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Tincture of marijuana (cannabis) was still listed in the Parke, Davis & Co. pharmaceutical catalog of 1929. (Courtesy of Tod H. Mikuriya, M.D.)
Marijuana is an ancient drug, used since prehistoric times in parts of the Old World. It is a product of the hemp plant, Cannabis sativa, a species that also provides a useful fiber, an edible seed, an oil, and a medicine. That is a lot for one plant to do, which explains why it has always been an important cultivated crop. Cannabis is probably native to central Asia. It tends to grow in waste places around camps and settlements and has been associated with human beings for so long that it is unknown in a truly wild state.
The intoxicating properties of hemp reside in an aromatic, sticky resin exuded by the flowering tops, especially the tops of female plants. The strength of a preparation of hemp depends on the resin content; some strains produce a great deal of resin, others little. If whole plants are chopped up, leaves, stalks, and all, the resin-rich tops will be diluted by much inert material. Carefully cultivated female tops, gathered before the seeds form, are sticky to the touch with resin, highly aromatic, and very potent. The resin itself can be collected and pressed into cakes or lumps; that is hashish. Also, the resin can be extracted with solvents and concentrated into a thick, oily liquid called hash oil. Any of these preparations can be either smoked or eaten.
Marijuana is unique among the psychoactive drugs, in a class by itself. The chemicals it contains resemble no other drug molecules. Unlike most of the substances discussed in this book, they are insoluble in water but very soluble in oil. Therefore, they are absorbed unevenly when eaten, and they stay in the body for a long time because they accumulate in body fat. Marijuana is
115 Marijuana neither a stimulant nor a depressant, but has some features of both. Many people regard it as a mild psychedelic, but its effects are different from those of the true hallucinogens, and it is not necessarily mild. Moreover, the abuse potential of marijuana is considerably higher than that of psychedelics, because it can be used frequently or continually in combination with everyday activities.
As a psychoactive drug, cannabis has a much longer history in other parts of the world than it does in Western countries. Europeans and Americans grew the plant exclusively for its fiber for many years, and even when tincture of cannabis w?as widely used in Western medicine in the 1800s, few people took it to get high or reported that they felt high when they did take it. The knowledge of how to smoke hemp was probably brought to Brazil by black slaves who used the plant in Africa; the practice traveled north to Mexico and, finally, reached the United States.
Marijuana smoking began in the United States after World War I. Introduced by Mexican migrant workers, it caught on first among black people in southern cities. Many of its early users were musicians. Over the years, it spread to other subgroups, but was rarely associated with the white middle class until the 1960s, when it became a prominent symbol of the youth movement on college campuses. Since then, it has grown steadily more popular and today is the most widely used of all the illegal drugs.
Marijuana growing on the United States government's experimental farm at the University of Mississippi. (Timothy Plowman)
Charles Baudelaire (1821 -1867): a self-portrait by the French poet from 1844, drawn under the influence of hashish. (Fitz Hugh Ludlow Memorial Library)
From the very first, marijuana — which is known by many slang names, including pot, grass, weed, and dope — provoked a great deal of contention, mostly as a result of its associations. It was the drug of deviant subcultures and minority races even before it got mixed up with hippies and revolutionaries. Despite its status as the most widely used illegal drug today, the dominant culture still views it as a dangerous drug, worse than alcohol and tobacco, likely to lead to heroin.
In this highly charged atmosphere, arguments about marijuana tend to be more political than factual. And because pharmacologists and medical doctors are just as caught up in the politics of marijuana as other people, it's difficult to get neutral information about the drug. Much marijuana research sets out to prove preconceived ideas, and much of it is not worth reading.
Politics aside, the effects of marijuana are hard to describe, because they are so variable — more so than those of other drugs. Some of this variation has to do with set and setting, but some is inherent in the drug.
People who smoke marijuana for the first time often feel nothing at all, even if they take high doses of strong pot. As with other psychoactive substances, people have to learn to associate changes of consciousness with the physical effects of the drug. Compared to other drugs, however, the physical effects of marijuana are not spectacular. It makes the heart beat somewhat faster, causes the mouth and eyes to become dry, and reddens the whites of the eyes. Of these, the most noticeable change is the dryness of the mouth. Only people who wear contact lenses are likely to notice the dryness of the eyes. Increased heart rate is easily ignored, although it can become the basis of a panic reaction in anxious first-time users, who may interpret it to mean they are having heart attacks.
When people learn to get high on marijuana, their early experiences with it are often quite lively. Everything may strike them funny, and all sensory experiences become novel and interesting. Listening to music, eating, and making love can become more than usually absorbing. Time seems long and drawn out. People sometimes have strange illusions, such as seeing a room expand or feeling as though their legs have become enormously long.
With repeated use, these remarkable effects tend to fade away. Regular users may find that pot makes them relaxed or more sociable without greatly affecting their perceptions or moods. Very heavy users usually feel little from the drug, often smoking it simply out of habit.
Bad reactions to marijuana are more likely when high doses of strong material are taken in bad settings, especially by inex-
perienced users. Most are simple panic reactions, easily treated with reassurance that everything will be all right as soon as the drug wears off. The effects of smoking marijuana usually diminish after an hour and disappear after two or three hours. Some people, if they have smoked a lot of pot, feel tired or "fuzzy" the next morning.
Some users find that marijuana stimulates them and keeps them awake at night; others use it to help them fall asleep, it makes some people depressed and irritable, and others groggy for several hours. Possibly, some kinds of pot arc more sedative than others. In recent years, stronger and stronger marijuana has become available. Some of the very potent sinsemilla ("without seed") is as potent as hashish and can be disorienting to people who are not used to it.
(From The Further Adven tures of lhe Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers by Gilbert She I ton. Copyright €> 1979 Rip Off Press, Inc.)
Taken by mouth, rather than smoked, marijuana is a stronger drug, slower to come on, with longer-lasting effects. Because the resin is insoluble in water, marijuana tea is not very effective. But the crude drug can be added to food, and the active principles are easily extracted in alcohol or fat. Although some users like to eat cannabis, most prefer to smoke it because it's less trouble, and the effect comes on very fast. The main problem with oral use is the risk of overdosage. Since the stomach absorbs the drug unevenly, the right dosage is hard to estimate, and it's easy to take too much. Overdoses of cannabis are unpleasant, though not dangerous medically. They can make people extremely disoriented and delirious, as if suffering from a high fever, and are often followed by stupor and hangover. Perhaps because oral use requires more preparation and produces stronger effects, people who cat marijuana are less likely to become dependent on it than people who smoke it.
Whether they eat it or smoke it, users frequently combine marijuana with other drugs, such as alcohol, downers, stimulants, and even psychedelics. The effects of these combinations are not predictable, depending more on the individual than on the drugs. Because marijuana is not as powerful or as toxic as most of the other drugs, there is no special pharmacological danger in mixing it (as there is, say, in mixing alcohol with downers). Still, users should be aware that combinations they are not used to may disagree with them and may produce unexpectedly strong effects.
The medical safety of marijuana is great. It docs not kill people in overdose or produce other symptoms of obvious toxicity. Occasional use is no more of a health problem than the occasional use of alcohol.
Smoking marijuana regularly can, over time, significantly irritate the respiratory tract, causing chronic, dry coughs that resemble the coughs of some cigarette smokers. Further, marijuana smoke may contain more tars than tobacco smoke, and can probably producc lung and bronchial disease in susceptible individuals. The risk depends on how much users smoke over how long a time.
Aside from respiratory irritation, heavy marijuana use does not seem to cause other medical problems. Of course, warnings of the medical dangers of cannabis have been well publicized, with reports of everything from brain damage to injury of the immune and reproductive systems, but these are based on poor research, often conducted by passionate foes of the drug. Studies of populations that have smoked cannabis for many years do not reveal obvious illnesses that can be linked to marijuana.
Much has been made of the fact that tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the most active chemical in cannabis resin, accumulates in body fat, staying around for weeks after the last dose of marijuana is smoked. Although this is true, and it is very different from the pattern of quick elimination of water-soluble drugs, it is not a problem in itself. If THC were a very toxic drug, its persistence in body fat would be cause for concern, but THC and marijuana are less toxic than most of the drugs discussed in this book.*
Psychological problems related to regular use of marijuana are also subjects of controversy. Opponents of the drug charge that it interferes with memory and intellectual functioning and leads to an amotivational syndrome in which people lose their initiative and will to work. There is no question that young people who lack motivation often smoke a lot of pot and do very little else, but it is doubtful that marijuana made them that way. Heavy pot smoking is more likely to be a symptom of ¿motivation than a cause of it, and those same young people would probably be wasting their time in other ways or with other drugs if pot were not available.
As for its effects on memory and intellect, regular users often say that marijuana makes their minds fuzzy and can interfere with memory. These effects seem to disappear when people cut down on their use of the drug or stop using it altogether.
Dependence on marijuana certainly occurs and has become more common as use of the drug has increased. It does not exactly resemble dependence on any other psychoactive drug. At its worst, marijuana dependence consists of chain smoking, from the moment of getting up in the morning to the time of falling asleep — a pattern similar to that of many cigarette smokers. But dramatic withdrawal syndromes don't occur when people sud-
I started dealing dope 'cause i was the only way I could affor to buy dope. Now I do it for the money.
— sixteen-year-old boy
If you can remember the '60s, you weren't there.
— Robin Williams, actor
"Marijuana may be quite toxic if it is contaminated with paraquat, a very poisonous chemical herbicide used to kill unwanted plants. In 1975 American drug enforcement authorities began encouraging officials in Mexico to spray this poison from helicopters on the illegal marijuana fields of that country. The growers soon learned that if they harvested their pot immediately after it was sprayed, it would still look healthy and could be sold to dealers as usual. In this way, paraquat-contaminated Mexican marijuana began to find its way to users in the United States.
The exact dangers of smoking paraquat are unclear, but it is certain that it cannot be good for you; the only question is how bad it is. Apparently it can cause serious lung damage over time and may affect other organs as well. There is no easy way to spot paraquat on a sample of pot, hut some drug testing labs can analyze for it. Although public outcry put an end to American support for the Mexican program, the drug enforcement authorities are again pressing for use of paraquat on marijuana fields, both in other countries and in the major producing states, such as California and Florida. If they have their way, paraquat contamination will again be a risk to all users who do not grow their own pot or know who grew it. Some thoughtful legislators have urged that paraquat be mixed with some distinctive odor or color that would wTarn users of contaminated material, but so far that is just a suggestion.
Eventually I became a daily pot smoker, sometimes starting in the morning. It was my main way of relating to other people. However, I started getting less and less effect from it that I liked. In fact, it began to make me groggy and sleepy most of the time and also gave me a cough. These unwelcome effects got worse and worse until I realized I would have to stop using pot. So I made a resolution to quit completely.
Well, it surprised me to find that wasn't so easy. It took me three years of trying before I really gave up smoking marijuana, even though I no longer got pleasant effects from it. I never realized how much of a habit I had and how hooked I was on it... — forty-one-year-old man, lawyer denly stop using marijuana, and craving for the drug is not nearly as intense as for tobacco, alcohol, or narcotics.
Tolerance to marijuana also occurs. Even the strongest varieties seem to lose their power if people smoke them day in and day out. This leads heavy users to keep searching for more potent pot so they can feel stoned again. In fact, all they really need to do is cut hack on their frequency of use; even a twenty-four-hour break from the routine of smoking all day long will allow a heavy user to become sensitive again to the psychoactive properties of marijuana.
Although dependence on marijuana has fewer physical components than dependence on more toxic drugs, it can still he very hard to break and very upsetting to people who find themselves caught up in it. Some heavy users are unable to stop smoking even though they no longer get useful effects from pot and, in fact, get effects they actively dislike, such as strong sedation and chronic coughs. There are now self-help groups modeled on Alcoholics Anonymous for people with unwanted marijuana habits.
Marijuana dependence can be sneaky in its development. It doesn't appear overnight like cigarette addiction, or in a matter of weeks like heroin addiction, but rather builds up over a long time. In most cases, people begin smoking pot only in special, usually social, situations. At first, because the drug causes such strong effects, they cannot imagine smoking it at other times. With increasing use, however, tolerance develops, and also people learn to adapt to being high. Soon they can perform normal activities while under the influence of marijuana. Users may then begin to smoke during the day, perhaps by themselves. With time, and unless precautions are taken, marijuana smoke can gradually pervade all their waking hours. At that point, the habit is not easy to break.
Even in heaviest usage marijuana does not lead to heroin or any other drug. Many junkies smoked marijuana before they tried opiates, but few marijuana users take narcotics. Many junkies also drank alcohol heavily before they discovered heroin, sometimes at very young ages, yet no one argues that alcohol leads to heroin. The reason, of course, is that alcohol enjoys general social approval, while marijuana is a "bad" drug and so invites false attributions of causality. Possibly, marijuana users are more likely than nonusers to try psychedelics and cocaine, because the distribution networks of these drugs overlap somewhat, but there is no quality of marijuana that induces its users to become consumers of other substances.
Adaptation to marijuana enables users to learn to perform well under its influence. Unlike alcohol, it does not invariably depress reflexes and reaction times. People who aren't used to its effects will not be able to drive cars well or do any number of other routine tasks well while stoned. Even experienced users need time to practice a given task under the influence of marijuana in order to bring performance up to normal. Some users feel that marijuana helps them concentrate and enables them to work better, but even they have to learn to adapt to its effects. Most scientific tests show that marijuana impairs performance of all sorts. It is easy to come up with such results if you give marijuana to people who are not used to it, give it in much higher doses than they are used to, or give them hard tasks to perform, especially tasks they have never done while stoned.
Many marijuana smokers drive cars, fly airplanes, ski, scuba dive, and engage in other hazardous activities after smoking. Many of them get away with it because they are experienced users with practice. This does not change the fact that marijuana can drastically interfere with performance in some circumstances. Pot and driving may not be as bad a combination for everyone as drinking and driving, but it is certainly not a good one. For teenagers who drive recklessly to begin with, it can be especially dangerous.
Devotees of marijuana like to argue its merits, trying to persuade others that it is really a beneficial drug. In fact, cannabis was used in medicine in the past, and some doctors today feel that it is still a valuable remedy for some ailments. Current federal laws prohibit all uses of marijuana, but synthetic THC is available for research, and many states have now legalized marijuana for specific therapeutic uses.
Both THC and marijuana are good treatments for nausea and vomiting. Doctors have used them successfully with cancer patients receiving chemotherapy, which involves very toxic drugs that often cause intense stomach upsets. This effect was first discovered by teen-agers with leukemia who happened to be pot heads. Cannabis may also help asthma patients breathe easier, but if it is smoked the smoke may make them cough. It also is a specific treatment for glaucoma, a serious eye disease in which fluid pressure builds up in the eyeball, causing losses of vision. Marijuana reduces this pressure. Finally, it relaxes stiff muscles in a condition called spastic paralysis that results from brain injuries and diseases such as multiple sclerosis.
Although many patients prefer the effect of marijuana to that of pure THC, federal agencies won't permit doctors to prescribe the natural plant. Yet THC is not the same as whole marijuana and may not be as safe. Recently, several pharmaceutical companies have come up with synthetic drugs related to THC and have
I have multiple sclerosis. About three years after it was diagnosed I discovered marijuana. A friend told me it was relaxing. My main problem then, aside from partial blindness, was tenseness and tremors in my muscles. Pot cured it, and I've smoked regularly ever since, about four to five times a week. If I go without it for a week, the muscle tremors come back ... Most people with MS have repeated attacks and keep losing body function. I'm convinced that pot has kept me in remission all these years.
— forty-one-year-old man, part-time roofer
Govern m e n t - m a n u f a c t u red marijuana cigarettes. A few patients with glaucoma have been able to obtain them legally for the treatment of that eye disease. (Jeremy Big wood)
tried to market them as antinausea remedies. In general, they are less effective and more toxic than marijuana.
Aside from these specific uses, many people find that pot relieves the symptoms of various mild ailments, from headaches to menstrual cramps. Probably, they use the marijuana to get high and use the high as a way of taking their minds off discomfort. Sometimes taking your attention away from the symptoms of a minor ailment will allow it to subside. The less frequently you smoke marijuana, the more likely it is to work for you as a medicine.
Of course, the same principle applies to getting high from pot. The less frequently you use it, the better and more intense will be your experiences with it. The main danger of smoking marijuana is simply that it will get away from you, becoming more and more of a repetitive habit and less and less of a useful way of changing consciousness. The ease of integrating marijuana smoking with all activities, from parties to sports to watching television, favors habitual use. Also, tolerance to the interesting effects of the drug often encourages users to smoke more of it, when in fact they should be cutting down to increase their sensitivity The absence of dramatic negative effects, such as hangovers, further encourages overuse. Unless you set rules for when and where you will smoke, you arc likely to find yourself using pot more than you should — to the point where all the interesting and useful effects of the drug disappear and you are left with a stubborn, unproductive habit.
1. Marijuana is illegal. Being detected as a marijuana user can cost you your job and land you in a lot of trouble. Be aware of the dangers associated with acquiring an illegal drug.*
2. Define what benefits you want from pot. Do not use it just because other people do or because it is available.
3. If you get effects you like from marijuana, you will have to take precautions if you want to keep enjoying them.
4. Set limits on usage. For example, you may want to use pot only with certain friends, only on weekends, or only when you have no work to do. Such rules are necessary if you want to prevent your use from turning into a habit that gives you little satisfaction.
5. Remember that it can be dangerous to drive, operate machinery, or engage in hazardous activities under the influence of marijuana. The drug can cause illusions of time and space and always takes getting used to.
6. If you find the effects you like from marijuana becoming less intense or disappearing altogether, stop using it. You can resume after a break and get them back. The trick is to keep frequency of use below the level where you become insensitive to marijuana's interesting effects on consciousness. Odd as it may sound, less is more, and you can easily prove that to yourself.
7. If you find that the effects you like are disappearing, the worst things you can do are smoke more or look for stronger pot. Those actions will just increase the problem.
8. Consider using marijuana by eating it in some form rather than smoking it. It is more trouble to take by mouth and the effects are different, but the risk of dependence is less.
9. Be careful about combining marijuana with other psychoactive drugs.
10. Be careful about set and setting, especially if trying marijuana for the first time.
11. Do not use marijuana on the job or at school. Most people would not drink alcohol in those situations, and just because it's easier to function on pot is no reason to use it. The more situations in which you allow yourself to smoke, the more likely you are to become dependent.
12. If you develop a cough or wheeze, or become more susceptible to chest colds, marijuana may be doing harm to your respira-
(Michael R. Aldrich)
tory tract. Stop using it, cut down on use, or switch to eating it.
13. If you find that you are using marijuana more than you want and are not getting useful effects from it, consider the possibility that it is controlling you more than you are controlling it. Try to do without it for a while. If you cannot, you may need outside help in breaking the habit.
Much has been published about marijuana in recent years, but few books'worth reading exist.
The best general history of marijuana is Marihuana: The First Twelve Thousand Years by Ernest L. Abel (London: Plenum Press, 1980). Marijuana Botany by Robert Connell Clarke (Berkeley, California: And/Or Press, 1981) is about the plant itself. It is lavishly illustrated. Cannabis and Culture, edited by Vera Rubin (The Hague, Netherlands: Mouton Publishers, 1975), is a fine collection of articles that looks at marijuana from various perspectives.
The Marijuana Papers, edited by David Solomon (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1966), is an anthology of historical, literary, sociological, and medical articles that is still valuable reading. Marihuana Reconsidered by Lester Grinspoon (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1971) is a comprehensive overview of the drug by a psychiatrist. The origins and development of marijuana prohibition in America are discussed in Richard J. Bonnie and Charles H. White bread's Marihuana Conviction: A History of Marihuana Prohibition in the United States (Charlottesville, Virginia: University Press of Virginia, 1974).
John Kaplan's Marijuana: The New Prohibition (New York: Meridian Books, 1970) is a balanced study of marijuana policy that concludes with a recommendation for legalization. Also see Jerome L. Himmelstein's The Strange Career of Marihuana: Politics and the Ideology of Control in America (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1983) for a thoughtful historical analysis.
One of the most readable and informative books on effects and uses of pot is High Culture: Marijuana in the Lives of Americans by William Novak (New York: Knopf, 1980). One example of a crusading antimarijuana book is Keep Off the Grass by Gabriel G. Nahas (New York: Pergamon Press, 1979). One example of a pro-marijuana book, written for users, is A Child's Garden of Grass by Jack S. Margolis and Richard Clorfene (New York: Ballantine, 1978).
Louisa May Alcott wrote a short story about hashish in 186S. Titled ''Perilous Play/' it is reprinted in Plots and Counterplots: More Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott, edited by Madeleine Stern (New York: William Morrow, 1976). A modern comic novel filled with references to marijuana is The Fan Man by William Kotzwinkle (New York: Avon Books, 1974). Its hero, a delightful character named Horse Badorties, is never without pot. For a wonderful novel that tells the story of an eventful few months of growing marijuana in the backwoods of California, see T. Coraghessan Boyle's Budding Prospects: A Pastoral (New York: Viking, 1984). Outlaws in Babylon by Steve Chappie (New York: Pocket Books, 1984) is a true-life adventure of marijuana growing and enforcement in America of the early 1980s.
Although teen-agers make up the bulk of the movie-going public, few films have capitalized on the popularity of marijuana among young people. Four notable exceptions arc Up in Smoke and Nice Dreams with Cheech and Chong, The Harder They Come, about marijuana in Jamaica in the 1970s, and Peter Fonda's classic from the 1960s, Easy Rider. An outrageous antimarijuana propaganda film from the 1930s, Reefer Madness, now plays on college campuses and in "art" movie houses, usually to the delight of mostly stoned audiences.
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