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What is Cannabis?


Updated December 31, 2012

What is Cannabis?

Dried Cannabis Indica flowers, a common type of marijuana preparation.

Image © Farmer Dodds, Flickr
Question: What is Cannabis?
Cannabis is the most commonly used illicit drug, and is also known as marijuana. There are many different types of marijuana plant, but all fall within the two main species, Cannabis Sativa and Cannabis Indica, which contain a naturally occurring psychoactive substance called tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC for short.

Distinctions in Cannabis Terminology and Slang

Weed or grass are typically used to refer to the dried leaves and bud types of cannabis, and not other cannabis preparations, such as hashish and hashish oil. However, some of the terms used for marijuana are general terms, which can be applied to all types of marijuana preparations, including pot, puff, dope, gear, roach, wacky baccy, jazz cigarettes, funny cigarettes, spliff, joint, and of course, cannabis and marijuana – which is also spelt marihuana.

Some of the terms that have come into common usage to refer to weed actually refer to different strains of cannabis sativa and cannabis indica. The term “homegrown” tends to imply cannabis grown by an amateur, although novices should beware – although homegrown may be of a low quality, cut with kitchen or garden herbs such as oregano or parsley, and containing the leaves of male cannabis plants, which are not psychoactive, modern strains of marijuana have been genetically engineered to be 2-4 times stronger than naturally occurring weed, and can have extremely intense psychoactive effects.

Some of the terms commonly used – or misused -- to specify strains of cannabis sativa or cannabis indica that you may hear include:

  • AK47
  • Big Bud
  • Diesel
  • Haze
  • Jack Herer
  • Kush
  • LA Confidential
  • Lemon Haze
  • M39
  • Mystery Strain
  • Northern Lights
  • OG Kush
  • Pineapple Express
  • Purple Kush
  • Sensimillia (Sensei for short)
  • White Widow

The Free the Weed or Cannabis Legalization Movement

The term weed is actually quite politically loaded, as it emphasizes both the natural origins of the drug, and the fact that, although it is deliberately cultivated by the illicit drug industry for trafficking for profit, and by marijuana users for their own personal recreational use, and for medical marijuana, in its native environment, it grows wild. A common definition of weeds is that they are plants which are growing where nature intended, and are a problem only in terms of horticultural control. Many novice marijuana users marvel at the idea that the drug they purchased at great expense could, in some locations, be growing wild, and even be considered a horticultural pest.

One line of argument for unrestricted use of cannabis relates to spirituality, whether in the context of an organized religion, such as Rastafarianism, or a more vague form of spirituality, unrelated to organized religion, which may have varying levels of acceptance of a higher power.

Many marijuana users argue that, because the cannabis plant is a naturally occurring source of the psychoactive substance, THC, it was created by God intentionally to be used for psychoactive and/or mystical purposes, and therefore its use should not be restricted.

Another line of argument proposed by pro-marijuana legalization advocates is based on a simplistic belief that every individual should be free to choose whether or not they take marijuana, and that it the decision should be a matter of individual choice, not law enforcement. The slogan “Free the Weed,” often used at pro-legalization rallies, demonstrations and public marijuana smoking events, reflects this view. This view quickly falls apart when issues such as the age of the marijuana user and the role of peer pressure are taken into account, although many marijuana users hold that as mature adults, they should be able to choose to use marijuana in ways that are limited only by their own values.

Pro-marijuana arguments tend to ignore or deny the realities of harms that arise from marijuana use, such as marijuana abuse and marijuana addiction.


Denning, P., Little, J. and Glickman, A. Over the Influence: The Harm Reduction Guide for Managing Drugs and Alcohol. New York: Guilford. 2004.

Jacquette, D. “What is Cannabis and How Can We Get Some?” In D. Jacquette and F. Allhoff (Editors). Cannabis: Philosophy for Everyone. West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell. 2010.

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