Although the marijuana, or cannabis, plant first appears in human history approximately 10,000 years ago, there is limited research that tells us about its role in human development. Indeed, this plant with hundreds of active chemicals when smoked remains a mystery to many, although with over hundreds of millions of people in the world having used it at least once, it is by far the most widely used substance. What many people believe to be true of this plant is often more myth than fact.
A Brief History
The industrial strain of the cannabis plant, known as hemp, has been used at least as far back as 8000 BC, when it was used in Taiwan as decoration. Industrial hemp plants do not contain enough of the most potent chemical, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is found in strains of cannabis, to produce euphoria and other mild mind-altering effects, in addition to pain relief and other assorted effects. Medical uses for cannabis, or marijuana, began in China around 2700 BC. This hardy plant is extremely pest resistant and currently grows wildly on six continents.
Marijuana is actually a slang term, originating in Mexico, for the cannabis plant. Cannabis was first used prominently in North America at the beginning of the 20th century, and largely by Mexicans and Mexican immigrants in America. As alcohol prohibition waned, and the federal government in the United States saw a new scourge in this intoxicating plant from the south, they used its Mexican slang name in order to enhance its foreign association and encourage its prohibition among the general public.
That history is important, because although widely used, marijuana is much misunderstood. It has been a schedule I drug, meaning the United States government deems it to have no medical application or value, since the beginning of drug scheduling in the United States. Some relevant facts that are often overlooked by the lay public include (a) marijuana has never been linked to a fatal overdose; (b) it has been shown to give effective relief for some ailments, including glaucoma and the pain and shaking of multiple sclerosis, to increase appetite in patients with acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) wasting, and to ease discomfort associated with chemotherapy; and (c) it is less toxic than either tobacco or alcohol. An estimated 30 million Americans currently use marijuana at least once a month, and some would say they are using its properties to self-medicate. Yet there is little we can say regarding scientific surveys into marijuana’s role in human development, as it has been virtually impossible to conduct meaningful research on the drug itself, because its schedule I classification makes it extremely difficult to study legally in the United States.
What little research that been done has demonstrated that the cannabinoids are the primary chemicals in marijuana that produce effects in the human brain. The human brain has cannabinoid receptors, which also react to chemicals produced within the body, producing such effects as “runner’s high.” These cannabinoids, especially delta-THC, generally affect aspects of memory, perception, and complex reaction time. They also seem to enhance senses and increase euphoria and relaxation, but may impair some concentration.
At young ages, while the brain is still forming, it is thought that there may be long-lasting effects with continued use, but there is scant evidence to either prove or disprove this theory.
Although not a benign drug, marijuana does have documented applications for certain illnesses when administered in appropriate doses. More study is certainly needed to obtain definitive answers to marijuana’s short and long-term effects on human development.
- Baum, (1996). Smoke and mirrors: The war on drugs and the politics of failure. Boston: Little, Brown.
- Earleywine, (2002). Understanding marijuana: A new look at the scientific evidence. New York: Oxford University Press.
- National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Ab (1972). Marihuana: A signal of misunderstanding. Retrieved from http://www.druglibrary.org/schaffer/Library/studies/nc/nc menu.htm