Have you been trying to convince a friend or family member to give cannabis a try? Herb’s “what is marijuana?” guide will answer all their questions.
Marijuana is a term used to describe the dried flowers, leaves, stems, and seeds from the Cannabis sativa or Cannabis indica plant (and their respective strains: skywalker og strain, blue cheese weed, harlequin marijuana, etcetera). The plant contains the consciousness-altering chemical tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), responsible for the high. It also contains the non-psychoactive but therapeutic chemical cannabidiol (CBD) and other cannabinoids. Besides the familiar form of dried flowers, marijuana can be made into concentrates and extracts. These include hashish, tinctures, hash oils, waxes, topical balms, and capsules. It is also commonly prepared in edible forms.
Marijuana is the most commonly used illegal drug in the United States. More than 11 million young adults from 18 to 25 years old used the substance in 2015, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Rates of use among middle school and high school students have dropped off in the past few years, after several years of increase. With increased information available, however, the number of young people who believe regular use is risky is still decreasing.
Societal changes including greater acceptance of marijuana use have led to its legalization for medicinal or adult recreational use. More than half the states in the U.S. have some sort of medical marijuana law. Nine states plus the District of Columbia (Washington, D.C.) have legalized outright, for adults.
Marijuana was once used medicinally worldwide. It had been a valued part of the pharmacopeia in both Eastern and Western societies before it was prohibited. Ancient texts from Egypt, Greece, the Middle East, India, and China refer to its medical benefits.
By the 19th century, the use of marijuana as a medicine was common throughout much of the world. Many people don’t realize today that it was once a primary pain reliever and could be purchased in pharmacies without a prescription. Even Great Britain’s Queen Victoria used the herb; it was given to the queen by her doctor for menstrual pain. But after the first federal prohibition law was passed in 1937, it was banished both from medicine and from polite society.
Despite marijuana’s history of medicinal use, it was categorized under Schedule I by the U.S. federal government in 1971. This happened as part of President Richard Nixon’s War on Drugs. According to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, Schedule I means the substance has a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical uses. Despite hundreds of scientific studies indicating otherwise, marijuana is listed on Schedule I alongside heroin. Even cocaine and methamphetamine are considered less dangerous, as Schedule II drugs.
The medical marijuana movement’s first big victory came in 1996, with the legalization for medicinal use by California voters. Oregon and Washington state voters followed suit in 1998. By 2018, 30 states plus D.C. had legalized its medicinal use. Polls show support for medical marijuana ranging from 60 to more than 80 percent. Canada’s federal government legalized medical use in 2001, and recreational use in 2018. Other nations including the Netherlands, Israel, Italy, Finland, and Germany have medical programs.
A 2009 roundup of clinical evidence for the efficacy of medical marijuana was published as a landmark article in the Journal of Opioid Management. In the article, University of Washington researcher Dr. Sunil Aggarwal and his colleagues documented 33 controlled clinical trials. The trials were published over a 38-year period from 1971 to 2009. All confirmed that it is a safe, effective medicine for specific medical conditions. “In fact,” Aggarwal and colleagues wrote, “nearly all of the 33 published controlled clinical trials conducted in the United States have shown significant and measurable benefits in subjects receiving the treatment.”
Notably absent from medical marijuana patients in the published trials, in contrast to opiate drugs, are withdrawal symptoms and other signs of addiction. Adverse effects were relatively rare. “The vast majority of reported adverse effects were not serious,” the study noted. “It is clear that as an analgesic, cannabis is extremely safe with minimal toxicity.”
The reason for the widespread and varied medicinal effects of marijuana is the existence of the human endocannabinoid system (ECS). The ECS consists of cannabinoid receptors located throughout the human body but concentrated in the brain, liver, and digestive system. These receptors bind with the body’s own naturally occurring THC analog, anandamide. And it just so happens that the cannabinoids such as THC also fit into the CB-1 and CB-2 receptors, similar to a lock and key. This is the physiological explanation of why marijuana is both psychoactive (consciousness-altering) and medicinally beneficial.
Marijuana extracts and concentrates are common. Concentrates such as butane hash oil (BHO), CO2-extracted hash oil, and rosin (solvent-free hash oil prepared through heat and pressure) are popular for “dabbing.” Dabbing can quickly deliver large doses of THC to the body. BHO comes in many forms, including honey oil, was, budder (with a texture like lip balm), and shatter (a brittle, amber-colored solid).
Marijuana is commonly cooked into foods such as brownies, cookies, and even casseroles and ice cream. Many marijuana chefs consider it a point of pride that they can infuse practically any food available.
Infusions of food are usually accomplished through extracts such as cannabutter, hash oil, or kief. Cannabutter is simply regular butter which has been infused with the active ingredients of marijuana.
It seems likely that our ancient ancestors first discovered the consciousness-altering powers of marijuana when they threw a couple plants on the campfire, perhaps either in a cave or a tent, thus inhaling the smoke.
Archaeologists sifting through the contents of bronze urns from Scythian culture have found marijuana seeds. These likely mean that the Scythians—who live in what is today the Ukraine and southern Russia—used and cultivated the plant.
Those discoveries confirm the notes of historian Herodotus from 440 BC that the ancient Scythians knew about the weed’s unique psychoactive effects.
“Now, there is a plant called cannabis, which grows in their land. Well, the Scythians take the seeds of this cannabis … and throw the seeds onto the blazing-hot stones … When the seeds hit the stones, they produce smoke and give off a vapor such as no steam bath in Hellas could surpass. The Scythians howl, awed and elated by the vapor.” ~ Herodotus
Since the seeds themselves contain no THC, many of them must have still been inside the seed bract. It so happens these contain the heaviest concentrations of psychoactive cannabinoids found anywhere on the plant.
Be aware of the legal status of marijuana where you live. Marijuana is still illegal for recreational use in 41 U.S. states. Many haven’t even gotten around to passing compassionate medical marijuana laws.
Simple possession can still get you in a lot of trouble. If you think that’s nonsense, do your part to change the situation by working for a loosening of the pot laws. The ultimate goal, of course, is the repeal of the pot laws, meaning full legalization for adults.
For a handy reference on which states have legalized and which haven’t, see this map from Governing.
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