Marijuana Drug of the Month: download
Transcript and Sources
And now it’s time for the Drug of the Week, where we look into the origins, science, history, legal status, and current uses of a different drug each week. This week’s Drug of the Week has dominated discussions about drug policy reform, received more political and media attention this year than ever before and is seeing an unprecedented acceptance in modern society. It even appeared on the covers of Time MAgazine and National Geographic in May. Nevertheless, it is still widely misunderstood by many. So this week, of course, we’ll be delving a little deeper into the plant known as cannabis, or marijuana.
This is a drug very near and dear to my heart, but not for the reasons you might suspect. For those listeners who don’t know me, I got my professional start in the drug policy movement when I interned for the Amendment 64 campaign in 2012, which led to the historic legalization of marijuana in Colorado. My first job out of law school was with the Marijuana Policy Project. So I could speak for hours about the law and policy surrounding marijuana. But, that doesn’t make me an expert on its cultivation, history, or even use. As I was preparing for today’s show, I glanced over at the intimidating stack of marijuana-related books that I’ve accumulated over the years (let alone the infinite resources available online) and thought to myself “How could I possibly condense all of that information into 10 minutes?” The answer, of course, is that I can’t. Far more has been written and said about cannabis than we could possibly cover this episode. So, there will surely be more marijuana-focused episodes to come, but today, we are simply providing an overview.
For other podcasts that are specific to marijuana policy, news, and business, check out: Marijuana Today, The 4Front Podcast, or CannaInsider. Now, on to today’s Drug of the Week!
What exactly is it? Where does it come from in nature, how is it turned into useable form?
First and foremost, cannabis is a plant. It is native to Central and South Asia, but is now ubiquitous across the globe. While cannabis is known in pop culture and throughout society for its distinctive star-shaped leaf, it is in fact its chunky unappealing flowers that provide the high. These flowers are more commonly known as the buds. Traditionally, the cannabis plant has been categorized into three distinct species: cannabis sativa, cannabis indica, and cannabis ruderalis, colloquially known as hemp. Since hemp does not produce a psychoactive effect, and is in fact not a drug, we’ll leave aside that one for now. I should note at this point that so-called “synthetic marijuana” is also NOT marijuana, so we won’t be talking about that today either. But keep tuning in because we will discuss synthetic marijuana in future episodes.
So, back to cannabis species. What, purportedly, are the differences between sativa and indica? According to common wisdom, sativas grow taller and are more loosely-branched, with long, narrow leaves, and are said to produce a more cerebral, uplifting, energetic high; meanwhile, indica plants are shorter and bushier, with broader leaves, and produce a heavier, more relaxed body high. Indicas are sometimes humorously referred to as “in da couch” strains. However, as I’ve alluded to, recent research has cast doubt upon there being an actual, science-based difference between the two. Regardless, the method for turning these plants into consumable products is the same, and relatively straightforward. Mature buds are harvested, trimmed of excess leaves, and then cured. Guys, I know this is an over-simplification of the fine art of marijuana cultivation, but again, this isn’t a show about growing. I’m just giving an overview here, and there are plenty of other resources about growing marijuana if that’s what you’re looking for. Once the buds have been broken down, they can be smoked, vaporized, or infused into edible or topical products.
Now let’s talk a little bit more about edibles. THC, the primary psychoactive compound in marijuana, is fat- and alcohol-soluble, meaning to extract it from the plant matter, it must be infused into either a fatty substance, like oil or butter, or alcohol. This is why cannabis butter is the basis for so many edible recipes. Making cannabis tea, on the other hand, would be a really inefficient means of extraction because water doesn’t absorb THC.
The fact that THC is fat soluble, rather than water soluble, is also the reason THC system stays in people’s system long after they’ve smoked and are no longer intoxicated. Unlike other drugs that pass through a person’s system when they drink fluids and urinate, THC is stored in a person’s fat cells. It may show up in a urine test up to two weeks after last use, and even longer for regular users.
As a sidenote on this topic, this may be leading to an unintended consequence of marijuana prohibition. Because marijuana is stored for so long in the human body, some substance users, who prefer marijuana, may instead be reaching for more dangerous, often experimental drugs that they can quickly flush out of their system, so that it will go undetected in a drug screening. Our lawmakers should really consider how current prohibition policies are incentivizing people to experiment with harder drugs.
What is the science behind how it interacts with the body? What receptors does it influence? What are the medical effects of it, potential side effects?
Ingesting marijuana can produce a broad range of effects, depending on the individual and the strain. Physical effects can include an increased heart rate, dry mouth, bloodshot eyes, hunger, reduced pain, reduced nausea, and even a reduction in seizure activity. Psychoactive effects vary even more wildly and can range from relaxation and euphoria, reduced anxiety OR increased anxiety and paranoia, to more intangible effects like “philosophical thinking, introspection, and metacognition.”
The effects of marijuana are primarily produced by cannabinoids, the naturally-occurring chemical compounds in cannabis. To date, researchers have discovered more than 80 cannabinoids, but the most commonly known is of course tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. Cannabidiol, or CBD, is also getting a lot of attention recently, because of increasing evidence of its ability to treat intractable epileptic disorders. Other than cannabinoids like THC and CBD, cannabis also contains terpenes and flavonoids, which are found in the plant’s essential oils. In addition to contributing to each strain’s specific flavors and odor, terpenes and flavonoids may also possess some mild therapeutic effects. THC and other psychoactive cannabinoids are contained in the bud’s trichomes. Trichomes cover the outside of marijuana buds and look like little white sugar crystals to the naked eye. Generally speaking, the denser the trichomes, the more potent the marijuana.
The coolest thing about humans using cannabis is that the human body actually contains a system of neurotransmitters that specifically responds to cannabinoids. It’s called the endocannabinoid system. The physiological reason a person experiences a high after ingesting marijuana is because the cannabinoids interact with individual receptors of the endocannabinoid system, called CB-1 and CB-2 receptors. The CB-1 receptors are located primarily in the brain and regulate the drug’s psychoactive effects. The CB-2 receptors are located throughout the human body and are responsible for the drug’s more tangential therapeutic effects. Naturally-occurring chemicals in the human body, called endocannabinoids, also interact with CB-1 and CB-2 receptors to regulate many essential biological functions — including appetite, blood pressure, and reproduction.
The majority of the body’s CB-1 receptors are located in the frontal lobe of the brain and the cerebellum (which regulate emotional behavior and motor control, respectively), but not the brain stem (which controls life-preserving functions like breathing). That’s why ingesting marijuana is not physically capable of causing a fatal overdose, regardless of THC potency. A report by the World Health Organization indicated that the estimated lethal dose is so high that it cannot be achieved by recreational users. Marijuana’s LD-50, as in the amount it would take to cause death, is estimated to be somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000. That means it would take 20-to-40,000 times as much marijuana as is contained in an average joint to kill someone. Most researchers, and marijuana users, agree that you would pass the eff out before ever ingesting that amount.
History of the drug. When did people start using it? How is it used by people? How have the laws and societal attitudes about it evolved over time?
Today, marijuana is the most widely-used illicit substance in the United States, with 49% of Americans having admitted to trying it at least once, and about 7% having used it in the past month. But using cannabis is hardly a new phenomenon. Evidence of marijuana cultivation dates all the way back to 7,000 BC in China — shout out to my ancestors for starting that trend. Recently, archeologists in Central Asia discovered more than two pounds of cannabis in the 3,000-year old grave of an ancient shaman. After extensive testing, scientists concluded that the cannabis was being used for medicinal and euphoric purposes. The first written reference to cannabis use was also in China around 2000 BC. Around that same time, cannabis made an appearance in Hindu holy texts, the Vedas. Some historians believe that by the 10th century, cannabis was known in India as the “food of the Gods.” In the 20th century, the Rastafari movement embraced cannabis, called “ganja,” as a sacrament. Rastas believe that the use of ganja cleans the body and mind, heals the soul, exalts the consciousness, facilitates peacefulness, brings pleasure, and brings them closer to Jah.
The history of current marijuana prohibition is sadly rooted in racism. The very, very, very abbreviated version is that Mexican farmers in the 1920s would use cannabis after work to relax. Prejudice against Mexican migrants in the South and South-West translated into skepticism for their strange “loco-weed.” The word “marijuana” is itself a holdover from that prejudice.The term was popularized by Harry Anslinger, America’s first drug czar, to make the plant sound more “Mexican” and play off of anti-immigrant sentiments. To highlight how closely tied marijuana prohibition is to racist sentiment, I will read you this direct quote from Anslinger when he testified to Congress in support of outlawing it:
“There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.” “Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.”
Let’s take a moment to absorb and recognize how steeped in completely unabashed racism that statement was. I can’t even believe I said it out loud, it’s so appalling. The fact that, to this day, African-Americans are nearly four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person, even though Blacks and whites use marijuana at similar rates, makes the history of marijuana prohibition that much more shameful.
Much like alcohol prohibition of the 1920s, marijuana prohibition has been a failure on every level. Despite costing taxpayers billions of dollars in law enforcement, marijuana prohibition has utterly failed to reduce use. And in fact, marijuana-related violence has increased dramatically in recent years, with gangs and cartels almost exclusively in control of the market. Fortunately, the past two decades have seen a shift towards more sensible marijuana policy. Beginning with California in 1996, states from coast to coast have legalized cannabis to varying degrees for medicinal use. And in 2012, Colorado and Washington became the first two jurisdictions in the world to completely legalize marijuana for adult use. Today, 23 states plus DC, Guam, and Puerto Rico have effective medical marijuana laws, 19 states and the US Virgin Islands have removed criminal penalties and the threat of jail time for the simple possession of marijuana, and Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, and the District of Columbia allow for the regulated, adult use of marijuana. In 2016, it is likely that voters in California, Nevada, Arizona, Maine, and Massachusetts will also get to decide whether to tax and regulate marijuana similarly to alcohol. Of course, outside the US, the Netherlands has been leading the way on more sensible drug policies since the 1970s. Amsterdam is famous for its cannabis coffee shops, but a little known fact is that cannabis has never been legal there. Rather, their official policy is one of non-enforcement, with an emphasis on public health. A majority of the Dutch population supports this policy, and notably, the number of drug-related deaths in the country remains amongst the lowest in Europe. More recently in international developments, Uruguay became the first nation in the world to legalize cannabis. And Jamaica, after suffering decades of prejudice against their sacred herb, finally decriminalized small amounts of ganja earlier this year.
Recent news and trends. Where are things going?
The understanding that cannabis, by every scientific measure, is a safer recreational substance than alcohol has been a driver behind marijuana policy reform. Of equal importance is the increasing awareness that marijuana laws are disproportionately enforced against people of color. The future is looking bright though. As recently as the late 80s and early 90s, when your intrepid co-hosts were born, dissapproval of marijuana was at around 80%. Today, nearly the opposite is true — more than 50% of Americans agree that marijuana should be legal, 84% believe there should be no jail time, and 88% support medical use of cannabis. We hate the word “inevitable” because continuing this incredible march towards progress is still going to take a lot of hard work and dedication, but ending marijuana prohibition now seems more likely than ever. We hope that the recent trend towards more sensible marijuana laws will be a catalyst for more a sensible approach to ALL drug policy and laws.