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Historical References
Marijuana, the First 12,000 Years

Marijuana - The First Twelve Thousand Years


In the years that elapsed between the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act and the present, America experienced three major wars, a presidential assassination, the resignation of both a president and a vice-president in disgrace, a Communist witch-hunt, a flight to and landing on the moon, beatniks, hippies, yippies, desegregation, major riots in many of the nation's cities and campuses, domination of family life by television, the generation gap, and a longing to be perpetually young. Keeping pace with all these significant social and political events was a change in the nation's attitudes and behavior concerning marihuana.

Almost immediately after the Marihuana Tax Act became law, the Bureau of Narcotics was forced to reconsider its position on one of the main arguments it had used to secure passage of the law. First in the trial of Ethel "Bunny" Sohl in Newark, New Jersey, in January 1938, and then in the trial of Arthur Friedman in New York City in April of the same year, the defense argued that the murders committed by their clients were the result of their use of marihuana. An expert witness, Dr. James Munch, who had previously testified on behalf of the bureau at the congressional hearings on marihuana, testified again at both trials that marihuana would make people do things they would not otherwise do. The implication was that the accused were not responsible for their actions. The jury accepted the defense in both cases, and instead of asking for the death penalty they recommended life imprisonment.

By contending that marihuana incited its users to violence, Anslinger had unwittingly undermined his own efforts to secure maximum sentences in any and all drug-related trials. He now had no other choice but to revise the bureau's position with regard to marihuana's effects on crime. Instead of claiming that marihuana invariably incited criminal activity, the bureau's new position was that the effects of marihuana were so variable that no general statement could be made as to its effects on criminality.

The bureau also had to deal with direct challenges to its promulgations concerning marihuana, the most important of which was a lengthy scientific study which came to be known as the LaGuardia Report.

Reacting to sensationalistic newspaper claims that New York's youth was teetering on the brink of an orgy of marihuana-induced crime and sex, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia asked the cooperation of the New York Academy of Medicine to conduct an investigation of the alleged problem in New York. The academy appointed a distinguished panel of social and medical scientists to perform the first sociological and laboratory studies of marihuana in America. The report, published in 1944, contradicted the bureau's official position on every one of its conclusions, among which were that:

Marihuana is used extensively in the Borough of Manhattan but the problem is not as acute as it is reported to be in other sections of the United States.

The distribution and use of marihuana is centered in Harlem.

The majority of marihuana smokers are Negroes and Latin Americans.

The practice of smoking marihuana does not lead to addiction in the medical sense of the word.

The sale and distribution of marihuana is not under the control of any single organized group.

The use of marihuana does not lead to morphine or heroin or cocaine addiction and no effort is made to create a market for these narcotics by stimulating the practice of marihuana smoking.

Marihuana is not the determining factor in the commission of major crimes.

Marihuana smoking is not widespread among school children.

Juvenile delinquency is not associated with the practice of smoking marihuana

And finally:

The publicity concerning the catastrophic effects of marihuana smoking in New York City is unfounded. [1]

The second part of the study involved medical and psychological tests of individuals under the influence of marihuana. Seventy-seven volunteers were studied; seventy-two were prisoners, five were paid subjects; forty-eight were previous marihuana users, twenty-nine had never used marihuana before. Marihuana was administered either in the form of cigarettes or as an extract taken by mouth.

A number of minor transient effects were observed such as euphoria, anxiety, relaxation, nervousness, hunger, thirst, disorientation, loss of motor coordination, impaired learning and memory, and in some instances, mild psychotic reactions consisting of "mental confusion and excitement of a delirious nature with periods of laughter and of anxiety." Contrary to the position of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics the committee found that

Marihuana does not change the basic personality structure of the individual. It lessons inhibition and this brings out what is latent in his thoughts and emotions but it does not evoke responses which would otherwise be totally alien to him. It induces a feeling of self-confidence, but this is expressed in thought rather than in performance. [2]

In essence, the findings of the committee were totally in opposition to the statements issued by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and newspaper reports from around the country.

The LaGuardia Report was not the only laboratory study of marihuana in the 1940s. The United States Public Health Service also conducted experiments on the effects of the drug. Unlike the LaGuardia study, however, subjects in this study were allowed to smoke as many marihuana cigarettes as they wanted for thirty-nine days. The marihuana was supplied by the Bureau of Narcotics. All six subjects in the experiment were prisoners, all had been previous users of marihuana, and ironically, all had been imprisoned for violation of the Marihuana Tax Act.

While the researchers noted a lessening of inhibition and removal of restraint resulting from marihuana use, "in the majority of cases... aggression and belligerency are not commonly seen." [3] The researchers also noted that tolerance to marihuana appeared to have developed during the study but in no instances did they observe physical dependence.

Several other studies were also reported in the 1940s, but these were primarily reports of psychiatric problems allegedly related to marihuana use. For the most part, the patients were nearly always black. One study involved thirty-four black and one white soldiers. In another, the ratio of blacks to whites was twenty to one. At Fort McClellan, Alabama, where the ratio of recruits was seven whites to one black, fifty-five black and five white soldiers were referred for psychiatric service related to marihuana use.

Commenting on the large numbers of black soldiers requiring treatment, Charen and Perelman, the authors of one of these studies stated:

The preponderance of Negros is due, we believe, to the peculiar need marihuana serves for them. The Negro psychopath or neurotic faces not only inner anxiety resulting from childhood family relationships, but also suffers from a feeling of resentment towards the submission which is required by the white stereotypes of Negro behavior. Marihuana, insofar as it removes both anxiety and submission and therefore permits a feeling of adequacy, enables the Negro addict to feel a sense of mastery denied him by his color. The white psychopath or neurotic not faced with a dual problem of personality and environmental frustration finds alcohol or other forms of satisfaction more acceptable. [4]

This view was shared by others as well. Said Drs. E. Marcovitz and H. J. Myers:

It needs to be emphasized that the problem is not the drug but the user of the drug - the addict in relation to himself and his society. [5]

The LaGuardia Report along with these psychiatric studies, and especially medical studies from Mexico, did not go unnoticed on the international scene. During the first meeting of the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs held after World War II in 1946, the commission decided that there was no necessity for appointing a sub-committee to study cannabis. The commission gave as its reasons for this decision, "some medical opinion in the United States [i.e., the LaGuardia Report] and in Mexico had been advanced that marihuana did not offer any real danger, and had little influence on criminal behaviour. Indeed, the Mexican physicians were of the opinion that its use had no ill effect on the health of the user. The representative for Mexico wondered whether in these circumstances too strict restrictions on the use of this plant, the production of which was in fact prohibited in Mexico, would not result in its replacement by alcohol, which might have worse results." [6]

Anslinger, the American representative "did not share this point of view and quoted a number of concrete examples, proving the relationship between the use of marihuana and crime. He considered the recent report of certain United States physicians on the subject to have been extremely dangerous." [7]

Higher Penalties

When the Marihuana Tax Act became law in 1937, it called for imprisonment of up to five years and/or a fine of $2000 as punishment for breaking each provision of the law. The length of the actual term and fine were left to the discretion of the court. These penalties and sentencing powers remained in force until 1951 when the Boggs Act became the new law of the land.

Passage of the Boggs Act (named after its sponsor, Congressman Hale Boggs) followed on the heels of an alleged upsurge in narcotic usage, especially on the part of the young after 1947. According to Anslinger:

the present wave of juvenile addiction struck us with hurricane force in 1948 and 1949, and in a short time had two Federal hospitals bursting at the seams. [8]

In Congress, Representative Boggs warned his fellow lawmakers that:

In the first 6 months of 1946, the average age of addicted persons committed... at Lexington, Ky. was 37 1/2 years...... During the first 6 months of 1950, only 4 years later, the average age dropped to 26.7 years, and 766 patients were under the age of 21.... In New York City alone it has been estimated that 1 out of every 200 teenagers is now addicted to some type of narcotics. [9]

In Boggs's opinion, the reason for the epidemic rise in drug addiction among the young was the mild sentences being handed out for violation of the country's drug laws, a view solidly endorsed by Commissioner Anslinger.

To meet the threat to America, Boggs called for draconian penalties for those found guilty of violation of the nation's drug laws. At first, Congress was unwilling to adopt such measures. But during the hearings before the Special Senate Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce headed by Senator Kefauver, Congress got the impression that organized crime was behind much of the drug traffic in America, and in 1951 it endorsed Boggs's proposals. As a result, conviction for a first drug-related offense called for imprisonment of two to five years. Conviction for a second offense was punishable by a mandatory sentence of not less than five nor more than ten years. Conviction for a third offense carried a penalty of ten to twenty years.

While the legislators were primarily concerned with the heroin user, they included marihuana in the Boggs Act because of the belief that marihuana was a "stepping stone" to heroin use. This "stepping stone" theory had become Commissioner Anslinger's new weapon in his fight to keep America safe from the evil he saw in marihuana. Testifying before a committee headed by Boggs, Anslinger explained that

Over 50 percent of those young addicts started on marihuana smoking. They started there and graduated to heroin; they took the needle when the thrill of marihuana was gone. [10]

In 1956, some congressmen were of the opinion that even stiffer penalties were needed to meet the challenge of drug abuse. At the Daniel Committee hearing which eventually led to the adoption of the Narcotic Control Act of 1956, Texas Sen. Price Daniel played straight man to Commissioner Anslinger:

Daniel: Now, do I understand it from you that, while we are discussing marijuana, the real danger there is that the use of marijuana leads many people eventually to the use of heroin, and the drugs that do cause them complete addiction, is that true?

Anslinger: That is the great problem and our great concern about the use of marijuana, that eventually if used over a long period, it does lead to heroin addiction. [11]

Later on in the question period, Senator Welker resurrected the marihuana-mayhem theme Anslinger had previously discarded in light of its use as a defense ploy. But he couldn't completely renounce the connection:

Welker: Mr. Commissioner, my concluding question with respect to marijuana: Is it or is it not a fact that the marijuana user has been responsible for many of our most sadistic, terrible crimes in this Nation, such as sex slayings, sadistic slayings, and matters of that kind?

Anslinger: There have been instances of that, Senator. We have had some rather tragic occurrences by users of marijuana. It does not follow that all crimes can be traced to marijuana. There have been many brutal crimes traced to marijuana. But I would not say that it is the controlling factor in the commission of crimes.

Welker: I will grant you that it is not the controlling factor, but is it a fact that your investigation shows that many of the most sadistic, terrible crimes, solved or unsolved, we can trace directly to the marijuana user?

Anslinger: You are correct in many cases, Senator Welker.

Welker: In other words, it builds up a false sort of feeling on the part of the user and he has no inhibitions against doing anything; am I correct?

Anslinger: He is completely irresponsible. [12]

The feeling of the committee with respect to marihuana was summed up by Senator Daniel as he addressed his fellow lawmakers:

[Marihuana] is a drug which starts most addicts in the use of drugs. Marihuana, in itself a dangerous drug, can lead to some of the worst crimes committed by those who are addicted to the habit. Evidently, its use leads to the heroin habit and then to the final destruction of the persons addicted. [13]

Convinced that marihuana posed a dual threat to domestic tranquillity, Congress included it in the Narcotics Act of 1956 which raised the mandatory minimum sentence for marihuana possession and also called for a minimum ten-year prison sentence to anyone selling narcotics, including marihuana, to a juvenile.

The International Game

By 1948, after his initial setback at the United Nations two years earlier, Anslinger began urging the U.N. commission to adopt a Single Convention which would encompass all existing international agreements on drugs, and at the same time he began lobbying for more stringent international measures against cannabis to bring it under the guidelines of the proposed Single Convention.

This was Anslinger at his devious best. From past experience, he knew how to play off international and domestic politics against each other. First, he used the bureau's "gore" file to persuade U.N. members of the crimes marihuana was capable of inciting and then he turned around and used American ratification of an international agreement against cannabis to buttress the bureau's domestic campaign against the drug.

By 1954, the U.N. Economic and Social Council was finally persuaded that "there is no justification for the medical use of cannabis preparations" - a very important victory for Anslinger and other U.N. supporters of his anticannabis ideas since in essence this pronouncement stripped cannabis of any remaining legitimacy.

In 1961, the United Nations finally adopted the Single Convention, the terms of which stated that each participating country could "adopt such measures as may be necessary to prevent misuse of, and illicit traffic in, the leaves of the cannabis plant." [14]

Anslinger could not have asked for more. However, Congress waited until 1967 to approve American participation in the convention. Proof of Anslinger's perspicacity came three years later in the form of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act. As part of the law, Congress decreed that in the case of drugs such as cannabis which had no recognized medical uses, the attorney general was invested with authority over reclassification since control of such drugs was required by "United States obligations under international treaties."


During the late 1950s and early 1960s, the main users of marihuana were still blacks and Mexican-Americans. Most Americans were either completely unaware of any marihuana problem, or if they were aware, they could not have cared less since it involved minority groups and fringe elements of white society only. But in the middle 1960s, a sudden "epidemic" of marihuana use erupted not in the ghettos of America's cities but in its bastions of higher learning. The new users were not the poor and the uneducated black or Mexican-American, but native-born, middle-class, white college students. By 1969, as many as 70 percent of the students at some colleges had allegedly tried marihuana at least once, [15] and the parents of these students began to worry lest their sons and daughters lose their sanity, become involved in sexual orgies, become wanton murderers, go on to heroin, or wind up in prison. Marihuana seemed to have snuck up on them from behind and crashed into them unexpectedly like a rear-end collision.

A New York Times commentator spoke for most Americans when he wrote:

Nobody cared when it was a ghetto problem. Marijuana - well, it was used by jazz musicians in the lower class, so you didn't care if they got 2-to-20 years. But when a nice, middle-class girl or boy in college gets busted for the same thing, then the whole country sits up and takes notice. [16]

The soaring use of marihuana on college campuses and the ever-present danger that a son or daughter might wind up in prison brought pressure to bear on the nation's lawmakers to reevaluate the marihuana laws, and new fact-finding commissions were appointed.

Even before the rising tide of marihuana had begun to engulf the college campuses, however, there were rumblings of disagreement with the Bureau of Narcotics's position on marihuana.

In 1962, President Kennedy's Ad Hoc Panel on Drug Abuse dismissed the alleged link between marihuana and sexual abuse and criminality as "limited." The dangers claimed for marihuana, it said, were "exaggerated," and it challenged the "long criminal sentences imposed on an occasional user or possessor of the drug" as being in "poor social perspective." [17]

In 1963, the President's Advisory Commission on Narcotics and Drug Abuse was outspoken in its condemnation of contemporary marihuana policy:

An offender whose crime is sale of a marijuana reefer is subject to the same term of imprisonment as the peddler selling heroin. In most cases the marijuana reefer is less harmful than any opiate. For one thing, while marijuana may provoke lawless behavior, it does not create physical dependence. This Commission makes a flat distinction between the two drugs and believes that the unlawful sale or possession of marijuana is a less serious offense than the unlawful sale or possession of an opiate. [18]

The same criticism of the law lumping marihuana with narcotic drugs was voiced in 1967 by President Johnson's Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice:

Marijuana is equated in law with the opiates, but the abuse characteristic of the two have almost nothing in common. The opiate produces physical dependence. Marijuana does not. A withdrawal sickness appears when use of the opiates is discontinued. No such symptoms are associated with marijuana. The desired dose of opiates tends to increase over time, but this is not true of marijuana. Both can lead to psychic dependence, but so can almost any substance that alters the state of consciousness. [19]

The Johnson commission also challenged the "stepping stone" theory:

There is evidence that a majority of the heroin users who come to the attention of public authorities have, in fact, had some prior experience with marijuana. But this does not mean that one leads to the other in the sense that marijuana has an intrinsic quality that creates a heroin liability. There are too many marijuana users who do not graduate to heroin, and too many heroin addicts with no known prior marijuana use, to support such a theory. Moreover there is no scientific basis for such a theory. [20]

In 1970, one of Anslinger's best weapons in his battle to stifle criticism of the bureau's marihuana policy was dealt a serious blow - Congress demanded an end to ignorance. In its compromise with President Nixon over general hospital appropriations, Congress demanded that the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare issue annual reports on the health consequences of marihuana along with recommendations for reassessing the legal status of marihuana.

At the same time, however, Congress adopted the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act. Although the law characterized marihuana as a drug with high addiction liability, potentially dangerous, and having no recognized medical use in the United States, it did lower federal penalties for first-time marihuana convictions and permitted probation. The act also placed discretion over reclassification of marihuana in the hands of the Attorney General. Finally, the act also called for yet another commission to evaluate marihuana.

Although he had agreed to a fact-finding commission, President Nixon said "this about that":

As you know, there is a commission that is supposed to make recommendations to me about this subject, and in this instance, however, I have such strong views that I will express them. I am against legalizing marijuana. Even if this commission does recommend that it be legalized, I will not follow that recommendation.... I do not believe that legalizing marijuana is in the best interests of our young people and I do not think it's in the best interests of this country. [21]

For its part, the commission recommended legalization and it did not recommend legalization. It suggested that private use and distribution of small amounts of marihuana be legalized whereas public possession be subject to confiscation and forfeiture.

True to his promise, President Nixon rejected these recommendations. But local communities and various states had already begun to take the legalization question into their own hands. In 1971, the college town community of Ann Arbor, Michigan, adopted the unprecedented step of decriminalizing marihuana from a felony prison offense to a misdemeanor, with a maximum sentence of ninety days in jail and/or a $100 fine.

The new law did not go unchallenged. Opponents appealed to the state court that Ann Arbor had no legal authority to enact legislation with was contrary to state law, but the courts ruled against them. The penalty was subsequently dropped to a five-dollar fine which could be paid like a local traffic ticket.

Undeterred, opponents of the law made the marihuana statute an issue in the local elections and they were successful in electing a majority of antimarihuana councilmen. In 1973, Ann Arbor's lenient marihuana laws were rescinded.

Now the pro-marihuana forces went to work. A referendum on the marihuana issue was called for. In 1974, a majority of the electorate voted for the "decriminalization ordinance" and once again marihuana became a five-dollar misdemeanor in Ann Arbor.

Meanwhile, a number of states were enacting new marihuana legislation of their own. In 1973, Oregon became the first state to decriminalize marihuana by changing the penalty for possession from a felony prison sentence to a $100 civil misdemeanor fine. Other states to follow Oregon's lead included Alaska, California, Colorado, Michigan, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, and South Dakota.

Although they have not yet decriminalized marihuana, other states, like New Mexico, Louisiana, Florida, and Illinois, have passed laws making marihuana available for therapeutic purposes such as in the treatment of glaucoma for which marihuana has been found beneficial.

On the federal level, a speech instructor in Washington, D. C., Robert Randall, became the first American since 1937 to be allowed to smoke marihuana legally. Randall suffers from glaucoma. As a result of studies showing marihuana's ability to ameliorate the effects of the disease, a court battle in which the District of Columbia Supreme Court acquitted him for growing marihuana on the unique defense of "necessity" to commit a criminal act to safeguard his health, and dogged persistence in fighting bureaucratic red tape, he was accorded the right to use the drug without fear of punishment.

Although a far step from decriminalization, Randall's case represents a major push in that direction since official recognition that marihuana has therapeutic value undermines one of the bulwarks supporting its illegality as put forth by the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970.

Another significant event on the national level was the formation of the National Organization for the Reform of Marihuana Laws (NORML) in 1970. NORML is a national lobbying group dedicated to persuading the nation's lawmakers that marihuana is a relatively harmless drug and its use should be decriminalized. Its impact on the national level is yet to be determined. Its significance is that it represents a concerted, devoted, and formally organized attempt to change the current marihuana laws.

Marihuana Today

Beginning in the late 1960s, there has been a virtual inundation of scientific papers published on marihuana. In 1979, I was able to locate over 8000 references dealing with cannabis, most of which were published after 1965.

Whereas many of the social questions about marihuana are no longer being debated - e.g., does marihuana incite criminal behavior? (it doesn't); is marihuana a "stepping stone" to heroin? (it isn't); does marihuana unleash hitherto inhibited sexual passions? (it doesn't) - there is still a considerable controversy about whether marihuana is medically safe. Questions about marihuana's botanical classification are still at matter of debate and there are still many other areas of debate concerning cannabis. In the remaining pages of this book, some of the recent developments in cannabis research and some of the major controversies associated with marihuana use today will be examined.


In 1972, the National Commission on Marihuana estimated that about twenty-four million Americans over the age of eleven had tried marihuana, at least eight million were still using it, and about half a million were using it every day. The commission suggested that "marihuana use may be a fad, which if not institutionalized, will recede substantially in time." [22]

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, marihuana became a symbol of the generation gap, of opposition to the Vietnam War, of frustration and anger at efforts to suppress protest. Smoking marihuana represented a direct challenge to the establishment - "We're smoking marihuana - what are you going to do about it?"

By the mid-1970s, marihuana was no longer a symbol or merely a fad - it was commonplace. Current estimates place the number of people who have used it at least once in the United States at over fifty million. At least twelve million are believed to use it on a regular basis and there is no sign that its use is abating. While still illegal in the United States, almost as many people smoke marihuana as drink alcohol, which is legal.

Botanical Classification

Ever since Linnaeus first dubbed the hemp plant Cannabis sativa, there has been vigorous debate among botanists as to whether there is only one species of the plant with different varieties, or whether there are in fact several distinct species among which Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica were the two clearest examples of the latter argument. In 1924, the Russian botanist Janischewsky championed the polytypic argument and claimed that in addition to Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica there was a third distinct species which he called Cannabis ruderalis.

One of the main problems in deciding between the monotypic and polytypic arguments is that the characteristics of the cannabis plant change depending on the conditions under which it is grown. For example, seeds taken from the United States and planted in India will eventually give rise to plants that resemble those that have always been grown in India if the seeds are continually replanted, and vice versa for those taken from India and replanted in the United States. However, despite the genetic plasticity of the seeds, there are still enough subtle differences between the plants to enable botanists to differentiate between the three different species. As stated by R. Schultes, one of the foremost authorities on the botany of cannabis: "critical studies of the literature; examination of material from many areas preserved in several of the world's largest herbaria; preliminary fieldwork in Afghanistan; and a survey of the plantings of cannabis in Mississippi from seed imported from many localities around the world under the auspices of the National Institutes of Health - all have combined to convince us that Cannabis is not monotypic and that the Russian concept that there are several species may be acceptable." [23]

As presently classified, cannabis is included along with the hops plant (Humulus) in a distinct family called Cannabaceae, although some botanists still prefer to assign it to the Moraceae family which also includes the mulberry plant to which cannabis was closely tied in ancient China.

The origin of the cannabis plant is generally placed in Central Asia, and from there it is believed to have spread to China, India, Persia, the Arab countries, Europe, Africa, and the Americas.

Instead of being merely a question of academic hair-splitting, the issue of a mono- versus a polytypic species has taken on far-reaching implications in the law courts. The single-species argument was the position taken by the U.S. Congress when it adopted the Marihuana Tax Act in 1937. At that time it outlawed Cannabis sativa, not marihuana, believing them to be one and the same. No mention was made of Cannabis indica or Cannabis ruderalis, since it was assumed that these were different varieties of Cannabis sativa rather than different species.

In recent court cases, however, defense lawyers have argued that their clients were caught in possession of Cannabis indica or Cannabis ruderalis, and that these materials are not legally outlawed since the Marihuana Tax Act specifies Cannabis sativa only. Since there are several distinct species of cannabis, they argue, then it must be proved that their clients were in possession of Cannabis sativa, and since there is no way of making such a judgement once the plant is chopped into pieces, they have moved for dismissal of any and all charges. Not surprisingly, the prosecution. dismisses the polytypic argument and instead argues for the monotypic position.


The chemical materials in cannabis which give it its peculiar characteristics are called cannabinoids. Cannabinol, once considered the principal active ingredient in marihuana, was isolated as early as the 1890s. Subsequent tests, however, showed it to be biologically inactive (although recent studies have shown that it may affect the actions of other cannabinoids). In the 1930s, another important cannabinoid, cannabidiol, was isolated, but it too was found devoid of biological activity (although like cannabinol, it may affect the actions of other cannabinoids).

The major psychoactive substance in marihuana was finally isolated and identified in 1964 by two Israeli chemists, Y. Gaoni and R. Mechoulam, as l-delta-9-trans-tetrahydrocannabinol (delta-9 -THC). Subsequently, a number of other cannabinoids have been identified which either exert some biological effects of their own or else modify the effects of delta-9-THC, among which are delta-8-THC, cannabicyclol, cannabichromene, cannabigerol, cannabivarol, cannabidivarol, and a long list of similar compounds.

The proportion of these substances in the plant varies according to where it is grown. Cannabis grown in the temperate climates, where its fiber is strong, contains little delta-9-THC and a relatively high proportion of cannabidiol. On the other hand, in hot climates where the plant is grown for its psychoactive effects, it contains a high proportion of delta-9-THC and relatively little cannabidiol.

Actually, there are two main systems of nomenclature where the cannabinoids are concerned. The pyran system is the one which refers to the principal psychoactive substance in marihuana as delta-9-THC, whereas the monoterpenoid system calls this compound delta-1-THC. The differences result from the way in which the atoms in the tetrahydrocannabinol molecule are numbered.

The amount of tetrahydrocannabinols present in marihuana depends on the particular species (i.e.,

Cannabis sativa, Cannabis indica, Cannabis ruderalis) and the conditions under which it is raised. Marihuana extract distillate may contain as much as 30 percent delta-9-THC, but this is a considerably higher percentage than that usually found in marihuana. When marihuana is burned as it is when it is smoked, however, about 50 percent of the delta-9-THC content may be destroyed.

The identification and quantification of delta-9-THC in marihuana was an achievement of enormous importance for cannabis research, since it meant that at long last it was possible to compare and contrast the effects of marihuana used in different laboratories and even in different countries. By specifying the delta-9-THC content present in the marihuana being tested, scientists had the equivalent of a ruler against which they could evaluate the potency of a particular sample of marihuana.

In addition to the cannabinoids, there are a considerable number of noncannabinoid compounds present in cannabis, among which are various alkaloids, terpenes, phenols, flavonoids, and sugars. Whether these materials affect the actions of the cannabinoids in any way is unknown as yet. Whatever their contribution, however, the most important ingredient in marihuana is still delta-9-THC.


A major interest in cannabis research, at least from a forensic standpoint, has been the development of test procedures to identify whether a substance is or is not cannabis.

The two major tests up until very recently have been the Beam and Duquenois tests. In the Beam test, cannabis is mixed with alcohol and potassium hydroxide. If a purple color develops, cannabis is presumed present. The Beam test, however, is more sensitive to some cannabinoids (e.g., cannabidiol and cannabigerol) than others, and the mixture will not turn purple if these cannabinoids are missing. The Duquenois test involves mixing the unknown substance with vanillin, acetaldehyde, alcohol, and hydrochloric acid. If a violet color develops, the test substance is presumed to be cannabis. Although the Duquenois test is more sensitive than the Beam test, it is not as specific - a violet color will also develop in the presence of other substances, e.g., coffee.

Up until recently, these two tests, in conjunction with botanical examination of plant samples, were the methods relied upon by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs in identifying marihuana.

However, other methods have since been developed which are more sensitive and are able to determine not only if a substance is cannabis, but also which cannabinoids are present, and how much of each cannabinoid is contained in a test substance.


The smallest amount of delta-9-THC in a marihuana cigarette that will produce a "high" is about 5 mg. However, since about 50 percent of this amount will be destroyed in the smoking process, the threshold dose is about 2.5 mg. For a 70-kg man, this would amount to a dose of 0.035 mg/kg. Studies of acute toxicity in animals indicates that the LD50, i.e., the doses that would kill 50 percent of the animals, is 42.5 mg/kg if injected directly into the blood stream and about 106 mg/kg when inhaled in smoke. In other words, a lethal dose of delta-9-THC is about 5000 times higher than that which produces a "high."

When smoked, the effects of marihuana begin to be felt in about five to fifteen minutes. Maximum effect occurs in about sixty minutes. The parts of the body that receive the highest amount of the drug are those which have the richest blood supply, e.g., the liver, lung, kidney, and spleen. Surprisingly, the brain attains relatively low levels compared with these other organs.

Delta-9-THC is metabolized by the liver to 11-hydroxy-delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (11-OH-delta-9-THC) which also has psychoactive effects. This metabolite is then itself broken down into other metabolites, which are in turn broken down further, and eventually these metabolites are eliminated through the feces and the kidney. About 50 percent of the delta-9-THC content in the body is eliminated in the form of metabolites in the first twenty-four hours. However, traces of the drug can still be found in the human body as long as eight days later.

Studies in animals have shown that the cannabinoids and/or their metabolites may accumulate in the brain following frequent exposure. The greater the accumulation, the longer it would take for the brain to rid itself of the drug and this could account for reports of flashbacks and memory impairment in longtime users of marihuana.

Tolerance (the phenomenon whereby greater amounts of drug have to be taken to receive the same kind of effect originally experienced) occurs to some of the drug's effects, but not all. In animals, tolerance has been observed in the suppression of aggressiveness in Siamese fighting fish, the loss of the righting reflex in frogs, analgesia in rats, ataxia in dogs, hypothermia, bradycardia, electroencephalographic activity, and brain tissue respiration, just to list a few phenomena. On the other hand, tolerance has not been observed for the drug's tachycardia effect in man.

To account for the claim by many marihuana users that they do not become "high" when they first begin using the drug some researchers have postulated the concept of "reverse tolerance" whereby sensitivity increases, rather than decreases, following repeated drug usage However, there is little scientific basis to support such a notion. Instead it appears that new users have to learn to identify a "high" so that they can recognize it with repeated usage.

Closely related to tolerance is the phenomenon of physical dependence. Physical dependence is evident when a characteristic withdrawal syndrome occurs when chronic drug use is discontinued to certain drugs. Although dependence is always associated with tolerance, the reverse is not necessarily the case - tolerance need not result in drug dependence. The latter seems to be the case for marihuana. Although there are a few reports of marihuana-related withdrawal symptoms consisting of anxiety, restlessness, headache, nausea, sweating, increased pulse rate, and acute abdominal cramps, such experiences are uncommon.

Physical Effects

In 1968, the first "double-blind" study (in which neither the researcher nor the subject knows if marihuana or some inert placebo is being tested at the time) was reported by a group of Harvard scientists. Although the study was sanctioned by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, the scientists noted that "we do not consider it appropriate to describe here the opposition we encountered from governmental agents and agencies and from university bureaucracies." [24]

Part of the experiment was aimed at comparing the effects of marihuana on previous users with people who had never used the drug before. It took over two months to locate nine volunteers among the Boston college population who qualified for nonuser status!

After a series of experiments comparing users and nonusers, the researchers could detect no adverse effects from smoking marihuana by either group. Marihuana increased heart rate and dilated blood vessels in the eye, but did not affect pupil size, respiratory rate, or blood sugar levels.

On the basis of their findings, the scientists concluded that marihuana was a mild intoxicant and that previous studies in which adverse effects had been found had either used doses of marihuana that were much higher than those commonly used, and/or failed to incorporate proper control procedures which enabled researchers in those studies to confirm any preexisting biases they might have originally had.

In general most studies have since corroborated these findings. No damaging effects to the body have been found resulting from occasional use of marihuana. Although marihuana produces many changes in the body, these changes rarely have clinical importance. This is not to say, however, that chronic use of marihuana, or regular use of more potent forms of marihuana than that currently available in the United States, may not prove harmful.

Several alarming reports over the last few years have, in fact, pointed to serious potential dangers resulting from chronic marihuana use. Although most of these reports have been refuted, they are worthy of attention for what they say and for the flaws that have been noted in connection with such studies.

Adverse Effects

Chromosomal Damage. In 1974, Dr. Morton Stenchever reported that he had discovered twenty female and twenty-nine male marihuana users who had three times the number of chromosomal breaks more than a group of twenty nonmarihuana users. [25] Among the users with chromosomal damage, twenty-two had used marihuana only once a week or less.

However, Stenchever presented little information about his marihuana users. He had no idea if they had had any chromosomal damage before they had become marihuana users, nor did he know if they were users of any other drugs linked to chromosomal damage.

A subsequent study by other researchers failed to corroborate Stenchever's results. [26] The subjects in this latter study had no chromosomal aberrations before being recruited for the experiment nor were they users of any drugs associated with such damage.

Immunity Dr. Gabriel Nahas, an outspoken opponent of marihuana usage, reported that T-lymphocytes taken from marihuana smokers and grown in laboratory cultures exhibited depressed cellular immunity responses. [27] Although Nahas's results have been corroborated by other scientists, there have also been failures in attempts to support this finding. At UCLA, researchers challenged the immune systems of chronic marihuana smokers directly, not in a laboratory culture. All reacted with strong immune reactions. [28] Moreover, there is no evidence linking marihuana to susceptibility to colds, infections, or cancer, all of which might be expected if marihuana compromised the body's immune systems.

Lung Damage. Several studies have reported serious lung damage on the part of chronic marihuana smokers. [29] Bronchitis, emphysema, and lesions of lung tissue have been noted in marihuana users, but it is not known if it is the kind of smoke (marihuana) or the amount of smoke (any smoke, e.g., cigarettes) that is responsible for the damage.

Brain Damage. One of the most persistent claims about chronic use of marihuana is that it causes brain damage. In 1971, Dr. A. M. G. Campbell published a report purporting to document such damage. [30] The report concerned air encephalogram measurements in ten marihuana smokers who had been using marihuana daily for three to eleven years. According to their report, the brains of these marihuana users had enlarged cerebral ventricles, suggestive of brain atrophy.

Shortly after its publication, however, the report was criticized for its shortcomings. One researcher noted that "in the 10 cases reported [by Campbell] all 10 men had used LSD - many of them over 20 times - as well as cannabis, and 8 of the 10 had used amphetamines. One subject had a previous history of convulsions, four had significant head injuries, and a number had used sedatives, barbiturates, heroin, or morphine. On the basis of these facts, speculative connection between cannabis use and brain damage is highly suspect." [31]

It might also be suggested that the changes in ventricle size preceded marihuana usage and that these men had resorted to marihuana as one way of coping with whatever symptoms they were experiencing as a result of the changes in their brains.

Psychosis. A venerable claim about marihuana is that it causes insanity. During the nineteenth century, Moreau had experimented with marihuana as a "model psychosis." The Indian Hemp Drugs Commission and several other reports by physicians serving in India also seriously considered marihuana's potential for mental illness. While many of these reports affirmed the possible link between chronic cannabis use and mental illness, the methods and data of the time would not stand up to modern criteria for such studies.

Previously, and even currently, most of the problems associated with cannabis came from non-Western countries where malnutrition, disease, and various social conditions undoubtedly combined to precipitate psychopathology. The use of cannabis by patients in psychiatric institutions does not mean that cannabis precipitates psychoses. It is just as likely, for instance, that people with psychiatric problems will rely on cannabis to deal with their problems when cannabis is readily available, just as alcohol is often relied on to deal with personal difficulties in this country. And although cannabis may precipitate psychiatric illness in certain individuals, it may not be very unique in this respect.

By far the most common adverse response to marihuana in this country is acute panic. Disorientation, depersonalization, confusion, and dizziness sometimes occur in people not accustomed to the drug or in people who absorb larger doses than they have previously been accustomed to. In such cases, intense panic and anxiety are sometimes experienced as a response to these feelings. In general, these feelings can be calmed through the support and assurance of more experienced users. In any case, they disappear as the drug is eliminated from the body.

Another not uncommon reaction to use of marihuana is acute paranoia. This response, however, is often a reaction to fear of detection by the police.

Several modern-day studies, especially one conducted on chronic ganja users in Jamaica, lend no support to the premise of marihuana-induced insanity. [32] A 1971 report by Drs. Harold Kolansky and William Moore, which appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association, allegedly documenting psychosis in a number of their patients, has been discredited. [33] In one of these cases, the researchers cite the example of a young boy who was seduced by a homosexual who happened to give the boy a marihuana cigarette. According to Kolansky and Moore, the marihuana made him psychotic!

Amotivational Syndrome. Up until very recently, marihuana has been associated with the poor, especially those in certain minority groups like the Chicano and the Negro in America. Since there was (and still is) little incentive to work harder at menial tasks in which these people are often employed, it is not surprising that their work output may have been less than expected. And since a lack of motivation is contrary to the Protestant work ethic, it had to be accounted for. Unless one adopts a racist attitude (which many do) and argues that some races are less capable than others because they are born that way, other explanations must be sought. In the case of marihuana, the fact that it was often associated with the poor and underprivileged in many countries throughout the world made it a convenient scapegoat upon which to blame an apparent lack of motivation on the part of those who used the drug.

Recent studies from Jamaica, however, indicate that where marihuana (ganja) is an intrinsic part of everyday life, work output at menial jobs does not suffer. In rural Jamaica, anthropologists report that "rather than hindering, [ganja] permits its users to face, start and carry through the most difficult and distasteful manual labor.... workers are motivated to carry out difficult tasks with no decrease in heavy physical exertion, and their perception of increased output is a significant factor in bolstering their motivation to work." [34]

Therapeutic Uses

Over its long history, cannabis has been used to treat a multitude of medical problems from toothaches to venereal disease. The many problems for which it has been tried have been documented throughout this book. Adoption of antimarihuana laws throughout the world, however, virtually eliminated any modern efforts to investigate possible therapeutic applications of the drug. Only in recent years has there been a resurgence of research in this area.

Glaucoma. In 1971, during experiments conducted for an altogether different purpose, researchers accidentally discovered that marihuana substantially reduced intraocular pressure. [35] This discovery generated considerable interest on the part of some physicians since they saw a possible use for marihuana in the treatment of glaucoma - the third-leading cause of blindness in America.

Glaucoma is a disorder in which fluid pressure inside the eye increases and ultimately damages the optic nerve, causing blindness. Subsequent studies have borne out marihuana's ability to reduce intraocular pressure among not only glaucoma sufferers, but nonsufferers as well. While marihuana has no curative action in the disorder, it is able to delay further loss of sight through its ability to reduce intraocular pressure. As already noted, marihuana's efficacy in the treatment of glaucoma has been recognized at both the federal and state levels, and many glaucoma sufferers are able to use marihuana legally to treat their disorder.

Cancer Chemotherapy. As if they did not already suffer enough, cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy experience several disconcerting and unpleasant side effects of treatment such as vomiting and nausea. By chance, one such patient happened to use marihuana after receiving chemotherapy and he found that the vomiting he usually experienced was alleviated. He reported this effect to his doctors, and subsequent testing at the Harvard Medical School proved so satisfactory that marihuana has become a routine adjunct to cancer chemotherapy at some hospitals. [36]

Asthma. Asthma is a respiratory disorder in which breathing becomes labored due to constriction of the bronchial vessels of the lung. Among marihuana's many actions in the body is dilation of the bronchial vessels, allowing more air to enter the lung. Although there are other drugs which also produce bronchodilation, marihuana's actions turned out to be longer lasting. [37] Recent interest in this potential application for asthma sufferers has seen the development of an aerosol of delta-9-THC, but only for experimental purposes.

Epilepsy. During the late 1940s, in one of the few studies to be conducted with marihuana, researchers reported a beneficial effect of the drug in the treatment of epilepsy. [38] Five epileptic children were treated. In three cases, the outcome was the same as that seen with traditional drug therapy. In the other two, seizures were almost entirely suppressed for one child and were totally eliminated in the other, although conventional drug therapy had previously proven unsatisfactory. Although this report should have generated considerable interest among the medical profession, it was totally ignored until the 1970s when the anticonvulsant properties of certain cannabinoids (particularly cannabidiol) were rediscovered and are currently receiving clinical testing for possible formal use in the treatment of epilepsy.

Other conditions for which marihuana is currently being evaluated include hypertension, analgesia, and insomnia. Conceivably, marihuana may one again become a familiar drug in the medical drug arsenal.

Summary and Conclusions

Cannabis is undoubtedly one of the world's most remarkable plants. Virtually every part of it has been used and valued at one time or another. Its roots have been boiled to make medicine; its seeds have been eaten as food by both animals and men, been crushed to make industrial oils, and been thrown onto blazing fires to release the minute intoxicating cannabinoids within; the fibers along its stem have been prized above all others because of their strength and durability; and its resin-laden leaves have been chewed, steeped in boiling water, or smoked as a medicine and an intoxicant.

Cannabis is also remarkable for being able to change its sex - under certain conditions, male plants can turn into females and vice versa. Its hereditary characteristics are also transmutable - plants grown from seeds taken from American plants and grown in India will, within a few generations, resemble plants that have always grown in India more closely than their American relatives, and vice versa for seeds taken from India and grown in America.

It is not without reason that cannabis has been many things to many people.

For most of its history, cannabis has led two lives. In countries such as India and the Middle East, cannabis has been extolled and vilified for its resinous exudation; in Russia, Europe, and America, national and private fortunes have been built around its fiber.

Around 1850, East conquered West. Cannabis fiber was replaced by other materials and cannabis resin began appearing in doctors' bags, pharmacies, cafes and private homes. At first, it was simply a novelty in the West, something to conjure up the mystery and enchantment of far-off countries. Writers and artists, and later musicians, intoxicated themselves with it because they felt it expanded their consciousness and gave them insights unattainable by other means. There was little concern over the use of the drug until the middle classes across Europe and America began to notice that minority groups, immigrants from certain countries, and the unskilled working class (often one and the same) were using the drug. Because these people seemed unmotivated, lazy, prone to criminality, sexual promiscuity, and mental illness, cannabis came to be regarded as a social danger, responsible for these and all other ills characteristic of the lower socioeconomic classes. Whereas these people used marijuana to help them cope with the drudgery of their everyday lives, the middle classes considered that marijuana was responsible for their problems. Each class saw cause and effect in a different perspective.

The middle-class perception of marijuana as evil has persisted over the centuries and has been almost universal until the last fifteen years. Only after the sons and daughters of prominent middle-class parents had been arrested and branded as criminals, and in many cases sentenced to long terms in prison, only after it became apparent that marijuana was no longer a minority-group problem, only after fear and panic about marijuana's alleged dangers began to dissipate in the light of evidence to the contrary from their own sons and daughters, only when the erstwhile marijuana users became the nation's lawmakers - only then did attitudes and laws about marijuana change.

The 12,000-year-long history of cannabis clearly shows that laws against its usage - whether it was hashish in the Arab countries, dagga in Africa, or marijuana in America - have been adopted in response to a perceived threat to society. Since the main users of cannabis drugs were typically poor and from minority groups as well, cannabis was a feared substance, something capable of unleashing the unbridled passions thought to be characteristic of these people. Only when marijuana became commonplace were such beliefs challenged and disregarded.

In the United States, it is fashionable to single out Harry Anslinger as the cunning, ruthless mastermind behind the country's antimarijuana laws. True enough, Anslinger was not above distortion and exploitation of the marijuana issue when it suited his purposes. He felt that the ends justified the means, and for Anslinger, marijuana posed a danger to the nation that had to be suppressed. In Anslinger's mind, drug use, whether narcotics or marijuana, was a criminal act, not a disease. As such, it had to be fought and overcome by any means available.

Had it not been for Anslinger, the United States might not have witnessed as concerted an effort to outlaw marijuana nationally as it did, but there still would probably have been some federal legislation outlawing the drug. Other countries had such laws and did not have any Anslinger-like bureaucrat to muster support for these laws. The combination of the man, the office, and the times fashioned America's policy towards marijuana - other countries adopted antimarijuana laws because they also perceived a threat from marijuana or because they felt obliged to do so as a result of agreement on the international level, to oppose and restrict marijuana usage. One man, whatever the issue, does not single-handedly persuade an entire nation to persecute a group of people or a drug like marijuana.

Whatever marijuana's past, its future will inevitably be that of decriminilization and eventual legalization, subject no doubt to the same regulatory measures as those that apply to alcohol. Whether the United States and the rest of the world faces a real threat to its social and economic stability, to progress, and to morality (however they are defined), as a result of the liberalization of marijuana (and other drugs) is left to the future. If the past is any example, instability, lack of progress, and immorality will or will not occur regardless of whatever happens where marijuana is concerned.

References and Notes


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