Before dipping your toes into the world of (legal) weed, make sure you're getting the best stuff.

By Laura Fisher
February 11, 2021

Cannabis, pot, weed, marijuana, reefer, ganja…. Whatever you call it, it seems that these days, the magical green plant is making headlines wherever you look. And for good reason. Marijuana has many medicinal benefits, such as pain control, managing nausea, and treatment of PTSD, just to name a few. Because of its studied medical benefits, cannabis has been legal for medical use in 35 states, with significant variation state-by-state regarding what conditions it can be prescribed for. This can make it challenging for those who want to tap into some of the purported benefits of the powerful plant, but don't fit the legal qualifications. 

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In recent years, however, there has been a move toward legalizing marijuana in many states across the country for adult recreational use. Currently, there are 15 states, plus Washington D.C., that have legalized recreational marijuana, with more states on deck for 2021 legislature legalizing the plant. According to a recent Gallup poll, a record-high 68 percent of Americans support the legalization of marijuana, so this trend likely isn't going away any time soon. That means a whole lot of people have the opportunity to explore the entire range of what the cannabis plant has to offer. 

But if the idea of buying and trying marijuana products is totally new to you, how do you even know where to start? We tapped Jonathan Vaught, PhD, the founder and CEO of Front Range Biosciences, a premier hemp and cannabis genetics platform, for insider tips on what to look for when entering the world of legal, recreational cannabis. If you have no idea what that means, that's OK—Vaught knows his cannabis, and he's here to help us make sense of it all. 

If you’re new to the world of weed, all the various terms can get confusing. Here’s a quick chemistry/botany lesson to clear up the basics. Scientifically speaking, the larger Cannabaceae plant family includes the plant genus Cannabis. This genus consists of the plant species Cannabis Sativa, which includes different plant varieties around 540 phytochemical compounds or cannabinoids, including cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). The term cannabis, however, is often used less technically to refer to any products or derivatives of the plant species Cannabis Sativa.

When you hear someone talking about “marijuana” specifically, they’re referring to the part of the Cannabis Sativa plant (or other plant-derived products) containing high concentrations of THC, the psychoactive compound that produces the “high” primarily associated with it. And marijuana and cannabis are generally used interchangeably. Terms such as “weed,” “pot,” “grass,” or “dope” are simply colloquial ways of referring to the general family of cannabis-related substances, but don’t carry any specific scientific meaning. 

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Each state decides how local cannabis retailers can obtain and maintain a license to sell. Vaught stresses the importance of only buying from licensed dispensaries. 

“Legal cannabis operators follow strict quality checks, internal testing, and third-party testing guidelines in order to stay compliant,” he says. “Legal cannabis products are required to provide safety testing information—such as the batch number and dosage—on the packaging. [Those should be the first things consumers should look for.] This is the first step to ensuring that the cannabis products you purchase have been verified for safety.” 

Some local ordinances and regulations are too nuanced for consumers to be expected to know, so your best bet is to use a reputable site that lists licensed businesses to ensure you’re conducting only legal transactions. For instance, in California, you can look up the licensed dispensaries on this platform, and in Colorado, the Department of Revenue makes it easy to verify a facility’s current license status. 

For an extra layer of precaution, Vaught adds: “Consumers shopping at legal dispensaries can also ask for a certificate of analysis (COA) for individual products, which provide full lab results of the tested product. Many brands have proactively started providing COAs through QR codes printed on packaging.” 

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The legal market depends on all the various parties following the rules, but there will always be those who try to skirt regulations. There are a few warning signs that your dispensary of choice may not be playing totally by the book. 

“Licensed dispensaries must check ID, and all products sold at these locations are subject to specific cannabis sales taxes that vary from state to state,” Vaught explains. “Consumers should steer clear of dispensaries that aren’t following these rules or being evasive about questions regarding product testing or quality.” 

Wondering how much you can carry away? “In terms of possession quantities, every state has its own rules and regulations,” he says. “In California, consumers who are 21 years or older can possess up to 28.5 grams of flower and up to 8 grams of concentrate.” For the novice cannabis consumer, this is way more than you would purchase in a single trip. You can always ask the workers at the dispensary (commonly referred to as “bud-tenders”) or check your local laws here

If you’re lucky enough to have access to legal cannabis in your state, there’s a whole world ready for you to explore that goes well beyond our traditional conceptions of “getting high.” 

Vaught says that if there was one thing he wishes people knew about the legal cannabis industry, it’s this: “Cannabis is plant medicine. Yes, THC can offer ‘the high,’ but other cannabinoids (natural compounds within the plant) like CBD and CBN have demonstrated a range of medical benefits that are still being studied by researchers,” he says. “Our bodies contain an endocannabinoid system that regulates sleep, appetite, pain, and immune system responses, and it’s no surprise that cannabinoids have helped individuals find relief in these areas.” 

With continued nationwide legalization efforts comes an increase in research into understanding the comprehensive benefits of the plant. “We’ve come a long way in the past since Washington first legalized cannabis nearly a decade ago, but we’ve only scratched the surface.” 

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