This page provides an overview of cannabis plant-related terms and processes commonly described throughout various sectors of the industry.
Cannabis is a genus that refers to three different wind-pollinated, annual-flowering plant species indigenous to Asia1,2: Cannabis sativa, Cannabis indica, and Cannabis ruderalis. Each of which, has a very lengthy history of domestication.
Cannabis sativa (C. sativa) can grow up to 5 to 18 feet tall, and it has sparse branches with thin leaves2. It is the most common subspecies in the western hemisphere and will only flower when it’s spending at least 11 hours in darkness per day.
Cannabis indica (C. indica) usually grow to be two to four feet tall. In contrast with C. sativa, C. indica plants are densely backed with branches, leaves, and flowers. The leaves of C. indica are also broader than C. sativa.
Cannabis ruderalis typically do not grow beyond two feet tall and contain very low levels of THC. Unlike C. sativa and C. indica — which produce flowers based on how much light they’re receiving — Cannabis ruderalis produces flowers based on how mature the plant is. This is known as autoflowering.
Cannabis ruderalis are used in hybrids to produce cannabis strains with autoflowering properties2.
Cannabis plants are dioecious, meaning they produce either male or female flowers. The distinction between male and female cannabis plants is made by the pre-flowers that grow between their nodes (where leaves and branches extend from the stalk)3.
Some plants produce both male and female flowers, which is considered a hermaphrodite3. It is believed this process occurs when the plant is growing in stressful conditions.
Male plants develop a pollen sac, whereas female plants develop a stigma to catch pollen, which causes female plants to produce seeds. Male plants are typically separated from female plants to prevent them from producing seeds.
The small hairs on cannabis plants and flowers are called trichomes. These produce cannabis metabolites, such as cannabinoids and terpenes4. Female plants produce flowers with trichomes that are notably much higher in THC than male flowers,4. For this reason, female flowers are the ones consumed for medical and recreational purposes.For more information about cannabinoids and terpenes, please refer to “The Endocannabinoid System” page.
Three unique types of trichomes have been identified from female plants4:
- Bulbous trichomes: These are the smallest trichomes, which produce limited specialized metabolites.
- Sessile trichomes: These trichomes have a short stalk and globe-like head containing cells capable of producing and storing metabolites.
- Stalked trichomes: These trichomes have a multicellular stalk that elevates its globe-like head several hundreds of microns above the surface of cannabis plants. The head of stalked trichomes is similar to sessile trichomes in shape but larger.
How the two major trichome types, sessile and stalked, affect the cannabinoid and terpene profiles of cannabis flowers is currently unknown4.
Cannabis Leaf Anatomy
As seen in the figure on the right, the anatomy of a cannabis leaf is understood in multiple parts:
- Petiole: This is the stalk that joins the leaves/leaflets to the stem of the plant25. It is sometimes referred to as the “leafstalk.” Both the length and width of the petiole are taken into account while assessing the characteristics of the cannabis leaf.
- Leaflets: Leaflets are the individual divisions of compound leaves26. Cannabis plants have compound leaves that consist of five leaflets.
- Serrations: Cannabis leaflets are serrated, giving way to their saw or tooth-like edges. There are two types of serrations assessed while identifying cannabis leaves:
- Primary Serrations: Primary serrations are the larger, tooth-like edges27. There’s more space between each point, so the serrations are farther apart.
- Secondary Serrations: Secondary serrations are the smaller, tooth-like edges27. Secondary serrations are closer together than primary serrations.
Sativa and Indica cultivars of cannabis are generally distinguished by their leaflet shapes and widths24. C. sativa is known for its narrow leaflets, while C. indica has wider leaflets. However, a 2021 study by Jin et al. suggests there’s no scientific evidence behind these distinctions. Furthermore, these distinctions between C. sativa v. C. indica exclude varieties of cannabis that are CBD-dominant or “intermediate” (containing an intermediate level of THC and CBD).
Thus, Jin et al. assessed the characteristics of 21 modern cannabis cultivars and focused on the differences between THC-dominant, CBD-dominant, and intermediate varieties. Throughout their research, they discovered:
- CBD-dominant varieties have lighter green, narrower leaflets with more primary and secondary serrations.
- THC-dominant varieties have darker green leaflets that are wider and longer than other varieties. THC-dominant varieties also have “dense, resinous trichomes.”
- Intermediate varieties have medium to dark green, medium to wide leaflets with more primary and secondary serrations. Intermediate varieties also have trichomes that are less dense and resinous.
Cannabis Synonyms & Colloquial Terms
For classification purposes, cannabis is the plant genus and marijuana is a species of cannabis5; “in other words, all marijuana is cannabis, but not all cannabis is marijuana” (Living, 2020).
Culturally, some experts feel the term “marijuana” carries historically derogatory baggage, which has lead to a call to stop using the word “marijuana” and just use “cannabis” instead6. As Alex Halperin writes for The Guardian:
“For the prohibitionists of nearly a century ago, the exotic-sounding word emphasized the drug’s foreignness to white Americans and appealed to the xenophobia of the time…
Harborside, which is among the oldest and largest dispensaries in California, says on its website: ‘‘Marijuana’ has come to be associated with the idea that cannabis is a dangerous and addictive intoxicant, not a holistic, herbal medicine … This stigma has played a big part in stymying cannabis legalization efforts throughout the US.’”
How the term “marijuana” was developed is unknown, but the word itself originates from Mexico 6. In the book, Cannabis: A History, author Martin Booth suggests the term may stem from the Aztec language or soldier’s slang term for “brothel,” which is “Maria y Juana”7.
Despite the concerns over the negative biases surrounding the word “marijuana,” the term is still regularly used throughout political, academic, and other realms.
For communication purposes, it’s commonplace to use “cannabis” and “marijuana” interchangeably. However, if you’re ever in doubt about whether the term “marijuana” may seem unprofessional or insensitive, just use the word “cannabis” instead.
Weed, Pot, Dank, Ganja, 420
“Weed,” “pot,” “dank,” “ganja,” “420,” are among the most common colloquialisms for “cannabis.” These terms are often used among consumers and occasionally used in marketing or advertisements.
Additionally, these terms do not specifically denote a type of cannabis product, strain, or cannabis user experience. For example, “weed” could be used in reference to cannabis flower, vape, tinctures, edibles, or the plant itself.
Perhaps the only exception to this rule is the term “dank,” which is typically reserved for high-quality cannabis products8,9,10. Qualities associated with “dank” include moist, sticky flowers, potent smell, and good flavor.
“420” also refers to the “cannabis holiday” on April 20th, and the act of using cannabis (sometimes purposefully at 4:20 P.M./A.M.)17. It is widely accepted that the term “420” originated as a code-word among a group of high school students in San Rafael, California during the 1970s.
According to Larry Slowman, author of Reefer Madness: A History of Marijuana, the phrase began as “420 Louis,” which meant the high schoolers would meet by a statue of Louis Pasteur outside the school and “get high”17,18.
Generally speaking, these terms are unprofessional to use in most contexts. Opt for using “cannabis” or “marijuana” over slang when possible.
“710” and “oil” commonly refer to dabbing cannabis concentrates, although they may also refer to cannabis vape products and tinctures11.
Similar to 420, 710 may also refer to the “cannabis holiday” on July 10th and the act of using cannabis at 7:10 A.M. or 7:10 P.M. Quite literally, the term “710” is simply “OIL” typed on a calculated and flipped upside-down11.
Cannabis v.s. Hemp
Hemp is a non-psychoactive species of cannabis with a long history of industrialization5,12,13. This allows users to enjoy the medicinal benefits of non-psychoative cannabinoids such as CBD without the cognitive effects associated with THC19.
Initially, the ancient Chinese manufactured hemp fibers into rope, string, and textiles14. Throughout “pen-ts’ao ching,” (which is the world’s oldest pharmacopeia) cannabis is recommended as a treatment for rheumatic pain, constipation, female reproductive disorders, and malaria, among others.
However, the ancient Chinese had primarily utilized cannabis seeds for medicinal purposes, not the flower itself. Consuming cannabis for its psychoactive properties was associated with shamanism, which was heavily restricted during the Han dynasty (206 BCE to 220 A.D.)14.
Bringing things to date, the 2018 Farm Bill paved the way for the explosion of the hemp-derived CBD market, as its passage federally legalized hemp cultivation in the United States15.
Since then, CBD product sales have skyrocketed from $535 million in 2018 to $1198 million in 2020 in the United States16. It is estimated CBD product sales will reach nearly $2 billion in the United States by 2022. Similarly, legal cannabis sales are projected to hit $23 billion in 2025.
There are over 700 strains of cannabis2. Many of these strains are a crossbreed of the three cannabis species defined in the Cannabis Plant Overview, however, some strains are exclusively C. sativa, C. indica, or Cannabis ruderalis.
Unlike species, strains refer to “distinct and carefully preserved lines of cannabis”20.
Cannabis strains are commonly named by their growers based on their smell, flavor, or lineage, but plenty of strains have names that defy these usual guidelines.
Many growers will specifically choose strains to hybridize based on characteristics such as auto-flowering or high THC content2. Due to hybridization, the average THC content of cannabis plants rose from eight percent to 20 percent in the Netherlands between 2000 and 2004.
Similar trends have been observed on a multinational level, but nowhere else has the rise been as drastic as it was in the Netherlands during those four years.
- Cannabis is a plant genus of wind-pollinated, annual-flowering plant species native to Asia
- Cannabis sativa, Cannabis indica, and Cannabis ruderalis are the three species of cannabis plants
- Unlike C. sativa and C. indica, Cannabis ruderalis autoflowers. This means the plant will produce flowers based on how old it is, rather than what the lighting conditions are
- Cannabis plants can produce male or female flowers
- Male flowers contain a pollen sac, which produces seeds in female flowers
- Some plants are hermaphrodites, which means they produce male and female flowers. It is thought this occurs due to stress to the plant
- Cannabis plants have small hairs called trichomes, which contain cannabis metabolites such as cannabinoids and terpenes
- Female flowers produce trichomes that are much higher in THC than male flowers
- There are three different types of trichome: bulbous, sessile, and stalked
- How sessile and stalked trichomes affect the cannabis’ cannabinoid and terpene profile is still unknown
- Marijuana and hemp are species of cannabis
- All marijuana is cannabis, but not all cannabis is marijuana; all hemp is cannabis, but not all cannabis is hemp
- Marijuana and cannabis are often used interchangeable, however, some experts have raised concerns over the historical controversy and racism surrounding the term “marijuana”
- Common slang for cannabis includes “weed, pot, dank, ganja, 420, 710, and oil,” but there are many, many other colloquial terms that exist, as well
- Hemp is non-psychoactive, meaning users can benefit from the medicinal effects of cannabis without having to experience the cognitive effects of THC
- Throughout history, hemp has been cultivated for its fibers and seeds
- The 2018 Farm Bill federally legalized hemp cultivation and production throughout the United States, leading to the explosion of the CBD market
- There are over 700 cannabis strains
- Many of these strains are hybrids of C. sativa, C. indica, and Cannabis ruderalis
- Most growers will name their strains based on scent, flavor, or lineage. However, this is not always the case
- Hybridization has lead to a significant increase in the average THC content of cannabis plants
- Pollio, A. (2016). The Name of Cannabis: A Short Guide for Nonbotanists. Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research, 1(1), 234–238. https://doi.org/10.1089/can.2016.0027
- Gloss, D. (2015). An Overview of Products and Bias in Research. Neurotherapeutics, 12(4), 731–734. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13311-015-0370-x
- Hennings, T. (2020, November 23). Male vs. female cannabis: How to determine the sex of your plant. Leafly. https://www.leafly.com/news/growing/sexing-marijuana-plants
- Livingston, S. J., Quilichini, T. D., Booth, J. K., Wong, D. C. J., Rensing, K. H., Laflamme‐Yonkman, J., Castellarin, S. D., Bohlmann, J., Page, J. E., & Samuels, A. L. (2019). Cannabis glandular trichomes alter morphology and metabolite content during flower maturation. The Plant Journal, 101(1), 37–56. https://doi.org/10.1111/tpj.14516
- Living, S. (2020, July 31). What’s the difference between cannabis and marijuana? AZ Big Media. https://azbigmedia.com/lifestyle/whats-the-difference-between-cannabis-and-marijuana/
- Halperin, A. (2018, January 29). Marijuana: is it time to stop using a word with racist roots? The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/jan/29/marijuana-name-cannabis-racism
- Booth, M. (2005). Cannabis: A History (First ed.). Picador.
- Urban Dictionary. (n.d.). Urban Dictionary: Dank. https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Dank
- Nickus, L. (2020, September 8). What does “dank” mean? Weedmaps. https://weedmaps.com/learn/products-and-how-to-consume/what-is-dank
- Dictionary.com. (2021, January 19). dank. https://www.dictionary.com/e/slang/dank/
- WeedMaps. (n.d.). 710 Definition & Information – Weedmaps. https://weedmaps.com/learn/dictionary/710/
- The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (n.d.). hemp | Description & Uses. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/plant/hemp
- Rupasinghe, H. P. V., Davis, A., Kumar, S. K., Murray, B., & Zheljazkov, V. D. (2020). Industrial Hemp (Cannabis sativa subsp. sativa) as an Emerging Source for Value-Added Functional Food Ingredients and Nutraceuticals. Molecules, 25(18), 4078. https://doi.org/10.3390/molecules25184078
- Zuardi, A. W. (2006). History of cannabis as a medicine: a review. Revista Brasileira de Psiquiatria, 28(2), 153–157. https://doi.org/10.1590/s1516-44462006000200015
- U.S. Department of Agriculture. (n.d.). Farm Bill. USDA. https://www.usda.gov/farmbill
- Statista. (2020, November 5). Total U.S. cannabidiol (CBD) product sales 2014-2022. https://www.statista.com/statistics/760498/total-us-cbd-sales/
- Esquire Editors. (2019, April 19). The Real Origin of 420 (and 4/20, and 4:20) Lies With a Bunch of High School Kids. Esquire. https://www.esquire.com/news-politics/a6833/420-meaning-0110/
- Sloman, L., Burroughs, W. S., & Simmons, M. (1998). Reefer Madness: A History Of Marijuana (1st ed.). St. Martin’s Griffin.
- Crippa, J. A., Guimarães, F. S., Campos, A. C., & Zuardi, A. W. (2018). Translational Investigation of the Therapeutic Potential of Cannabidiol (CBD): Toward a New Age. Frontiers in Immunology, 9, 0. https://doi.org/10.3389/fimmu.2018.02009
- Spindle, T. R., Bonn-Miller, M. O., & Vandrey, R. (2019). Changing landscape of cannabis: novel products, formulations, and methods of administration. Current Opinion in Psychology, 30, 98–102. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2019.04.002
- roxxyphotos. (n.d.). Cannabis bud macro (fire creek marijuana strain) with visible hairs and trichomes [Photograph]. Adobe Stock. https://stock.adobe.com/images/cannabis-bud-macro-fire-creek-marijuana-strain-with-visible-hairs-and-trichomes/147673191?prev_url=detail
- About time. (n.d.). Many Different Strains of Cannabis [Graphic]. Adobe Stock. https://stock.adobe.com/images/many-different-strains-of-cannabis-horizontal-infographic-illustration-about-cannabis-as-herbal-alternative-medicine-and-chemical-therapy-healthcare-and-medical-science-vector/274039317?prev_url=detail
- David, J. (2019, September 16). Cannabis Flower [Photograph]. Unsplash. https://unsplash.com/photos/plAYVXwJ5cA
- Jin, D., Henry, P., Shan, J., & Chen, J. (2021). Identification of Phenotypic Characteristics in Three Chemotype Categories in the Genus Cannabis. HortScience, 56(4), 481–490. https://doi.org/10.21273/hortsci15607-20
- Dictionary.com. (n.d.). Definition of petiole | Dictionary.com. Www.Dictionary.Com. Retrieved September 14, 2021, from https://www.dictionary.com/browse/petiole
- Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). leaflet. The Merriam-Webster.Com Dictionary. Retrieved September 14, 2021, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/leaflet
- Brechtl, J., Chen, S., Lee, C., Shi, Y., Feng, R., Xie, X., Hamblin, D., Coleman, A., Straka, B., Shortt, H., Spurling, R. J., & Liaw, P. (2020, August 13). A Review of the Serrated-Flow Phenomenon and Its Role in the Deformation Behavior of High-Entropy Alloys. MDPI. https://www.mdpi.com/2075-4701/10/8/1101