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What is Medicinal Cannabis? A simple guide to the cannabis plant, cannabinoids, and terpenes

by | Oct 5, 2021

Humans have been using cannabis for thousands of years.

You’d think we’d have a pretty good idea of what cannabis is by now.

But everyone has a slightly different take on what cannabis is, depending on their personal experiences and worldview.

One person might say, “Cannabis is a dangerous drug that corrupts the mind.

While another might say, “Cannabis is a powerful medicinal plant that supports wellbeing.

We thought we would set the record straight by providing a simple overview of exactly what cannabis is.

So let’s step back from the stories we hold and explore the ancient plant that’s changing modern healthcare.


The cannabis plant:

What is Medicinal Cannabis?

In many ways, cannabis is a plant just like any other plant.

It starts its life as a seed or cutting, grows in soil, and matures to produce leaves, buds, and flowers.

However, cannabis is also unlike any other plant because it produces an abundance of unique, active compounds that have been used for a wide range of purposes for millennia.

These compounds interact with the human Endocannabinoid System, which is why the plant has become an important part of modern medicine.


Different types of cannabis plants: Sativa, indica, and hemp

There are two main species of the cannabis family: Sativa and indica.

Hemp belongs to the cannabis sativa family, but it’s legally defined as a cannabis plant that has low amounts of the cannabinoid THC (usually less than 0.3%).

A third species, cannabis ruderalis, is a variety that flowers quickly and contains low THC, but it’s not as common as the other two.

The anatomy, leaf structure, buds, flowers, and chemical composition of each cannabis strain are unique.

Hybrid varieties can be created by crossbreeding two different strains. This can result in plants with unique characteristics and properties.

What is Medicinal Cannabis?

Most strains sold commercially in countries where cannabis is legal are hybrids of sativa and indica.

Medicinal cannabis companies, like Ora Pharm, and researchers are also exploring the potential of hybrid varieties as they may produce unique cannabinoid blends and therapeutic effects.


Cannabis flowers (or buds) and trichomes

What is Medicinal Cannabis?

Cannabis is widely known for the unmistakable shape of its leaves.

However, the leaves are typically discarded during the medicinal cannabis production process.

Why? Because most of the plant’s active compounds are found in the flowers, also known as buds.

The flowers are like the “fruit” of the cannabis plant. They contain high levels of cannabinoids and terpenes, which can produce wide-ranging effects on the mind and body.

Zoom in closer to the cannabis flower, and you’ll see it’s covered in tiny, mushroom-shaped, translucent glands, called trichomes.

These trichomes are the factories that produce the hundreds of known cannabinoids (THC, CBD etc), terpenes, and flavonoids that are used in medicinal cannabis products.

Trichomes excrete a sticky resin that contains high concentrations of these active compounds.

Interestingly, only female cannabis plants have flowers that produce high amounts of beneficial cannabinoids and other compounds.

Male plants are primarily used for breeding and producing fibre, but can also contain low levels of cannabinoids.


What are cannabinoids, terpenes and flavonoids?

The cannabis plant contains around 400 naturally occurring compounds, each of which is said to affect the brain and body in different ways.

Cannabinoids, which are named after cannabis, account for more than 100 of these compounds.

Cannabinoids are what make cannabis truly unique in the plant kingdom.

Many plants contain cannabinoids. Our bodies even produce their very own cannabinoids.

But cannabis is in its own league. The cannabis plant has more than 100 different cannabinoids and in much higher concentrations than any other plant.

The most notable cannabinoids are CBD (cannabidiol) and THC (tetrahydrocannabinol).

Most medicinal cannabis products are made using CBD or THC extract, or a blend of both.

However, there are many other cannabinoids in cannabis, such as CBG, CBC and CBN, that may be present in medicinal cannabis and produce unique therapeutic effects.

If you happen to be using a “broad spectrum” CBD product then it most likely contains additional cannabinoids. A “full spectrum” product may even have trace amounts of THC, but not enough to feel its effects.

Cannabinoids are the main medicinal components of cannabis as they have been shown to interact with the body’s cannabinoid receptors.

Cannabis plants can be selectively bred to produce different blends and concentrations of cannabinoids.



The trichomes of the cannabis flower also produce large amounts of aromatic compounds called terpenes.

Terpenes are responsible for the cannabis plant’s unique, potent aroma. But they can also have health benefits.

For example, the terpene linalool is found in high concentrations in lavender, which gives the plant its pleasant fragrance.

Linalool is also the reason that lavender is commonly used as a sleep aid or relaxant.

Linalool and many other terpenes, such as pinene and myrcene, are also found in cannabis and may contribute to the plant’s therapeutic effects.

Most medicinal cannabis products contain a range of terpenes, which can produce different aromas, flavours, and effects.



Flavonoids are found all throughout nature in plants, flowers, fruits and vegetables.

Scientists have identified at least 20 flavonoids in cannabis.

Flavonoids are responsible for colour pigmentation in plants, but they also have therapeutic properties in their own right.

Studies have found that flavonoids in other plants may have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, neuroprotective, and antimicrobial properties.

Flavonoids may contribute to cannabis’ “entourage effect” which is the theory that the plant’s natural compounds are more effective together than on their own.


From ancient plant to modern medicine

When you use a medicinal cannabis product, you’re consuming the naturally occurring compounds of a wonderfully diverse plant that’s been with us for millennia.

Humans have used plants as medicine since the dawn of time and we continue to do so today.

The stigma associated with cannabis can be attributed to one of the plant’s 400-plus therapeutic compounds: THC.

THC is responsible for the “high” or “stoned” feeling that cannabis is known for.

But as you’ve discovered in this article, the cannabis plant contains hundreds more organic compounds that have wide-ranging effects, and often medicinal cannabis products contain no THC or only minuscule amounts.

As more people understand the unique properties of the cannabis plant, we’re likely to see wider acceptance and adoption of cannabis-based medicines.

The story around cannabis is changing. Hopefully, the information in this article has helped to shape your version of that story.

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