The beginner’s guide to cannabis

On New Year’s Day, long-clandestine cannabis will join the ranks of beer, wine, mixed drinks, cigars and other adult indulgences in California.

It’s easy for a newcomer to feel overwhelmed by this new purchasing power. It’s like cruising the aisles of Costco without a game plan.

Kristen Quitoriano, a budtender at Caliva cannabis dispensary, prepares Thursday, Dec. 28, 2017, for the coming New Year’s Day start of recreational marijuana sales in San Jose, Calif. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

If you want to kick-start your exploration of cannabis now that last year’s Proposition 64 gave the go-ahead to commercial sales beginning on Monday, we’ve got you covered. We’d like to explain what’s happened to the weed since the 1960s, when pot first began coming out of the shadows.

So here’s a cannabis primer, based on interviews with marijuana growers and retailers, physicians and drug abuse experts. We hope the primer will help you feel savvy about a plant that is no longer against the law to sell and use in the Golden State — even if you have no intention to imbibe.

Cannabis basics

Premium marijuana is sticky, fluffy, dense, leafy, covered in hairy crystalline sprinkles or fine hairs.

Only buy cannabis that’s been tested for purity, potency, pesticides and contaminants (although the marijuana available on Jan. 1 may not meet that standard). Look for a testing certificate. And make sure the packaging is child-resistant.

Today’s weed is the product of generations of selective crosses, grown in fertilized soil, protected to prevent wind stress and contamination and packaged in air-tight containers soon after harvest to ensure freshness.

Finding the good stuff

Learning to appreciate good cannabis is no different than learning to appreciate good wine, music or art.  The more you fine-tune your senses, the better you’re able to understand and enjoy different flavors and scents.  You’ll also be able to steer clear of bad cannabis, often the result of poor growing conditions or careless storage.

Indica and sativa marijuana buds sit side by side at Caliva cannabis dispensary, Thursday, Dec. 28, 2017, in San Jose, Calif. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

Special report: Cannabis Eve in California

Long gone are plastic baggies filled with harsh and dry Panama Red or Acapulco Gold — grown in the dust, hung from hot roofs, shipped in the back of smugglers’ trucks and then warehoused for months.

Judge cannabis on these four criteria: Sight, smell, taste and feel.

If it looks as if it’s been stored in a coffee can since the ’60s and smells like hay, don’t waste your money.

Common types of cannabis

Just like wine, cannabis has varietals. The species called indica is short and stocky with dense buds, native to the chilly mountains of India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.  Another species called sativa is tall and lanky with spindly buds. It comes from warm places like Mexico, Colombia and Thailand.

In general, indicas induce sedation and dreamy feelings. Think about the works of painter Georges Seurat (or, in what may be a more common pot-expert reference, think “in da couch,” as in where you’ll be for a while). One toke — and suddenly it’s tomorrow.

Sativas tend to be more cerebral, creative and uplifting. Think barbecues, outdoor music festivals or any gathering that might call for champagne.

Don’t miss our reviews of strains, vape oils and other cannabis products.

But, like wine blends, almost anything you find at a dispensary won’t be purely one or the other. An estimated 95 percent of all modern-day cannabis strains are hybrids of the two species.

Ignore brand names when making your selection; they’re not remotely helpful. Purple CandyCane isn’t a Christmas treat. In The Pines is not a bluegrass song.

What’s inside?

The plant’s chemical compounds, called cannabinoids, also make a difference.

While there are dozens of cannabinoids, two of them get all the attention: THC (tetrahydrocannabinoil) and CBD (cannabidiol).

A package of Pillow Talk cannabis oils comes with a contents label at Caliva cannabis dispensary as they prepare Thursday, Dec. 28, 2017, for the New Year’s Day start of recreational marijuana sales in San Jose, Calif. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

THC content says a lot about how relaxed, sleepy, hungry and euphoric you’ll get. CBD doesn’t offer the same psychoactive effects, but it has analgesic, anti-inflammatory and anti-anxiety properties.

Each marijuana strain can be assessed based on where it is on the spectrum of THC-to-CBD ratio. Together, the two compounds can create a balance.

There’s a third compound that you’ll hear about: terpenes. They’re the aromatic oils that give plants their smell and flavor —  like Limonene in citrus peel or Myrcene in mangoes.

Reading a cannabis label

Labels have a lot of technical information. But you’ll be fine if remember this mantra: low and slow. For the new consumer, “high-octane” THC is a bad idea.

While the THC levels of cannabis on most dispensary shelves ranges from 20 to 30 percent, start out with a strain in the 10-15 percent range. Or look for a balanced THC-to-CBD ratio — say, 7 percent THC and 7 percent CBD.

Start with one puff or bite and see how it makes you feel. If you’re smoking or “vaping” with an electronic cigarette, wait 20 minutes. If you’re using edibles, wait at least an hour or two. Some people “micro-dose,” just taking one or two hits on a pipe or eating a tiny piece of an edible.

Did you overdo it? Here’s the good news: Unlike alcohol, too much THC — while frightening and miserable — is never lethal.  If you’re not feeling well, go some place comfortable and serene. Put on music. Go for a walk. Gaze at the sunset. Or just take a nap.

Until next time

Cannabis flower is an investment, with no hard expiration date. When you have leftovers, preserve them well. The exception: edibles. Treat them like other food items and don’t store them for long.

Like a fine wine, cannabis deteriorates when exposed to light, heat and air. To slow down the deterioration process, keep it in a cool, dark and dry place in a glass jar or other sealed container.  Plastic bags, except for Mylar, aren’t ideal because they allow air exchange.

Experts suggest storing it in a low cupboard, shelf or drawer — or in the basement. Don’t store it in a refrigerator, where swings in humidity can cause mildew. Don’t store it in the freezer because it will become brittle and break.

Ready to buy? Remember to bring cash and a driver’s license or state ID that proves you’re at least 21. Amounts are limited to one ounce of cannabis flower or eight grams of concentrated cannabis.


Ways to consume cannabis

Smoking: This is for traditionalists. Buy flower and use a pipe or “pre-rolls,” packaged cannabis cigarettes. Start small. The effects of smoked cannabis tend to peak within the first 10 minutes and rapidly dissipate over the next one to three hours.


Related videos: How to smoke or vape cannabis


Vaporizing: Smoke-free e-cigarettes called “vape pens” are for the health-conscious.  The cannabis is heated below the temperature of combustion, yet it’s still hot enough to extract THC, CBD and other active ingredients.  So vaping is easier on the lungs. Vaping is also less conspicuous, delivers precise doses and doesn’t leave a smoky smell on your clothes.  Some e-cigarettes require cannabis oil cartridges; others, resembling high-tech tampons, are pre-loaded.  As is the case with smoking, the effects are quick, then fade. You just push a button and inhale.

Pre-rolled marijuana cigarettes are displayed at Caliva cannabis dispensary on Thursday, Dec. 28, 2017, in San Jose, Calif. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

Edibles: They’re tasty — but to prevent rookie error, be conservative. The effects of edibles like cookies, lemon bars or fruit chews come on more slowly than smoking or vaping — and diminish more gradually. It can take anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours to kick in, and the effects can last several hours. Try edibles lower than the standard 10 mg per serving; look for 5 mg or less. Note: Plant matter should not be seen. There should be no actual weed in weed brownies.

Topical: Because balms, lotions and gels only touch skin and muscle tissue without entering the bloodstream, you feel the medicinal effects without getting intoxicated.

Concentrates: Cannabis extracts have THC levels that range from 50 to 80 percent. In terms of potency, it’s the grain alcohol of cannabis, and experts don’t recommend them for beginners.


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