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The two main components in the marijuana plant (that we know of) which cause its effects on humans are THC(Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD(Cannabidiol). Some people only pay attention to THC when talking about marijuana "potency" but the story is actually a little bit more complicated than that. As we are studying cannabis, we're learning that CBD actually plays a much bigger role in the overall cannabis experience than we originally thought. A recent study indicates that cannabis buds which are high in CBD do nott cause the memory impairment which is normally cited as the biggest side effect of smoking or using cannabis. This is big news for patients who would like to use cannabis but do not want any memory side effects. It's becomming apparent that in order to understand the whole picture about the effects of cannabis, we will need to learn about both THC and CBD.
THC is the main psychoactive component in marijuana buds. THC appears to help relieve pain and is neuroprotective(helps keep brain from degenerating over time). THC mimics the action of anandamide, which is a naturally occurring cannabinoid in the brain. THC is thought to be the cause of the following effects of cannabis: relaxation, euphoria, altered space-time perception and appetite stimulation. What does it mean when marijuana buds are "17%" THC? It means that of all the cannabinoids present in the plant, 17% of them are THC. Having a high THC content by itself does not necessarily mean that the marijuana is great. It's important to look at the whole experience caused by the plant which includes another substance known as CBD. You want to find a strain and prepare your plants to cause the effects you're looking for.
CBD was once thought not to affect the subjective affect of marijuana, but further studies have shown that it actually does have an affect. CBD appears to relieve convulsions, some types of inflammation, anxiety, and nausea. CBD has also been show to help stop the growth of cancer. CBD is also effective as an anti-psychotic for people suffering from schizophrenia. Marijuana buds that have a higher amount of CBD are associated with a more sedative or calming effect. Cannabis buds that contain high amounts of CBD are a perfect treatment for insomnia or for treatment late at night.
The best results seems to come from using marijuana that has a mix of both THC and CBD. When used by itself, THC can cause disorientation and anxiety. CBD seems to prevent these effects. In fact, a new drug, Sativex, was recently released which contains 50% each of THC and CBD. Sativex seems to be very well tolerated so far and doesn't have many of the side effects associated with Marinol, which was made of 100% THC.
The cannabis strain that you're growing will largely determine the amounts of THC and CBD produced. The genes of a plant play a big role so it's very important to find a strain which has the effects that you are looking for. More and more seed banks online are offering information about both THC and CBD. When looking at seeds online (I highly recommend Attitude Seedbank), check if the product information for the strain says anything about CBD and THC content. If you're not sure which strain to get, I highly recommend any strain which has any sort of "Afghan" or "Afghani" in it's lineage. Afghan strains are generally easy to grow, have great yields, have high CBD content. Therefore cannabis strains that are part-Afghan are usually a great choice for beginning growers looking for a cannabis strain with great medicinal value.
Another way to help control the amount of THC and CBD in your plant is to choose the right time to harvest your plant. You can pick the right time to harvest if you watch the trichomes (also known as crystals or resin glands, basically, it's the glittery stuff your see on your marijuana buds). You tend to get the highest overall THC levels if you harvest your plant when all the trichomes are milky/white, or they are half milky and have translucent.
If you wait to harvest your plant until 50% or more the trichomes are amber colored, then you will get a final result that has a bit less THC, but more CBD. A simpler method to determine when to harvest is to just wait until the buds have only 10% or less total white pistols/hairs. You will notice that your cannabis buds keeps growing more and more white hairs over the course of the flowering stages, but eventually (it feels like forever) the buds will stop growing new white hairs and 90% or more of the hairs will have darkened. It's hard but waiting to harvest until your cannabis plant has run it's whole life course will maximize your CBD levels. This often means keeping your cannabis in the flowering stage for a full 3-4 months. Many growers like to harvest earlier than that, but if you allow your cannabis to run its full course, you will maximize your CBD levels and your yields.
I personally use cannabis for pain , and therefore I like to have high CBD levels in my buds. I always allow my plants to run their whole course before I harvest. Some people prefer both kinds of cannabis and will harvest half the plant at one point in it's flowering stage, and then harvest the rest of the buds a few weeks to a month later. Some people like cannabis with high THC because it can be more 'up' or 'trippy' and therefore always harvest their buds on the earlier side.
I strongly recommend doing some experimentation with different strains and harvest times to see what suits you best. I can only offer a general guide, but everyone's individual experience is going to be different.
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