The Origins of Marijuana. Cannabis Has A Long History of Use And May Cure Disease. Part one of a multi-part series on the origins and implications of recreational drugs. An illegal plant was not always inaccessible to patients.
The plant made infamous by films such as Reefer Madness, and known by many names, cannabis is an herb that once grew naturally along the roads and fields of Mexico and the Southwest United States. Its name comes from the compounds found within it, cannibinoids. These chemicals bind the cannibinoid receptors in the human brain and are involved in pain, memory, neurodegeneration, and inflammation. The human body produces its own form, called endocannibinoids.
The active form in the now illegal plant is THC (9-tetrahydrocannibinol). The intoxicating effects of this compound on an individual who has smoked or ingested it are similar to alcohol. It is also known that THC, most likely acting via the cannabinoid receptor in the brain, stimulates appetite, alleviates nausea, and in some instances reduces the symptoms of depression. These are all reasons for recent research into medical applications.
The Origins of Its Use
The history of the plant’s use is somewhat open for debate. It is believed that the herb was used by the Scythians as early as the 5th century BC, based on hemp seeds found by archaeologists. There have also been historical implications that it was used by the Sadhus in India for religious ceremonies. Some scholars believe that cannabis may have been an ingredient in the holy anointing oil used in the ancient Judaic culture, and some more speculative individuals believe that the Bible may reference Jesus smoking the plant.
Marijuana has only been criminalized in the United States since the mid 1900s. As evidenced by documentation and films of the time, it was originally banned as a way to focus anti-Mexican sentiments. The perception at the beginning of the 20th century was that most smokers were immigrants coming to the United States from the south.
The original legislation was in the form of the Marihuana Tax Act in 1937 that made it illegal to possess the substance without a federally issued tax stamp. Since the government had no plans to ever make the stamps, the law essentially made the possession of the substance illegal, nevermind its sale, purchase, or use.
Similar to alcohol during Prohibition, the habits of the citizenry did not agree with Congressional actions. Making the plant illegal and burning any natural or artificial growth created an underground market for its sale and use. In order to curb its influence among the hippie youth, President Nixon signed legislation that made the substance a Schedule 1 drug, putting it in the same category as acid and opiates, in 1970. However in recent decades, National Institute on Drug Abuse-funded studies have not been able to uncover a connection between the use of pot and the abuse of other illegal substances.
Since that time, over a million non-violent offenders have been placed in prison for possession of small amounts of a substance now being investigated as a medication. Much of the research is contradictory, either due to the unavailability of research crops that mimic what is available on the street or bias of either the researchers or their benefactors. The association of smoking the herb and cancer is less than what is known to occur with tobacco cigarettes because of significantly fewer carcinogens in its smoke. The plant is also 100 times less toxic to the human body than alcohol, according to an analysis published by Scientific American in 2006.
There are currently 60 known cannabinoids that might have medicinal applications. Marinol, a synthetic version of THC, is used to relieve nausea and stimulate appetite, but its effects do not equal that of the whole plant. Beyond pain remedies going back centuries and the alleviation of nausea in chemotherapy patients, there is also potential for the treatment of nerve injury and multiple sclerosis, the wasting seen in AIDS patients, and slowing the progression of Alzheimer’s Disease.