dread, Toronto-based cannabis educator Irie Selkirk recommended that novice users ask dispensary workers to help them pick out one or two samples.
But because varieties of cannabis can be as complex as the people who take them, she said friends with cannabis can provide unique insight into what strain best suits their needs.
If you still feel overwhelmed among a forest of bud, Gonzalez said your nose can be a good tool to help you sniff out the right strain.
"If your nose says 'no,' it's probably not a good idea," said Gonzalez. "When you smell something and you're like, 'Ah, that smells delicious. I would love to sleep in that,' that's your body telling you that cultivar (variety of plant) may be well suited to you."
Get the right equipment
If you're sparking up on Oct. 17, Selkirk said you can either buy a pre-rolled joint, or go to your "local cannabis artisan" to purchase a range of smoking implements, such as rolling papers, a bong or a pipe. She also recommended that cannabis newcomers invest in a grinder to break up loose bud, and a semi-automatic rolling machine if they're struggling with their joint technique.
For those who want a more discreet method of consumption, she said using a vaporizer may be a good option, because they are less odious in terms of odours. Vaporizers can range in price between $50 and $300, she said.
Selkirk underscored the importance of storing cannabis in a cool, dry place in order to preserve its intoxicating properties. For parents of underage children, she said cannabis should be stored in a smell-proof bag with a combination lock, and be prepared to explain to their kids why it's under lock and key.
If you're too high, sniff a lemon
It won't be legal to buy edibles or concentrates for about one more year, but you can make food or drinks using cannabis in your own home as long as you don't use organic solvents to create concentrated products.
When cannabis is inhaled, the effects can be felt within a few minutes of dosing, and typically peak within about half an hour, according to Health Canada. However, with ingestible cannabis, like edibles and cannabis oils, the agency said the acute effects may be felt within half and hour and fours hours of consumption.
This lag in onset time is at the core of what Selkirk termed the "rookie move" of consuming cannabis: having a marijuana-infused treat, and taking more when you don't feel anything, only to have the effects hit you all at once.
If you do get too high, or even green out — a state of discomfort characterized by nausea, anxiety or dizziness after consuming cannabis — Selkirk suggested finding a place to lie down, drinking a sugary beverage and smelling a tart lemon, a peppercorn or a clove, saying the strong scents can mitigate the effects of THC.
Ayonrinde said he did not know of any scientific studies to support the efficacy of these homemade remedies for cannabis overconsumption.
It may be necessary to seek medical help for those who are experiencing severe effects.
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Stay safe, have fun
Ayonrinde emphasized that new and even experienced cannabis users should try to avoid mixing cannabis with other substances, including nicotine and alcohol.
He said stoners should also be aware of the potential harms of cannabis, which can include paranoia, an increased risk of psychosis among heavy users and those with a family history of mental disorder, as well the "well advertised risks" of driving while high.
While the legal age for consuming cannabis is at least 18 or 19, depending on the province, Ayonrinde said cannabis users under the age of 25 should take particular caution before sparking up, because their brains are still developing.
"Frequent, heavy use with a developing brain has a complete different risk profile to people with maturing brains," he said. "If (young people) want their best brain, then they should have their best information regarding cannabis, too."
The experts were unanimous in encouraging users to enjoy their high and all of the giggling, euphoria, deep sleep and therapeutic benefits that come with it.
"Cannabis enhances our experiences, and it enhances our senses," said Selkirk. "Foods taste better, are more flavourful. Touch can be more stimulating. Conversations can be more complex... It turns on a light for a lot of people."
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