From Seed to Sale:  The Lifecycle of a Cannabis Plant
Now that cannabis is legalized in many states across the country, you’re free to pick up your favorite bud or strain at your local dispensary without fear of stepping on any legal toes.

But what you might not know from perusing products at your favorite shop is just how much time and effort goes into growing cannabis and creating a product that's ready for retail.

Cannabis cultivation involves a lot more than just planting a few seeds, watering the plant, and harvesting it when it's ready. There's plenty that goes on behind the scenes. In fact, it can take as long as four months or more before the cannabis can be processed and packaged for the market.

So what exactly goes on during these weeks from seed planting to retail? 

Let’s take a look at the different lifecycle phases of the cannabis plant.

Phase 1: Cultivation

The cultivation stage of the cannabis plant's life cycle can be broken down into the following five stages.

Seed Stage

Like other plant life, a cannabis seed will need to be planted and germinated to grow. During this stage of cannabis cultivation, the seeds are germinated using water, heat, and air. After about five to 10 days, the seeds will have germinated, which occurs when the seed pops and a sprout emerges. 

At this point, the seed is ready to be planted in the aggregate of choice. As the roots make their way down into the medium and the stem grows upward, leaves will grow and disperse from the stem. Once leaves start to grow, the plant will be considered a seedling, which is the next phase of the plant's life cycle. 

These days, commercial marijuana growers sometimes bypass the seed phase and grow their plants from cuttings of plants that are already established, which can significantly cut down the amount of time it takes to reach the final stages. Essentially, using cuttings is a form of cloning a female cannabis plant - or "mother plant" - which creates a genetically identical plant. 

Using cuttings is especially useful if growers know the exact characteristics they're looking for and can get them from specific cannabis strains. 

Seedling Stage

Once the cannabis plant starts to sprout leaves with all their blades, the plant is considered a seedling. During this stage, the plant is still quite delicate and tends to be more at risk for disease. Growers must be very vigilant with their seedlings to ensure they're not overwatered and are provided with ideal levels of heat, sunlight, and moisture. 

If using cuttings, growers will plant them into small containers in a heavily-regulated environment until they're ready to be transplanted into a larger container, usually after a couple of weeks. 

Vegetative Stage

Up to this point, the plant has changed relatively rapidly and significantly from its initial days as a seed. But it's during the vegetation phase that major developments take place in the cannabis plant. 

While very little water may have been required when the plant was much smaller and had very few roots, at this stage of the game, the plant will need a lot more. Plenty of nutrients will also be added to the soil during this phase, including healthy doses of nitrogen. 

The amount of light that the plant receives will play a key role in how well the plant grows up and out. At some point, the grower will reduce the amount of light to encourage the plant to flower. But during the vegetative stage, the plant is exposed to about 18 hours of light a day. 

Flowering Stage 

The last stage of growth for the cannabis plant ends with the flowering stage, which is the point where the grower will reduce the amount of light. Lowering the number of hours a day that the plant receives light will help encourage the growth of the plant's flowers. 

It's also at this point that the sex of the plants will be noticeable. It's essential to pay attention to what the sexes are and separate them accordingly, to prevent the male plants from pollinating the female plants. As such, any male plants identified are removed immediately. 

To tell the difference between male and female plants, look closely at the stalk for little buds nestled between the branches and leaves. If these little buds have small, translucent hairs growing from them, you’re looking at a female plant. If there are no hairs, it’s a male plant.

Male and female plants have different uses. Female plants are where we get the cannabis products we consume. Male plants, on the other hand, are used for breeding, hemp fiber and other industrial uses.  


Cannabis plants are ready for harvesting when the colors of the pistils on the buds turn orange. The heads of the trichomes coming out of the ripe buds will also show signs that they're ready. 

Trichomes that contain the cannabinoids of the plant, predominantly tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), as well as the terpenes, which give the buds their unique flavor, aroma and healing properties. 

Growers will typically take a closer look at the trichome resin dripping buds with a microscope to ensure that they're milky and amber instead of clear, which means they'll likely have a higher THC to CBD profile ratio and are ready for cutting. 

During the harvesting phase, the cannabis plants are cut and the buds are separated from the leaves and stems. 

Once the cannabis plant has been successfully harvested, the buds are ready to be prepared into their final product. 

Read More: Across the Country with Cannabis: Exploring Regional Differences

Once the cannabis products have been properly packaged and labeled, they're ready for distribution to retail dispensaries.

Phase 2: Preparation For Distribution

The cut plants may be fully grown and harvested, but now is the time to prepare them for commercial and consumer distribution and use, which requires a few stages before the buds arrive at their destination. 


Cannabis buds are typically sold in their dry state. The freshly cut and harvested plants need a week or two to fully dry, after which they're stored in jars or plastic bags to help minimize the amount of humidity that the buds are exposed to. Every day, growers check on the bags or jars and open them up to ensure the moisture levels aren't too high. 

After the cannabis has been thoroughly dried, growers categorize the buds by their size. When both large and small buds are useful, each has its place in the world of cannabis use. For instance, smaller buds are typically better suited for oils, while larger ones are usually optimal for dried flower sales. 


Like any other commercially-distributed product, the cannabis buds must be tested for quality before they're sold in the market. The testing phase involves having a laboratory - preferably a third-party lab - thoroughly test the cannabis buds to rule out any toxins or debris and ensure the product is good quality. This phase will also help identify the CBD:THC ratio of the bud — higher levels of THC will produce more psychoactive effects, which need to be properly labeled before distribution. 

If the cannabis passes the lab tests, it's ready for processing. 

Processing and Extraction

Cannabis buds that are designated for oil and other cannabis products are then processed accordingly to create the desired result. 

To draw out the cannabis oil, the buds are put through an extraction process. There are several extraction processes available, including CO2, hydrocarbon, and ethanol extraction.

The idea is to separate the cannabinoids from the cannabis plant. What you're then left with is a dried product and a liquid containing the cannabinoids, the latter of which is mixed with an oil that's packaged into capsules or bottles to be sold. 

Packaging and Labeling 

Cannabis manufacturers have strict regulations in terms of how they can legally package and label their cannabis products. For instance, in California, new laws will require child-resistant primary packaging on the majority of items, according to the California Department of Public Health, which will take effect January 1, 2020.

Current packaging and labeling regulations in the US allow manufacturers and distributors to package and label cannabis products. Retailers, on the other hand, aren't allowed to label products.

Cannabis edibles, topicals, and oral concentrates must have specific information included on the product package. And for inhaled cannabis products, the package must have a stamped Universal Symbol. Government warnings will also need to be included on labels for cannabis pre-rolls and packaged flowers.

Read More: History of Hemp in the United States

Phase 3: Final Stage

The above phases can take weeks until the cannabis product is ready for actual distribution and sale to consumers. 

Distribution and Sale

Once the cannabis products have been properly packaged and labeled, they're ready for distribution to retail dispensaries. However, the distribution of cannabis products needs to be confined within state lines. Right now, it's illegal to transport cannabis products across state lines, even if it's being taken from one legal state and delivered to a neighboring legal state.

That's because cannabis is still considered illegal under federal law. So, manufacturers who plan to distribute and sell their products to retailers need to make sure they follow their state laws as well as federal laws regarding lawful cannabis product distribution.

Once the products make it to the shelves of marijuana dispensaries, it's ready to enjoy. 

It takes several weeks for a cannabis plant to make it from seed to sale. Cultivators use a very involved process to develop a healthy plant to produce the products you know and love.

Want to learn more about growing cannabis? Find out how to grow cannabis indoors with this step-by-step guide