Snapshots from a not-so-happy globe

About Cannabis

1. What is Cannabis?

Cannabis is not "a drug". Or rather, it is, but the term "drug" immediately gives rise to all sorts of associations that are mostly political. In the first instance, and this should be remembered when talking about "drugs" in any negative sense, is that cannabis is a plant. It is when this natural substance is prepared and then ingested in certain ways that it becomes a drug: exactly the same way that alcohol is based on natural ingredients (yeast, water, sugar, barley/hops/anything else) prepared in certain ways, as is heroin (the opium poppy), cocaine (the coca leaf) and so on.

Cannabis Plants. (AFP-ANP/Sjoerd Van Delden)

Drugs do, quite literally, grow on trees. It is when we associate these natural substances with the usually pejorative term "drug" that they start becoming the sorts of things politicians, newspapers, teenagers get interested in... but please remember, it's just a bloody flower.

Cannabis is a leafy plant which grows wild in many of the tropic and temperate areas of the world. It is cultivated both indoors and out for the production of its flowering tops. The most commonly used form of cannabis are the leaves and flowering tops (buds) which may be either smoked or eaten; It also comes in a more concentrated resinous form called hashish, and as a sticky black liquid called hash oil.

There are three distinct species of cannabis: Cannabis sativa, Cannabis indica, and Cannabis ruderalis, though there is some argument as to whether these should be considered varieties rather than species. Most recreationally used cannabis is the result of interbreeding between these three types. The term 'hemp' is generally used to describe low-thc varieties of cannabis which are grown for industrial uses.

2. Cannabis: the plant

Cannabis PlantsThough there are many different strains of cannabis, as far as I know they are all examples of two species, Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica. (There is a third species, Cannabis ruderalis, but this stands a long way behind the other two in terms of its psychoactive qualities). All three are members of the hemp family, and this family has many other uses than getting people a bit caned. You can make ropes, clothing and so on from hemp and it is an environmentally-friendly plant, as it doesn't need many pesticides or chemicals and can be grown in a variety of conditions.

Cannabis sativa is a shrub that can grow to about four or five feet in height. It has distinctively-shaped leaves; thin, pointed and serrated. Biologists believe that it originated in Central Asia, but it was spread by humanity very early in our history and now is found all over the world. It won't survive outdoors in more temperate conditions, however, and in places such as Britain you will only find it as an indoor plant.

Cannabis plants grown for consumption need greenhouses and lots of expensive equipment: the Marijuana museum in Amsterdam has a good display of growing plants.

The Hash Marijuana Hemp museum in Amsterdam deserves an award for the most tautologically-named tourist attraction in Europe. But it doesn't seem to have a web page of its own.

Cannabis plants are either male or female. The male plants produce pollen which pollenates the flowers of the female plant, which once pollenized, produce seeds. If the female plant isn't pollenized (if there are no male plants nearby producing pollen), the flower/buds continue to develop and produce THC. Female plants which are not pollenized are referred to as sensemilla (without seeds).

Usually 40-50% of the plants are male.

Cannabis PlantsOutdoor male plants will begin to produce their flowers and pollen as early as mid July for varieties acclimated to this climate. Varieties from more southern climates, may not start until mid September. This difference depends on the budding cycle of your variety, some plants start to bud earlier than others, so the exact time to cut the males will vary with the strain. If you are using a variety of different seeds it may be necessary to visit once a week from July 21 through September 15.

The timely identification of a male plant is crucial to the success of the harvest.

3. Cannabis: the drug

It is very easy to prepare cannabis the drug from cannabis the plant. This is why it is, at heart, a very anti-capitalist drug - you also don't need to be guilty of the accusation, "by buying cannabis you're supporting criminals/terrorists etc." because in the end, you can just grow your own and cut out the middle man. (Or woman.

Cannabis PlantsThe active ingredient of the cannabis plant - in other words, the chemical within it which gets you high - is tetrahydracannabinol or THC. Some strains of cannabis, particularly those grown for commercial hemp cultivation, have been engineered over time to almost completely remove their THC content. Conversely, strains of cannabis (usually known as "skunk" or "superskunk") have been bred to increase their THC content. But, in either case, THC is not found throughout the plant: the branches/twigs and seeds do not contain it. (So, the conscientious dealer will graciously remove these from the weight of the drug he or she has charged you for - in theory, of course.) It is the leaves and flowers, collectively known as the "bud", which contain THC, and below is a picture of same.

The bud can be prepared for ingestion in three different ways: two common, one much rarer and usually highly illegal (and to be avoided):

- by drying the bud and making grass or weed. I always prefer this way. It is simple and, more importantly, pure: it is almost impossible to contaminate grass with other drugs or substances.

- by pressing the sap into hard, dark blocks of resin or hash. If you've seen the film Midnight Express, which is also a pretty good advert for the benefits of drug smuggling, those hard plates that the protagonist tapes to his body at the beginning are hash. This suggests the reasoning behind this preparation method - viz, it's easier to smuggle. To use this in smoking, you will first need to heat it to soften it and make it crumbly and/or pliable (the better the quality of your hash, the softer it will be anyway, and very good hash won't even need heating). The disadvantage of this method is that it can frequently be contaminated with other substances or even other drugs such as amphetamines or heroin. This doesn't happen often, but it does sometimes, and is impossible with grass.

- by turning it into hash oil. This is incredibly concentrated in THC terms and is a Class A drug in Britain, meaning possession or preparation of it could potentially result in a life sentence. Avoid it.

A "drug" isn't just a substance, however - even in terms of its having been deliberately prepared to enhance its intoxicating qualities. "Drugs" are also a complex mix of effects on the body and political associations. Not many people call alcohol "a drug", but it is one, and a particularly dangerous one too. Caffeine is a drug. So is aspirin. Even some aromatic oils can have drug-like effects and associations. Someone who "takes drugs" is seen as someone who is dangerous, unstable, criminal, anti-social, etc. etc.: but we all take drugs, most of us every single day.

4. Dose

The strength of cannabis varies greatly from one variety to another. Some, known as 'one-hit-shit', requires only a single lung-full to reach full effects while other varieties require many hits to achieve the same effects. Additionally, the amount that one individual likes to smoke can be many times what another prefers. Generally, 1/8 ounce (3.5 g) of mid-quality bud could get around 20-30 people reasonably high.

5. Price

Cannabis is sold on the street for anywhere between $25 - $150 per 1/4 ounce depending on quality and location. In the U.S., prices are generally $30-$60 for 1/4 ounce of lower quality and $60-$120 for 1/4 ounce of high quality bud. Prices drop quickly as quantity goes up.

6. Law

Both sales and possession of cannabis are illegal in the United States and most countries, however many states have legalized the medical use of cannabis. Additionally, some states have decriminalized the possession of personal use quantities (under 1/2 - 1 ounce) choosing to punish this with a fine rather than jail time.

7. Chemistry

The active ingredients in cannabis are called cannabinoids. There are many cannabinoids synthesized by the plant including tetrahydrocannabinol, cannabinol, cannabidiol, cannabinolidic acid, cannabigerol, and cannabichromene. Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol is thought to be responsible for most of the psychoactive effects of cannabis and is the active ingredient in synthetic thc pills such as marinol.

8. Production

Cannabis plants do grow wild in many parts of the world, but the quality of wild specimens ('ditch-weed') is generally quite low. Most cannabis is cultivated intentionally and can be grown either indoors or out.

9. History

The cannabis plant has been used both medicinally and recreationally for thousands of years. It wasn't until the early 19th century that the use of cannabis spread from China and the Middle East to the population of Europe and then to America in the middle of the century. Cannabis was made illegal in the U.S. in 1937 and has continued to be a popular recreational substance since that time.

10. Slang

The Substance: cannabis, marijuana, marihuana, pot, dope, grass, weed, mary jane, doobie, bud, ganja, hashish, hash, bhang

The Experience: stoned, high

11. Effects

Onset: When smoked, the effects of cannabis begin almost immediately. When eaten the effects can take 1 to 2 hours to manifest, based primarily on how much food is in the stomach.

Duration: The effects of smoked cannabis peak after about 20 minutes and last for 1-2 hours. When eaten, the effects will peak more slowly and primary effects may last for 3-4 hours.

The Experience: The primary effects sought by those using cannabis recreationally are euphoria, relaxation, and changes in perception. Effects vary depending on dosage, with effects at low doses including a sense of well-being, mild enhancement of senses (smell, taste, hearing), subtle changes in thought and expression, talkativeness, giggling, increased appreciation of music, increased appetite, and mild closed-eye visuals. At higher doses, visuals may become more prominent, sense of time is altered, attention span and memory are frequently affected, and thought processes and mental perception may be significantly altered.

Visuals: While most people do not experience a strong visual component to the cannabis experience, some do and some particular varieties of cannabis as well as higher doses are more likely to produce this effect.

12. Problems

Negative effects can include paranoia, dry mouth, respiratory problems and nervousness/racing heart. Other effects may be negative or inconvenient in certain settings or situations including reduced ability to concentrate, impaired memory, tiredness, and confusion. Side effects tend to increase with lifetime use: as users age, they often report the anxiety-producing and uncomfortable effects increase and the euphoria decreases.

Contraindications: While there has been little formal study into the effects of cannabis on driving, it is generally a good idea to avoid driving while under the influence of any psychoactive or intoxicating substance. Several studies have shown that drivers who use alcohol and cannabis in combination are far less capable than when taking either substance alone. Some studies have shown that cannabis causes impairment in driving performance, but that users often are aware of the impairment and compensate by driving more carefully.

Addiction Potential: Regular use of cannabis can lead to psychological habituation for some people making it difficult for them to quit. Studies have estimated that between 5 and 10% of those who try smoking cannabis will become daily users sometime during their life, but most of these smokers will have given up the habit by age 30 and few remain daily smokers after age 40. Most people do not experience signs of physical addiction, but with regular daily use use, mild to medium withdrawal symptoms usually occur for less than a week, but can extend for as long as 6 weeks.

Long Term Health Problems: The most common negative health impact of regular cannabis smoking are lung and throat problems including: coughing, increased frequency of throat and lung infections, and reduced lung capacity. There are concerns about possible long term carcinogenic (cancer causing) effects of cannabis smoking, but the results are still somewhat controversial. It can be safely said, however, that health risks increase with frequency and duration of smoking anything.

Poisoning: There are no confirmed, published deaths from cannabis-only poisoning. There are a small number of people who report serious cannabis allergies which cause unexpectedly intense reactions, throat & lung irritation, etc.

Heart Issues: Because cannabis increases heart rate, it could potentially increase risks of heart problems in those at risk of heart disease. One study found that cannabis use increased the risk of heart attack in men over 40, but its findings were weak and based on a very small number of individuals. In a large study of 65,000 individuals in California by Sidney et al in 1997, cannabis was not found to increase mortality rates among users under 50.

Mental Illness: Several studies have indicated that cannabis use (like many other strong psychoactives) can precipitate neuroses or psychoses in those who are already at risk. Studies have also shown that cannabis use does not appear to increase the risk of psychosis in otherwise healthy individuals.

Source: www.erowid.org, www.homepages.poptel.org.uk

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