The Essential Guide to Cannabis
(Marijuana, Weed, Bud, Pot, Ganja, Green, Grass, Dope, Kif, Herb)
Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), Cannabidiol (CBD), and other compounds
Cannabis is a fast-growing, flowering plant native to Asia and the Indian subcontinent. For many thousands of years, however, it has been cultivated around the world for use in textiles, medicine, and spirituality, so it now grows on every continent but Antarctica. Cannabis is the only known source of the psychoactive cannabinoids THC and CBD. These are concentrated around the plant’s sticky, resinous flowers to serve as a protective layer against predators.
Cannabis comes in a variety of forms for consumption, the most popular being dried buds, which are usually consumed in a joint, bong, pipe, or vaporizer. The resin may also be extracted to make hashish (hash), dabs (shatter, budder, etc.), oils, or tinctures. Oils in particular (or more traditionally cannabis-infused butter) can be used to make edible cannabis products, such as the classic “space cake” or pot brownies.
Despite its diverse and proven therapeutic benefits, cannabis has been prohibited in most countries since the early 20th century. Unfortunately, prohibition has also set research back decades. More recently, thanks to the efforts of activists, attitudes have substantially changed. Decriminalization and legalization in the United States and elsewhere has been both effective and problem-free. It has also seen a rise in the popularity of mass-produced edibles, including candy bars, gummies, and THC-infused sodas.
History & Stats02
Archeological records date the earliest cannabis cultivation to more than 10,000 years ago, when it appeared concurrently in Europe and Asia. Fibers from the Eurasian nation of Georgia also suggest that wild cannabis was in use much earlier—perhaps as early as 30,000 years ago—for textiles and rope.
The discovery of cannabis seeds, woven fibers, and cave paintings from the Japanese Jōmon period (10,000-300 BC) indicate the plant’s role in bow string and fishing line manufacture. From at least the 8th century, it was also considered a symbol of virtue in Japan, appearing in Shinto ceremonies, bridalwear, classical poetry, and the childhood exhortation to grow as tall and as straight as C. sativa. For this reason, the geometric asa no ha fabric design, based on interlocking hemp leaves, was traditionally worn by children.
The ancient Chinese valued cannabis not only for its hempen fibers (which they used to make paper and textiles) but also for its myriad medical benefits. The mythical emperor Shennong is said to have prescribed the plant for more than 100 medical conditions, including malaria, beriberi (thiamine deficiency), constipation, rheumatic pains, absent-mindedness, and “female disorders.” The resin in particular was mixed with wine and used as a surgical analgesic.
Interestingly, the psychoactive properties of cannabis appear to have been largely ignored in China up until the 6th century BC, when they were hinted at somewhat disapprovingly in Zhou Dynasty inscriptions and the writings of Confucius. They were also described in the ancient Chinese pharmacopeia, the Shennong Ben Cao Jing, as hallucinations or “seeing devils.” It was said that necromancers exploited these effects with ginseng to peer into the future.
In India, cannabis was taken for a variety of ailments, including dysentery, dandruff, headaches, fever, insomnia, ear ache, venereal disease, whooping cough, tuberculosis, and “poor judgment.” And according to the 6th century physician Sushruta, it could even be used to cure leprosy. In fact, cannabis was so venerated by the ancient Indians that while sowing, weeding, or harvesting the plant, they would chant the name “Gangi” for Shiva.
Among the first to embrace cannabis for its psychoactivity were the Bronze Age Yamnaya, one of three tribes thought to have founded European civilization. They are believed to have learned about it from the ancient Assyrians or Sumerians in their contact along the ‘Bronze Road’ trade route (an early precursor to the Silk Road connecting China and Europe).
In the 5th century BC, Herodotus actually gave a firsthand account of cannabis use among the Scythians, the Yamnaya’s direct descendants. These fearsome Eurasian horsemen, he wrote, would “shout for joy” as the effects kicked in—their preferred method of consumption being to inhale the smoke of burning seeds in low, felt tents. The Scythians were also responsible for spreading cannabis further west, where the Greeks and Romans used it to make ropes, entertain guests, and drive insects and worms from the ears.
According to Hindu tradition, cannabis sprouted from Amrita, the nectar of heaven, to bestow magical gifts upon mortals. As one of the five sacred plants referred to in the Vedas, it features heavily in the cultural and religious traditions of India.
Bhang (cannabis paste), for instance, has long been consumed in spicy, sweetened milk at weddings and holy festivals. It also features in Tantric sex yoga as an aid for uniting body and mind. Meanwhile, charas (a type of hash smoked in a chillum) is sometimes combined with datura, opium, tobacco, or crystallized cobra venom for use in occult ceremonies. All three of the traditional Indian preparations—bhang, charas, and ganja (the dried buds)—are especially prevalent during Holi, the spring festival of colors and love. For many, this is an occasion for getting high, subverting the orthodox caste system, and pelting one another with colorful powdered dyes.
The soma referred to in the Vedas as an “elixir of life” is often conflated with cannabis. And the cannabis plant is sacred to a number of other spiritual schools, including Tibetan Buddhism. In fact, the Buddha himself is said to have lived on just one hemp seed a day as an ascetic. Similarly, in the Zoroastrian Avesta, cannabis is referred to as the “good narcotic,” the best of 10,000 medicinal plants.
Despite its historical significance within black culture, cannabis is not indigenous to Africa. It only reached the southern and central parts of the continent by way of traders in the north. But when it did, it was readily accepted. The Balubas of the Congo, for example, smoked it on feast days and the Bashilenge revered it as a protector.
Of course, the best known use of cannabis as a religious sacrament is that of the Rastafari. Ganja thrives in Jamaica’s climate and, though banned by successive governments, it is still widely grown and shared among Rastas. The first time a child smokes the plant, they say, he or she receives a vision of their life’s purpose.
Primarily featuring in Nyabinghi ceremonies, cannabis is used by Rastas to praise God, commemorate Haile Selassie, and harmonize with the forces of life. This typically involves round-the-clock chanting, drumming, and ganja-induced trance states, sometimes for days on end.
During the 1970s Bob Marley became the global face of the Rastafari movement, as well as for cannabis more generally. In his view, ganja remains a threat to the rich and powerful, and therefore illegal, because it inspires people to reject materialism in favor of something more meaningful.
In support of its sacramental use, Rastas point to various Bible passages, including Genesis 1:29, “behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth,” and Psalms 104:14, “he causeth the grass to grow for the cattle, and herb for the service of man.”
Judaism also recognizes the scriptural significance of cannabis. The kaneh bosem of the Torah, for example, while often translated as “fragrant cane,” is sometimes presumed to be cannabis. Either way, Moses used this plant to make a sacred anointing oil, as directed by God as the burning bush (Exodus 30:31). And it’s also thought that ancient Israelites used cannabis to worship the pagan goddess Asherah long before monotheism.
Pope Innocent VIII declared cannabis sacrilegious in the fifteenth century, linking it to satanism, but it may also have been used by Jesus. Indeed, cannabis oil may help to explain his medical miracles, as referenced in Mark 6:13: “They cast out many devils, and anointed with oil many that were sick and healed them.” The title of “Christ” itself actually comes from the Greek word christos, meaning “anointed,” which, according to the Gnostics, applies to anyone smeared with the oil—not just Jesus. Actually, anointing with chrism, as the holy oil is known, may be far more crucial to baptism than water, which might only be meant for cleansing.
Meanwhile in the Islamic world, and in Sufism in particular, hash has been used for centuries to attain direct insights from Allah. Furthermore, in his travels, Marco Polo heard of the Persian missionary Hassan-i Sabbah, who used a hash-based drink to simulate Paradise for his acolytes. The promise of returning to this dreamlike state, he wrote, was all the incentive they needed to carry out Sabbah’s commands.
Empire and Trade
By the time of the colonial slave trade, cannabis was popular throughout the African continent—from Morocco to Mozambique. So when the French and British Angolans found themselves shipped off to Brazil in chains during the 16th century, they were keen to take cannabis with them. And mercifully, plantation owners actually allowed them to grow and smoke it because it tended to boost motivation.
Cannabis was also grown as industrial hemp by the Spanish in South America and by the British in Canada and Virginia, largely to supply their navies with superior quality ropes. Pilgrims used hemp to make clothes and George Washington was enthusiastic about growing.
Cannabis was a valuable commodity elsewhere too. By the late 1800s, 70,000-80,000 kg of hash were imported from Central Asia to India each year. Edward O’Shaughnessy, who lived there during the 19th century, observed its Ayurvedic use and was among the first Western physicians to re-introduce cannabis to Europe. As a tincture it was hailed by medical journals and doctors, as well as by Queen Victoria who took it for menstrual cramps. It was also added to the US Pharmacopeia in 1850, prescribed for conditions as diverse as rabies, anthrax, and alcoholism. Pharmacists at the Centennial Exposition of 1876 in Philadelphia are said to have carried huge mounds of cannabis to sell.
Around the same time, Parisian intellectuals like Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas were experimenting with the psychedelic effects of hash, which had found its way into France from Egypt with Napoleon’s returning troops. Led by Jacques-Joseph Moreau, the Club des Hachichins met in a gothic townhouse on the Seine to consume strong coffee with a paste made from hash, spices, pistachio, butter, and cantharides (little green beetles used in medicine). Baudelaire described the effects as “absurd, irresistible hilarity,” “complete happiness,” and “calm and placid beatitude.” He also found tough philosophical problems suddenly “clear and transparent” on the drug.
Following the invention of the hypodermic needle toward the end of the 19th century, cannabis largely fell out of favor in medicine. Younger doctors tended to prefer morphine, despite its considerable risks.
Meanwhile, in India, the British thought of replacing cannabis with their own imported alcohol. However, the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission Report of 1894 found no justification to suppress the traditional use. In fact the report’s leader, J. M. Campbell, went so far as to praise cannabis, saying that it brought “union with the Divine spirit” and laid plain the mystery of his true identity.
Botany and Pharmacology
Cannabis sativa L. was named in 1753 by Carl Linnaeus (hence the ‘L’). Back then, he assumed it was the only species to belong to this new genus, which was originally considered a Fig (Moraceae) or Nettle (Urticaceae). In 1785, however, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck identified a second species and named it Cannabis indica. A third, Cannabis ruderalis, was discovered in the early 20th century but it’s largely non-psychoactive. C. Ruderalis is also sometimes described as a subspecies of C. sativa, and sometimes all three are.
Toward the end of the 19th century, cannabinol (CBN) was the first of the cannabinoids to be isolated. It was first synthesized in 1940 by Roger Adams in the US and Lord Todd in the UK. In the same year, Adams isolated cannabidiol (CBD). Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) was isolated in 1942 by Wollner, Matchett, Levine, and Loewe.
Both CBD and THC were studied more closely in the 1960s by Raphael Mechoulam, who was the first to synthesize them. After the synthesis of THC in particular, the race was on to develop more potent analogues on the one hand and, on the other, compounds that had all of the medical benefits and none of the psychoactive effects.
Pfizer introduced levonantradol, a powerful THC analogue, in the 1980s. Unlike opioid analgesics, its action was not blocked by naloxone and, being water soluble, it was easier to deliver than natural THC. Due to its psychoactivity, however, the manufacturer abandoned levonantradol. Another synthetic THC analogue, nabilone, was also withdrawn from the market for unknown “commercial reasons.”
It was also during this decade that the cannabinoid receptors were confirmed to exist by Allyn Howlett. This led to a search for the endogenous cannabinoids that interact with them. The first—Arachidonoyl ethanolamide (AEA)—was identified in 1992 by William Devane and Lumír Hanuš, and was given the name anandamide from the Sanskrit ananda, meaning “bliss,”. Interestingly, this endocannabinoid is released during vigorous exercise.
Since the 1960s, there has been great interest in making cannabis more psychoactive as well, giving rise to the first hash oil—“smash”—in 1967. In the early 1970s, sinsemilla was introduced as one of the first “super strains,” containing more than 10% THC. Skunk, another potent strain was developed at around the same time as a hybrid of C. sativa and indica.
Synthetic products such as Spice appeared in the 2000s. By 2011, the DEA had placed five of them in Schedule I. More recently, high-THC extracts called butane hash oil (BHO) or dabs have been growing in popularity throughout the United States and Canada—despite safety concerns over extraction.
The earliest stirrings of cannabis prohibition in the US began in 1860, when New York introduced state laws regulating “Indian Hemp.” Other states followed in the early 1900s, and, in 1906, the Pure Food and Drug Act made it mandatory to label any remedy containing cannabis. Since it was also mandatory to label medicines containing alcohol, morphine, opium, cocaine, and other controversial substances, the act clearly identified cannabis as dangerous.
Right from the beginning, recreational cannabis use was heavily associated with minorities. From the Buffalo Soldiers—the black cavalry units stationed along the Mexican border—to the immigrants coming across it, cannabis was generally seen as a drug “of color.” And as its use became more widespread in the US, particularly around El Paso and New Orleans, many Americans worried about it spreading to whites.
In 1915, California became the first state to enact cannabis prohibition, followed by Texas in 1919, Louisiana in 1924, and New York in 1927. In 1925, the US had voted at the International Opium Convention to support cannabis control, an issue raised on the agenda by Egypt and Turkey.
Based on these recommendations, the UK implemented its Dangerous Drugs Act in 1928, banning the recreational use of cannabis and leading to frequent raids on jazz clubs. In turn, this strengthened the association between cannabis and black people.
However, it wasn’t until the following decade that the real crackdown began. In 1930, Harry Anslinger, former chief of alcohol prohibition, was appointed commissioner of the newly created Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN). In this role, he took an extreme anti-cannabis stance and immediately set about soliciting recommendations for its ban.
Unfortunately for Anslinger, 29 out of 30 experts strongly objected to its prohibition. One even called the plan “absolute rot.” The only expert who didn’t object had just one isolated case of addiction to go on, and even he acknowledged it might be anomalous. Nevertheless, this was the only expert opinion that Anslinger kept on record. Also rejected were claims that cannabis was a cause of crime, but that didn’t stop Anslinger from harassing its users.
When the majority of states failed to adopt his unilateral anti-drug laws in 1935-36, he decided to change his tact and ban cannabis alone. In 1937, he brought in the Marihuana Tax Act. And the very next day, he arrested 57-year-old farmer Samuel Caldwell for selling cannabis to Moses Baca. Sentenced to four years’ hard labor, Caldwell died within a year of his release.
Many believe Anslinger had motives besides imposing his own version of moral order, and even beyond targeting blacks with his “new Jim Crow” laws. According to cannabis rights activist and author Jack Herer, Anslinger was actually conspiring with a group of powerful industrialists whose profits were threatened by hemp. Around the time of the Marihuana Tax Act, for example, DuPont had invented nylon and heavily invested in rayon – two synthetic fibers that were substantially inferior to hemp, both practically and economically. They also patented a new process for making wood-pulp paper—one of their most important products, and another one inferior to hemp. Suspiciously, Andrew Mellon, the chairman of Mellon Bank, DuPont’s main investor, was also the US Treasury Secretary who had appointed Anslinger to the FBN. Furthermore, Anslinger was married to Mellon’s niece.
Herer also pointed out that William Randolph Hearst, whose newspapers so fiercely led the charge against cannabis, owned huge swathes of forestry. Since the recently invented decorticator machine would have produced as much paper from 10,000 acres of hemp as 40,000 acres of timber, his investment had come under threat. Consequently, Hearst helped to demonize cannabis with sensationalist news stories linking the plant to violence, corruption, and incurable insanity. The foreign term “marijuana” was always used in preference to cannabis, playing on fears of an unknown immigrant menace.
The 1936 propaganda film Reefer Madness can be seen as the culmination of this sustained and ultimately very successful anti-cannabis campaign. Although Anslinger acted against the recommendations of the American Medical Association and numerous other experts, cannabis was removed from the US Pharmacopeia in 1942.
And while the Marihuana Tax Act was eventually overturned and declared unconstitutional in the case of [Timothy] Leary v. United States (1969), by this time it was too late. Congress had already approved participation in the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which heavily restricted cannabis use. The Controlled Substances Act was passed in 1970, placing cannabis in Schedule I, and, the following year, Nixon declared his “war on drugs.”
Activism, medical marijuana, and legalization
As soon as 1973, the Shafer Commission—appointed by Nixon himself—recommended that cannabis be legalized. But they were ignored on the basis that it might lead people onto “harder drugs.”
Meanwhile, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), set up in 1972, campaigned against the lobbyist-coerced federal downgrading of “harder drugs” such as pentazocine.
The pharmaceutical Marinol, or dronabinol (synthetic THC), was also approved by the FDA despite it being around four times more potent than cannabis. And the administration has often flat out denied that cannabis has any therapeutic benefits to begin with, despite hundreds of studies to the contrary. Usually, the process of FDA approval takes just one or two studies to get started.
In 1986, the DEA finally agreed to a public hearing on the reclassification of cannabis. But they ignored the verdict of their own administrative judge Francis L. Young when he recommended that it be downgraded.
NORML appealed, arguing that the DEA’s criteria for reclassification—that the drug be in widespread use by doctors or supported by standard medical texts—could never be met by Schedule I drugs. The DEA was ordered to review but again refused to reclassify cannabis.
Campaigning against prohibition alongside NORML was High Times magazine, which was set up by Tom Forçade in 1974. By 1978, the magazine had 4 million readers per month and, in 1988, held the first Cannabis Cup—a major international trade show that continues to this day. High Times also helped to promote the famous 4/20 counterculture holiday as an occasion for public cannabis consumption. “420” was originally code for cannabis among a group of high school students calling themselves “the Waldos.”
The medical benefits of cannabis couldn’t be denied forever. In 1976, the FDA was forced to grant individual approval for compassionate use to glaucoma sufferer Robert Randall. They were also forced to grant similar concessions to others. Known as Individual Treatment INDs (Investigational New Drugs), applications were evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Unfortunately, however, the application process was extremely drawn-out. Physicians first had to file individual forms with both the FDA and DEA, then, if approved, a separate order form with the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA). At the time, NIDA operated America’s only legal cannabis farm, in Mississippi. After verifying the order, NIDA then prepared and sent the cannabis from Mississippi to a facility in North Carolina, where it was rolled into joints. Finally, these were shipped to a specific pharmacy with strict, DEA-compliant regulations in place. The whole process could take up to eight months, with both the FDA and DEA constantly dragging their heels—ignoring calls, “losing” forms, and otherwise being unhelpful. In the end, most physicians didn’t bother applying.
But with INDs medical marijuana at last had legal precedent, and support continued to grow. While George H. W. Bush suspended the IND program in 1992, individual states continued to decriminalize cannabis as a medicine.
When Proposition 215 passed in 1996, California became the first state to fully legalize medical marijuana. At first, the federal government resisted, threatening to revoke the medical license of any physician who prescribed it. But this was declared unlawful by the Supreme Court, and Alaska, Oregon, Washington, Maine, Hawaii, Colorado, and Nevada all legalized cannabis for medical use between 1998 and 2000.
And despite continuing DEA interference and federal disapproval, other states followed—ultimately culminating with the first state legalization of cannabis for recreational use as well, in Washington and Colorado in 2012.
In 2013, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, chief medical correspondent for CNN and a practicing neurosurgeon, apologized for his role in “terribly and systematically” misleading the American people about the alleged risks of cannabis. After years of misinformation, he finally rejected claims of its high potential for abuse and supported its use in medicine.
The following year—amid continuing state legalization and despite heavy lobbying from Big Pharma—new federal guidelines were drawn up that allowed banks to finance medical marijuana growers. The Department of Justice also made Native American reservations exempt from cannabis prohibition in states where it remained illegal. In 2016, the DEA even promised to increase the number of registered cannabis manufacturers.
Promisingly, state legalization of cannabis has seen a measurable reduction in the use of prescription drugs. Opioid painkillers, which reached epidemic levels in America, were among the most affected.
US models of legalization have also encouraged governments of other countries. There is some hope, for example, that a regulated global cannabis industry could boost the economic growth of developing countries such as Jamaica.
Cannabis is by far the most popular illicit substance in the world. According to the World Health Organization, 147 million people, or 2.5% of the global population—compared to just 0.2% for cocaine and opiates – use it. Unsurprisingly, it also accounts for half of all drug seizures worldwide.
Reflecting the softening of anti-cannabis stances, use of the plant in the US increased from 10.4% to 13.3% between 2002 and 2014. Meanwhile, perceptions of it as harmful have decreased from 50.4% to 33.3%.
Cannabis contains more than 100 cannabinoids. These are terpenophenolic compounds (a mixture of terpenoids and phenols) that, as secondary metabolites of cannabis, protect the plant from parasites. Some of the most common cannabinoids are THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol), CBD (cannabidiol), CBC (cannabichromene), CBN (cannabinol), CBG (cannabigerol), and THCV/THV (tetrahydrocannabivarin). Many are non-psychoactive.
The main psychoactive cannabinoid in cannabis is THC, a hydrophobic, lipid-soluble compound that, unlike other psychedelics, is non-nitrogenous. It’s usually present in the plant as monocarboxylic acids that decarboxylate when heated to produce psychoactive THC. Underlying this cannabinoid’s unique effect is a carbon side chain that increases in potency with length. Metabolism in the liver produces 11-hydroxy-THC, a more potent compound capable of crossing the blood-brain barrier with ease.
CBD is a structural isomer of THC, which means it has the same atoms but in a different configuration. It converts into THC through a process of cyclization (the formation of a new carbon ring) in acid.
The two receptors most clearly involved in cannabis’s mechanism of action are the cannabinoid (CB) receptors 1 and 2. CB1 receptors are found mainly in the central nervous system (such as in the brain), while CB2 receptors are mostly in the immune system, where they modulate cytokine release, among other functions.
Agonism (activation) of CB receptors has been linked to anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects. CB1 receptors also mediate the release of dopamine, serotonin, noradrenalin, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), glutamate, and acetylcholine. CB receptors are normally activated by endocannabinoids (cannabinoids produced by the body), such as anandamide (AEA). However, since endocannabinoids dissolve much faster than phytocannabinoids, compounds like THC interact with a greater number of receptors before breaking down.
THC primarily activates CB1 receptors, but it can also antagonize (block) them. Its inhibitory and stimulatory effects on various neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, may help to explain its mixed psychoactive effects, which range from excitatory to depressant. Increased dopamine release also stimulates appetite.
CBD, meanwhile, has a relatively low affinity for the CB receptors, but does show a little inverse agonistic and antagonistic activity. It also activates 5-HT1A (serotonin) receptors and has been found to regulate the psychoactivity of THC with its anti-depressant and anxiolytic effects.
CBD also binds to ion channels such as the TRPV1 receptors, activating them to mediate pain, inflammation, and temperature. Meanwhile, its antagonism of GPR55 receptors modulates blood pressure and bone density—an effect that’s of interest for cancer treatment. By inhibiting the enzyme FAAH, CBD also slows the breakdown of anandamide and other endocannabinoids, leading to increased CBD levels in the brain.
Both CBD and THC can also potentiate the effects of opioid agonists through their activity at the mu- and delta- opioid receptors.
Safety and Toxicity
Compared to the majority of drugs and pharmaceuticals (notably including aspirin, which kills several thousand people each year in the US), cannabis is extremely safe.
The LD50 (i.e. the dosage at which 50% of an animal sample dies) is said to be 20,000 to 40,000 times the average content of a joint. This is roughly equivalent to 1,500 pounds of cannabis, consumed within 15 minutes. Even pure extracted THC has an LD50 of at least 666 mg/kg, meaning that a man weighing 175 pounds would need to consume 53 g at once—more than 5,000 times the standard single dose.
Since combustion releases carbon monoxide and other harmful chemicals, frequent cannabis smoking could lead to respiratory problems and lung cancer. In fact, cannabis smoke is actually found to contain 50% more benzopyrene and 75% more benz[a]anthracene than tobacco smoke. On the other hand, cannabis also contains a number of cannabinoids with anti-cancer properties.
While vaporizing eliminates many of the long-term risks associated with smoking, it still releases ammonia. This can result in asthma, bronchial spasms, and central nervous system effects.
Another concern, particularly for people with cardiovascular disease, is the effect of cannabis on the heart rate and blood pressure. According to one study, the risk of heart attack in young male patients was 4.8 times higher for 60 minutes immediately following cannabis use, possibly due to a constriction of the coronary arterial smooth muscle. A review of 34 case reports also found a significant correlation between cannabis use and strokes, with many repeat strokes occurring after re-exposure to cannabis.
That said, since people tend to use tobacco and alcohol as well as cannabis, it’s hard to isolate causality. It’s also important to keep these risks in perspective. As psychiatrist and neuropsychopharmacology professor David Nutt pointed out, sports, sex, and even just straining on the toilet can pose similar risks for anyone with existing heart problems.
While cognitive function and development are likely to be impaired by chronic cannabis use, negative residual effects usually fade within 25 days of abstinence. One notable exception, however, is with early onset cannabis use. Chronic users who start in their adolescence, for example, before their cognitive functions have matured, may develop long-term handicaps, including reduced verbal fluency.
The same is true of schizophrenia. Although a definite correlation exists between chronic cannabis use and psychosis, the relationship might not be causal. While cannabis use has become more prevalent over the past few decades, for instance, diagnoses of schizophrenia have remained more or less the same. Even if cannabis use does cause psychosis, it may have more to do with the lifestyle that goes with it—often involving a fear of getting arrested, social stigma, and the breakdown of family support.
Pregnant and breastfeeding women should probably avoid cannabis. Although research is limited and often contradictory, there is evidence linking cannabis to ectopic pregnancies, miscarriages, attention deficit disorders, and slightly below-average birth weights.
One final issue to mention, particularly affecting long-term cannabis users, is cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome. This is a rare condition characterized by uncontrollable nausea, vomiting, and abdominal cramps, as well as a compulsion to take hot baths for relief. It can usually be treated with abstinence.
The threshold dose for high potency cannabis, smoked, is 0.025-0.05 g. A common dose is between 0.066-0.13 g. For medium potency cannabis, the common dose is 0.2-0.4 g. To put these figures in context, the average “hit” (or single intake of smoke) from a pipe or bong is around 0.05 g, while the average joint contains 0.43-0.66 g of cannabis.
The effects from smoking are typically felt within the first 10 minutes—usually within the first minute—peaking at 15-30 minutes before sloping off over the next 1-2 hours.
For oral consumption, the dosage is measured by THC content. Those new to “edibles” are advised to start on 5 mg, however light or threshold doses can range between 2-7 mg. More experienced users often take up to 20 mg or more at a time. As a general rule of thumb if you’re thinking of making your own, one gram of cannabis is likely to contain 100 mg THC, but this varies substantially.
With the exception of sublingual tinctures, which have a similarly rapid onset to smoking, the effects from orally consumed cannabis are felt within 30-120 minutes, peaking at two to three hours and lasting for up to eight. These timings may be affected by stomach contents, but it’s a good idea to eat a little (THC-free) food beforehand.
What to expect
Common effects include mood enhancement and euphoria, accompanied by laughter and relaxation, as well as an increased enjoyment of music, food, tactile sensations, and activities you normally find dull. Thoughts tend to be more free flowing, often leading to creative and philosophical or spiritual insights. At higher doses, the flow of ideas can even become overwhelming.
Panic attacks, confusion, memory loss, and depersonalization or derealization are some of the more negative effects of cannabis, along with the suppression of dreams.
At very high doses, cannabis can induce psychedelic hallucinations—especially if you’re in the dark. Otherwise, visual effects tend to be limited to color enhancement, moderate closed-eye patterns, and increased sensitivity to light.
Lethargic, slow movements are especially common on cannabis, even with the elevated heart rate. Many also report a dry “cotton” mouth and bloodshot eyes. Nausea (if any) tends to fade after the initial onset and may be replaced by an insatiable appetite—known as the famous “munchies.”
Subjective effects of cannabis tend to depend on the strain, and in particular on the ratio of THC to CBD. That’s because CBD can alleviate some of the more negative effects of THC, including anxiety, paranoia, memory impairment, and loss of psychomotor control.
Sativa and sativa-dominant hybrids like “Haze,” “Blue Dream,” and “Strawberry Cough” are said to produce more of an energizing or cerebral high, whereas indica-heavy strains like “Hindu Kush” and “Girl Scout Cookies” have more of a body high or “stoned” feeling—probably due to their higher myrcene content.
There are subtle differences between weed and hash as well, with the latter tending to give a clearer, more cerebral high. With edibles, there may be some anxiety and paranoia at first before giving way to a psychedelic body high and deep sleep.
Higher potency cannabis should be avoided in public anyway, at least the first time, as the effects can be overwhelming. The presence of different strains and unevenly distributed THC in edibles can also make them hard to predict.
Whenever trying a new cannabis product or administration method, it’s a good idea to follow Erowid’s L.E.S.S. approach. This involves starting with a Low dose, Establishing potency, going Slow (being patient for the onset of effects), and Supplementing as needed with more.
“The longer you hold in the smoke, the more you feel the effects”
New cannabis smokers are often told to hold smoke in their lungs for as long as they can to fully absorb the cannabinoids. While on the surface this appears to make sense, there’s actually very little supporting evidence. In fact, holding the smoke in for longer than a few seconds might only serve to increase tar deposits in the lungs.
“Cannabis is 10 times stronger today than it was in the Sixties”
Though not necessarily a myth, the assertion that today’s cannabis is higher in average potency than it was “at Woodstock” cannot be reliably proven. This is because early researchers measured THC by gas chromatography, which involved heating and therefore breaking down the molecule. Nowadays, THC is measured by liquid chromatography, so there’s no common basis for comparison. The sample size is also much, much larger than it used to be. In the 1970s, researchers were lucky if they had access to 18 seizures in a year, whereas nowadays they have access to thousands.
In any case, even though this skewed comparison does show a general upward trend in the average potency of cannabis, it doesn’t support the implied suggestion that the plant has become more dangerous. Evidence suggests that people only smoke as much as they need to reach their desired state. In other words, the higher the potency, the less users need—and ultimately, the fewer carcinogens they inhale.
“Cannabis is a gateway drug”
This Reefer Madness-style argument for continued prohibition has zero basis in fact. While it is true that most habitual drug users are exposed to cannabis before any harder drugs, this is only to be expected considering that cannabis is the most prevalent illicit substance worldwide. It certainly doesn’t prove causality. But if it did, alcohol and tobacco would be the original gateway drugs, since most cocaine and heroin addicts are exposed to them even earlier.
“Cannabis is non-addictive”
Only a relatively small number of cannabis users become addicted—9% of 8,000 respondents according to one survey, compared to 32% for nicotine. However, regular use can easily lead to habituation and psychological dependence.
Withdrawal symptoms include irritability, lethargy, physical discomfort, difficulty sleeping, diminished appetite, and a loss of pleasure in once enjoyable activities (anhedonia). Unlike withdrawal symptoms from other drugs, such as alcohol, tobacco, and heroin, these effects tend to be mild. They also tend to fade after two to four days, or within six weeks for heavy users.
The medical applications of cannabis are many and well known, and the list is continually growing. Substantial evidence, drawn from years of clinical research, supports its use as a treatment for nausea and vomiting in chemotherapy patients; appetite loss and wasting syndrome (cachexia) in HIV and cancer patients; spasticity in multiple sclerosis (MS) patients; and neuropathic or chronic pain, such as fibromyalgia.
It also shows promise for treating symptoms of Tourette’s syndrome, spinal cord injury, Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), glaucoma, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), migraine, anxiety, schizophrenia, dystonia, and epilepsy.
Cancer, appetite, and pain
Although there’s very little conclusive evidence that cannabis actually cures cancer, THC and CBD have both exhibited anti-cancer properties. Studies have shown them to be effective at treating breast, skin, blood, liver, and throat cancers, among others. Theories suggest that THC suppresses tumor growth by altering certain genes, or that CBD and THC increase ceramide production to maintain pressure on the cancer cell death pathway.
In addition to the clinical evidence, numerous anecdotal reports link total remission to the regular use of cannabis oil. Rick Simpson, for example, claims to have cured his skin cancer by applying high-THC cannabis oil directly to the affected area.
Cannabis and synthetic cannabinoid-based medications may also be used to treat cancer-related symptoms. For instance, Marinol works to stimulate appetite and reduce nausea and vomiting in chemotherapy patients, even when other antiemetics have failed. THC’s superiority in this area has obvious implications for a number of other diseases too, including HIV/AIDS, anorexia, and hepatitis C.
Studies have also found cannabis to be an effective analgesic, and one far safer than opioids. This is promising not only for cancer patients, but for sufferers of rheumatoid or osteoarthritis, as well as chronic pain in general.
PTSD, anxiety, and depression
The treatment of PTSD is one of the most common applications for medical marijuana in the US. By taking cannabis or synthetic cannabinoid medications like nabilone on an ongoing basis, veterans find relief from anxiety, insomnia, and recurrent nightmares, among other symptoms.
Cannabis may also play an important role in stabilizing mood more generally. Not only do cannabinoids have an anti-depressant effect on serotonin release, but chronic stress appears to downregulate endocannabinoid production. This suggests that supplementation with cannabis could help to restore emotional balance. THC in particular may help treat depression by reducing negative bias in emotional processing. The terpenes myrcene and limonene—found in cannabis and mangoes and lemons—also have anti-depressant and anxiolytic properties.
A number of other studies, however, have associated cannabis with a higher incidence of depression or a deadening of emotion in general. Even so it’s interesting to note that, between 1990 and 2007, suicide rates among men aged 20-39 fell by roughly 10% in states where medical marijuana was legalized compared to states where it wasn’t.
Cannabis appears to serve as a kind of “stepping stone” away from harder drugs like opioids and alcohol, it being a much safer replacement. Crucially for recovering addicts, it can also treat underlying issues like anxiety, depression, and trauma.
Research suggests that even nicotine addiction can be remedied by cannabis; tobacco smokers given a CBD inhaler were found to smoke 40% fewer cigarettes, while a placebo group showed no difference.
Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s
Anecdotal reports ascribe near-miraculous healing powers to cannabis for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. According to one, it took just seven weeks for cannabis oil to improve the memory, mood, and physical mobility of a formerly catatonic patient. When she was returned to a state-run facility and standard pharmaceutical treatment program, her condition again deteriorated.
There are a number of ways by which cannabis could alleviate Alzheimer’s. As an anti-inflammatory, for example, THC reduces inflammation in the brain and ultimately minimizes damage. It also upregulates CB2 receptors to slow the production of amyloid beta peptides. Amyloid beta peptides and plaque deposits are the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease and the key to its gradual progression.
The neuroprotective effects of cannabis are also of interest in the treatment of other neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s and Huntington’s. Although research is limited, a survey of US physicians found that 80% of their Parkinson’s patients used cannabis at least once to alleviate their symptoms—despite only 10% of physicians recommending it. Specifically, cannabis seems to help by reducing tremors, stiffness, and involuntary muscle movements (dyskinesia), as well as by improving sleep and appetite, while alleviating pain, anxiety, and nausea.
Epilepsy and other conditions
CBD has proven to be an effective treatment for epilepsy, including rare forms such as Lennox-Gastaut and Dravet syndromes—both of which afflict young children with frequent, devastating seizures.
Among migraine sufferers, daily cannabis inhalation is shown to reduce the frequency of headaches from just over 10 migraines per month to fewer than five for 19.8% of patients. Almost 40% of the sample in this case reported positive effects, though, including the cessation of migraines in process.
Cannabinoids have also been found to significantly reduce the intraocular pressure, pupil restriction, and conjunctival hyperemia associated with glaucoma. Unfortunately, the high doses required may not be suitable for elderly patients, due to the cardiovascular and psychoactive effects.
Some other promising indications for cannabis include osteoporosis, diabetes, inflammatory skin diseases (like eczema), allergic reactions, and organ transplant rejection. THC and CBD also appear to keep harmful bacteria from penetrating the intestinal mucosa by decreasing gut permeability. This could help prevent a number of life-threatening conditions, including septicemia, septic shock, and inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn’s.
A recent study in mice has shown that frequent, low doses of cannabis can reverse age-related memory loss and help return the brain’s structure to a more youth-like state in older mice. This suggests that microdosing cannabis in later life could be a good defence against memory loss.
Many people report enhanced creativity from cannabis—an effect that is supported by science. In 2012, for instance, the Beckley Foundation found that cannabis increased the verbal fluency of “low creatives” to the level of “high creatives” when creativity was measured by schizotypy and divergent thinking.
Cannabis may also improve productivity, at least according to professional creatives who use it to get “in the zone” and see things from different perspectives. Despite the received wisdom that cannabis causes laziness, many find sativa strains motivating—if only because they make work more fun.
The psychospiritual benefits of cannabis include deeper meditation and a sense of oneness or unity with people, the planet, and the universe. Many users report out-of-body or ego-dissolution experiences, even on relatively modest doses. Mystical encounters with God or “spirit” are also fairly common, as is the seemingly direct experience of the “now.” Some claim to have “awakened” on cannabis to gain profound new insights into otherwise abstract subjects, such as life and death, self and others, perception and mind, and other philosophical realms. Cannabis can also help those suffering from bereavement to come to terms with their loss, or even to accept their own mortality in the face of a terminal illness.
Although it remains a federally controlled Schedule I substance in the US, cannabis is legal for medical and/or recreational use in a growing number of states. For an up-to-date list, see here.
It’s important to note the difference between legalization and decriminalization. Whereas legalization effectively ends prohibition, decriminalization only eliminates the threat of getting arrested and given a criminal record and/or jail sentence for possession; since it remains illegal, there may still be a fine.
Unfortunately, decriminalization does nothing to undermine the criminal supply chain. In the Netherlands, where cannabis has long been decriminalized for sale in coffee shops, the coffee shops themselves are forced to rely on the unregulated black market to source their product. This raises ethical and economic concerns, as well as health issues, since many unregulated growers are thought to make heavy use of inorganic pesticides.
In the UK, against the recommendations of scientific advisors, medical professionals, politicians, and even police commissioners, cannabis remains a Class B drug. Possession is punishable by up to five years in prison, an unlimited fine, or both. Even the medical use of synthetic cannabinoids remains controversial and practically unworkable. While MS patients (and only MS patients) are allowed to use Sativex, the drug is prohibitively expensive everywhere but Wales.
In Canada, where cannabis is a Schedule II drug, possession is punishable by up to six months in jail and a 1000 CAD fine for the first offense, and up to one year in jail and a 2000 CAD fine for subsequent offenses. The Canadian government expects to legalize cannabis by July 2018.
In Australia, cannabis is legal for medical use and scientific research. It’s also decriminalized for personal use in some territories. In New Zealand, medical use is limited to patients who meet strict criteria.
Cannabis has also been decriminalized or partially decriminalized in a number of European countries, including Austria, Germany, Italy, and Portugal. In Belgium and Spain, cannabis social clubs (CSCs) allow small collectives to legally operate closed circuits of production and supply among members—similar to the way regulated cannabis plants are tracked in the United States. In the UK and a number of other countries where cannabis remains illegal, CSCs have been set up by activists as models for regulation.
How long can it be detected in a drug test?
Cannabis stays in the blood and urine for 30-45 days. The same goes for THC and CBD extracts. In formerly chronic, daily users, it may be possible to detect cannabis for up to 90 days, but isolated occasional use tends to clear the system in less than 10—and sometimes as little as two.
Will it make me go crazy?
Some strains of cannabis, and especially edibles and extracts, can be overwhelmingly strong for beginners. Unusually high doses, like Andrew T. Weil’s six gram hash “overdose” may cause nightmares, hallucinations, and confusion—but even a moderate dose can trigger paranoia. This usually depends on set and setting.
That said, there’s no conclusive evidence that cannabis use can lead directly to long-term psychosis.
Will it affect my memory?
Cannabis often impairs the short-term or working memory, so you might forget what you’re saying halfway through a sentence or why you entered a room. The impact of cannabis on forming long-term memories is more nuanced, appearing only to affect the spatial episodic memory. This means you may be liable to forget locations and layouts more easily than you forget events.
It’s unclear whether chronic cannabis use leads to irreversible impairments to memory, but a number of studies have show that abstinence returns it to normal. Some studies have even credited THC with the reversal of age-related cognitive decline.
Are there risks?
Although a lethal overdose is practically unheard of, cannabis does carry a number of potential risks. These include psychological dependence, legal repercussions, and, as with exercise, cardiovascular abnormalities.
What should I do if I take too much?
Always keep in mind that you’re going to be OK. Try to relax yourself with deep breathing if you can, and make sure you stay hydrated. Drink some orange juice to raise your blood sugar and lessen the high. A cold shower might also help, along with distractions like funny movies or calming music.
CBD—which is effectively an antidote for THC—can also be taken as a tincture for rapid relief (capsules take longer to work).
If you find yourself struggling to breathe or you’re worried about your heart rate, you might want to seek medical attention. You’ll probably be treated with a saline solution, activated charcoal, or anxiolytic drugs.
Is it legal to grow at home?
Check here for state-by-state laws on cannabis cultivation.
Where cannabis is illegal to buy, it’s usually illegal to grow—although in some countries small-scale grows are of little interest to law enforcement. In the UK, for example, police may not even bother investigating unless more than nine plants are suspected.
What is the best way to take cannabis?
Joints and blunts are popular for their simplicity, convenience, and rapid onset of effects—and there are plenty of variations to discover. On the other hand, they waste a lot of smoke and may be tricky to roll. Pipes are even more convenient, but a single hit can sometimes be insufficient for more experienced users. Bongs address this problem but often at the expense of portability, since they tend to be pretty large. They also take some getting used to, so beginners may waste smoke or experience chest pain.
Vaporizers are by far the most efficient method, offering a cleaner, healthier feel. And since they don’t heat cannabis products to the point of combustion, fewer toxins are released. Many vaporizers are also designed for discretion, such as models resembling regular asthma inhalers.
Oils, tinctures, and edibles are also very discreet, since they don’t produce any smoke. On the other hand, they also take longer to kick in and can be far more potent when they do.
What’s the difference between cannabis and hemp?
Generally speaking, “hemp” and “cannabis” are different strains of the same plant. While cannabis (marijuana, pot, etc.) is bred for medical and recreational use, hemp is bred for industry (textiles, construction, oils, food, and so on). In compliance with regulations, hemp also has negligible amounts of THC and is therefore non-psychoactive.
What’s the difference between weed and hash?
Hash is made by separating out the resinous trichomes from the rest of cannabis plant—either by sieve, hand, ice-water, or butane—and compressing them into a block or paste. Inferior quality hash may also contain adulterants for bulk, such as sand, henna, or plastic.
What’s the difference between a joint and a blunt?
A joint is a hand-rolled cannabis cigarette containing around half a gram of cannabis. If it contains tobacco as well, it’s technically a spliff.
A blunt, on the other hand, is made by emptying the tobacco from a cigar and filling the shell with cannabis. Pre-rolled blunt wraps can also be used for the purpose. Since they contain a lot more cannabis than a joint, they’re almost always made to be shared.
How do I cook with cannabis?
The basic ingredient for the majority of cannabis recipes is “cannabutter,” which you can make by heating dried cannabis in an oven to activate the THC and CBD (a process known as decarboxylation) and mixing it with butter. Detailed instructions can be found here.
On average, one gram of cannabis is likely to contain 100 mg THC. However, this varies widely so it helps to know your strain. More information on calculating doses is available here.
Can I microdose with cannabis?
Cannabis is suitable for microdosing, whether it’s smoked, vaporized, or eaten. Microdoses range between 2-10 mg, but 5 mg is suggested as a good starting point.
Microdosing cannabis may help to relieve anxiety, depression, chronic pain, stress, inflammation, indigestion, and symptoms of ADHD. For more information, read our guide.
What about different strains?
Different strains of cannabis have different effects – indica can be more sedative, while sativa can be more energizing. For more information about the different strains of cannabis, read here.
Does cannabis produce tolerance?
Frequent cannabis use produces tolerance by decreasing the availability of CB1 receptors in the brain. But these should start to replenish after a couple of days of abstinence, returning to normal levels within four weeks.
Can I mix it with other drugs?
Cannabis is often taken alongside other drugs. For example, combined with classical psychedelics like LSD or psilocybin, it tends to intensify and prolong the effects. Cannabis can also potentiate dissociatives like ketamine. Combined with alcohol, though, it may lead to nausea and dizziness—especially when the alcohol comes first.
Always remember that combining drugs—even with cannabis—can be risky. For more information, click here.
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