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Cannabis - Encyclopedia

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Cannabis bud

What is Cannabis?

Cannabis, a fast-growing bushy annual with dense sticky flowers, produces the psychoactive compounds THC and CBD. The cannabis plant can be dried or otherwise processed to yield products containing large concentrations of compounds that have medicinal and psychoactive effects when ingested, usually by smoking, vaporizing or eating. It is the most widely used illegal psychoactive and has a long history of medicinal, recreational, and industrial use. Due to negative media attention regarding its psychoactive effects, as well as heavy lobbying from pharmaceutical companies, the possession, use, or sale of psychoactive cannabis products became illegal in most parts of the world during the early twentieth century and remains that way today. The fibrous stalks of the plant are used to produce hemp clothing and rope.


Cannabis was well known to the Scythians, as well as the Thracians/Dacians, whose shamans (the kapnobatai - "those who walk on smoke/clouds") used to burn cannabis flowers in order to induce trances. The cult of Dionysus, which is believed to have been originated in Thrace, has also been linked to the effects of cannabis smoke (and other natural psychedelics like mushrooms or the ergot fungus). The most famous users of cannabis though were the ancient Hindus. According to legend, Shiva, one of the gods of the Hindu trinity, told his disciples to use the hemp plant in all ways possible. Cannabis is also thought by some to be the ancient drug soma, mentioned in the Vedas as a sacred intoxicating hallucinogen, although a number of scholars suggest this could also have been the Fly Agaric mushroom (Amanita muscaria) or an ayahuasca-like plant mixture.

Although cannabis has been used for its psychoactive effects since ancient history, it first became well known in the United States during the jazz music scene of the late 1920s and 30s. Louis Armstrong became one of its most prominent and life-long devotees. Cannabis use was also a prominent aspect of the 1960s counterculture.

The word 'marijuana' is a Mexican slang term which became popular in the late 1930's in America, during a series of media and government programs which we now refer to as the 'Reefer Madness Movement.'

Cannabis was made illegal in the U.S. in 1937 but has nevertheless continued to be a popular recreational substance. Today, an increasing number of countries and states provides some legal protection for patients who use marijuana with the consent or recommendation of a doctor (for example, the cannabis dispensaries in California).

Some countries, like Peru, Portugal and Czechoslovakia, have decriminalized the possession of small quantities for personal use.


The genus Cannabis was formerly placed with nettles in the family Urticaceae or with mulberries in the family Moraceae but is now considered, along with hops (Humulus sp.), to belong to the family Cannabaceae. Whether the different strains of Cannabis constitute a single species (Cannabis sativa L.) or multiple species has been a contentious issue for well over two centuries.

Ernest Small conducted a taxonomic investigation of Cannabis and concluded that there is only a single species with two subspecies, sativa and indica, each divisible into a cultivated and a wild variety. According to this concept, C. sativa subsp. sativa was selected for traits that enhance fibre or seed production and has low levels of the psychoactive delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), whereas C. sativa subsp. indica was primarily selected for drug production and has relatively high levels of THC.

Cannabis plants do grow wild in many parts of the world, but the quality of wild specimens ('ditch-weed') is generally quite low. Most cannabis is cultivated intentionally and can be grown either indoors or outside.


Of the approximately 400 different chemicals found in Cannabis, the main active ingredients are THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, or delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol). THC can degrade to CBL and CBN (other cannabinoids), which can make one feel sleepy and disoriented. Different marijuana products have different ratios of these and other cannabinoids. Depending on the ratio, the quality of the "high" will vary.


The primary effects sought by those using cannabis recreationally are euphoria, relaxation, and changes in perception and thought processes. Effects vary depending on the dosage, with effects at low doses including a sense of well-being, mild enhancement of the senses (smell, taste, hearing), subtle changes in thought and expression, talkativeness, giggling, increased appreciation of music, increased appetite, and mild closed-eye visuals. At higher doses, visuals may become more prominent, sense of time is altered, attention span and memory are frequently affected, and thought processes and mental perception may be significantly altered.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the Cannabis sativa species tends to produce more of the cognitive or perceptual effects, while Cannabis indica tends to produce more of the physical effects.

Medical use

Marijuana (actually cannabis extract) was legally available as a medicine in the United States until 1937, and was sold as a nerve tonic -- but mankind has been using cannabis medicines much longer than that. Marijuana appears in almost every known book of medicine written by ancient scholars and wise men. It is usually ranked among the top medicines, called 'panaceas', a word which means 'cure-all'. The list of diseases which cannabis can be used for includes: multiple sclerosis, cancer treatment (either to directly combat tumors, or diminish the side effects of chemotherapy), lack of appetite in AIDS patients, glaucoma, depression, epilepsy, migraine headaches, asthma, pruritis, sclerodoma, severe pain, and dystonia. This list does not even consider the other medicines which can be made out of marijuana - these are just some of the illnesses for which people smoke or eat whole marijuana today.

There are over 60 chemicals in marijuana which may have medical uses. It is relatively easy to extract these into food or beverage, or into some sort of lotion, using butter, fat, oil, or alcohol. One chemical, cannabinol, may be useful to help people who cannot sleep. Another is taken from premature buds and is called cannabidiolic acid. It is a powerful disinfectant. Marijuana dissolved in rubbing alcohol helps people with the skin disease herpes control their sores, and a salve like this was one of the earliest medical uses for cannabis. The leaves were once used in bandages and a relaxing non-psychoactive herbal tea can be made from small cannabis stems.

The most well-known use of marijuana today is to control nausea and vomiting. One of the most important things when treating cancer with chemotherapy or when treating AIDS with AZT or Foscavir, being able to eat well, makes the difference between life or death. Patients have found marijuana to be extremely effective in fighting nausea; in fact, so many patients use it for this purpose (even though it is illegal) that they have formed 'buyers clubs' to help them find a steady supply.

Marijuana is also useful for fighting two other very serious and wide-spread disabilities. Glaucoma is the second leading cause of blindness, caused by uncontrollable eye pressure. Marijuana can control the eye pressure and keep glaucoma from causing blindness. Multiple Sclerosis is a disease where the body's immune system attacks nerve cells. Spasms and many other problems result from this. Marijuana not only helps to reduce or stop these spasms, but it may also keep multiple sclerosis from getting worse.


Hashish or 'hash' is made from various amounts of Cannabis flower and leaf fragments. The resin reservoirs of the trichomes (erroneously referred to as "pollen") are separated from the plant via various sieving methods, cold-water separations, or chemical extraction. The resulting concentrate is compressed into blocks of hashish which are easily stored and transported, without degrading the THC content due to oxidation. Pieces are then broken off, warmed up and smoked in bongs, pipes, joints, mixed with tobacco or used to prepare foods such as brownies, butter and cake.


The process most popularly used to ingest cannabis is smoking. The effects of cannabis begin almost immediately. When eaten the effects can take 1 to 2 hours to manifest, based primarily on how much food is in the stomach.

Cannabis dosage is fairly easy to manage. A good method for determining your dose is to smoke a small amount (1-2 "hits"), wait 5-15 minutes, and repeat as desired. A single intake of smoke from a pipe, water pipe, or joint is generally called a hit. An average size hit from a pipe or water pipe weighs somewhere on the order of 1/20th of a gram. With reasonably high potency cannabis buds, a small number of hits is generally enough.

Cannabis is also eaten. It (crushed buds or hasjish) is most often used in cake or brownies. The recommended method of eating marijuana is to saute it in butter or margarine over medium heat, then to strain the remaining solids out and use the butter to cook with. See Erowid for some recipes. When your cake or brownies are finished, store them in a safe place (i.e. out of reach of children and other unsuspecting family members).


Several studies have indicated that cannabis use (like many other strong psychoactives) can precipitate neuroses or psychoses in those who are already at risk. Studies have also shown that cannabis use does not appear to increase the risk of psychosis in otherwise healthy individuals.

Although cannabis reduces one's reaction speed, and would thus diminish the ability to drive vehicles, it simultaneously makes one more careful and considerate, resulting in a conscious determination to drive safely (contrary to drugs like alcohol and stimulants, which make people overconfident of themselves). Many frequent users have driven their car for years, without accidents. It should be noted however that it is illegal to drive while under the influence of any psychoactive substance. Any accident that does occur will likely be blamed (by insurance companies and the law) on you.


Negative effects can include paranoia, dry mouth, cold hands, respiratory problems, nervousness and a racing heart. Other effects may be inconvenient in certain settings or situations including reduced ability to concentrate, impaired memory, tiredness, and confusion.

For some people regular use of cannabis can lead to psychological habituation, making it difficult for them to quit or interrupt their usage. According to Erowid, studies have estimated that between 5 and 10% of those who try smoking cannabis will become daily users sometime during their life, but most of these smokers will have given up the habit by age 30 and few remain daily smokers after age 40. Most people do not experience signs of physical addiction, but with regular, daily use, mild to medium withdrawal symptoms usually occur for less than a week but can extend longer (up to 6 weeks).

The most common negative health impact of regular cannabis smoking are lung and throat problems including coughing, increased frequency of throat and lung infections, and reduced lung capacity. Smoke contains carcinogenic (cancer-causing) compounds, but no case of lung cancer has been linked to the use of cannabis. This may be because the cannabis itself contains anti-carcinogenic compounds, neutralizing the harmful effects of smoke.

It should be noted that in recent years many users have switched from smoking (with a joint, pipe or bong) to using a vaporizer. A vaporizer uses heat rather than fire to extract the active, beneficial compounds. It produces a cloud of vapour rather than smoke, which therefore doesn't contain the carcinogenic toxins found in smoke.


Cannabis combines remarkably well with a wide variety of natural and synthetic psychedelics. It tends to decrease nausea caused by ayahuasca, Amanita Muscaria and cacti. It's also known to intensify and lengthen mushroom trips.


See this page for some excellent books on the subject of growing your own cannabis plants.


THC breaks down over time and some tests have shown that in a year stored in a plastic bag, about half of the active Delta-9 THC degrades into other compounds. Most users report that aged cannabis becomes noticeably worse.

The better it is stored, the longer it lasts. Plastic bags are very permeable to air and are not ideal storage containers. Well sealed glass jars or lab grade plastic jars with tight lids (not Tupperware) stored either in the freezer or somewhere cool will preserve the quality of the cannabis better than storing it in thin plastic. Outside of the normal oxidation and degradation of buds, there is also the mould problem. Cannabis will mould like other plant materials and some portion of cannabis stored for a long period of time will mould. The drier and better sealed the plant material, the less likely it is to grow mould. Many stashes are lost to a fungus or mould which makes the cannabis unpleasant to smoke, may have toxic by-products from the mould and can cause severe allergic reactions in some people. The general consensus is not to smoke mouldy bud. If it smells mouldy or has obvious signs of growth: throw it away.

Links / Further reading

Cannabis-related items from the Schaffer Library of Drug Policy

Vault Cannabis (Francais)

Nederwiet - how to grow weed at home (Dutch)

NORML - U.S. organization for reforming Marijuana laws


This article is based on the following pages:

Wikipedia on cannabis

Erowid on cannabis

Wikipedia on hashish

Erowid on storing cannabis

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