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Cannabis 101

Exploring Canada’s legal-marijuana landscape


Cannabis 101

With recreational cannabis being legal in Canada, public interest in it is at an all-time high. Yet, there are nuances to navigate within this new era of permitted pot. Here, we take you through cannabis 101.


What’s legal?

Under the federal Cannabis Act, it’s important to note that each province and territory has its own rules surrounding cannabis, including those related to legal minimum age and places where adults can buy and use it. Municipalities can also pass bylaws to regulate the use of cannabis.

Minimum age

Canadian adults (18 years or older—this may be different depending upon the province, territory, or Indigenous community) can possess up to 30 g of legal cannabis in public and share up to 30 g with other adults.

Retail purchases

“Legal” cannabis is only sold through retailers authorized by provincial and territorial governments. Packages have an excise stamp and carry mandatory health warning messages on risks of use.

Grow your own

Canadians can grow up to four plants per residence (not per person) for personal use from licensed seeds or seedlings.

Medical cannabis

Cannabis for medical purposes continues to be legal for those who are authorized by a health care provider or registered with a licensed seller or with Health Canada.


What’s not legal?

There are some important areas that are not yet legal under the federal Cannabis Act.


Edible products are currently not legal. According to the federal government, however, they will become legal in late 2019. This is also true of cannabis extracts and cannabis topicals.

Transporting cannabis

It’s illegal to carry cannabis across the border, either leaving or entering Canada. It’s also illegal to drive while impaired by cannabis. Drug-impaired driving has the same penalties as alcohol-impaired driving.


There are criminal penalties for those who sell, provide, or promote cannabis to youth.

Canna terminology


Also known as ganja, Mary Jane, hashish, bud, chronic, skunk, grass, blunt, weed, and marijuana, the term refers to an annual flowering plant belonging to the family Cannabaceae of the nettle order. Having originated in Central Asia, it’s now cultivated all over the world.

It displays male or female reproductive organs, meaning a male must pollinate a female to create seeds. Rarely, the plant expresses hermaphroditic features.

A female plant that does not receive pollen within its reproductive cycle produces large, resinous buds that are commonly smoked, vaporized, or processed into oils.

Varietal strains

Within these varieties are thousands of strains of cannabis, including many that are hybrids of the main varieties. They go by names like Northern Lights, Amnesia Haze, Pineapple Express, Maui Wowie, and Mango Kush.


There are three main varieties of the plant: Cannabis sativa, Cannabis indica, and Cannabis ruderalis.

  1. Sativa–Sativa is a tall-growing plant with long branches and leaves and is said to have an energetic, euphoric effect, rather than a narcotic effect.
  2. Ruderalis– Ruderalis resembles a weed, is conical in shape, and has fewer branches than sativa or indica varieties. It generally doesn’t have a psychedelic effect but is sometimes used to stimulate hunger and alleviate nausea and vomiting in cancer patients
  3. Indica–Indica is small and stocky with wide dark-green leaves. It typically produces a physically relaxing narcotic effect


These are active chemical compounds secreted by cannabis flowers that give the plant its recreational and medicinal properties. They bind to specific cannabinoid receptors in the central nervous system, leading to altered moods, pain relief, and other effects. There are hundreds of cannabinoids, with tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) being among the most well known and understood.


Tetrahydrocannabinol is recognized as the cannabis plant’s key psychoactive compound, meaning it’s the one that gets people “high.” Upon entering the body, THC attaches to receptors in the brain that cause euphoria or hallucinations. It has been used to help with conditions including pain, muscle spasticity, glaucoma, insomnia, low appetite, nausea, and anxiety.


Cannabidiol is a non-intoxicating substance with many therapeutic applications. It’s said to have anti-inflammatory properties, and because it doesn’t make people feel “stoned,” many people use it to relieve anxiety, inflammation, pain, nausea, and seizures. It’s also being studied for its potential beneficial effect on arthritis, epilepsy, depression, and other disorders.


These are food items infused with cannabis, including brownies, cookies, gummies, candies, and chocolates.


Also called nonpsychoactive industrial hemp, this substance comes from the sativa plant but contains negligible amounts of THC. The fibres from the stalk can be used to make rope, clothing, and other textiles, while the seeds are edible.

Get Well, Not High

CBD. the component of cannabis that doesn’t make you high, is accessible via a prescription or medical document or in recreational stores. However, many people believe it should be made exempt from the prescription drug list and permitted for use in natural health products (NHPs).

Sponsored by the Canadian Health Food Association (CHFA), the “Get Well, Not High” campaign is based on the premise that if you can legally purchase THC and choose to get high, you should also legally have the choice to purchase CBD at natural health product retailers.

The CHFA is advocating for Health Canada to create a pathway for CBD products to be legally sold as NHPs. Consumers and industry leaders can visit to ask their member of parliament to support better access to safe, effective, and regulated NHPs that contain CBD.


What makes hemp different?

Although hemp is derived from the same plant as marijuana—Cannabis sativa—the hempseed oil, hemp hearts, and hemp protein powder we buy in stores are from plants that have been bred over decades to contain almost none (no more than 0.3 percent, according to Health Canada regulations) of the psychoactive component (THC) of marijuana.

The benefits of hempseeds and their products are based on their excellent nutrition profile: every 3 Tbsp (28 g) contain

  • 10 g of protein
  • 179 mg of magnesium
  • 3.5 mg of zinc

As well, hempseed oil contains 30 percent of its weight in essential fatty acids, in an ideal combination of omega-3 and -6 fatty acids.

According to Health Canada, hempseed oil may have benefits for diabetes, cancer, lupus, asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, depression, and hypertension.

Recreational versus medicinal use

Recreational cannabis is for personal use, while medical cannabis is authorized by a health care professional to treat illness and manage symptoms.

Recreational cannabis consumers may use the substance for stress relief, relaxation, pleasure, and creative stimulation. Consumers of medical cannabis may use it to alleviate pain, nausea, anxiety, insomnia, appetite loss, and other symptoms.

Generally, recreational cannabis has a higher THC content, while medical cannabis has a higher CBD content and lower THC content and is less likely to have psychoactive effects.

Recreational cannabis use in youth

Recreational cannabis, which includes the psychoactive component THC, is often one of the first drugs a teen is offered. Canadian youth have one of the highest rates of cannabis use worldwide.

Like other mind-altering substances, recreational cannabis is harmful to the still-developing teen brain.

Regular use among adolescents is associated with an increased risk of psychotic symptoms, such as changes in thoughts, feelings, and behaviours, especially where there’s a family or personal history of the same. Some research suggests that cannabis may also raise the risk of anxiety and depression.

Early and frequent cannabis use is linked with poor performance in school, lower grades, and increased risk of dropping out. Heavy, long-term use may also impair teens’ cognitive abilities, possibly to irreversible effect.

These potential negative effects are due to changes that happen in the brain during adolescence, especially the development and maturation of the prefrontal cortex. This area is vital to higher-order cognitive processes such as impulse control, working memory, planning, problem solving, and emotional regulation.

“The brain continues to develop until 25 years of age,” says Dr. Oyedeji Ayonrinde, associate professor in the department of psychiatry at Queen’s University, who specializes in cannabis education.

“This has considerable significance with key educational years and development of vocational skills, reducing the full potential of some youth. Cannabis causes dependence, and the risk of this occurring is higher when started in youth.

“The legal ages of 18 and 19 are still within the period of brain development,” he adds. “Advice would be that young people not consume heavily just because it is legal, as there are more years of brain development still occurring. Recreational cannabis is not a harmless drug.”

Like other addictive drugs, recreational cannabis can lead to addiction because of its effect on the brain’s reward system. The likelihood of developing problem use or addiction increases considerably in those who start young.

Ayonrinde notes that use during pregnancy or while breastfeeding is absolutely not advised, due to the risk of negative effects on baby and the baby’s developing brain.

Natural Health Products and Cannabis in Canada

When the Cannabis Act came into effect in October 2018, many Canadians were hoping to consider or purchase CBD (cannabidiol)-containing natural health products. In some parts of the US, products like CBD oils, topical creams and cosmetics, waters, jellies, chocolates, and other foods containing CBD have been available since 2017 , and many expected the same for Canada when cannabis became legalized.

However, many of you were disappointed to find that these products were not available at your local health food store. This may be confusing. If cannabis is legal now, why are natural health products that contain cannabis, not?

This is because health products, foods, and cosmetics containing cannabis are NOT permitted in Canada at this time. Cannabis is only legal in Canada if grown for personal use, through a licensed seller for recreational purposes, or with a medical prescription. Therefore, you won’t find these products at your natural retailer at this time. Here are the facts.

Natural Health Products (NHPs) in Canada are a subset of drugs and are governed by the Food and Drugs Act (FDA), the Food and Drug Regulations (FDR), and the Natural Health Products Regulations (NHPR).

NHPs require a natural health product licence that is granted following the regulator’s evaluation of data supporting a product’s quality, safety, and health benefits; this is usually obtained through traditional evidence and clinical studies.

When the Cannabis Act came into effect, Health Canada took a precautionary stance and added phytocannabinoids produced by, or found in the cannabis plant, including any product containing an “isolated or concentrated phytocannabinoid” or a synthetic duplicate to the prescription drug list. Examples of these are THC and CBD.

Why? Health Canada felt that due to limited marketing experience and scientific uncertainty surrounding the effects of phytocannabinoids, this was a justified, sound decision.

In order for cannabis to be removed from the prescription drug list, more evidence to prove its safety and therapeutic benefits without the supervision of a health practitioner will be required. This includes proving through studies conducted by an approved investigator that the health benefits are beneficial, meaningful, and scientifically recognized.

New Industrial Hemp Regulations allow natural health products and consumer products (including products like hemp protein, hempseed oil, hemp hearts, and cosmetics) that contain low THC (10mcg/g or less) and no isolated or concentrated phytocannabinoid.



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Matthew Kadey, MSc, RDMatthew Kadey, MSc, RD