The Cannabis Plant: A Look into the World of Marijuana
Marijuana, also known as pot, weed, ganja, and Mary Jane, among other nicknames, comes from the Cannabis plant. The plant has three species: Cannabis sativa, Cannabis indica, and Cannabis ruderalis. It is one of the oldest psychoactive substances used by man, likely originating in the Central Asian steppe near the Altai or Tian Shian Mountains and first cultivated in China and India.
The leaves, stems, flower buds, and extracts of the marijuana plant can be eaten, brewed in a tea, or put into a tincture. It can also be vaporized using an e-cigarette pen, as found by Yale University researchers who surveyed 3,847 Connecticut high school students in a 2015 study published in the journal Pediatrics. The study found that nearly one in five e-cigarette users also vaporize cannabis or its byproducts like hash oil using the device.
Scientists believe tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is responsible for the drug’s psychoactive effects. THC binds to cannabinoid receptors throughout the body, and the “high” from marijuana comes from THC’s binding to brain regions responsible for pleasure, time perception, and pain. This binding triggers a chemical cascade that eventually stimulates the production of dopamine, a brain chemical often called the “feel-good chemical,” which is part of the body’s reward system.
Marijuana has been found to have medical benefits, such as soothing nausea, increasing appetite, and reducing pain, anxiety, and epileptic seizures. Other research on the healing effects of cannabis is still being examined. Additionally, more than half of the United States has legalized marijuana for medical use.
However, THC in marijuana has increased over the past few decades. In the early 1990s, the average THC content in marijuana was about 3.74 percent, while in 2013, it was almost 10 percent, according to NIDA. Short-term drug use impairs thinking and coordination, while long-term use has been linked to lower I.Q.s in teens and structural differences in their brains.
Marijuana use has also been linked to mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and an increased likelihood of suffering from bronchitis, stroke, and heart failure, according to various studies. Despite the potential risks, marijuana remains a popular recreational drug and an ongoing topic of scientific research.
The History of Cannabis
According to “Marijuana: The First Twelve-Thousand Years” (Springer, 1980), the pottery fragments with a twisted strand imprinted around the edge discovered at a 10,000-year-old archaeological site in Taiwan were believed to be made by pressing a rope made of hemp, the fibers made from the cannabis plant, across the wet clay.
Ancient China widely used hemp fabric to make clothing, and a Chinese medicinal textbook, the Pen Ts’ao, credited to an emperor in 2800 B.C., claims that “Ma,” or marijuana, was a powerful medicinal plant. Burnt cannabis seeds dating back to 3000 B.C. were found in Siberian burial mounds.
“Industrial and medical use has been around for millennia,” said Earleywine to Live Science.
Carl Linnaeus gave the plant its taxonomic identification in 1753, and the medical doctor William O’Shaughnessy thoroughly described it to Westerners in the 1800s when he presented a report to the Medical and Physical Society of Calcutta in India in 1839. O’Shaughnessy did a few cases reports on “gunjah,” the Indian name for the drug, describing its effects on people.
O’Shaughnessy also conducted some of the first clinical trials of the drug, giving tinctures to dogs, cats, mice, and rabbits. According to Earleywine, the drug became popular in Europe when Napoleon’s troops returned from Egypt.
American history of Cannabis
In the 1800s, Cannabis extract was a popular medicinal drug in the Americas. However, in the 1900s, attitudes toward medicine began to shift. Mexican immigrants were linked to the recreational version of the drug, and anti-immigrant feelings fueled marijuana prohibition in the 1920s.
By the 1930s, marijuana was prohibited in 24 states. The newly established Federal Bureau of Narcotics began a campaign against the drug, and newspapers created hysteria with headlines like the “Murder Weed Found Up and Down the Coast — Deadly Marihuana Dope Plant Ready for Harvest That Means Enslavement of California Children” from the 1933 Los Angeles Examiner. In 1937, Congress passed the Marihuana Tax Act, which essentially banned marijuana except for a few medicinal purposes, according to “Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana – Medical, Recreational and Legal” (Scribner, 2012).
In the 1950s, the Narcotics Control Act and the Boggs Act increased penalties for marijuana possession, with first-time offenders facing two to 10-year sentences and a minimum $20,000 fine, according to PBS.org. While penalties were relaxed in the 1970s, President Ronald Reagan increased federal penalties for marijuana possession in the 1980s. On the national level, marijuana is currently regulated under the Controlled Substances Act as a schedule 1 drug. The government considers it to have a high potential for abuse and no legitimate medical or therapeutic uses.
Nevertheless, numerous states have legalized or decriminalized marijuana. As of early 2017, 26 states and the District of Columbia had legalized pot for medical and/or recreational use, with other states expected to follow suit.
The Cannabis plant grows up to 18 feet tall and can be found along roadsides and driveways due to stray seeds. Marijuana stems have thin, jagged leaves that branch into five to seven fingers, with small, greenish flowers that grow in clusters.
The type of Cannabis grown for industrial purposes is called industrial marijuana or hemp. It typically has low concentrations of THC but has a variety of uses. The seeds can be crushed for oil, food, and beauty products, while the fibers can be used for paper, sturdy fabrics, and rope. People have grown hemp for thousands of years.
Despite its long history of use, hemp farming is prohibited mainly by current U.S. federal law, with only a few exceptions. However, hemp products are legal and can be imported from countries like Canada, Russia, China, and others that permit industrial marijuana farming.