The language used today to discuss cannabis is rooted in two realms: the realm of THC and the realm of CBD. The former is tetrahydrocannabinol, a compound that has been identified as the psychoactive component of the plant; the latter is cannabidiol, a compound currently associated with the healing properties of the plant. CBD has even been shown to counteract the psychoactive effects of THC.
Israeli research scientist Raphael Mechoulam, who discovered these compounds, described THC as an oil and CBD as “nicely crystally.” In a tradition that dates back for centuries, cannabis plants are bred to have different concentrations of these compounds in different proportions.
As the conversation around cannabis develops, it is useful to understand the different names. The generic name for the plant is cannabis. In common parlance, the psychoactive plant is marijuana and the industrial plant is hemp—the distinctions being the proportions of the various compounds, primarily THC and CBD.
The hemp plant (cannabis sativa L.) is very low in THC and high in CBD. The marijuana plant is a variety of cannabis known as cannabis sativa var. indica, and is bred to be high in THC. Because THC is found in the resin glands of the flower of the female plant, breeders interested in marketing the psychoactive aspect want only female plants. The trimmed bud is the product that ends up at the dispensary.
Hemp, on the other hand, is bred for the strength of its fibers. The plant is valued for the length of its stalk and its tall, lean qualities. These two varieties thrive in different growing environments, hemp being the tough outdoor cousin to the sensitive indica, which takes management and care.
Both hemp and marijuana have been entwined with human history for thousands of years. Industrial hemp for rope, paper and fabric and even building materials has played a part similar to bamboo; it is utilitarian, resilient and productive. Hemp seed oil is used in food products and as an ingredient in soaps and cosmetics. It has industrial uses as a lubricant and shows up in paints, varnishes and ink.
Cannabis indica, with an elevated THC compound, has an equally long history as a medicine in India, the Middle East and China and shows up in many ancient medical texts. It made its way to Europe and the New World on a well-documented path, arriving in the United States from Mexico at the time of the Mexican Revolution in 1910, where it acquired the name marijuana.
Scholars tracing this path have contributed documented proof that medical uses of cannabis were already known in the United States. Page 50 of the 1851 “United States Pharmacopeia,” the official standard-setting authority for all prescription and over-the-counter medicines, reads as follows: “Extractum Cannabis. Extract of Hemp. An alcoholic extract of dried tops of Cannabis sativa, var indica.” It was listed as treatment for “neuralgia, tetanus, typhus, cholera, rabies, dysentery, alcoholism, opiate addiction, anthrax, leprosy, incontinence, gout, convulsive disorders, tonsillitis, insanity, excessive menstrual bleeding, and uterine bleeding, among others.” Parke Davis, Eli Lilly and E. B. Squibb and Sons historically sold marijuana tinctures.
The journey from medical respectability to landing on the Schedule I controlled substance list in 1937 takes a path through many dark intrigues of behind-the-scenes power gamesmanship. There are many books and a very interesting 1999 documentary by Canadian filmmaker Ron Mann, “Grass,” which cover that territory. Suffice it to say that the interests served by those who engineered the “reefer madness” campaign did not have the health and well-being of American citizens in the forefront of their minds. In 1942 cannabis disappeared from the “United States Pharmacopeia.”
In addition, the innocent hemp plant also fell by the wayside...or perhaps was the reason for the anti-marijuana campaign to begin with. No distinction was made between cannabis sativa L. and cannabis indica, so hemp was included in state and federal anti-marijuana legislation and hemp production ceased in America. Meanwhile, petrochemical industries, research into plastics, chemical pharmaceuticals and the tobacco industry thrived.
This is the context for today’s political and economic dilemmas around hemp and marijuana. The good news is that the worst of the bad news is in the past and the job of the present is to restore integrity, compassion and justice to the system. Personal healing stories such as those shown on mainstream television have brought a different perspective to the front and put the pressure on the system to legalize commercial hemp and de-criminalize marijuana. The cautious decision to put the adjective “medical” before the word marijuana allows political figures to speak out and campaign for changes in the laws.
At the same time, the desire to access the plant is exploding. People who are suffering and whose loved ones are suffering and dying don’t care about studies; they accept the anecdotal evidence all around them. Grassroots activism is taking on a new meaning. People are learning more about cannabis than most doctors know. Earnest people with nothing to sell but a genuine desire to help people and tell them the truth are inspiring a movement of self-determination that reaches into many political cubbyholes: libertarianism, states rights, sovereignty and other “freedom from government” expressions.
Research scientists who study cannabis are learning what it does and have found that the plant has properties not found in any other known plant. An entirely new system within the body has been discovered, the endocannabinoid system, named after cannabis. This is a unique communications system in the brain and body that affects many important functions, including how a person feels, moves and reacts. The discoveries are thrilling and are enticing researchers all over the world.
It has been said that the endocannabinoid system is a “homeostatic tuning mechanism for the body and mind.” When cannabis compounds enter the human body, a signal goes out and these newly discovered cannabinoid receptors in the human brain and elsewhere activate. Missing links are restored; interrupted information is clarified and autoimmune disorders are re-ordered.
The interest in delving into this aspect of cannabis is huge among the international scientists who examine cannabis through microscopes and in test tubes. It turns out that the healing benefits of this interaction require the participation of all the compounds in the plant, not just pure THC or CBD. Extracting and synthesizing a particular compound does not produce a viable drug; the plant wants to work as a whole. The process of retaining the cooperative nature of the whole plant is called “entourage,” another piece of the new language of cannabis.
A historic overview of scientific research on cannabis is the topic of a 2015 Israeli documentary called “The Scientist.” It profiles the life and work of Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, the Israeli research scientist who was able to isolate the THC compound in the laboratory in 1964. He went on to isolate many other compounds in the plant, including CBD.
This plant has been internationally studied for decades in sophisticated laboratories and continues to be studied in institutions throughout the world. While medical professionals talk about studies on humans as necessary steps before the pharmacy of cannabis can be unleashed on the public, it is the tangle of laws making the subject of their research illegal has held all of this work back.
Even today in California, the tension between legal and illegal, informed and misinformed and financially secure and financially stressed characterizes the field of medical cannabis. Dispensary wares have been targeted toward the THC crowd shopping for buds. This is where the money is and the lore has long been focused. Now health concerns are leading a new wave of individuals who want the medical benefits for themselves, for children and for elders with seemingly incurable conditions.
Support groups of people who suffer from chronic pain, who are undergoing chemotherapy or who are surviving psychological trauma are forming and becoming informed. Parents of children with desperate conditions are becoming activists and telling their stories on the Internet. They are searching out cannabis products that address issues as simple as a good night’s sleep and as complex as autoimmune disorders and cancers.
For these people, there is no turning back to the old days of disinformation and fear mongering. They don’t particularly trust the medical establishment or the government, and they are ready to take the cannabis issue on as a basic human right: the right to use medicines that heal.
Elizabeth Whitney is a journalist and researcher living in West Marin.