The most useful plant on earth! The devil weed! Cannabis (a.k.a. pot, marijuana, weed, herb, bhang, ganja, grass, dagga, keif, kanabosm, asa, reefer, tai-ma or its innumerable other names) is one of the most charged words in our language for it represents what is arguably the most controversial plant of modern times.
The very utterance of its name can arouse a full range of emotion and passion from hate to love, fear to bliss and all points in between. Indeed a visitor to our world might be very confused as to all the fuss over this seemingly benign, spindly and unassuming herb. Yet its physical humbleness masks the great influence this plant has had on human psyche and society – to such a degree that people have even pledged their lives to its propagation or eradication.
While an entire encyclopaedia could – and has – been written on the myriad of uses for Cannabis (fuel, fibre, food, etc.), this summary will deal strictly with its mind altering and pharmacological aspects, from a harm reduction perspective for people who are considering or currently consuming it for recreational, medicinal or spiritual purposes.
Etymology & Taxonomy
Such is the extent of cannabis’ controversy that even its etymology and taxonomy are hotly contested. According to the Oxford English Dictionary the origins of the word cannabis comes directly from the Greek kannabis, which means hemp:
Common hemp, Cannabis sativa, a tall erect herb of the family Moraceæ having long dentate leaves on long petioles and common in central Asia and other warm regions; different regional varieties, occas. distinguished as Cannabis indica (Indian hemp), Cannabis ruderalis, etc., are cultivated for their fibre, their intoxicating properties, or the oil obtained from their seeds… (The Oxford English Dictionary)
Other sources put the origin of the name cannabis even older, claiming it comes from the Hebrew kanabosm or q_n_h bo_em, meaning “reed of balm”, in reference to its aromatic (balmy) resin. The opinion on which family cannabis belongs to is a source of debate and has shifted over time. The traditional split between taxonomists in regards to cannabis was whether it belonged to the Moraceæ (mulberries) or Urticaceæ (nettles) family but more and more researchers are coming to the conclusion that cannabis falls into its namesake Cannabaceæ family, making it a close cousin of the hops plant (Schultes, R. E., and A. Hofmann, Botany and Chemistry of Hallucinogens, p.82–116). Regardless of this uncertainty all three of the aforementioned families are closely related.
There is even more confusion as to the nature of the three strains of cannabis (C. sativa, C. indica and C. ruderalis). Cannabis Sativa is tall and thin, generally growing between 8 and 12 feet in the wild with a light green colour and long thin leaves. The smell is generally sweet, fruity and mild. It is the predominant strain in Africa, Western Europe, the Caribbean, Latin America, South-East Asia and Southern India. Cannabis Indica is short and squat, averaging between 3 and 6 feet in height, with dark green, short broad leaves. It smells “skunky” and strong. It is common in the Middle East, Central Asia (where cannabis is thought to originate) and Northern India. Cannabis Ruderalis grows from 4 to 6 feet in height and resembles a short, branchless sativa. It is found in Eastern Europe and the Russian Steppes. C. indica is cultivated almost solely for its psychoactive qualities while C. Ruderalis is a purely industrial plant. C. sativa can be harvested for both its industrial applications (hemp) and as a drug.
Recent taxonomical studies offer evidence that the three variations of the plant are actually separate species under the Cannabis genus rather than different expressions of the same gene pool (Hillig, K.W., Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution 52, p.161-180). However, the ease with which the three variations crossbreed tends to indicate that the differences are mostly superficial and the strains are different genetic manifestations of the same species rather than entirely separate species.
Chemistry & Biology
The principal psychoactive component of cannabis is a carbon alkaloid chemical of the cannabinoid family named delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (or simply THC). THC is most concentrated in the flowering tops of the female plant and it is these tops (or buds) that are sought after when mind alteration is the goal. It must be remembered however that THC is but one of a cornucopia of chemicals found in cannabis. The way in which most of these chemicals interact with THC or the human body is still shrouded in mystery due to lack of research. What we do know is that Cannabidiol (CBD), a non-psychoactive cannabinoid, interacts with THC and has a powerful effect on humans (see THC vs. CBD below).
An interesting observation is that while the cannabinoid family is found uniquely in the Cannabis species there exists neural receptors in our brain and spinal cord (CB-1, discovered in 1988) that couple to cannabinoids only. A 1992 discovery found that the human body produced its own cannabinoid called Anandamide, a word derived from the Sanskrit word ananda meaning bliss. It is the only other known source of cannabinoid found outside the Cannabis plant. Anandamide is heavily concentrated in areas of the central nervous system that deal with pain. A year later a second receptor (CB-2) was found but unlike CB-1 it is distributed all over the body.
THC vs. CBD
Since THC is the main psychoactive chemical in cannabis, it is often the focus of attention when considering potency. This THC fixation is an oversimplification of the chemistry of getting high. As previously mentioned CBD has an unexplained interaction with THC that alters the effect of the high. THC is often associated with the soaring, clear, “cerebral” high of the cannabis trip whereas CBD is thought to be a cause of the heavy, stony, lethargic “body buzz”. In short, THC is responsible for the stimulating aspects of the cannabis trip whereas CBD is responsible for its sedative qualities. Cannabis potency should therefore not be judged by THC content alone but rather the THC/CBD ratio. C. indica is known to have much more CBD than C. sativa, thus indica plants are famous for inducing lethargy whereas sativa plants are sought after for their energetic, motivational trips.
In terms of discovering the actual potency of your stash, the only way to do so is by smoking a sample (unless of course you have access to an advanced chemical laboratory and the knowledge to use it). You won’t need to smoke much — a few hits should tell you what you’re in for. Keep in mind that plants grown indoors are almost exclusively indica because of their smaller stature and pure sativas are almost always grown outdoors and relatively rare in most parts of North America. There exist innumerable crosses between the two subspecies, however.
The psychoactive effect of cannabis (the “high” or “trip”) depends on many factors including route of administration, the amount taken, the potency, your set and setting, your expectations, your tolerance to the drug, pre-existing physical or mental medical conditions, whether any other drugs were taken and even the strain and quality of the cannabis.
Erowid has identified and compiled these possible cannabis effects:
- Mood lift, euphoria
- Relaxation, stress reduction
- Creative, philosophical or deep thinking: ideas flow more easily
- Increased appreciation of music. More aware of/deeper connection to music
- Increased awareness of senses (eating, drinking, smell)
- Change in experience of muscle fatigue. Pleasant body feeling.
- Increase in body/mind connection
- Pain relief (headaches, cramps)
- Reduced nausea, increased appetite (used medically for this)
- Boring tasks or entertainment can become more interesting or funny
- General change in consciousness (as with many psychoactives)
- Increased appetite, “munchies”
- Slowness (slow driving, talking)
- Change in vision such as sharpened colours or lights
- Closed-eye visuals
- Tiredness, sleepiness, lethargy
- Stimulation, inability to sleep
- Blood shot eyes (more common with certain varieties of cannabis and inexperienced users)
- Mouth dryness, sticky-mouth (varies with strain)
- Interrupts linear memory. Difficulty following a train of thought
- Cheek, jaw, facial tension / numbness (less commonly reported)
- Racing thoughts (especially at high doses)
- Increased emotional impact of music
- Time sense altered: cars seem like they are moving too fast, time dilation and compression are common at higher doses
- Nausea, especially in combination with alcohol, some pharmaceuticals, or other psychoactives
- Coughing, asthma, upper respiratory problems
- Difficulty with short term memory during effects and during periods of frequent use
- Racing heart, agitation, feeling tense
- Mild to severe anxiety
- Panic attacks in sensitive users or with very high doses (oral use increases risk of getting too much)
- Dizziness, confusion
- Light-headedness or fainting (in cases of lowered blood pressure)
- Paranoid & anxious thoughts occur more frequently
- Possible psychological dependence on cannabis
- Clumsiness, loss of coordination at high doses
- Can precipitate or exacerbate latent or existing mental disorders
Any and all of the above reactions are possible within any given trip and it should be noted that an individual could have a completely different reaction the next time they get high.
The effects from smoked cannabis will be felt almost immediately after inhalation and can last four hours with lingering effects (the hangover) being felt up to 24 hours later. When eaten, the duration of the high can last 10 hours with the after effects being felt well into the next day.
There is also a great degree of variation in marijuana’s potency. Different organizations will report widely different ratios for supposedly the same products. This is most likely a reflection of the fact that growing conditions greatly influence the potency of the herb. Hashish (the compressed glands of the THC-rich plant resin) and hash oil are the most potent cannabis products while stems, leaves and seeds contain the lowest ratio of THC, leaving the flowering tops (or buds) somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. Seedless buds (sinsemella) have higher THC contents than buds gone to seed.
Set, setting, expectations and tolerance also play a large role in determining the nature of your trip. Set is the mental state you are in at the time of getting high. Cannabis can generally be regarded as a sensitizer, which means that it is likely to accentuate whatever mood you are in. For example, if you are in a negative state of mind cannabis may heighten that feeling. Conversely, moments of levity could become euphoric when combined with cannabis. Likewise, if you truly believe that cannabis will give you a bad trip then the likelihood of experiencing a bad trip increases dramatically. On the other hand, if you expect marijuana to cure all your ills or liberate your soul you may be disappointed. It’s best to approach the high in as neutral a way as possible. Setting will also play an important role in your trip. While the definition of a good setting is very user specific, a place or people with which you feel at ease and comfortable is generally a good time and place to get high. Set and setting is particularly important for novice users who may not have the control over the trip that experienced users gain. If you choose to use pot more often you can cultivate a better understanding of how you react to the high, your preferred dosage, and the more dramatic effects of the trip may lessen in intensity.
Cannabis as a medicine goes back to ancient times among humans, used as a medicine by the Chinese over 4000 years ago (although this has more to do with shamanism than “medicine” as we know it). While it may seem apparent that cannabis is useful for treating a large number of illnesses and disorders there is no consensus in the medial community about the efficacy or value of cannabis as a medicine. Furthermore, while cannabis may alleviate the symptoms of an illness in one person, it can have the opposite effect in another. Therefore, using cannabis as a medicine should be done with careful experimentation and if possible, the advice of a professional (visit the Toronto Compassion Centre). Conditions and disorders cannabis is known to alleviate or ameliorate are as follows:
- HIV/AIDS wasting syndrome
- Crohn’s disease
- Eating Disorders
- Mild Emphysema
- Epilepsy, Glaucoma
- Head Injuries and Stroke
- Herpes Skin Infections
- High Blood Pressure
- Migraine Headaches
- Movement Disorders (spasticity, ataxia, Tourette’s syndrome)
- Multiple Sclerosis
- Tumours and Ulcerative Colitis (Green, Cannabis, p.202-219).
It must be remembered that the efficacy of cannabis in treating many of these illnesses is hotly debated and very controversial within the medical community. Furthermore, some patients have found cannabis to be ineffective or detrimental to the conditions listed above even though others have improved under cannabis treatment for the same illness.
On June 30th, 2001 the Government of Canada implemented the Marihuana Medical Access Regulations allowing people to grow and posses cannabis with the permission of Health Canada. Health Canada considers cannabis use justified if a patient suffers from multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injury or disease, cancer, HIV/AIDS infection, severe arthritis or epilepsy
Without a Health Canada medical marijuana certificate, or recognition as a caregiver to an exempt person, possession, trafficking or cultivation of cannabis is illegal.
|Possession – Marijuana (under 30gms.)
or Hashish (under 1gm.)
|6 mos./$1,000 fine||N/A|
|Possession – Marijuana or Hashish||6 mos./$1,000 – 1st offence;
1 yr./$2,000 – subsequent offence
|5 yrs. less a day|
|Trafficking in Marijuana or Hashish (under 3 kgs.)||N/A||5 yrs. less a day|
|Trafficking in Marijuana or Hashish||N/A||Life imprisonment|
|Cultivation of Marijuana||N/A||7 yrs|
Cannabis is one of the oldest cultivated plants in history and while it is generally assumed in the archaeological community that its use goes back to the Neolithic or later Stone Age, the first hard evidence of its use was found in the form of hemp decorated pottery at the excavation site of a 10,000 year-old Taiwanese village (Green, Cannabis, p.34). Ancient China is thought to be the probable site of the early domestication of Cannabis. Further evidence of the use of Cannabis hemp expanded exponentially as history progressed and “from at least the 27th Century B.C.E. until the 20th Century C.E. Cannabis was incorporated into virtually all the cultures of the Middle East, Asia Minor, the Indian subcontinent, China, Japan, Europe and Africa” (Herer, The Emperor Wears No Clothes, p.70).
Like the use of Cannabis for industrial purposes early uses of Cannabis for its psychoactive effects is equally shrouded in mystery. The Chinese Pên-ts’ao Ching, dated about 2000 B.C.E. thus making it the world’s oldest surviving pharmacopoeia, states that the fruits (i.e. flowering tops) of hemp, ‘if taken in excess will produce hallucinations’ and continues ‘if taken over a long term, it makes one communicate with spirits and lightens one’s body’. The first recorded use of Cannabis for recreational purposes in the western world is derived from a 5th Century B.C.E. report on the Scythians (central Asian nomads) by Herodotos, the famous Greek historian.
When, therefore, the Scythians have taken some seed of this hemp, they creep under the cloths (of the sweat lodge) and then put the seed on the red hot stones; but this being put on smokes, and produces such a steam, that no Grecian vapour-bath would surpass it. The Scythians, transported by the vapour, shout aloud. (Herodotos, Works, Book IV, Ch. 74)
There is also evidence of Cannabis use for spiritual reasons in traditional Hinduism, Buddhism, early Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Islamic Sufism, the Pygmy, Hottentot, and Zulu civilizations, Coptic Christianity and of course the modern day Rastafarian community.
There are also as many ways to get high from the plant as there are cultures that use it. For the purposes of this paper I will stick to the methods you will most likely come across in the 21st Century western world. I can’t picture anyone in Toronto building a massive underground earthen oven, as the Bantus of Ethiopia do for mass smoking, when there’s a bong readily available and perhaps most Canadians would consider chewing raw cannabis like certain Shaivite sadhus of India to be crude compared to a nice joint.
Methods of Ingestion
Combustion is by far the most common method if ingesting Cannabis for intoxication in the world. Several methods are available the most popular of which are:
A hand or (less commonly) machine-rolled cigarette with or without a filter. Some have elevated this to an art form and in certain places you may even find joint rolling competitions. Harm Reduction Tip: For the cleanest joint possible, do not roll with papers or filters that contain flavoured dyes, coloured dyes, fire retardants, asbestos or the glue that contains it. Unbleached papers are also a must. Believe it or not rolling papers do exist without all these harmful things, however one must shop carefully and ask questions. Be vigilant!
Any device that can hold your ganja and allow you to inhale the fumes as it burns. Endless designs exist ranging from artisan crafted coloured glass beauties to desperation inspired aluminium pop cans. Harm Reduction Tip: Wood, metal and plastic pipes will all give off harmful residue when heated so use glass pipes if you want nothing but weed smoke. Regular cleaning will also preserve the tastiness of your tokes and functionality of your pipe. Always use a screen when smoking from a pipe.
Basically a pipe that contains a water filtration chamber. Like normal pipes the design possibilities are only limited by the imagination of the creator (and maybe physics). Harm Reduction Tip: Again, try and use only glass bongs for the cleanest smoke and clean the bong regularly. When adding water keep in mind that while cold water is best at cooling the smoke, warmer water will filter more tar and particles. A double-chambered bong containing warm water and cold water or ice cubes is ideal. Note: According to the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), water filtration does very little to remove harmful substances from cannabis smoke. MAPS claims that at best the water will filter out only water-soluble gases and may even remove more THC from your smoke than noxious tars!
A vaporizer is a device that heats your cannabis to the temperature at which THC vaporizes and becomes aerosol (around 185°C), but does not actually combust your herb. This means that your lungs are spared from inhaling the many carcinogenic chemicals produced from burning cannabis and your body is saved the stress of dealing with hot smoke (smoking anything is bad for your lungs, heart and throat). A MAPS study comparing vaporizers to joints and water bongs revealed that vapour contained a very high percentage of cannabinoids and a low percentage of any other compounds (see previous MAPS resource link). Since upwards of 33% of THC and other cannabinoids are also destroyed during combustion the vaporizer seems to be a much more efficient way to inhale. Harm Reduction Tip: Not all vaporizers are created equal. They range from simple glass-jar covered hot plates to the vaunted (but expensive) Volcano. Some have adjustable temperature settings but many do not. As such, some vaporizers seem more prone to jumping over that threshold where combustion begins, defeating the purpose of vaporization. Even if you’re using a vaporizer that lacks a way to set the temperature you can help the process by making sure your herb is finely ground, dry and evenly distributed along the heat source.
Another popular way of consuming cannabis is to eat it. The main advantage of this is that you avoid the potential health risks of smoking. The main disadvantage is that it is much harder to gauge dosage. The high takes longer to set in and lasts longer as well since the THC must first be digested and passed through the liver before it reaches the bloodstream. Usually the peak of the high is reached within two hours and the effects can last for as long as eight hours. THC is fat-soluble molecule so most people cook their herb (or dissolve their hash) in some kind of oil or butter that can be added to food. Many have reported that eating cannabis is much more akin to a hallucinogenic trip (like mushrooms or LSD) than a leisurely joint. This may be disadvantageous depending on your set and setting. Since it can take 45 minutes or even an hour before effects are felt (depending of the level of stomach emptiness and a myriad of other factors) a common mistake is thinking that the initial dose has had no effect thus driving one to consume even more canna-food and overdosing. Harm Reduction Tip: The number one rule for cooking with cannabis is dosage control. This means knowing the strength of the cannabis you’re using and the ratio that will be in your treats. If you think the cookie you just ate is too weak wait at least an hour before consuming another, because you never know…
A tincture is a psychoactive liquid made by soaking cannabis in high proof grain alcohol for a minimum of three weeks. The resulting dark green liquid can be mixed with other beverages or consumed on its own. A major benefit of this preparation is that the alcohol (the higher the proof the better the results) will extract even the trace levels of THC found in the stems, seeds and leaves of the plant. Tinctures should not be confused with hash oil (a liquid extracted from cannabis using butane or other chemicals).
Some like to mix their herb with tobacco for various reasons such as stretching out their ganja stash or needing filler for a hash joint. If you do smoke with tobacco you will of course be inhaling all of the harmful fumes of processed tobacco smoke, and exposing yourself to all consequent health effects of smoking, including nicotine addiction.
Mixing cannabis with other drugs and alcohol will have an unpredictable effect, as cannabis can be both a stimulant and a depressant as a well as a hallucinogen depending on the user, dose and potency. A common negative side effect of mixing, especially with alcohol, is the onset of nausea. Some cannabis users have also reported that smoking pot can help take the edge off a particularly intense hallucinogenic trip, but it must be remembered that this is user-specific and could easily have the opposite effect in another person.
Know Your Herb, Know Yourself
Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em
If you choose to smoke your cannabis rather than eat or vaporize it then the joint is often cited as the safest option. The reason being is that the more times you apply a flame to the herb the more carcinogens are released and you usually have to light a joint only once.
Organic vs. Chemical
Beyond method of ingestion, the quality of your herb is also a very important factor in minimizing risks. Organic, properly flushed, properly cured/stored ganja is the best for you, but due to the nature of prohibition and the black market it has spawned, it’s often impossible to guarantee the quality of your purchase. One easy rule is that the greyer the ash the cleaner the grass. Also look at how the bud burns. If you notice sizzling, crackling and popping when you light it up, it means that your bud has retained chemical fertilizers and possibly even pesticides. Unsurprisingly, the results of burning and inhaling fertilizers and pesticides are very negative for your health. Constantly having to re-light your herb is also a sign that it has been grown with chemical fertilizers and that the grower did not take the time to properly leech and cure their harvest before selling it. Organic pot burns well with a consistent and complex flavour right down to the last toke. It is common for experienced smokers to report that the high from organic bud is “clearer” with lowered chances of headaches and “burn-out”.
While organic marijuana is often associated with soil grown varieties and “chemical bud” is commonly linked to hydroponic (indoor, soil-less) growth, this isn’t necessarily the case. Soil farmers can and do treat their plants with chemical fertilizers and pesticides while hydroponic growers could easily feed their plants organic nutrients, although most do not because there is a common and unfounded perception that organic growth diminishes yields. The only true way to tell organic bud from the less-healthy, chemical-laden variety (beyond chemical analysis) is to look for the aforementioned clues.
Yes, like any other organic matter, in the wrong conditions ganja will grow moldy or rot. While small levels of bacteria may not be much of an issue for healthy pot smokers (mold is bad for you no matter what the state of your health), those with immune system deficiencies are at risk of serious harm. If you suspect your herb is contaminated (the smell of ammonia is a sure sign of mold) you can heat your cannabis in an oven at 66-93°C for ten minutes to kill off any bacteria or fungi. If you’re still not sure, you should just shed a tear and throw the stash out. It’s not worth the potential risk.
To avoid having to deal with this problem in the first place it is important to store your ganja properly. If your stash will be only around for a short period of time keeping it in a dark dry place will suffice. If you will have your herb for upwards of a month refrigerating it in sealed glass containers is recommended. If you will be storing your grass for over a month, freezing is the way to go. Remember to break up your cannabis into smaller parcels so that you don’t have to remove the entire stash from your freezer every time you want access to it (the taste and quality of the herb will diminish every time it is removed from the freezer).
So you just had to smoke that one last spliff. Maybe those brownies were so delicious you couldn’t resist. Either way, you’ve overdone it and as the room starts to spin you wonder what will become of you. Nausea, dizziness, anxiety, panic, paranoia, rapid heart beat, unpleasant hallucinations and the general felling of being unwell are all symptoms of the overdose. There is not much you can do once the source of what ails you is already coursing through your bloodstream. You may simply pass out and wake up with a weed hangover. Or you may just have to ride it out. If the latter is the case avoid heavy machinery and authority figures, try and find as relaxing a spot as possible and take comfort in the fact that there has never been a recorded fatality due to cannabis in the history of its use by humans (we’re talking thousands of years here folks). Pot is one of the safest psychoactive substances out there and it would be a near impossible feat to consume the amount it would take to cause permanent injury.
If you start having psychological or emotional issues remember that you are experiencing a radically distorted reality and that the worse part of the overdose will be done within about an hour of first feeling the effects. You may then want to contemplate the fact that the Bashilange tribe of equatorial Africa used cannabis as the centre of their judicial system. Anyone accused of a crime was ordered to smoke cannabis (riamba as they called it) until they either admitted the crime or passed out. If they passed out they were stripped naked, had pepper rubbed in their eyes and a ribbon threaded through their nasal bone as a badge of their transgression (Green, Cannabis, p.69). And you thought your trip was bad.
While physical addiction to cannabis is not common, it can occur, although most users never have trouble stopping their use when they want to. Long-term heavy cannabis users who suddenly stop their use can experience non life-threatening withdrawal symptoms such as: irritability, anxiety, anhedonia (reduced experience of pleasure), headaches, general unease/discomfort, nausea, loss of appetite sleep problems and a desire to smoke more pot. Also, the user can find non-stoned life a bit dull and experience increased boredom. These disturbances generally cease after a week or so but can last for over a month and a half depending on the individual.
People use cannabis for different reasons. Many enjoy the relaxing quality of the high, for some it boosts sociability and others find it spiritually rewarding. Many find it enhances the appreciation of music and boosts creativity. Psychological dependency arises when an individual feels they cannot reach these states (sociability, relaxation, spiritual fulfilment, etc.) without the use of cannabis. Whether this state of being has a detrimental effect on their quality of life depends on the individual. It becomes a problem when the potential negative effects of cannabis use compete with or supersede the benefits.
Another potentially more serious route to psychological dependence is when individuals use cannabis to cope with trauma, depression or an emerging mental illness (see below). In these instances cannabis may become a crutch or be used as an escape from reality. The danger is that in such circumstances cannabis may prolong or even worsen the issue one was trying to cure or escape from. As previously mentioned cannabis is a sensitizer for many people and thus using it to cope with mental disturbances may not be wise, especially in the long run (see Marijuana Madness section below).
If you are beginning to suspect you need to cut back or take a break from the herb, follow your instincts and do so. A large part of responsible and healthy cannabis use is self-regulating your dose and frequency of use. You may want to try Calamus root tea to help. Ayurvedic healers have used this medicinal root for millennia and it is very effective at purging THC from the body (King, The Cannabible, p.64). If you feel you need help taking that marijuana break, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) has resources and programs for those who want to quit or cut back their cannabis use.
There has been a recent surge in studies recently as to the connection between cannabis use and psychosis, schizophrenia, depression or other mental illnesses. While it is tempting to dismiss this as more drug war hysteria, there is near consensus that a correlation between cannabis use and mental illnesses such as depression does exist. Correlation should never be confused for causation however.
An honest examination of these recent studies shows that while cannabis use is not a necessary or sufficient cause of psychiatric disorders, it can be a component. Other components include genetic predisposition or a traumatic childhood and cannabis use (with its associated lifestyle and subculture) could worsen symptoms in those already vulnerable to mental disorders. Heavy cannabis use has the potential to worsen coping skills, weaken familial and social support because of disapproval, cause anxiety and paranoia through legal problems (or fear of legal problems) and place one in a lifestyle non-conducive to stability. All of these factors can exacerbate latent or emerging psychiatric problems (for a more elaborate explanation of the cannabis link to mental disorders see here).
An appropriate place to conclude this summary is an example of responsible use guidelines such as those of the U.S. National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML):
Principles of Responsible Cannabis Use
- Cannabis consumption is for adults only. Many things and activities are suitable for young people, but others absolutely are not. Children do not drive cars, enter into contracts or marry, and they must not use drugs.
- The responsible cannabis user does not operate a motor vehicle or other dangerous machinery impaired by cannabis. Although cannabis is said by most experts to be safer than alcohol and many prescription drugs with motorists, public safety demands that impaired drivers be taken off the road and that objective measures of impairment be developed and used, rather than chemical testing.
- The responsible cannabis user will carefully consider his/her setting and regulate use accordingly. The responsible cannabis consumer will be vigilant as to conditions — time, place, mood, etc. — and does not hesitate to say “no” when those conditions are not conducive to a safe, pleasant and/or productive experience.
- Use of cannabis, to the extent that it impairs health, personal development or achievement, is abuse and should be resisted by responsible cannabis users. Abuse means harm. Some cannabis use is harmful; most is not. That which is harmful should be discouraged; that which is not need not be.
- The responsible cannabis user does not violate the rights of others, observes accepted standards of courtesy and public propriety, and respects the preferences of those who wish to avoid cannabis entirely. Regardless of the legal status of cannabis, responsible users will adhere to emerging tobacco smoking protocols in public and private places.
It must be remembered however that while NORML has envisioned their guidelines from a harm reduction perspective, this is only their interpretation of responsible cannabis use and different perspectives do exist. For example, many people begin experimenting with cannabis well before they are legally adults. In fact, according to Statistics Canada, the highest rate of cannabis use is found among teenagers. Since it is unclear what, if any, effect cannabis smoke has on a developing brain beyond the normal psychedelic results, it is a mistake to condemn outright the use of cannabis among young people. A more constructive way of reducing recklessness would be open, honest and reality based discussions within the family household about the potential benefits and the unknown factors of psychedelic drug use (as discussed in the MAPS Rights of Passage Project).
The impact of cannabis on driving ability is likewise mired in mystery and debate. The Canadian Senate Special Committee on Cannabis has concluded that “cannabis alone, particularly in low doses, has little effect on the skills involved in automobile driving” even though it has a generally negative impact on decision time and trajectory. Another study on cannabis and driving has concluded that the effect THC has on one’s ability to drive differs little from many other medicinal drugs. Furthermore, the study found that while alcohol encourages risky driving, cannabis encourages greater caution. Cannabis users are also better able to compensate for the adverse effects the drug has on driving ability (Hindrik, Marijuana use and driving, p.44-48). Since multiple studies have concluded that the mere presence of cannabis is not a sufficient factor in reducing the ability to drive, more focus should be placed on a driver’s coordination, awareness and response time rather than their blood/THC levels.
Because of the very subjective nature of the cannabis experience steadfast universal guidelines of any perspective are doomed to irrelevance. Defining the personal risks and benefits of cannabis use is best left to the individual. Individuals armed with knowledge of their herb, themselves and their needs will be better able to build a positive relationship with cannabis. Ultimately, mass education campaigns such as this (TRIP) will be vastly more effective in reducing the potential harm of cannabis (or any other drug) than the failed programs of the abstinence/prohibitionist status quo.