Cannabis, also known (in one drug form) as marijuana, is any of several different species of mildly hallucinogenic dioecious plants whose main active ingredient is delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. Read our detailed post to learn more about Cannabis.
Cannabis is a member of the family Cannabinaceae, in the order Rosales. It grows in most climates. The tough fiber of the cannabis plant is known as hemp and has various uses, including the manufacture of cloth, rope, and paper.
Pharmacology of Cannabis
Although the main psychoactive substance in cannabis is THC, the plant contains about 60 cannabinoid’s in total. The complexity of this mixture has led to speculation as to why the effects of the plant can differ from the synthetically manufactured dronabinol.
The THC content is also affected by the sex of the plant, with female plants generating more THC-laden resin than their male counterparts. Sinsemilla (from the Spanish for “without seed”) is derived from un-pollinated female plants and has an even higher THC content.
The Euphoric Effects of Cannabis
Cannabis is psychoactive, meaning it affects the mind and/or behaviour. Its main effects include a “mellow” good feeling as well as giggling, and the frequent short-term side-effect of increased appetite (the “munchies”). Larger doses can cause an increased perception of sight and sound, eventually leading to mild hallucination, usually auditory.
Other effects include paranoia, short-term memory loss, and nausea, especially if used in combination with alcohol.
No overdose due to cannabis has ever been recorded in two millennia of medical history. The estimated lethal dose of cannabis is 20,000 to 40,000 times the level of a normal dose. In comparison, most prescribed drugs have a lethal dose around 10 times the normal dose.
Although a mild tolerance of the drug can be built up, it is generally not thought to be addictive. However, some people can build up a psychological dependence. There is some evidence linking long-term use to depression as well as aggravation of pre-existing mental conditions.
The long-term effects of cannabis still need more study. One of the most important and widely shared concerns regarding cannabis is that its high tar content (especially when it is combined with tobacco, as is common in Great Britain) could lead to an increased risk of lung cancer.
Medical Cannabis Uses for Treatment
Medical uses of marijuana for a variety of conditions are currently being investigated. Anecdotal evidence reports that it has beneficial effects relieving the nausea of chemotherapy and AIDS treatment, its appetite-stimulating effect helping combat wasting. It may also help reduce fluid pressure in the eyes associated with glaucoma. Numerous studies have shown that it can help reduce the pain and tremors of multiple sclerosis.
Medical marijuana is also being tested in Britain as a form of natural pain-killer for use by patients with severe intractable pain from spinal or other major injuries. The studies have used a self-administered spray form of cannabis extract, and one of their aims has been to find the optimal dosage to gain medicinal benefits without the ‘high’ normally associated with marijuana use.
Some patients in the British study have reported remarkable success with the treatment, while it has been ineffective for others.
The History of Cannabis
The use of cannabis is thought to go back at least 5000 years. Neolithic archaeology grounds in China include cannabis seeds and plants. The first known mention of cannabis was in a Chinese medical text of 2737BC. It was used as medicine throughout Asia and the Middle East to treat a variety of conditions. In India particularly, cannabis was associated with Shiva.
Cannabis was well known to the Scythians. Germans have grown hemp for its fibres–used to make nautical ropes and material for clothes–since ancient times. In the Elbing Prussian vocabulary from around 1350, hemp is recorded as knapis (derived from cannabis). Large fields of hemp along the banks of the Rhine are featured in 19th-century copper etchings.
The hemp plant has to be soaked to harvest the fiber. This liquid was used as a drink. In today’s Germany there are bars that serve hemp beer and hemp wine (edit: while this may be true those drinks will not contain any THC because as a drug cannabis is still outlawed in Germany and only so-called “industrial hemp” that doesn’t contain any THC may be grown for production of fibers and said drinks).
Cannabis was used medicinally in the western world (usually as a tincture or smoked with a bong) around the middle of the 19th century. It was famously used by Queen Victoria to treat menstrual pains, and was available from shops in the US. By the end of the 19th century its medicinal use began to fall as other drugs such as aspirin took over.
- It was outlawed in the USA in the 1930s.
- It has a prominent religious role in the Rastafarian religion.
- Although it has probably been used as a recreational drug throughout its history, it came to prominence in the jazz scene during the fifties, its use taking off in the 1960s.
- It is now one of the most widely used illicit drugs in the world.
Recreational use is illegal in most countries, see the next section.
Recreational use of cannabis has an associated subculture which starts with the number of names for the drug. Examples include: “pot”, “dope”, “weed”, “reefer”, “bhang”, “green”, “herb”, “ganja”, “sinsemilla”, “grass”, “mary jane”, “chronic”, “bud” and many more.
Cannabis comes in several forms.
Dried buds (usually the flowering tops of female plants), known as marijuana. Cannabis resin (hashish) which is the secretion of the plant, usually dried and processed onto blocks. Cannabis oil (“honey oil”, “Hash Oil”) which is a concentrate usually involving a solvent based extraction.
Cannabis can be smoked many different ways.
Other methods include using pipes or bongs (water pipes) to smoke the cannabis whilst cooling the smoke down and, in the case of bongs, removing some of the unwanted impurities/tar. In addition, a drink called bhang can be prepared. See also hashish and hashish oil.
Cannabis is also cooked to make things such as Alice B. Toklas brownies, “space cake”, “pot pie”, and “hash brownies”. However, the effects of ingested cannabis usually do not take effect for over 30 minutes, making it harder for users to regulate their consumption.
Another method of ingestion is vaporization. Vaporization allows the Cannabis resins (THC and other Cannabinoids) to be extracted into a vapor by heating without actually burning the plant material. This is advantageous because most of the toxic chemicals found in Cannabis and Tobacco smoke are byproducts of the combustion process.
By heating the Cannabis to about 190 degrees Celsius, the Cannabis resins are released into a vapor but the plant material is not actually burned. This vapor can then be inhaled and the effects of the drug will be felt as quickly as if it were smoked. Vaporization is the perfect option for people who do not like the dangers associated with smoking.
Cannabis can also be taken by dissolving it in cups of coffee, creating a “bhang”.
History of Cannabis Laws
Marijuana was criminalized across most of the world in the early parts of the 20th century. There is some confusion as to the reasons as there seems to be different driving forces on either side of the Atlantic.
In the US the key law seems to be the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act which was the federal culmination of many separate state laws that had been enacted in the previous years. This may have been in response to lobbying by makers of synthetic fibers that competed with hemp.
Laws usually govern distribution, cultivation, and possession for personal use. Enforcement of the law varies from country to country. Some notable examples include the Netherlands, where cannabis is effectively decriminalized and can be purchased in licensed “coffee shops”.
In many countries, police exercise their discretionary powers to caution users or confiscate cannabis for possession in small quantities that could be deemed for personal use, especially for medical reasons.
A recent example was the declaration by police in Brixton, England, that they would not arrest people for possession of cannabis and instead only issue on-the-spot warnings and confiscate the cannabis. Following this trial, the reclassification of cannabis from Class B to Class C was recommended by the Home Secretary in October 2001.
The state of South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory have decriminalized possession of small quantities of cannabis and growing limited numbers of plants for personal use; the government merely charges an on-the-spot fine of A$50. Police interest in personal usage and non-commercial growers in the rest of Australia appears to be limited.
As of early 2000s, Canada and some other countries have started to recognize medicinal use of cannabis separately from “normal” possession. Canada, even recently, decriminalized all Cannabis use, including recreational.