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Cannabis sativa L.

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Family: Cannabaceae

Scientific name: Cannabis sativa

Authority: L.

Common names: insangu (Zulu), marijuana (English)

Plant description

Cannabis sativa is one of three major species of cannabis, the other two being C. indica and C. ruderalis. It is an annual herbaceous plant that is believed to have originated in Asia. During the 16th century, it was transported to Europe as a naturalised crop. Today the plant is widespread in Asia, Africa, Canada, Europe, and the United States of America.

C. sativa is a versatile plant, which is why the various plant parts, namely the roots, stem, seeds, and leaves, are used for medicine, food, cosmetics, textile, paper production, and phytoremediation technologies. 

  • The roots are used in phytoremediation technology to clean soils that are contaminated with heavy metals. 
  • The stem is used to make long-lasting textile and specialised paper. 
  • The seeds are cold pressed to extract an edible oil known as hemp seed oil that is used in cosmetics and food products. The term hemp refers to a class of C. sativa that is cultivated specifically for industrial and or medicinal use. 
  • The leaves are used in medicine to treat a wide range of conditions, ailments, and life-threatening diseases.      

Plant properties

C. sativa contains over one hundred chemicals known as cannabinoids, which include delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), a psychoactive, and cannabidiol (CBD), a non-psychoactive decarboxylated form of cannabidiolic acid (CBDA). The plant contains the most THC and the least amounts of CBD in the Cannabis genus. The euphoric, psychostimulant, and appetite stimulant activities are due to the THC. The CBD is useful for treating chronic pain and inflammation due to its anti-inflammatory and analgesic activities. The seeds contain potent antioxidant activities.


The class of C. sativa known as hemp contains significantly lower THC than the actual C. sativa.    


In medicine, C. sativa is used in the treatment of a range of conditions, ailments, and life-threatening diseases. The following lists the mainstream medicinal uses and the non-conventional uses, preparation, & administration of C. sativa

Mainstream medicinal uses:

  • Cancer is a multiphase life-threatening disease caused by uncontrollable and unwanted cell division. Cannabinoids are able to slow down the spread of cancer cells while saving normal cells. For example, research has shown that malignant tumour (glioma) cells exposed to cannabis die from ceramide-induced apoptosis. However, when glial cells are exposed to cannabis they survive due to oxidative stress protection.   
  • Neurological disorder is a general term for diseases and conditions stemming from an impaired brain. An example is epilepsy which is characterised by seizures that cause uncontrollable muscular activity. CBD medicine is used to treat epilepsy in children and adults and users have reported a decrease in the number of seizures. The side-effects of the medication include weight loss due to loss of appetite, tiredness, and diarrhoea.  
  • Inflammation is the result of the body’s defence mechanism from stimuli such as irritants, cell damage, and pathogens. An example is rheumatoid arthritis, an inflammation of the joints and surrounding tissue that causes pain and swelling. CBD gel medicine has been shown to reduce pain and swelling due to its anti-inflammatory and analgesic activities. 
  • Headaches & pain are common conditions that can result from an illness, injury, stress, etc. There are different types of headaches such as allergy headache, cluster headache, tension headache and migraine. The analgesic activity in CBD medicine is useful for treating dull and chronic pain. 
  • Dermatological disorders encompasses a range of skin ailments and conditions, such as dermatitis which is caused by inflammation. For example, eczema is a type of atopic dermatitis that causes skin redness and itching. Hemp seed oil is consumed and or applied topically to reduce skin itchiness, redness, and roughness. 

Non-conventional uses, preparation, & administration:

  • Idliso – also known as food poisoning. C. sativa is used to make an emetic that is taken to induce emesis to get rid of idliso
  • Iphika – also known as shortness of breath that may be caused by impundulu (lightning bird). The aerial parts of C. sativa are boiled in milk and taken to treat iphika
  • Blood pressure – the leaves are boiled in water to make a decoction that is taken to lower high blood pressure. 
  • Tonic – the leaves are used to make a tonic that is taken for blood purification and as an immune system booster. 
  • Respiratory complaints – the leaves are boiled in water and the decoction administered as an emetic to treat respiratory related ailments such as bronchitis, cough, cold, and flu.
  • Dry cough – the leaves are mixed with isibhaha (Warburgia salutaris) bark. The mixture is administered by smoking. 
  • Asthma – the leaves are mixed with the male bud of the banana and taken to treat asthma. 
  • Child weaning – Sotho people ground the seeds and mix them with pap (mealie-pap) or bread. This mixture is administered to children during weaning. 
  • Delivery stupor – pregnant women smoke the leaves to stupefy themselves during childbirth. 
  • Spirituality – Rastafarians use the leaves (holy herbs) to make a ganja that is used to produce a heightened spiritual state. 
  • Weight loss – the leaves are smoked to lose weight. 
  • Ulcers – the leaves are used to treat ulcers.
  • Space cookies – also known as dagga cookies, are cookies baked with C. sativa leaves, which are consumed to induce euphoria. 

Besides making hemp seed oil, hemp seeds are also used to make hemp tea, hemp-infused beer and wine, hemp milk, and hemp chips.

In most places, the use of C. sativa is still illegal for recreational use but legal for medicinal uses to treat cancer, hypertension, asthma, and diabetes.

Although research shows that C. sativa is safe for human use, the recommended dosage (Health-Based Guidance Value) is 4 mg per day in a 70 kg adult.

Learn about the plants and concepts mentioned in this article, by accessing impundulu (Lightning bird), isibhaha (Warburgia salutaris) and idliso.

Safety precaution:

The use of traditional medicine in prescribed dosages will yield good results. Misuse and abuse may lead to complications. To learn about correct dosage, consult a traditional healer or a herbalist. You can also visit or email: to learn more about traditional medicine. 

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