I've never been great at smoking weed. While some lucky smokers can come home, spark up a fatty and enjoy the benefits of ancient plant medicine, there's always a chance I'll end up lying awake all night, heart pounding, too out of it to even follow an episode of Bob's Burgers. When someone offers me a joint at a party, I ask, "Is it strong?" then take the smallest hit possible to gauge its effects. Even then, sometimes I have to leave, because who knows what I've even been saying? My brain is on a seven-second delay from my mouth, and I'm so thirsty and confused.
While most people would've given up by now, I've had enough good times to want to keep trying; the right kind of leaf renders me so chill you could make ice in me. Plus, there are concrete benefits: Cannabis has been shown to help with everything from insomnia to menstrual cramps to the ambient, free-floating anxiety that afflicts everyone to some degree. Unlike alcohol and pharmaceuticals, its downsides are slim, and the people who like it really seem to get a lot out of it. And so, armed with a renewed sense of purpose, I spoke with some experts about the basic things to look out for when shopping for dank buds.
Most cannabis on the market, legal or otherwise, is indica, sativa, or some hybrid of the two species. "Indica" is described colloquially as "in da couch," as it's generally relaxing and soporific, while sativa can be stimulating, creative and social. Hybrids combine qualities of both in various ratios. "If you have trouble sleeping, you probably want to smoke indica before you go to bed," says a New York marijuana delivery guy we'll call Joe. "It's like when you feel high in your body and want to lie down. Sativa is like an upper." On the numerous varieties beyond that (Purple Haze, Green Crack, etc.), he posits, "I think it's the same phenomenon of people who are into like, microbrew, or IPA, or something. I don't care too much about what kind of weed I smoke. But for someone with more specific needs, maybe it's good." When pressed on his favorite strain of the moment, he offers a hybrid called "Black Cherry Soda": "Sleepy, but not too sleepy…tastes good, gets you high." About as detailed a promise as one can hope for in a state where weed is mostly illegal.
Of course, in states where cannabis is less restricted, you can visit a naturopath and registered master herbalist like Dr. Lakisha Jenkins, who splits her time between Pleasanton, California and Kingston, Jamaica, and get a blend tailored to your precise needs. She says the different "strain" names aren't majorly helpful because they're not specific enough. "So many things can alter the chemical composition or the phenotype of plants," she says. "What I like to focus on more is the cannabinoid and terpene profile."
At least 113 different chemical compounds called cannabinoids have been isolated from the cannabis plant, the most well known being THC, the main chemical that gets you high, and CBD, which is not considered psychoactive but is becoming increasingly popular. It's the amount of each, along with the ratio of the two, that determines how high you're going to get. Using something called a cannabinoid wheel, specialists find the optimal cannabinoid profile to get your endocannabinoid system into balance. A good doctor will take into account your mental and physical health in a comprehensive way. For instance, if you have ADHD, sativa and indica's effects are switched. (This would've been nice to know.)
But wait, what are "terpenes"? They're basically the essential oils of the plant, and are mostly found in the tiny, mushroom-like crystals you see in those sexy close-ups. According to Jenkins, these have medicinal properties akin to aromatherapy, so it's smart to smell your weed before you buy it. "You're inhaling it, almost like a vapor," she instructs, "and when you do that, your body is signaling to you based on the terpene profile that it would be a strain you would want, based on the deficiency you're dealing with." In short: Follow your nose.
Dr. Wendy Zaharko MD, a medical marijuana specialist in Aspen, Colorado, agrees on the importance of using the whole plant for maximum effectiveness. "It's like the symphony," she says. "You need the bassoon, the violin, the cello…they all fit together to create this beautiful symphony that puts people to sleep, makes them happy, etcetera." When Big Pharma isolates just one chemical into a pill, she says, it throws off this balance. "If you put just THC into the body, it has adverse side effects," she warns. "If you don't have these other ingredients, you can you can get way too high, it doesn't do what it's supposed to do, it just makes people nervous." You need the terpenes, the CBD and the other cannabinoids to round out the effects of the THC.
Speaking of getting too high, what's the best way to avoid pulling a Maureen Dowd? "Start low and go slow," advises Dr. Zaharko. "For women, 5 mg is usually enough. You can vaporize, smoke, use tinctures, drops, or edibles...it's hit and miss because we're all different. Once you've found what works, stick with those strains." She recommends you "always have a strain of CBD around" in case you need to "turn down" the THC you've ingested. The chemicals in lemonade can also help. "It's kind of an adventure in a way, and the beauty of the adventure is if you overdose you will not die," she says. "All you need is a good friend to say 'drink your lemonade.'" If you straight up don't like the feeling of being high, CBD and terpenes can both be bought separately.
Unlike the other folks I spoke with, Zaharko thinks the various strains are a decent guide to go by for more general types of use. For relaxation and sleep, she recommends Hindu Kush (or any Kush, really) for "a soporific experience you won't remember because it's so good," as well as Grand Daddy Purple. She has less personal experience with sativa, but notes her patients like Blue Dream and the various hazes for "happy energy" during the daytime. She says the strains are more or less standardized where cannabis is legal, and recommends the website Leafly for those wanting to know more.
So if you're suffering anything from chronic pain to loss of appetite to just being a person in the world, chances are you'd benefit from some type of herbal remedy. Start small, don't be a hero and remember the words of Dr. Zaharko: "We are so far away from where we came from that people forget that we are nature, and this is really important… If you put nature in the body, it knows what to do."