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what is cannabis

Jamie Shaw: What is Cannabis? (Wrong Answers Only)

What is cannabis? You might think it’s a plant, but according to the Canadian government, you would be wrong. You might think it’s the variants of the plant that aren’t psychoactive. This is also wrong. It is also not a drug, not a medicine, and not a natural health product.

So, what is it?

The legal Canadian definition of cannabis is as follows: 

1. Any part of a cannabis plant, including the phytocannabinoids produced by, or found in, such a plant, regardless of whether that part has been processed or not, other than a part of the plant referred to in Schedule 2 (below)
2. Any substance or mixture of substances that contains or has on it any part of such a plant

3. Any substance that is identical to any phytocannabinoid produced by, or found in, such a plant, regardless of how the substance was obtained

Here’s what cannabis is not:

1. A non-viable seed of a cannabis plant

2. A mature stalk, without any leaf, flower, seed or branch, of such a plant

3. Fibre derived from a stalk referred to in item 2

4. The root or any part of the root of such a plant

Making Sense of the Legal Definition

So, seeds are cannabis unless they have been rendered sterile, and then they are not. An entire gummy or chocolate bar that contains less than to 10 milligrams of cannabis is 100 percent cannabis. THC cultured from yeast is cannabis, but the roots of a cannabis plant are not. The stalk of a cannabis plant with no flower, leaf, or seed is not cannabis, unless it has a branch, then it is. Sativex, a pharmaceutical preparation containing THC, by this definition, should be considered cannabis. However, Canada does not classify Sativex as cannabis. Since it’s a pharmaceutical preparation, it’s medicine.

Alternatively, industrial hemp is defined as follows: a cannabis plant — or any part of that plant — in which the concentration of THC is 0.3 percent or less in the flowering heads and leaves. However, if a derivative made from the grain of this plant, or a product made from that derivative, contains 10 micrograms of THC or less, it is not considered either cannabis or hemp.

Got it? Good. (Neither do I.)

What About Medical Cannabis?

Now, in order to obtain cannabis for medical purposes, you must have a prescription. But not an actual prescription, because it’s not a medicine. So to access this ‘not medicine’, you need a medical document from a health care practitioner. You then may be able to claim some of the cost back as general or discretionary health spending on your medical insurance, and on your income taxes as medical spending.

Well, this is because it is a natural health product right? Wrong.

In Canada, a Natural Health Product is a ‘naturally occurring substance that is used to restore or maintain good health.’ You might think this applies to cannabinoids (either those made by plants, or our own bodies) but you would be mistaken. Natural health products include Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Ayurvedic medicines. It matters not that cannabis is one of the fifty fundamental herbs of Chinese medicine, or one of the five sacred herbs of Ayurvedic medicine, because cannabis is not a medicine. (Remember? Geez.)

Homeopathic medicines are regulated by the government, and are even able to receive their own special drug identification number, the DIN-HM.

Cannabis cannot receive such a number, because it is cannabis (not medicine the way homeopathic medicines are, duh). Typically, homeopathic medicines require there to be a mention in a text book or pharmacopoeia. Cannabis of course, not only appears in the very first pharmacopoeia in China, but also the earliest medical texts of Egypt, Greece, and England. It is even in the modern American pharmacopoeia, but again, cannabis does not qualify because it is not a medicine according to Canadian politicians.

Some insurance companies have nonetheless begun covering this non-medical medical cannabis by issuing a product identification number, or PIN. This requires the licensed producer to first list their product with someone like the Atlantic Pharmaceutical Services Inc. Most of them can’t be arsed.

Provinces can also cover different substances under a PIN, as they do with methadone tinctures. Cannabis tincture however, does not enjoy the same privilege, because reasons.

So What Is Cannabis? We’re Still Not Sure

To recap, a homeopathic medicine mentioned in a text book or pharmacopoeia can receive a DIN, unless it’s cannabis. A traditional medicine can also receive a DIN, unless it’s cannabis. A natural health product can also receive a DIN, unless it’s cannabis. A pharmaceutical preparation containing cannabinoids is cannabis, until it is issued a DIN, and then it is not.

All of this may make sense in a world where regulators believe opiates are safer than cannabis (they are not). It may make sense in single national bubble with a substance that isn’t widely traded internationally. It may even seem that this definition is set in stone and is universal. It is not.

Words matter. When we (only recently) decided hemp and cannabis were different, it gave people grounds to make moral differentiations about a plant. We now have people making claims that “the ancients only grew hemp”. This is a ridiculous assertion, yet one that stems from our choice of words. We are also not even agreed as a species where this line between cannabis and hemp should be drawn. 

While people rail against this or that section of the regulations, the biggest problems actually stem from our definition of cannabis itself. This natural health product drug plant thing will soon be a commodity on world markets, and we’re going to have to figure it out better than this.