What's in cannabis?

THC, CBD & more explained

You may be a regular or an occasional user, but do you really know what's in the cannabis you consume? Likely you know a bit about the products you buy – where it's from, the strain, the THC potency – but that's not the complete picture.

Ultimately, as a consumer, you have a right to know what’s in the cannabis you buy and it's in your best interest to understand what you're consuming. Most importantly, you should also feel confident knowing what's NOT in your cannabis because it is regulated and tested for things like additives, mould and impurities.

What is Cannabis? What's in it?

Cannabis is a plant, also known as hemp, that has been cultivated into various forms for centuries.  

Cannabis plants contain a group of chemicals called cannabinoids; this part of the plant interacts with the endocannabinoid system in our bodies, with varying mental and physical effects. To date, over 100 types of cannabinoids have been discovered – the two most well-known being tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD).

Cannabis Plant

The Major Cannabinoids: THC & CBD

THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is the psychoactive element of cannabis that generally gives users a “high” feeling. CBD, or cannabidiol, is not psychoactive; rather, it has a balancing effect on the high of THC.

How THC, CBD and other cannabinoids interact with each other – ideally, balancing or complementary – is known as the entourage effect. This effect is still being studied scientifically but is the basis of the many combinations of THC, CBD and other cannabinoids in products and strains today.

Cannabis strains

There are three commonly known strains of cannabis:

  1. Sativa
  2. Indica
  3. Ruderalis

Sativa and Indica are by far the two most common cannabis strains. However, scientific studies have shown that these two strains are more similar than previously thought, and many retailers and experts are moving away from using strains to explain or differentiate products. Instead, they use the term chemical variation, or chemovar, because plants with different strains are being bred together, creating a hybrid mix of Indica or Sativa.

Still, many users have their preferences, and the terms continue to be widely used. For example, sativas are associated with a more cerebral high, while indicas are more associated with a body heaviness.

Terpenes & cannabinoids

Terpenes are a natural compound found in all plants, including cannabis. The terpenes in a plant combine to give it its taste, colour and smell.

In cannabis, they also combine with cannabinoids (THC and CBC) to produce particular tastes and aromas. While the science on how exactly these factors combine is still emerging, terpenes are one more factor cannabis producers work with to develop their products and one for users to consider when shopping.

Remember, each terpene has its own taste and smell, and knowing what's what will help you choose a product you like.


Types of terpenes

Found in many spices and herbs, caryophyllene carries a spicy warmth to your nostrils. Examples: cinnamon, cloves and pepper.

This terpene, found in most cannabis strains, is also found in hops and used to make beer. It gives off a spicy and herb-infused smell.

Limonene is found in many foods, cleaning and makeup products—for example, orange peels, and it provides a strong citrus smell.

Pinene, as its name suggests, smells like a pine tree. It’s the most common terpene in nature and is present in all different types of cannabis. It's also dominant in herbs like rosemary and basil.

While each terpene has its own distinct smell, the combination of terpenes gives each strain of cannabis (and other plants and foods) their unique aroma and flavour.

What shouldn’t be in your cannabis? Bugs, mould, and other gross stuff.

Did you know that all legal cannabis is tested for harmful toxins and contaminants? Unfortunately, the same for unregulated or illegal cannabis products can't be said. For example, a recent analysis of some illegal cannabis seized in British Columbia found unacceptable levels of pesticides, fungi, bacteria, lead and even arsenic, which is definitely not what you want to consume. Meanwhile, legal and regulated cannabis is regularly proven to be compliant.

Here are the top impurities that legal cannabis is tested for in Canada:

Vaping products may contain various substances that make the pure cannabis concentrate less viscous, allowing it to vaporize more effectively. Illegal vaping products have been known to contain dangerous cutting agents associated with severe lung illnessesIn 2020, there were cases of vaping-associated lung Illness because of Illegal cutting agents that caused severe lung health issues for Canadians. 

Cannabis is a plant and is naturally susceptible to insects. Without testing, everything from caterpillars to crickets and slugs could end up in your cannabis.

One way to control bugs is to use pesticides. Pesticide used on cannabis in Canada is permitted but limited to a very short list of approved insecticides and herbicides. Moreover, there is no telling what chemicals or quantities are used on unregulated cannabis.

Mould is always a danger for any fresh produce or product. The presence of mould can cause coughing and nausea in most people. It can be a significant health hazard for people with mould allergies or lung conditions.

While consuming legal cannabis is safer, it's still possible for legal products to become contaminated and recalled. So, consider signing up for recall notices for cannabis products online.

Light green cannabis leaf

Know what you’re consuming

It’s just good cannabis sense to know what you’re putting into your body. You can trust that legal cannabis is tested and regulated. Look for the label, ask your retailer questions and stay informed. If you are buying online, ensure the site you are ordering from is legal by checking Cannabis licensee search | AGLC.

Still have questions? Email us at CannabisSense@aglc.ca