The marijuana plant
The history of marijuana use reaches back farther than many would guess. Cultivation of the Cannabis sativa plant dates back thousands of years. The first written account of cannabis cultivation [ostensibly used as medical marijuana] is found in Chinese records dating from 28 B.C. That means Chinese cultures were growing marijuana more than 2.000 years ago. However, the marijuana plant may have been cultivated long before then -- there have been reports of a nearly 3.000-year-old Egyptian mummy containing traces of THC, the main psychoactive chemical in marijuana. The Cannabis sativa is perhaps the most recognizable plant in the world. Pictures of the ubiquitous green cannabis leaf show up in the news media, textbooks and drug-prevention literature, and the leaf's shape is made into jewelry, put on bumper stickers and clothing and spray-painted on walls. The cannabis leaves are arranged palmately, radiating from a common center like the fingers of a hand spreading apart. Although most people know what the cannabis plant looks like, they may know very little about its horticulture.
Cannabis sativa is believed to be a native plant of India, where it possibly originated in a region just north of the Himalayan mountains. It's a herbaceous annual that can grow to a height of between 13 and 18 feet | 4 and 5.4 m. The marijuana plant has flowers that bloom from late summer [september] to mid-fall [end october]. Marijuana plants usually have one of two types of flowers, male or female, and some cannabis plants have both they are called hermaphrodites. Male marijuana flowers [pollen] grow in elongated clusters along the leaves and turn yellow and die after blossoming. Female marijuana flowers grow in spikelike clusters and remain dark green for a month after blossoming, until the marijuana seed ripens. Hashish, which is more powerful than marijuana, is made from the resin of the marijuana flowers. Marijuana plants contain more than 400 chemicals, 60 of which fit into a category called cannabinoids. THC is just one of these cannabinoids, but it's the chemical most often associated with the effects that marijuana has on the brain. Marijuana plants also contain choline, eugenol, guaicacol and piperidine. The concentration of THC and other cannabinoids varies depending on growing conditions, marijuana plant genetics and processing after harvest. Below you will learn more about the potency of THC and the toxicity of marijuana.
Marijuana in the body
Every time a user smokes a marijuana cigarette [joint] or ingests marijuana in some other form, THC and other chemicals enter the user's body. The chemicals make their way through the bloodstream to the brain and then to the rest of the body. The most powerful chemical in marijuana is THC [delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol], which is primarily responsible for the "high" associated with the drug. The most common way of using marijuana is smoking. Smoking is also the most expedient way to get the THC and other chemicals into the bloodstream. When the smoke from marijuana is inhaled, the THC goes directly to the lungs. Your lungs are lined with millions of alveoli, the tiny air sacs where gas exchange occurs. These alveoli have an enormous surface area -- 90 times greater than that of your skin -- so they make it easy for THC and other compounds to enter the body. The smoke is absorbed by the lungs just seconds after inhaling. You can also eat marijuana. In this case, the marijuana enters the stomach and the blood absorbs it there. The blood then carries it to the liver and the rest of the body. The stomach absorbs THC more slowly than the lungs. When cannabis is eaten, the levels of THC in the body are lower, but the effects last longer.
Marijuana and the Brain
THC is a very potent chemical compared to other psychoactive drugs. An intravenous [IV] dose of only 1 milligram can produce serious mental and psychological effects. Once in your bloodstream, THC typically reaches the brain within seconds after it is inhaled and begins to go to work. Marijuana users often describe the experience of smoking marijuana as initially relaxing and mellow, creating a feeling of haziness and light-headedness. The user's eyes may dilate, causing colors to appear more intense, and other senses may be enhanced. Later, feelings of a paranoia and panic may be felt by the user. The interaction of the THC with the brain is what causes these feelings. To understand how marijuana affects the brain, you need to know about the parts of the brain that are affected by THC. Here are the basics:
- Neurons are the cells that process information in the brain. Chemicals called neurotransmitters allow neurons to communicate with each other.
- Neurotransmitters fill the gap, or synapse, between two neurons and bind to protein receptors, which enable various functions and allow the brain and body to be turned on and off.
- Some neurons have thousands of receptors that are specific to particular neurotransmitters.
- Foreign chemicals, like THC, can mimic or block actions of neurotransmitters and interfere with normal functions.
In your brain, there are groups of cannabinoid receptors concentrated in several different places. These cannabinoid receptors have an effect on several mental and physical activities, including:
- Short-term memory
- Problem solving
Cannabinoid receptors are activated by a neurotransmitter called anandamide. Anandamide belongs to a group of chemicals called cannabinoids. THC is also a cannabinoid chemical. THC mimics the actions of anandamide, meaning that THC binds with cannabinoid receptors and activates neurons, which causes adverse effects on the mind and body. High concentrations of cannabinoid receptors exist in the hippocampus, cerebellum and basal ganglia. The hippocampus is located within the temporal lobe and is important for short-term memory. When the THC binds with the cannabinoid receptors inside the hippocampus, it interferes with the recollection of recent events. THC also affects coordination, which is controlled by the cerebellum. The basal ganglia controls unconscious muscle movements, which is another reason why motor coordination is impaired when under the influence of marijuana.
Other physiological effects of marijuana
In addition to the brain, the side effects of marijuana reach many other parts of the body. Marijuana is filled with hundreds of chemicals, and when it is burned, hundreds of additional compounds are produced. When marijuana is inhaled or ingested in some other form, several short-term effects occur. Some of marijuana's side effects are:
- Problems with memory and learning
- Distorted perception
- Difficulty with thinking and problem solving
- Loss of coordination
- Increased heart rate
- Anxiety, paranoia and panic attacks
The initial effects created by the THC in marijuana wear off after an hour or two, but the chemicals stay in your body for much longer. The terminal half-life of THC is from about 20 hours to 10 days, depending on the amount and potency of the marijuana used. This means that if you take one milligram of THC that has a half-life of 20 hours, you will still have 0.031 mg of THC in your body more than four days later. The longer the half-life, the longer the THC lingers in your body. The debate over the addictive capacity of marijuana continues. Ongoing studies now show a number of possible symptoms associated with the cessation of cannabis use. These symptoms most commonly include irritability, nervousness, depression, anxiety and even anger. Other symptoms are restlessness, severe changes in appetite, violent outbursts, interrupted sleep or insomnia. In addition to these possible physical effects, psychological dependence usually develops because a person's mind craves the high that it gets when using the drug. Beyond these effects that marijuana has, marijuana smokers are susceptible to the same health problems as tobacco smokers, such as bronchitis, emphysema and bronchial asthma. Other effects include dry mouth, red eyes, impaired motor skills and impaired concentration.
Long-term use of the drug can increase the risk of damaging the lungs and reproductive system, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency [DEA]. It has also been linked to heart attacks. Although marijuana is known to have negative effects on the human body, there is a raging debate over the use of medicinal marijuana. Some say that marijuana should be legalized for medical use because it has been known to suppress nausea, relieve eye pressure, decrease muscle spasms, stimulate appetite, stop convulsions and eliminate menstrual pain. Because of its therapeutic nature, marijuana has been used in the treatment of several conditions including: cancer and AIDS [to supress nausea and stimulate appetite], glaucoma [to alleviate eye pressure], epilepsy [to stop convulsions] and multiple sclerosis [to decrease muscle spasms]. Others believe the negative effects of marijuana usage outweigh the positive. There are currently nine U.S. states that have legalized marijuana for medical purposes: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.
Whether marijuana is more potent today than it was 30 or 40 years ago is at the center of much debate. The U.S. federal government has released information saying that the levels of potency have risen anywhere from 10 to 25 times since the 1960's. Is this a myth or reality? "There's no question that marijuana, today, is more potent than the marijuana in the 1960's. However, if you were to look at the average marijuana potency which is about 3.5 percent, it's been relatively stable for the last 20 years. Having said that, it's very important that what we have now is a wider range of potencies available than we had in the 1970's, in particular," Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse Alan Leshner said in 1999 while testifying in front of the U.S. House Subcommittee on Crime. Those who support the legalization of marijuana say that the data is skewed because testing was only performed on marijuana of specific geographic origins in the 1960's and 1970's, and therefore isn't representative of marijuana potency overall. Officials obtained the samples from a type of Mexican marijuana that is known to contain low levels of THC -- 0.4 to 1 percent. When these levels are compared to other types of cannabis, it looks as if potency levels have risen in the last 30 years. Typical THC levels, which determines marijuana potency, range from 0.3 to 4 percent. However, some specially grown plants can contain THC levels as high as 15 percent. Several factors are involved in determining the potency of a marijuana plant, including:
- Growing climate and conditions
- Plant genetics
- Harvesting and processing
The time at which the plant is harvested affects the level of THC. Additionally, female varieties have higher levels of THC than male varieties. As a marijuana plant matures, its chemical composition changes. During early development, cannabidiolic acid is the most prevalent chemical. Later, cannabidiolic acid is converted to cannabidiol, which is later converted to THC when the plant reaches its floral maturation. To determine the average potency levels of marijuana, researchers need to examine a cross section of marijuana plants, which wasn't done in the 1960's and 1970's. This makes it difficult to make accurate comparisons between the THC levels of that time period and the THC levels of today.
About marijuana in the USA [Usage]
Marijuana is readily available in almost every corner of the United States, according to the Department of Justice. It's found growing in homes, on farms, in the suburbs and in the city. Marijuana is frequently found growing on public land, often in remote locations to prevent observation and identification of the growers. In 1999, the U.S. Forest Service seized almost 1 million pounds | 453,592 kg of marijuana plants and processed marijuana in 35 states. Marijuana is also smuggled into the United States from Mexico, Cambodia and Thailand, among other countries. There is a growing trend toward indoor cultivation of marijuana in the United States because of the DEA's efforts to curtail outdoor cultivation. Indoor growers cultivate marijuana in closets, fish tanks and elaborate greenhouses. Some marijuana growers have even built structures that look like real homes but lack interior walls, all to hide their marijuana-growing operations. In 1998, drug law enforcement authorities seized 2,616 indoor marijuana-growing operations. More than 71 million Americans over the age of 12 had tried marijuana as of 1998, which is more than 25% of the national population. Frequent usage is lower than it was in 1979, when 13.2% of the U.S. population over the age of 12 was using cannabis on a monthly basis. In 1999, it had declined to 5.1%.
There are hundreds of slang words that mean "marijuana" [some refer to specific types]. Here are just a few:
- Astro turf
- Chiba chiba
- Aunt Mary
- Black Bart
- Dinkie dow
- Mary Jane
- Maui wauie
- Yellow submarine
There are several ways in which people use marijuana, and the way in which it is used determines the amount of chemicals transferred into the body, according to the authors of " Buzzed. " Here are the most common methods of use:
Also called a joint , dried marijuana buds are rolled into a cigarette. Approximately 10% to 20% of the THC is transferred into the body when smoking a joint.
Some users slice open a cigar, remove the tobacco and refill it with marijuana. The marijuana-filled cigar is often called a blunt.
You've probably seen people smoke pipes of tobacco, but these pipes are also used to smoke marijuana. About 40 % to 50% of the THC is transferred into the body when using a pipe.
These are water pipes that typically have a long tube rising out of a bowl-shaped base. Water pipes trap the smoke until it's inhaled, raising the amount of THC taken in.
Marijuana is sometimes baked into foods , such as brownies, or brewed as tea.
With millions of users, marijuana use is not limited to one demographic group. It cuts across all racial and economic boundaries. However, marijuana use is highest among younger people. The prevalence of marijuana use in teenagers doubled from 1992 to 1999: One out of every 13 kids aged 12 to 17 were current users of marijuana in 1999. The 1998 National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse indicates that marijuana is very easy to obtain. Half of all 13-year-olds said that they can find and purchase marijuana, according to the study. Of teens surveyed, 49% said that they had first tried marijuana at age 13 or younger.