- Karan Bhatta
In the modern times, there’s Bob Marley, with his effervescent Jamaican charm, who stands as a great emblem for Cannabis. Born in a Christian mystical sect known as Rastafari, who are known to use Cannabis for religious purposes, he was once asked to comment about the fact that Cannabis was then illegal in many countries. He so acerbically, and in lieu with the Rasta culture said, ‘You mean that you can tell God it (Cannabis) is illegal?’
In Fact, the Rastafaris are not the only ones who used Cannabis for religious purposes. Hindus also inhale cannabis, especially in Maha Shiva ratri, as one of the Gods Shiva is so often falsely depicted as a consummate cannabis smoker though there is a great debate in the Hindu community whether the modern form of cannabis is the same as that of ‘Bhaang’ or ‘Ganja’.
Here’s a wonderful visual rendition of a few of the cultural and scientific phenomena that have
shaped our understanding of Cannabis.
Cannabis goes around with various names Pot. Weed. Grass. Ganga. Dope. Herb. Joint. Reefer. Mary Jane. Charge. Bong. Skunk. Blunt. just to name a few. Out of all the various christenings of Cannabis (which is the scientific term), there is nothing that sounds as exotic as marijuana. There are various theories as to how this name came about – some ascribe it to ‘ma ren hua’ which is Chinese for ‘hemp seed flower’ while others claim it to be a variant of a Soldier’s slang for a brothel : ‘Maria Y Juana’.
But there is little doubt about the fact that the word came about as a racial slur in the 1900’s as there as a wave of Mexian immigration in the USA. One man by the name of Harry Anslinger wanted to get a reeling Federal Bureau of Narcotics going and led the charge of fear-mongering fabricating a lie that the Savagery of the Mexicans and Blacks was down to ‘marijuana’, which is a term that sounded titillatingly Mexican. A plant that was dubbed Cannabis pre-1900’s and had never been problematic was all of a sudden came about as ‘marijuana’ and almost legally outlawed.
But what did Science have to say about Anslinger’s purported demonic Cannabis? Or What did History for that matter? The first reported use of Cannabis dates back to 2700 BC on a pharmacopeia of the father of traditional Chinese medicine: Emperor Shen Nung. He recommended marijuana for more than a hundred ailments. However, he also warned that if Cannabis was consumed in excess, it would lead you to a world of ghosts.
Other notable figures who have been found to have used Cannabis in various doze and guises include Shakespeare whose house in Stratford Upon Avon contained traces if the Cannabis; Charles Bouldiere, who claimed that he lived several lifetimes within an hour after its consumption; Balzac, Victor Hugo and their ilk who gathered to taste a ‘green paste’ whose consumption led to fits of laughter. Even Queen Victoria’s personal physician recommended cannabis to treat her Majesty’s menstrual cramps. Even Rasta females used to consume it for similar problems along with any pregnancy related issues such as morning sickness and labour pain.
It was not until the counterculture movement in the 1960’s that marijuana got into the mainstream with Bob Marley, Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and Allen Ginsberg leading the charge. In and around this time, individual components of marijuana were also being isolated with the first one being THC- the component that makes you high. Then came the CBD (cannabinoid) the component that numbs sensation in the body. With so much interest in the potential benefits of marijuana being claimed and the fact that it became possible to extract the chemicals in marijuana, there came about scientific research galore.
Cannabis also led to the discovery of the endocannabinoid system, which is associated with various emotions such as anxiety, pain, hunger, mood, memory, pain-sensation, etc. the New England Journal of Medicine, in 1975, published a report that showed that Cannabis helped ease the problems like nausea and vomiting that comes along with chemotherapy. The American veterans that were fighting in the Vietnam war also smoked pot quite regularly to deal with their stress in the war-stricken climate. Even veterans who returned from the war used it to deal with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Then there’s Bownie May, who is known as the Florence Nightingale of Cannabis who distributed more than 14,000 brownies made with Cannabis to patients afflicted with HIV/AIDS to ease their pain in the San Francisco General Hospital’s Aids Ward.
With such reports and medical discoveries came about “Medical Marijuana” – a potion that was made exclusively out of the extracts of THC. However, as with any such drug, a pure extract did not work as well as the plant itself. This led to Sativex, a drug that had THC along with CBD and traces of other compounds found in Cannabis.
Some countries started to reverse their policies with the Netherlands leading the way and lifting the ban on Cannabis. In 1992, the Frankfurt Charter was signed with 17 major European cities agreeing to tolerate the use of Cannabis socially. Some states in the US followed the trend with San Francisco leading the charge lifting the ban of Cannabis.
But despite it all, the Science on Cannabis is still not settled. In 2017, the biggest review of the findings of all the reports and scientific literature in Cannabis from 1999-2017 was conducted by the National Academy of Science, Engineering, and Medicine. This study found that cannabis is great for treating chronic pain offering a healthy alternative to painkillers, which take thousands of lives each year due to overdose. And such wonderful therapeutic ability was also observed for treating multiple sclerosis.
On the opposite spectrum, there was a hard blow to the ones who posit cannabis to be a magical potion. The report showed “substantial evidence” of a link between the use of pot and increased risk of schizophrenia, bronchitis, car crash, and lower birth weights of children of pregnant ladies smoke it. There were also no significant findings that established cannabis as the cure to cancer, drug addiction, Parkinson’s disease or Huntington’s disease which is so spuriously claimed by cannabis fanatics.
The study also had severe limitations. Whether cannabis helps to cure cancer or it helped reduce testicular cancer, or resulted in better outcomes after traumatic brain injury, or helped in appetite or weight loss associated with HIV have not been answered definitively.
Dietary Science is tricky. There are so many things that could affect your health ranging from your sleep patterns to your exercise regime, your genetic makeup, to the quality of your food intake etc. This is why finding hard evidence that finally settles the decades old argument whether Cannabis is overall fit for consumption and in what shades and forms, will take a long time.
Until then, the difficult thing to do is to accept that cannabis has a dualistic nature , just like the Hindu God Shiva, with whom it has been so wrongly associated with: It can be a cure to maladies as well as a violent destroyer of lives- a thing of terrible beauty. It is a potion whose subtleties should be carefully examined before bandying around words carelessly like Anslinger who claimed, that ‘Franskenstein wouldn’t stand a chance against the Monster that is marijuana’ or like people who claim cannabis is a flawless elixir.