Cannabis, history, the plant and more

The exact place of origin of cannabis has not been clarified so far, it is generally believed to correspond to Central Asia. While the use of the plant for the manufacture of fabrics is witnessed by finds from the Neolithic era in China (5200-6200 years ago), the medicinal use is documented in a famous writing by the emperor Shen-Nung which would date back to 2700 B.C.

in reality this document was actually compiled in the 1st or 2nd century AD, but there is reason to believe that it is based on an oral tradition that dates back to the Shen-Nung era or even prehistory.

The use of cannabis was later abandoned in China, and replaced by that of opium. According to Hui-lin Li, the transition from cannabis to opium is linked to the importance that the family has taken in Chinese culture: the sedative effects of opium would be less dangerous to the family cohesion compared to the stress  of the imagination caused by cannabis.

The use of cannabis was then spread from China to western Asia and India by nomadic tribes. The sacred use of cannabis has been described by Herodotus in Assyria, Babylon and Palestine.

In the first centuries AD Arab merchants  spread  cannabis use in northern Africa. As for southern and eastern Africa, it is not clear whether the use of cannabis is more recent or if it dates back to a few centuries ago;

In the Americas, cannabis would have been imported by English, Spanish and Portuguese colonizers. The use of cannabis as a psychotropic substance would have been introduced to Brazil by African slaves, in the United States by Mexican immigrants, but it was already known by the Aboriginal Indians (the famous Sitting Bull included cannabis in the mixture of his calumet of peace).

Although probably already known by the “witches”, the medicinal use of cannabis entered European culture after 1798, following Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt. In 1843, the therapeutic consequences of the use and abuse of cannabis were described by the English doctor O’Shaughnessy and the French psychiatrist Moreau de Tours.

Cannabis has since gradually fallen into disuse in Western medicine, but has only recently been deleted from the official list of drugs. In the meantime, voluptuous use has spread throughout the western world (despite its illegality), especially since the 1960s, and still tends to grow. Cannabis users are currently estimated at around 300 million worldwide but the number is very likely to be greater.

From a social point of view, two basic cultural trends in the use of cannabis can be identified:

a) A popular – traditional trend, in which the use of the substance is “multidimensional and multifunctional”: in the sense that the artisan use of hemp as a fabric, medicinal use, ritual use and food use (such as ingredient for foods) are closely linked; this type of attitude is typical of the lower social classes of countries where the use of cannabis is traditional (such as i India)

b) A contemporary trend, in which there is a separation  between large-scale industrial use and the use of cannabis for its effects on the psyche, with hedonistic motivations and / or the search for intellectual experiences; this trend is typical of western countries and young people of the middle and upper middle class.

From the plant to the drug

The plant

From a botanical point of view, the nomenclature of cannabis is an issue still to be clarified. Some indifferently use the scientific terms cannabis sativa and cannabis indica, others claim instead that it is a unique plant, with variable characteristics according to the environment in which it grows, or different types of plants.

The second hypothesis is supported by Schultes, according to which there are even three species of cannabis: a) cannabis indica, which grows in India and other parts of Asia, b) cannabis sativa that grows in Europe and America, c ) cannabis ruderalis, which grows in Siberia and European Russia.

This means in practice that the seed species affects the quality of the plant more than the conditions under which the plant grows. The content of the active substance (and the quantitative level of the effects on the psyche) varies according to the different species.

In fact, it has been found that in many situations the hereditary factors are decisive with respect to the characteristics of the plant: in Canada for example, cannabis plants imported illegally and cultivated by consumers have a much higher active ingredient content than those that grow spontaneously.

In general, the cannabis indica species has a higher active ingredient content than the other species. The highest active substance content of the other species. On the other hand, the active ingredient content is also linked to the environment and growth conditions.

Contrary to what is believed, cannabis that is grown in Europe for industrial use (which belongs to the species C. sativa) has effects on the psyche, despite having a very low content of active ingredient.

The active substance

We mean by “active substance” the pharmacological element that is decisive for the effects of the substance on the psyche. Other examples of active substances  are nicotine for tobacco, caffeine for coffee and tea, morphine for opium, alcohol for wine.

The active substances  of cannabis were identified in 1964 and are collectively defined as “cannabinoids”. By far the most important active ingredient is delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (delta-9-THC);

Another psychoactive element, albeit to a much lesser extent, delta-8-tetrahydrocannbinol; the other cannabinoids do not seem directly related to psychic effects. Although most of the experiments are performed with delta-9-THC, it is not correct to globally equate the effects of delta-9-THC with those of cannabis: in fact, in addition to delta-9-THC, the plant contains a number of other components (not just the other types of cannabinols), which can react with delta-9-THC by changing its effects.

Generally, references to the active substance are indicated with the simplified term “THC”. The THC content varies according to both the species of the plant, the environmental conditions of growth and the plant itself.

The richest parts are the flowering tops (regardless of the “sex” of the plant), followed by the small leaves and the bractee: large leaves and the branches have a smaller but substantial content; small quantities are found in the rest of the plant.

Usable products

From the cannabis plant derive different types of products that have a psychoactive effect:

a) Hashish, that is, the resinous secretion of the flowering tops;

b) Ganja, which is used in India and consists of the flowering tops of female plants;

c) Marijuana (in America and Europe), bhang (in Asia), which include products from the whole plant.

The products are generally smoked, and sometimes ingested. In the case of bhang, cannabis is often used as a drink. Among the cannabis  products, marijuana and hashish are the most frequent in the western world.

The THC content, if referred to the same plant, is considerably higher for hashish than for marijuana. On the other hand, depending on the types of plants and growing conditions, there may be types of marijuana that contain more THC than certain types of hashish.

The pharmacological difference between hashish and marijuana is not only in the THC content, but also in the different proportion of other cannabinoids; it can therefore be considered possible that the differences in psychic effects are not purely quantitative, but also qualitative. The same consideration applies to the different types of hashish or marijuana.

Sophistications and deterioration

In the context of an evaluation of the effects of cannabis in relation to the type of substance used, two other elements that can affect the quantitative level of the active ingredient cannot be ignored:

a) The sophistication, facilitated by the fact that the manufacture and trade of these substances are illegal.

b) The deterioration


As far as sophistication is concerned, it does not seem to be very frequent;  however, cannabis samples from the illegal market have been found mixed with other substances (sometimes harmless, sometimes dangerous if you smoke like PCP).

The rumor that cannabis circles mix with opiates to cause dependence on the opiates themselves has so far been without foundation; In a quantity seized in Holland traces of morphine were found, but it was then found that it was random pollution (at absolutely ineffective doses) due to the use of tools also used for opium.

A singular form of sophistication of the marihuana has recently raised the alarm from the American health authorities. It is pollution with “paraquat”, a herbicide substance that is used by the US drug police to destroy Mexican plantations, by spraying it with helicopters. Farmers sell polluted plants.

As for deterioration, the substance at room temperature (especially if hot) tends to lose the active ingredient. According to a recent American study, THC content decreases by an average of 3-5% per month. To avoid deterioration, specialized laboratories keep the product under nitrogen and frozen. The deterioration over time seems less pronounced in marijuana than in hashish.

Absorption and dosage

If the substance is smoked, part of the THC is destroyed by heat. The amount of THC actually absorbed amounts to much less than half in normal conditions, 50% in optimal conditions.
If the substance is absorbed through the stomach, the absorption corresponds to the third part of that obtained with smoking.

The effects on the psyche begin a few minutes after taking it, if the substance is smoked; in this case, the effect reaches its peak after half an hour, begins to decrease after an hour, and disappears after three. If the substance is ingested, the effect begins after about 45 minutes on an empty stomach, about two hours on a full stomach and lasts from one to six hours.

The differences in the content of active substance are however generally compensated by a self-regulation by consumers, whereby the dosages are automatically adjusted to the desired effects; of course, this is much simpler when the substance is smoked.

The usual dosages of cannabis users vary enormously according to the areas and cultures of culture. According to McGlothin, the level of habitual use of the strongest consumers in eastern countries is around 200mg of THC per day.

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