Is cannabis a drug, an herb, or a weed?
It may not seem like a very interesting question for people who just smoke pot and don’t really care, but it’s a cool history. I detail this in my book Cannabis Consulting, which comes out this summer .
So, let me start with the plant. The scientific name for the plant is cannabis sativa. It’s essentially one plant whether we’re talking about marijuana, cannabis, or hemp. Cannabis was a wild plant that originated in the Mongolian Step of China and still grows there today. We’ve been using it for more than 10,000 years for rope, paper, food, medicine, and as a plant that Shamans use for spiritual healings. It has an incredibly wide range of uses and pockets of people who treat it differently.
You have planters who’ve been growing hemp for generations who have never smoked it and it’s never occurred to them to use it as a medicine. Then you have people who grow it for hash, recreational uses, or medicine. It’s a very diverse plant and the amount of cannabinoid molecules in the plant determine its use. If a plant has almost no cannabinoid content (so, very little THC or CBD) then it’s hemp no matter its size or shape. Hemp is used for paper, rope, fabric, and industrial building material. It has all kinds of uses.
Back to School
The history of cannabis in America over the last 400 years is fascinating. Missionaries brought hemp from Europe in the 1600s. They settled in Northern Mexico, which included what is now Texas and New Mexico. They grew hemp for paper and fiber, but it also grew as a weed that pollinated every summer. A lot of people in Mexico started to realize that it had some psycho-activity when they used it. This is where you get the term “marijuana.” Marijuana doesn’t refer to hemp or cannabis. It’s just a slang term for the context in which you use it.
We had other immigrants coming to America in the 1800s who grew cannabis for its hash. To make hash you need a lot of resin, which comes from the flower tops and nearby leaves. So, you had these parallel cultures in America surrounding cannabis. You had hemp growers who were missionaries. Hemp growers such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. You had medicinal pharmacists. Doctors prescribed cannabis in the late 1800s that they imported from India because Indian hemp was most influential in Europe and America.
Meanwhile, another parallel culture was the Middle Eastern immigrants in America who grew a powerful hemp for the resin that pharmacists didn’t know about. In 1913, the US Agricultural Department announced they could grow Indian hemp in America. They could grow medicinal cannabis and stop getting it from India because of confusion around what worked and what didn’t. Meanwhile, they had no idea that Turkish, Armenian, and Middle Eastern immigrants had been growing it as hash for decades.
You had the government and individual farmers growing their hemp outdoors. It was everywhere, so cross breeding occurred. They didn’t have a way to test the amount of THC in products, so there was a lot of confusion. Then, in the early-mid 1900s, we had a lot of the populous views that we have today, which generated a lot of fear around immigrants. Some Americans didn’t like the Chinese immigrants who had opium dens, the Middle Eastern immigrants who had hash dens, and the Mexican immigrants who smoked marijuana. So, despite the fact that it was a very viable medication, the U.S. outlawed cannabis.
Now here it is almost 100 years later, and states are legalizing. But the problem is the confusion that still exists. People are still confused around what’s the difference between hemp, marijuana, cannabis, and now there’s an extra a layer of confusion surrounding CBD – a legal constituent of cannabis that can be purchased anywhere and grown all over the world.
So, the difference between herb, hemp, and drug evolves over time. It’s really important to have knowledgeable people. As a cannabis consultant, I try to unravel the confusion around this drug, around this herb, around this plant.
When You Think About It
I think it’s especially funny that we now have regulations in more than 30 states to legalize marijuana and they’re very strict. They’re basically regulating it the way they would regulate pharmaceuticals. It must be grown in secure locations. It must be monitored by security cameras. They must test every batch of cannabis. They deliver it to dispensaries that are locked down with security agents.
But meanwhile, you have apothecaries. An apothecary is like an herbal pharmacy, right? You can go to an apothecary and they don’t ask for an analysis of the herbs because they’re not psychoactive.
It’s this notion of these herbs being so powerful that makes us want to fit cannabis into the pharmaceutical model.
Context is everything. It’s important to have people like myself who can explain the difference. I’m now working as an expert witness in court cases because we have court cases where somebody might be growing the CBD strain in their yard. They get arrested by the police because they think they’re growing marijuana when there’s no THC in the plant at all. Ultimately, if we can slowly unravel it and educate everybody then we can have an understanding of when we use cannabis as an herb, when we use it as a drug, and when it’s just a weed that’s probably traceable to these missionaries who brought it over in the 1600s.