I was in the hills of Gold Country, California. I’d just spent the last five months learning the ins and outs of a young, hot, barely-legal weed farm. We were quietly tucked away in ponderosa pines an hour out of Sacramento. We were at the end of the season, “croptober.” My entire life had never revolved so much around a plant. But it certainly had been a long-time friend, I was grateful to learn. I’d been using it, not only for creative purposes, but as medicine for years. Personally, it helps with anxiety and enhances my mood. I don’t get paranoid and I feel just as productive when I smoke it, if not more so. Needless to say, I’d traveled to another country to meet a farmer whose entire life depended solely on producing it.
One day, he’d finally had enough and corrected me, “You know marijuana is a just a propaganda word created by the US government, right?”
My hands slowly stopped trimming. We were in the midst of another 14-hour session. The trichomes bleed into your skin, through your pores, after a while. You have to rub your fingers together to get all the sticky residue off, forming little balls of charas, or hash. You get pretty high when you aren’t wearing gloves. It’s called trimbrain.
I slowly processed what he’d just said. I’d been calling it marijuana nearly my entire life, or more affectionately, Mary Jane. A quick google confirmed everything. During the Great Depression cannabis, a long time ally of North American plant pharmacology, became demonized. A “locoweed” smoked by lazy immigrants. Harry Anslinger, the first director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics launched a campaign quoting,
“Marijuana is the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind…Most marijuana smokers are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana usage.”
The term “marijuana” took off with his campaign. “Cannabis” was widely forgotten until a more recent wave of the plant’s dignity swept back over society. Dumbstruck, I couldn’t believe I didn’t know this little tidbit of weed history, considering I’d befriended the plant many years ago.
Two months before I made this connection, the DEA had met after the Obama administration considered relaxing the rules on cannabis use and research. Unfortunately, they decided to leave marijuana classified as a Schedule 1 drug, meaning it has a high potential for abuse and no medicinal value. (While cocaine, meth and opiates are Schedule 2 because they have been found to have some medicinal use.) Scientists have always, and will remain, having to jump through major hoops to do any valuable research on cannabis’ potential benefits and harms.
It’s a vicious cycle that’s been perpetuating itself since the demeaning of the plant in the ’30s. Research is incredibly restricted, and in turn, the government continues to classify it as having no real medicinal value. Another irony being that only certain strains are allowed to be tested, if the supply was broader, the research would be infinitely more diverse. There are over 100 cannabinoids and 60 different terpenes already discovered in variant weed strains, and all of them can be combined in different ways for different effects.
Epidiolex for example, is the first prescription drug made from cannabis in the USA. Formulated to help epileptic children from having seizures. Doctors describe being grilled by the DEA before being allowed to test it on their patients. They were forced to hire armed security to guard it in a safe so heavy that engineers needed to make sure the floors could hold it. That’s not even the most unbelievable part. Epidiolex is made from a component of cannabis called cannabidiol or CBD, which doesn’t even make you high. It literally just stops kids from having mind melting seizures that can cause permanent brain damage.
Because it’s already at market, there’s basically no incentive for producers to reinvest their profits back into research. Pharmaceutical companies aren’t jumping the gun either because you can’t exactly patent a plant everyone’s already been experimenting with. There’s an ongoing study happening in Boston though, called MIND, with cognitive testing and neuroimaging. Their current work revolves around adults legally permitted to use cannabis for medicinal reasons.
What’s interesting about their research is that rather than determining how well the plant treats symptoms from illnesses like cancer or AIDS, they’re trying to find out its affect on long and short-term cognition. As well as cannabis’ impact on brain structure and function, quality of life and sleep. While waiting for long-term results, they’ve already found cannabis can ease symptoms for bipolar disorder. Staci Gruber, who runs MIND, doesn’t smoke weed herself. She describes her relationship to her research like singing jazz .
“If you’re not feeling what you’re doing, what’s the point?” she said. “And that’s true in science, too. You can scientifically break down all these parts of music, like tone and pitch, but it takes emotion and a soul to make it real. In science, you can have all the findings in the world, but if you can’t communicate them, what good are they?”
From what I gather, there’s a galaxy of potential research in matching cannabinoid and terpene profiles with anything that ails us. Standard procedure has always been to focus on a single substance like THC (the main mind-altering cannabinoid in cannabis) which is only one of the 400 chemical compounds found in the plant. Let alone the plethora of ways you can consume a variety of strains: vapour, oil, tincture, smoke, edibles. What’s scary about legalization, is that strains might get limited along with growing methods.
All of this considered, yes, cannabis certainly deserves the respect of one of its more original names. Not one that was formulated solely to create fear. It’s been used medicinally, spiritually and recreationally for over 5000 years around the world. It also deserves infinitely more research, because clearly it’s forging a paradigm shift in medication on mainstream society.