Marijuana. Pot. Weed. Ganja. Mary Jane. The cannabis plant has many names. One of the world’s oldest cultivated crops, Cannabis sativa has been used by humankind in textiles, as food, and in medicine and ritual for thousands of years.
The history of cannabis in the United States is complicated. Despite the federal drug policy that classifies marijuana as an illegal drug on par with heroin, LSD and cocaine, 34 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws legalizing it in some form. In California, cannabis is legal for adult use, meaning that anyone over 21 can legally purchase and consume marijuana products.
Even though cannabis is legal for adult consumption in California and nine other states, there are still many people serving prison sentences for marijuana offenses. Why does the federal government maintain that marijuana is a dangerous drug, while 10 states have legalized it for recreational use? How did we get here?
Why Do People Use Cannabis?
You can eat it, drink it, smoke it, vape it or rub a cannabis-infused balm on your sore muscles. From tinctures to topicals, gummies to joints, regulated, lab-tested cannabis consumables are available at retail shops in marijuana marketplaces from California to Canada.
Rather than pouring a glass of wine, many people choose to unwind with a joint or weed-infused edible at the end of their day. Others rely on marijuana as medicine. Research shows that cannabis may be able to reduce anxiety, relieve pain, control nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy, relax tight muscles in people with multiple sclerosis and stimulate appetite in people living with cancer and AIDS. Some parents have found relief for children suffering from epilepsy-related seizures with medical marijuana.
A Short History of Cannabis Laws in the U.S.
Cannabis was a popular medicine in the United States in the 1800s. You could buy it at the drugstore, along with aspirin and cough syrup. Despite its medical benefits, many Americans’ attitudes towards marijuana shifted in the 1900s. This was motivated in part by anti-immigrant sentiments following a wave of Mexican immigration to the U.S. after the 1910 Mexican Revolution.
In an Atlantic article titled “Reefer Madness,” Eric Schlosser wrote, “The prejudices and fears that greeted these peasant immigrants also extended to their traditional means of intoxication: smoking marijuana. Police officers in Texas claimed that marijuana incited violent crimes, aroused a ‘lust for blood,’ and gave its users ‘superhuman strength.’ Rumors spread that Mexicans were distributing this ‘killer weed’ to unsuspecting American schoolchildren.”
By the 1930s, marijuana was banned in 24 states, and in 1937, Congress passed the Marihuana Tax Act, effectively banning it across the nation. In the 1950s, penalties for marijuana possession stiffened further. They were briefly relaxed in the 1970s, but President Ronald Reagan increased federal penalties for pot possession in the 1980s. Today, on the federal level, marijuana is regulated under the Controlled Substances Act as a Schedule I drug, meaning the government considers it to have no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. At the state level, voters and lawmakers have approved some form of legal cannabis in 34 states. The conflict between state and federal laws is ongoing.
Marijuana and Policing People of Color
Both state and federal marijuana laws disproportionately affect people of color. Despite roughly equal rates of use and sales across racial groups, Black people are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana offenses than white people. And many marijuana offenders suffer from a powerful double standard when it comes to legal cannabis: some states have laws that bar anyone with a drug conviction from entering the cannabis industry.
This is especially galling given that former speaker of the House John Boehner, who was staunchly against the legalization of cannabis for most of his career as a Republican lawmaker, now serves on the advisory board of Acreage Holdings, a cannabis investment company. On his newly progressive stance, Boehner stated, “Over the last 10 or 15 years, the American people’s attitudes have changed dramatically. I find myself in that same position.”
Profiting off legal pot is rapidly growing as the stigma surrounding cannabis use fades. However, the inequities of who, exactly, gets to profit, still need to be addressed.
How Does Cannabis Work?
The cannabis plant produces a variety of compounds called cannabinoids, which bind to receptors in the human body known as the endocannabinoid system. You may have read about THC, CBD and CBN — these are all cannabinoids that produce various effects depending on their ratio and interaction with terpenes, which make up the flavor profile of each strain of cannabis.
Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is the psychoactive component of cannabis. When activated (usually by heat, as in smoking or cooking with marijuana), THC binds to brain receptors that regulate pleasure, pain, and the perception of time, leading to a stimulating or relaxing state of mild euphoria — the “high.”
Cannabidiol, or CBD, has gained widespread popularity as it has been shown to aid sleep and digestion and treat anxiety, pain, and inflammation. It’s also been proven to reduce or even stop seizures in severe cases of childhood epilepsy. CBD also influences the way THC interacts with brain receptors. Cannabis strains with a balanced ratio of CBD to THC are well-suited for consumers who prefer a mellow high.
Cannabinol, or CBN is another much-researched cannabinoid. CBN is a byproduct of THC as it breaks down over time and exposure to oxygen. CBN is thought to have anti-seizure, anti-inflammatory, and antibiotic properties.
Overall, there are hundreds of compounds in cannabis, many of which remain unknown. As legalization spreads, scientists have gained access to clean, lab-tested marijuana, which is critical for the study of cannabis to lead public policy towards safe and fair access to the healing plant.