Part 1 of this article originally ran in our July issue.
If you have already read it, Part 2 begins here on page 4.
Nov. 2017: Part 3 is online.
Dec 2017: Part 4 is online.
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If you had mentioned "cannabis" in a room of people two decades ago, you would have seen an immediate, violent schism between those who believed it was the gateway to opiate hell and depravity and those who felt it was a safer and gentler alternative to alcohol. Today, science is beginning to understand that there are many "layers" to the issue of marijuana use.
In this paper, we will attempt to start a dialog, a discussion which has been too long in coming. We will explore the available information (and even more misinformation), dispel the myths, and examine the role this plant can play in promoting health. Our ultimate goal is to clarify waters that have been long muddied by political, financial, and economic concerns totally unrelated to and unconcerned with the real properties of this "humble herb."
Laws against the use of marijuana are perhaps one last vestige of our puritanical heritage. (If it feels good; it is bad/immoral. Suffering is noble.) With the knowledge that we have today, continuing to insist people suffer and die unnecessarily through legally restricting access to hemp products and their curative or at least palliative properties is tantamount to intentional cruelty.
Cannabis, hemp, marijuana, or whatever name by which you know it is the most maligned, commonly referenced, commonly grown, and diversely used plant today – and has been throughout the history of the world. Take any culture where hemp has been available, either as a cultured crop or as an imported product, and go back in history as far as written records allow. You will find cannabis has been used as food, medicine, rope, fabric, oil, livestock feed, and currency. Today, in our chemical age, cannabis can be used for the following:
- To provide a quickly renewable and sustainable source for paper pulp;
- To make engineered building products (fiberboard, pressboard, and hempcrete, which is stronger, lighter, and more environmentally friendly than regular concrete);
- To make plastics;
- As a source for biofuel.1
- In addition, growing hemp can provide bioremediation for contaminated soils (including radiation cleanup).1
Nutritionally, hemp seed is about 25 percent protein and higher in omega-3s than walnuts. It is a good source of iron and calcium and can be made into iced tea, brewed into beer, fermented into wine, distilled into other alcoholic beverages, or made into hemp milk.1
For the purpose of simplicity, rather than using the various botanical, common, and colloquial names for the hemp plant (cannabis, marijuana, "weed," hashish, tampi, ganja, etc.) we will use the term cannabis (its Latin name) to refer to those components that are used medicinally and hemp when we are discussing the fiber. We will also be talking about cannabinoids, which are the family of chemicals/biochemicals that occur naturally and almost exclusively in the hemp plant, and a few minor players with one important exception . . . but we will get to that later.
The Ancient and Not So Ancient History of Cannabis
Cannabis has been widely distributed for millennia. References to the plant show up on ancient Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets and in Egyptian hieroglyphics on palace and tomb walls. The earliest known woven hemp fabric was found in Northern China and dates back to 7000 BC. The Chinese emperor, herbalist, and writer, Chen-Nung, wrote about the medicinal use of hemp 5,000 years ago.2
Dating back to 600 BC, the Zend-Avesta, a sacred book of the Zoroastrian3 faith in India, mentions hemp's intoxicating properties. In Africa, hemp was used medicinally for dysentery, fevers, snake bite, and to ease the discomfort of childbirth.2
In the early part of England's Age of Exploration (15th through 17th centuries), England's sailing ships needed hemp for rope and sails. To meet this need, Henry VIII (1491 to 1547) required landowners to grow a quarter acre of hemp for every sixty acres of cropland.2 As England expanded colonization, it found new places to grow hemp.
The British began cultivating hemp in its Canadian colonies in 1606. The colony of Virginia started cultivating hemp in 1611. As early as 1632, the Pilgrims grew hemp in New England after learning about it from Native Americans.2
In 1619, America's first marijuana law was imposed on Jamestown Colony, Virginia, by King James I, who decreed that every colonist was required to grow 100 hemp plants for fiber for English export.4 The colonists were forbidden to spin or weave hemp and were told to buy the "finished product" of their agricultural labor, fabric . . . from England. Over the next 200 years, other laws were enacted to enforce the growing of hemp.4 These demands increased hemp production throughout Virginia and Maryland, but England saw little of it. New England merchants were a ready market for any hemp that was available. Hemp served as legal tender at the time and was an acceptable means of exchange for paying taxes.4
Our Founding Fathers considered hemp to be economically important to the new country; it was one of the three main crops George Washington grew at Mount Vernon.5 He was a hemp enthusiast and wrote, "Patriotic farmers should make the most of the Indian hemp seed, and sow it everywhere."6 Thomas Jefferson commented, "Hemp is of the first necessity to the wealth and protection of the country."6
The United States Census of 1850, which recorded information about people and their occupations, listed 8,327 hemp farms with a minimum of 2,000 acres, which provided hemp for the nation's production of cloth, canvas, and the cords used to bale cotton.7
Cannabis as Medicine: Early Research
In 1833, William O'Shaughnessy, an Irish physician, joined the British East India Company and took a position as professor of chemistry at the Medical College and Hospital, Kolkata (Calcutta). A member of the Medical and Physical Society of Calcutta, O'Shaughnessy observed the use of cannabis in Indian folk medicine.8 In 1839, he published the first of his articles on the use of cannabis, A Case of Tetanus, Cured by a Preparation of Hemp (the Cannabis indica).9 That same year, he also publishedan article with a broader focus, "On the preparations of the Indian Hemp or Gunjah," which discussed the benefits of cannabis for the treatment of "rabies, rheumatism, epilepsy, and tetanus."2
Although there is no cure for tetanus (except waiting until the effects of the toxin wear off),10 O'Shaughnessy discovered that cannabis relieved the wrenching spasticity (which can break bones and lock the jaw in a closed position [lockjaw is a common name for tetanus]), eliminated the excruciating pain, and increased the likelihood of survival (tetanus victims can die within four days of the onset of the disease). He found cannabis effective for relieving rheumatoid arthritis pain and controlling seizures, and conducted extensive research to find new applications. After he returned to England in 1841, he popularized its use there and introduced Cannabis indica to the Western world. American pharmacies started offering cannabis preparations in the 1850s.8
We are at a time in our history that can be compared to that when doctors and British seamen discovered the cause of scurvy, a disease with symptoms which include fatigue, spongy gums, skin spots, and bleeding from the mucus membranes followed by tooth loss, jaundice, neuropathy, and death by hemorrhage.11 (Could it be that many cases of the "plague" were simply extreme manifestations of scurvy?)
Scurvy is an ancient and ubiquitous disease. The classical Greek physician Hippocrates (c. 460 BCE–c. 380) wrote about its symptoms. Even before the Age of Exploration (early 15th century and until the early 17th century), a time when Europeans sailed across the oceans to find new trading partners, commodities, and trade routes, native cultures around the world had developed various herbal cures for the condition.11
Early evidence from the voyages of Vasco da Gama and James Lancaster suggested that citrus fruit cured scurvy, but the information was not widely disseminated nor applied. Ignorance of this meant that long distance voyages and a consequent lack of fresh food led to endemic and often fatal scurvy in both sailors and passengers.11
In 1753, James Lind, a Scottish surgeon in the Royal Navy published his book, A Treatise of the Scurvy, promoting the idea that citrus fruit was an effective treatment for the disease. At the time, the words "lime" and "lemon" were both used to describe any citrus fruit. Sadly, Lind's findings did not agree with the era's prevailing medical theory and were not applied until 40 years later.11
It was not until the early 19th century that lemons, a European import, and, later, British-colonies-grown limes were added to sailors' daily rations. (Unfortunately, the vitamin C level in limes was too low for them to be effective in preventing scurvy.) Nonetheless, limey became a nickname for British sailors.11,12 Scurvy remained a risk during long voyages and in wartime until the middle of the 20th century.11
Interestingly, two weeks of high vitamin C (ascorbic acid) supplementation is enough to cure scurvy, but people back then were ignorant of that fact. In the same way, ignorance of the benefits of cannabis exacerbated by unbridled self-interest has led to decades of unquantifiable and unnecessary suffering. As of September 2016, the United States government still held that cannabis was an illegal drug, while half of the states in the country and the District of Columbia, the seat of the Federal government, have legalized it in one form or another.13
The Danger of Federal Legalization
The US government continues to drag its feet on legalizing cannabis, ostensibly for concerns about its dangers. More likely, the concern is that Big Pharma, hand in hand with Congress, has not yet figured out how to lock out the "little guy" and appropriate something that has already started to slip past their fingers. When, in recent history, have we ever had a prescription medicine that is not manufactured by a drug company, not required to meet production standards, not standardized in dose or strength, and not dispensed through a chain of corner pharmacies? This precedent has to be terrifying to Big Pharma.
Cannabis is something different. It's a plant. Unpatentable – not because you can't patent plants. You can.
A plant patent is granted by the Government to an inventor (or the inventor's heirs or assigns) who has invented or discovered and asexually reproduced a distinct and new variety of plant, other than a tuber, propagated plant, or a plant found in an uncultivated state.14
The cannabis we have today is unpatentable because the plant is illegal at the federal level.
Although legalizing cannabis at the federal level sounds desirable, the end result may not be what we would like to envision: easy access to an affordable, effective medication for some of the worst diseases in our county. Universal, minimally restricted legalization at the state level, tempered with a true sense of fairness and compassion, would be ideal. Federal legalization bears with it a terrible risk. Why?
Legalizing cannabis at the federal level will open up the potential for patenting different strains. Monsanto and Big Pharma have the legal clout to push patents through, regardless of who actually develops the seed. Even if the "little guy" gets his patent, these companies have enough money to make it tempting to "sell out." And, as we have seen in the cases where doctors practicing alternative medicine get too strong a following, the government has a good number of ways to crush people and activities it is otherwise having difficulty in controlling.
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