Thursday, June 21, 2012

The many faces of Cannabis

Species name: Cannabis sativa

Common name: Marijuana, hemp

Location: Ontario

I should probably start this blog entry with a disclaimer: please note that those pictures do NOT have a watermark on them; I did not take them. A friend went to go visit their friend (who lives on a farm) and they discovered that someone had planted some Cannabis plants in the middle of their corn field. My friend took some photos, then contacted the authorities who dealt with the "situation." Now that we have that out of the way, let's carry on.

Cannabis plants have been in cultivation and in use by humans for more than 5,000 years. Believe it or not, it's actually one of the first domesticated plants! It originated in Asia, where there are currently two species of Cannabis that commonly grow. This species, Cannabis sativa, that has its origins in China and Cannabis indica which has its origins in India and Pakistan. The third species, Cannabis ruderalis, has murky origins; there's a group that argue the plant originated in Asia, but others that argue it has its origins in North America (the midwestern United States). Each one of these species has a different chemical composition of the "active ingredient," delta-9-THC. Since each of these species can hybridize with the other two (which would suggest they aren't distinct species at all according to some authorities), plant breeders often hybridize plants in order to increase THC content, decrease THC content, or add desirable plant characteristics from one species to another (for example, cold tolerance, drought tolerance or the ability to grow in a lower nutrient pH for hydroponic plants).

Contrary to popular belief, Cannabis isn't "just" the recreational drug marijuana. A common theme to almost every mind-altering substance (coffee, tea, chocolate, marijuana, opium, cocaine, etc.) is that the local people who domesticated the plant believe it was put on Earth as a gift from their respective God and that it should be used to its greatest potential. Cannabis is certainly no exception in that respect. Ancient Indians believed that this was a plant of the gods because it fulfilled every requirement for basic sustenance of life: parts of the plant can be eaten (the seeds are incredibly nutritious), the stems can be used for fibres to make clothing, canvas or ropes (why hemp became a popular plant in World War II), the extra plant material from the stems can be burned as fuel, and the leaves and flowers can be smoked to bring a sense of calm and reflection. Since then, low-THC cultivars have become very popular in Canada as a source of "green fibre": Cannabis requires less water than cotton to grow, less fertilizers and pesticides, no weeding, and grows at much, much higher densities. On top of that, Cannabis fibres can be softened to make heavy clothing like jeans just as soft as if they were made from a cotton plant. The major drawback to hemp as a cultivated crop is the number of government regulations surrounding its cultivation. A farmer in Canada wanting to grow hemp (to my knowledge, it's still illegal in the United States) must apply for a permit and agree to "spontaneous" spot-checks (which, to my understanding, occur weekly) of their fields. Government officials confiscate plants from different areas in the field and test their THC content. If they contain more than 0.9% THC, then the whole field is burned (recreational marijuana plants contain THC concentrations as high as 30% depending on the variety). The actual cultivation of these plants is also tightly regulated; a government official must be on site to witness the cultivation and processing of the plants to ensure that all of them are going towards their intended fibre, fuel or food use (hemp seed is a popular omega-fatty acid food additive). The question many people still have is: why? There would be no benefit to a farmer planting marijuana plants in the middle of a hemp field. They're the same species, and there is no way to tell the plants apart. Since they grow at such high densities, it would be impossible for someone to pick them out in a field. They show the same heat signature, so even flying over at night with an IR camera (as is often performed in Ontario where outdoor grow ops in corn fields are common) would show no difference. What incentive a hemp farmer would have to try to grow marijuana is something no one has quite figured out!

There are a huge number of reported medical uses of the Cannabis plant, but very few of these have been tested in any sense. Anecdotal evidence can sometimes be good evidence, but when it comes to an illegal drug (whether it should or shouldn't be illegal is a whole other debate, and one I'm not prepared to get into) anecdotal evidence can't be enough for prescribed use. So far, the only four conditions for which there is enough evidence to support prescribed purchase is cancer (smoking marijuana decreases the side effects of chemotherapy), glaucoma (helps relieve pressure in the eyes by fighting hypertension), asthma (THC helps dilate bronchi, allowing more air to flow into the lungs), and MS (reduces muscle rigidity and muscle spasms). There are clinical trials either proposed or underway about THC's effectiveness in the treatment of breast cancer specifically, the wasting effects of AIDS, the treatment of brain cancer, helping people wean off an opioid dependence, and the control of symptoms of ALS. There are also clinical trials underway to determine if smoking marijuana really does cause lung cancer (something that has been argued for many years; the confounding effect between pot smokers and lung cancer is that a great number of them are also cigarette smokers), and whether or not there is any effect of THC on mental illness (it has been argued that certain forms of mental illness can be aggravated through marijuana use; the addictive qualities of THC are also still being argued).