Saturday, June 28, 2014

Cannabis (Marijuana) Uses

After my last post, Joe thought it might be interesting to expand more on the non-psychedelic uses of Cannabis (marijuana) in particular, so here goes!

Currently, the highest-profile use for Cannabis is medicine ("medical marijuana"). Cannabis contains about 460 compounds, including over 80 cannabinoids. No anti-cancer properties have been documented with certainty, but placebo-controlled clinical trials indicate efficacy of marijuana in treating Tourette's, Lou Gehrig's disease, multiple sclerosis, irritable bowel syndrome, muscle spasticity, glaucoma, and anorexia. Another promising use is the treatment of chronic pain, against which marijuana works about as well as opioids (e.g. morphine and oxycodone) with fewer side effects. Marijuana's effectiveness against acute pain, however, is not significant.

A botanical illustration of Cannabis sativa.

The most notable hypothesized side-effect of extended regular marijuana use is the possibility of an increased risk of psychoses such as schizophrenia, especially for people who begin using the plant at a young age. While there seems to be a significant correlation between people who have used marijuana regularly in the past and schizophrenia, it is difficult for scientists to determine if marijuana causes the psychosis or if some underlying genetic pre-disposition towards psychosis is also a pre-disposition to marijuana use, hence the correlation. Much more research will need to be conducted to determine if there are in fact any long-term side effects of use.

Short-term side effects, which include lengthening of reaction time and impairment of attention, assessment of risks, concentration, and short-term memory, are much easier to prove. These effects can be present up to 24 hours after marijuana use, often with the user unaware of continued impairment several hours after use. The use of many methods of transportation and other machinery would therefore not be advisable for someone using marijuana for treatment.

Marijuana is not as addictive as other drugs like caffeine, tobacco, alcohol, cocaine, or heroin, but individuals can suffer from Cannabis Use Disorder, defined in the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a dependence on the plant experienced by about 9% of users.

A medical marijuana shop in Denver, CO (photo by O'Dea at WikiCommons).

Beyond medicinal use, Cannabis is employed extensively for material use under the name of "hemp," referring to the soft and durable fibers extracted from Cannabis sativa stems, which are most commonly used because they are the tallest (~18 ft.). Plants used for fiber production are usually bred to have low THC content so authorities can tell it's not being grown for drug use. Hemp cultivation has been dated back to over 10,000 years ago in China, where early uses included clothing, shoes, paper, and rope. Rope, sail canvas (the name "canvas" is derived from the name "Cannabis"), and oakum (ship caulking) have been the main uses of the plant since the 1400s for Europeans, who needed extensive sources for their ever-expanding navies and commercial ship fleets. Rope made from hemp is strong but needs to be tarred because it holds moisture and rots relatively easily without a protective coating. Hemp rope was eventually largely replaced by abaca (aka Manila hemp), which is a fiber derived from a species of banana (Musa textilis) and does not require tarring because it doesn't easily rot.

The United States made extensive use of hemp during World War II for uniforms, rope, and canvas  because our Asian abaca sources were cut off by the Japanese. Here is a video produced by the United States in 1942 called "Hemp for Victory" detailing the need and uses for hemp, as well as how to grow, harvest, and process the crop:

As is shown in the video, because Cannabis grows so densely, it can be used by farmers as a rotation crop to help choke out weeds on cultivated land. This is especially useful to organic farmers, who need to find ways to kill weeds without synthetic herbicides. Dense plantings of hemp can also be used in phytoremediation - the use of plants to clean undesirable compounds from the soil including heavy metals such as lead, nickel, and cadmium. While this capability is good for phytoremediation, it is a property that significantly hinders its use for other applications.

Even though Japan has some of the most severe penalties for marijuana possession (5 years imprisonment), they make exceptions for growers to produce enough hemp for robes for Buddhist monks and hemp belts for the highest ranking Sumo wrestlers known as yokozuna, who traditionally wear them during ritual cleansings of sumo rings. Hemp is stronger than cotton, but although fabric for clothing can be made from hemp alone, it is most commonly blended with cotton at about a 1:1 ratio for softness.

A yokozuna wearing a heavy (25-35 lbs) hemp belt during a ritual cleansing of a sumo ring (photo from Kannaway Magazine).

Hemp seeds are quite nutritious, and while they are currently most commonly used in animal and bird feed, they have great potential for human nutrition. The seeds contain plenty of omega-3's and omega-6's and also have a "complete" protein profile, meaning that they contain all the nutritionally significant amino acids, including the nine essential amino acids that human bodies cannot produce. The seeds can be eaten raw or used in a variety of ways, including baking, hemp milk, cereals, tofu, nut butter, and ice cream. Hemp seeds can also be processed into biodiesel.

A small selection of hemp food products (photo from

Hemp is often an ingredient in biodegradable plastics, and has been an ingredient in composite automobile panels by major car manufacturers since 2002. The harder inner parts of older Cannabis stems can be used as a wood replacement for certain house construction applications.

Although hemp was used to make early paper in China, it is not too practical a commercial option because of the processing involved, resulting in costs that add up to about six times those involved in making paper from wood pulp. A couple major reasons for this are that hemp can be harvested only once per year and only about 25% of any given hemp stalk can be used for the paper, as opposed to nearly 100% from harvested trees.

As you can see, Cannabis is quite a useful plant for more than just "getting high," though it does have its limitations, some of which will require more study to determine the plant's commercial viability. You'll likely see it in more and more products as time goes on if regulations on the plant continue to ease.

Rick Hederstrom
Associate Director

Monday, June 2, 2014

Psychoactive Plants

Have you recreationally used psychoactive drugs this week? Chances are you have: common legal plant-derived psychoactive substances include caffeine and alcohol. Psychoactives (compounds that act on our central nervous system, especially the brain) are also found in prescription drugs like antidepressants, stimulants, mood stabilizers, sedatives, addiction treatments, and painkillers, many of whose ingredients have been sourced from plants.

Can we add an asterisk to "Just Say No"??? (Photo by Julius Schorzman)

Plants produce many psychoactive compounds that are / can be extremely useful to humans but there are many people who don't feel comfortable discussing their use. It seems like "psychoactive drug/substance" isn't perceived too widely in a positive light, but I think that's probably due to a lack of knowledge on the topic. If someone were to come up to me and ask, "Do you use any psychoactive drugs/substances?" it doesn't seem like "Yes" or "Absolutely!" would be an appropriate response. It seems like a potentially incriminating question, probably rooted in the anti-drug education I can remember from my elementary school years. When you're brought up with statements like "substance abuse," "Drugs are bad," "Dare to resist drugs," and "Just say 'No' to drugs," you are bound to see anything termed "drug" or "substance" in a negative light and have a knee-jerk reaction against it.

"Psychoactive" and its subcategory "psychedelic" also seem to be loaded terms with all sorts of negative connotations, which could have their genesis in some folks' negative attitude towards culture in the '60s and '70s, association of the terms with abuse or overdose, the fact that the word contains the pejorative "psycho," or knowledge of only addictive psychoactive substances or psychedelics that cause predominantly negative experiences. Our American culture has largely been bent on prevention or tight control of use of psychedelic substances, including Cannibis (aka marijuana), though its effects are quite mild. Marijuana is the most commonly use psychedelic in the world and also has a number of important material uses (usually under the name "hemp").

A good example of a marijuana smoker stereotype.

As we know from medicine, powerful plant compounds can be and have been used to treat serious diseases. In order for this to happen, the dosage is critical, and even a slight deviation from the recommended amount could have serious consequences. There is a risk:benefit correlation here, and the same is true for many psychoactive / psychedelic substances, which can be easily misused without proper education. First, one needs to understand the effects certain plants have, and also be able to correctly identify plants. There are certain plants that almost always produce horrifying experiences that someone would never want to repeat, let alone have in the first place (e.g. those caused by plants in the genera Atropa, Datura, and Brugmansia) but there are also plants that have usually positive and even indescribably amazing experiences (e.g. Ayahuasca) when properly prepared and in the right dosage (many have suffered harm when these conditions were not met). In my mind, some of the greatest knowledge held by indigenous peoples throughout the world relates to the preparation and use of psychoactive plants in the areas of therapy, spirituality, and appreciation of the natural world and the connections between all living things. Even though these people are often seen as poorer and less advanced than societies in developed countries, they possess riches and wisdom of which most people do not know or understand.

Mateo, a Matsigenka shaman (far left) prepares Ayahuasca with ethnobotanist Glenn Shepard (far right) in the Peruvian rainforest. (Photo by Manuel Lizarralde)

The plants are mixed together in a pot in the correct proportions and boiled for several hours. (Photo by Manuel Lizarralde)

Much of this wisdom has to do with powerful properties of plants, especially psychedelics. Even when properly prepared, a certain type of experience cannot be guaranteed for a particular plant or combination of plants. Major variables include the dosage, the internal constitution of a person (attitudes, fears, struggles, worldview), preparation for the experience, and the context of the experience, including the physical setting. That being said, there are often general effects that can be expected from certain plants and preparations, as described in the previous paragraph. Here is a link to a Wikipedia article that contains a couple good attempts to describe what can occur when humans use psychedelics. See especially the "Dynamics" and "Levels" sections: I don't know how anyone would not be interested in the psychoactive / psychedelic properties of plants after reading through experience descriptions such as those.

"Encontro" by Alexandre Segregio depicting part of an Ayahuasca experience, which I chose because it was the best artistic representation I could find to reflect the Ayahuasca experience as a whole as I experienced it. Even though the body remains in the forest, the "spirit" travels beyond this world to other dimensions and what are also apparently other planets / galaxies / universes.

The sad part is that many people in our culture will only ever look to psychoactive plants for a recreational "high" and most people who have had experiences will have only experienced Levels 1 or perhaps 2 (e.g. marijuana). Fewer individuals would find or make use of the means to reach Levels 3 or 4 (e.g. mushrooms), still often an experience of only superficial entertainment. An incredibly profound Level 5 experience is safely accessible only with certain less-than-well-known tropical plants (e.g. those in Ayahuasca) with the correct preparation, with the right attitude and in the right context. If one is able to make those stars align, the experience is largely ineffable, as the Wikipedia article rightly states, and seems to transcend any other experience one has ever had.

Many psychedelic substances are illegal throughout the world because of the potential for abuse and the possibility of further experimentation leading to addicting drugs like cocaine or heroin (morphine). I think it is important, however, that we not "throw the baby out with the bath water," especially when it comes to Ayahuasca, which is an incomparable experience on its own but also has such great power to transform individuals' lives and alter their perception of the universe and the world in which we live in extremely profound ways. Cannibis is certainly another plant that warrants our consideration due to its many uses and potential uses beyond a recreational "high," and this is currently the hot topic of debate in the world of psychoactive plants. Perhaps it will open up a more widespread conversation and exploration into this most fascinating realm of ethnobotany in the near future.

Rick Hederstrom
Associate Director