Movement to demystify cannabis, medical marijuana gaining traction despite longtime ‘war on drugs’
Pop culture has many iconic films featuring cannabis/marijuana — Up in Smoke, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Dazed and Confused, Half Baked (and more). And despite the grass/joint/reefer-averse nature of TV, Showtime’s Weeds averaged 3.2 million weekly viewers across all platforms during its final season.
Various geographic areas around the world also have recognizable terms for marijuana — “dagga” in South Africa, “kif” in North African, “ganja” in Jamaica, “mota” in Spain, and “pakalolo” in Hawaii, for example.
So, what’s the skinny on this whacky-tobacky? And how did Mary Jane become taboo? … Well, to be blunt: The corporate elite hijacked the conversation. (If you're familiar with the Flexnor Report, this should not be a surprise.)
Hemp vs. Marijuana vs. Cannabis
Unfortunately, the terms hemp, marijuana, and cannabis have been lumped together, used interchangeably, and ostracized.
The truth is: Hemp, marijuana, and cannabis are different.
Under United States law, cannabis is the plant; hemp and marijuana are specific parts of the plant. Hemp is the sterilized seeds, stems, stalks, and roots. Marijuana is the viable seeds, leaves, and flowers.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture lists the classification for Kingdom Plantae Down to Species Cannabis sativa L as:
- Kingdom — Plantae (Plants)
- Subkingdom — Tracheobionta (Vascular plants)
- Superdivision — Spermatophyta (Seed plants)
- Division — Magnoliophyta (Flowering plants)
- Class — Magnoliopsida (Dicotyledons)
- Subclass — Hamamelididae
- Order — Urticales
- Family — Cannabaceae (Hemp family)
- Genus — Cannabis L. (hemp P)
- Species — Cannabis sativa L. (marijuana P)
Note: Other strains are Cannabis indica and Cannabis ruderalis. (Most medical marijuana is a hybrid of sativa and indica, which is why Cannabis sativa X indica is often seen.)
According to CBD Web:
When one refers to marijuana … they are referring to the leaves and flowering portions of the plant that contain many cannabinoids, which have both mental and physical effects on the human body when ingested. Marijuana with these effects is produced on cannabis plants with greater than 0.3 percent tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is the principal psychoactive portion of the plant.
Hemp comes from cannabis plants with less than 0.3 percent THC. The cultivation of the crop for fiber can be traced back as far as 2800 BC. Hemp fiber is durable and extremely strong and viable for many uses, including artificial sponges, burlap, cable, canvas, linens and clothing, paper, rope, twine, string, and yarn.
THC is the chemical responsible for most of marijuana’s psychological effects. It acts much like the cannabinoid chemicals made naturally by the body.
Cannabinoid receptors are concentrated in certain areas of the brain. THC attaches to these receptors, activates them, and affects a person’s memory, pleasure, movements, thinking, concentration, coordination, and sensory and time perception.
Cannabidiol (CBD) is nonpsychoactive and actually blocks the high associated with THC. However, in May 2018 a U.S. federal court declined to protect CBD from federal law enforcement despite the widespread belief in its medical value.
Hemp oil represents a single source of all of the essential fatty and amino acids required for healthy human life. Hemp oil is derived from cannabis sativa seeds. A cold press method is used to press the oil from the seed without degenerating the nutrients in the oil.
According to HempWorld.com, hemp oil contains 57 percent linoleic acid, also known as Omega-6, and 19 percent linolenic acid, also known as Omega-3. (LA and LNA are essential fatty acids, which are required by the body yet cannot be produced by the body.)
Hemp oil contains 1.7 percent gamma-linolenic acid, which promotes healthy hair, nails, and skin. According to RegenerativeNutrition.com, LA and LNA can help enhance growth, increase energy, promote healing, regulate the immune system and reduce inflammation.
One tablespoon of hemp oil contains approximately 120 calories and represents 22 percent of the daily value of total fat (1g saturated fat, 10g polyunsaturated fat, 3g monounsaturated fat). Hemp oil contains no cholesterol, carbohydrates, proteins, sodium or sugar.
Hemp oil may be consumed in foods, such as dips and salad dressing, or taken as a supplement. Heat will reduce the nutritional benefits of hemp oil; it is not typically used in cooking.
What are cannabinoids?
Cannabinoids are chemical compounds found in the cannabis plant that interact with receptors in the brain and body to create various effects.
There are eight major cannabinoid acids produced by cannabis:
- CBGA (Cannabigerolic acid)
- THCA (Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinolic acid)
- CBDA (Cannabidiolic acid)
- CBCA (Cannabichromenenic acid)
- CBGVA (Cannabigerovarinic acid)
- THCVA (Tetrahydrocanabivarinic acid)
- CBDVA (Cannabidivarinic acid)
- CBCVA (Cannabichromevarinic acid)
Cannabis does not directly make THC and CBD, the most well-known cannabinoids associated with the plant. Instead, it synthesizes several cannabinoid acids, which are activated (decarboxylated), usually by heat, to yield THC or CBD.
After decarboxylation, the cannabinoid acids yield a cannabinoid compound:
- CBG (Cannabigerol)
- THC (Δ9–tetrahydrocannabinol)
- CBD (Cannabidiol)
- CBC (Cannabichromene)
- CBGV (Cannabigerivarin)
- THCV (Tetrahydrocannabivarin)
- CBDV (Cannabidivarin)
- CBCV (Cannabichromevarin)
Leafly.com, the world’s largest cannabis information resource, notes:
“THC is the only plant cannabinoid that you know for sure has clear intoxicating effects on its own. There is some evidence to suggest that THCV may also have intoxicating effects, although whether it does may depend on dose. However, like most other plant cannabinoids, THCV is usually not present in significant quantities in commercial strains and cannabis products.
“While most plant cannabinoids are not intoxicating themselves, their presence can influence how THC affects you. The best example of this comes from CBD. Even though it wouldn’t get you high by itself, it influences the way that THC interacts with the CB1 receptors in your endocannabinoid system, and can, therefore, influence exactly how a cannabis product will affect you.”
‘Living laboratory’ of medical cannabis users
There is evidence suggesting that medical cannabis reduces chronic or neuropathic pain in advanced cancer patients, said Alexia Blake, MSc. “Anecdotal evidence suggests that medical cannabis has potential to effectively manage pain in this patient population.
“However, the results of many studies lacked statistical power, in some cases due to a limited number of study subjects. Therefore, there is a need for the conduct of further double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trials with large sample sizes in order to establish the optimal dosage and efficacy of different cannabis-based therapies.”
Cancer-related pain can severely affect 70-90 percent of those with advanced cancers. The standard treatment for cancer pain is currently opioids; however, some patients continue to experience inadequate pain relief despite opioid therapy and the use of other common adjuvant analgesics (medications not primarily designed to control pain but can be used for that purpose).
Manuel Guzmán with the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Complutense University in Madrid, Spain, said crude cannabis preparations remain the most frequent source of cannabinoids for patients worldwide.
“Medical cannabis dispensation programs have already been implemented in more than half of the states in the United States, as well as in a growing number of countries globally. Although this ‘living laboratory’ of medical cannabis users has indeed the potential of providing a treasure of observational data, unfortunately very few studies have examined the therapeutic value of, for example, cannabis oils or vaporized herbal cannabis.
“Identifying effective pain-management strategies alternative to opioid analgesics is a clear public health priority. As Bar-Lev Schleider et al. discuss in their article, most patients using medical cannabis report that it has fewer and less severe side effects than their concurrent prescription drugs, especially opioids. Hence, well-designed, large controlled trials are urgently warranted to determine whether combining cannabinoids with opioids can actually reduce the [number] of opioids necessary to manage pain.”
Sowing the seeds for the ‘War on Drugs’
As Eric Schlosser wrote for The Atlantic, “The phrase ‘war on drugs’ evokes images of Colombian cartels and inner-city crack addicts. In many ways that is a misperception. Marijuana is and has long been the most widely used illegal drug in the United States. It is used here more frequently than all other illegal drugs combined.”
Schlosser wrote “Reefer Madness” for the magazine in 1994. Not a lot has changed in almost 25 years …
Between 1916 and 1931, 29 states outlawed marijuana. During hearings on marijuana law in the 1930s, claims were made about marijuana’s ability to cause men of color to become violent and solicit sex from white women.
Did You Know
• Schedule 1 drugs are illegal because they have high abuse potential, no medical use, and severe safety concerns; for example, narcotics such as heroin, LSD, and cocaine. Marijuana also is included despite it being legal in some states and it is used as a medicinal drug in some states.
• Schedule 2 drugs have a high potential for abuse and dependence, an accepted medical use, and the potential for severe addiction. These drugs include opioids based on high dose codeine, fentanyl, and oxycodone as well as methamphetamine and the barbiturates; also included are such drugs as opium, morphine. Adderall is even included in this category under “mixed amphetamine salts.”
The main difference between a Schedule 1 and 2 is whether or not the drug is deemed to have a valid medical application.
• Schedule 3 drugs have a lower potential for abuse than drugs in the first two categories, accepted medical use, and mild to moderate possible addiction. These drugs include steroids, low-dose codeine, and hydrocodone-based opioids.
• Schedule 4 drugs have accepted medical use and limited addiction potential. These include most of the anti-anxiety medications like the numerous benzodiazepines, sedatives, sleeping agents, and the mildest of the opioid-type medications like Darvon and Talwin.
• Schedule 5 drugs have a low abuse potential, accepted medical use, and a very limited addiction potential. These consist primarily of preparations containing limited quantities of narcotics or stimulant drugs for a cough, diarrhea, or pain.
The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 essentially banned marijuana nation-wide despite objections from the American Medical Association related to medical usage.
(Note: The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 legitimized the use of the term “marijuana” as a label for hemp and cannabis plants and products. Also, “marihuana” was the spelling most commonly used in federal government documents at the time.)
It’s worth noting that research has shown alcohol to be more dangerous than marijuana. In addition, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s fact sheet states, “No death from overdose of marijuana has been reported.”
In 1996, California became the first state to approve the use of marijuana for medical purposes, ending its 59-year reign as an illicit substance with no medical value. Today, medical marijuana is legal in 29 states and Washington, D.C. Also, nine states have legalized recreational marijuana.
“Whether smoking or otherwise consuming marijuana has therapeutic benefits that outweigh its health risks is still an open question that science has not resolved,” said Dr. Nora D. Volkow, Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
“Although many states now permit dispensing marijuana for medicinal purposes and there is mounting anecdotal evidence for the efficacy of marijuana-derived compounds, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved ‘medical marijuana.’
“However,” she noted, “safe medicines based on cannabinoid chemicals derived from the marijuana plant have been available for decades and more are being developed.”
Dr. Carlos Garcia is hopeful that science will carry the day with cannabis. “Truth be told, the cannabis plant contains a plethora of delightfully medicinal molecules, which work within the untapped — as of yet — human endocannabinoid system,” he said. “The reason America is now forging forward with cannabinoids is rooted in that fact that Big Pharma has no new sources for drug molecules. Molecular structures are usually isolated from plants, which are used by natural practitioners in forests or remote regions.
“The illusion that Big Pharma’s bioengineers are able to devise molecules out of thin air is just that — an illusion. Today, Big Pharma is recycling old drugs or applying them to different diagnoses in order to protect their patents from the dreaded generic pharmaceutical competitors. This threat of extinction has forced Big Pharma to reconsider the marijuana plant as its future for sustainability and profits.”
In June 1971, President Richard Nixon ramped up the “war on drugs.” He dramatically increased the size and presence of federal drug control agencies and pushed through measures such as mandatory sentencing and no-knock warrants.
Tricky Dick’s “war” had a deeper, more sinister end game. A Nixon aide, John Ehrlichman, later admitted: “You want to know what this was really all about. The Nixon campaign in 1968 and the Nixon White House after that had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying?
“We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
Nixon placed marijuana in Schedule 1, the most restrictive category of drugs, pending review by a commission he appointed. In 1972, the commission unanimously recommended decriminalizing the possession and distribution of marijuana for personal use. Nixon ignored the report and rejected its recommendations.
The presidency of Ronald Reagan marked skyrocketing rates of incarceration, largely thanks to his unprecedented expansion of the “war on drugs.” The number of people behind bars for nonviolent drug law offenses increased from 50,000 in 1980 to 450,345 in 2016.
Marijuana Justice Act
Fast forward 20 years. In August 2017, U.S. Senator Cory Booker introduced a landmark bill — S.1689 – Marijuana Justice Act of 2017 — to reverse decades of failed drug policy. Specifically, the Marijuana Justice Act will:
- Remove marijuana from the list of controlled substances, making it legal at the federal level;
- Incentivize states through federal funds to change their marijuana laws if marijuana in the state is illegal and the state disproportionately arrests or incarcerates low-income individuals and people of color for marijuana-related offenses;
- Automatically expunge federal marijuana use and possession crimes;
- Allow an individual currently serving time in federal prison for marijuana use or possession crimes to petition a court for a resentencing;
- Create a community reinvestment fund to reinvest in communities most impacted by the failed War on Drugs and allow those funds to be invested in job training, reentry services, expenses related to the expungement of convictions, public libraries, community centers, programs and opportunities dedicated to youth, and health education programs.
The bill is retroactive and would apply to those already serving time behind bars for marijuana-related offenses, providing for a judge’s review of marijuana sentences.
Booker noted the legislation would “legalize marijuana at the federal level and go even further in an effort to remedy many of the failures of the War on Drugs. This is the right thing to do for public safety and will help reduce our overflowing prison population.”
He previously also supported focusing on medical marijuana issues and loosening some federal restrictions to make research and medical use easier.
The bill was referred to the Committee on the Judiciary; no action has been taken.
Nonetheless, there are prominent voices pushing for more cannabis research and promoting the benefits of medical marijuana.
In May 2018, New Jersey State Health Commissioner Shereef Elnahal encouraged physicians and medical students to embrace cannabis as another tool to help their patients, despite acknowledging that rigorous scientific research is lacking.
Elnahal said his goal was to “demystify” medical marijuana because thousands of patients are using it and finding relief. “We want to see more research, better research, but we are not,” he said.
“If you are not teaching this at medical school, you are not giving an adequate education,” said Barron Lerner, a professor of Medicine at the NYU Langone Medical Center. “It’s out there enough and being used from an educational standpoint. It deserves to be talked about.”