Professor Alice Liddell is MedicateOH’s resident science gal! Contact us to ask her your burning questions about cannabis.

Dear Professor Alice,

Got a question? “Go Ask Alice” – I like it! Are you a fan of Jefferson Airplane? Wait! That’s not actually my question. My question has to do with cannabis. I don’t even really understand what it is. I hear about hemp, indica, sativa, medical plants, and plants that make you high. I really don’t understand all of this. Can you shed some light on what cannabis actually is?


Ignorant but inquisitive Cincinnati Mom

Dear Cincinnati Mom,

Yes, I love Jefferson Airplane and think that Grace Slick was amazing! I would also love to hear Adele sing White Rabbit. Or can you imagine Grace Slick singing Someone Like You? But I digress. With regard to your question about cannabis, it isn’t nearly as “ignorant” as you might think. Even scientists are currently debating how cannabis should be classified, and from there it just gets really messy because there are so many special interest groups who are staunchly pro or staunchly con this or that without being transparent as to what their interests are. So let’s take a look at what the scientists generally agree on and see if we can keep from disappearing down the rabbit hole!

Some people think that scientists have all the answers. Other people think that because scientists sometimes disagree that they really don’t know what they are talking about. Please bear in mind that research is messy. It can be controversial. And it always takes repetitions from different labs to corroborate the results before something can be accepted as accurate. Also, cannabis is extremely variable, and what holds true for one plant, may not for another.

So what is cannabis? It’s a wind pollinated plant that is largely dioecious (meaning that some plants are male, and some plants are female); although some varieties may have both male and female parts on the same plant. The plants are heterozygous which means they are like people and can’t reproduce themselves via seeds. In other words, their seeds contain unique individuals that may or may not have some of the characteristics of the parents. Luckily, however, plants can be cloned, which ensures the genetic makeup of a particular variety is not lost. As a result, varieties can be propagated asexually (cloned) and retain the same genes as the parent plant. Unfortunately however, strict observance of the genetics is not always practiced amongst people growing the herb. It can sometimes happen that a progeny plant is given the same variety name as the parent, yet bear little resemblance to the parent plant. This can be confusing and even misleading as to what characteristics are encompassed in different plants.

Although some people suggest that there are three species of cannabis, most scientists believe that there is only one. A species is generally defined as a group of similar organisms that can freely share genes and produce fertile offspring. The reason why it is thought that cannabis is one species is because all of the types of cannabis readily interbreed with each other, and their offspring are fertile. The argument for different species is due to the fact that different types of cannabis have very different chemical properties. As a result however of the definition of “species”, it is generally accepted by many scientists  that there is one species of cannabis with three main subspecies that can be classified into five groups based on the effects of their chemical makeup.

The three main subspecies of cannabis are grouped according to their general use; cannabis sativa is used for fiber such as rope and textiles, cannabis indica is used as a drug due to the large amounts of chemicals called cannabinoids, and Cannabis ruderalis has been suggested as having in-between characteristics of the two.  The two main types; cannabis sativa and cannabis indica, can be somewhat reliably physically distinguished from each other in that sativa varieties tend to be relatively short plants with broad leaves that grow better in northern latitudes due to the shorter growing and flowering season, whereas indica varieties tend to be taller plants with narrow leaves that do well in climates with a longer growing season that can accommodate the longer flowering cycles. Although, sativa plants are thought of as having invigorating and uplifting psychoactive effects compared to the sedating and relaxing properties of indica varieties, in reality, the subspecies do not easily fall into neat categories with regard to their chemical properties and effects. For instance, there are sativa varieties that have relaxing profiles that have traditionally been attributed to indica, and indica varieties that are energizing. Hemp, which is used as a fiber crop is a sativa-type plant that has no or little discernible psychoactive qualities.

As a result, a classification based on five chemical profiles of cannabis plants has been developed. Chemotype I is comprised of plants that have a relatively large number of psychoactive properties. Plants that have fewer psychoactive properties, while exhibiting some aspects of the fiber-type plants comprise Chemotype II. The third grouping is Chemotype III which has a large amount of non-psychoactive chemicals and low amounts of psychoactive ones. Chemotype IV has a different chemical profile somewhere between groups III and V, and chemotype V is composed of fibre-type plants that have almost no cannabinoids. Plants from the three subspecies; cannabis sativa, cannabis indica, and cannabis ruderalis may fall into any of these chemotype groupings.

I hope this sheds some light on your question. The bottom line is there is only one species of cannabis, but different plants have different appearances and different chemical properties. Rather than classifying psychoactive effects according to either indica or sativa, they are grouped in one of five different categories depending on the ratio of chemicals to each other, regardless as to the subspecies to which it belongs. Then there’s hemp which is grown for fiber and has little or no psychoactive properties.

This all brings up a very important point though; what was the hookah-smoking caterpillar really smoking?

Best regards,

Professor Alice Liddel

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’
‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat.
‘I don’t much care where -‘ said Alice.
‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat.
‘- so long as I get SOMEWHERE,’ Alice added as an explanation.
‘Oh, you’re sure to do that,’ said the Cat, ‘if you only walk long enough.”
― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland