..The First Stone Age
About a hundred thousand years
ago (we’re guessing here), a half-frozen cave man named
Urg (we’re guessing here, too) made a discovery so big
that its effects are still being felt all over the world.
Urg was cold, so he tossed a
bundle of the plants he’d tugged out of the ground that afternoon
onto the fire in his cave. Then, as he and his friends squatted
over the fire and warmed themselves (and wished they had a Wii
or PlayStation 3 or something to make life less boring),
they noticed strange changes creep over them.
Everyone agreed that the shadows
on the cave walls were suddenly way weird, dude, and the
fire was like, totally hypnotic, gnarly even.
They also noticed that the chief’s
jokes (which they had all heard a thousand times) were funny
again — or at least everybody laughed and pounded each other
on the back and rolled in the dirt.
If Urg and his friends had given
it any thought (instead of trying to rig a sound system out of
some rocks and old mastodon bones they found in a corner of the
cave), they might have noticed other changes come over them,
too — changes in the way they thought and felt and acted, that
we’re only now beginning to fully understand.
Because (surprise!) the
weed that Urg threw on the fire was marijuana and, without knowing
it, Urg and his pals had thrown the world’s first pot party.
This story isn’t true, as far
as anybody knows. (After all, prehistory wouldn’t be pre-history
if anyone left notes.)
On the other hand, it makes as
much sense as a lot of other stories that have been passed around
about marijuana since the first Urg noticed it growing down by
the local watering hole and wondered what it was good for.
That’s the point of this pamphlet,
and the main reason we put it together.
Because even though Urg didn’t
find all the answers to that question, the people who came later
sure kept asking.
..Rope or Dope?
Did they ever. In fact, at various
times and in various places, they found uses for it for about
every purpose you can imagine, and a few more besides.
The plant itself (sometimes called
hemp and known botanically as cannabis sativa) is an excellent
source of fiber, and has been used throughout the world to make
rope and cloth and paper.
In fact, access to hemp and the
ability to make rope from its fiber was so important to early
tribes that it could spell the difference between first place
and dead last in the battle for survival.
But man does not live by fiber
alone, and hemp came to mean more to early humans than mere raw
material for rope and clothes. To the ancient Chinese and others,
it was a medicine, and they used it to treat a variety of ailments,
from backaches and bad disposition to sunstroke and dysentery.
In India and Japan and Persia,
it was revered as a holy plant and was used as a sacrament in
In fact, 10th-Century A.D. Hindus
were so impressed by the effects it produced that they called
it indracanna, or the “food of the gods.”
“Food of the gods”
or not, the plant (and the drug contained in its flowering tops)
has made the rounds under a lot of different names over the years:
It’s been called bhang and ganja in India and Jamaica, boo, gage,
pot, weed, reefer, grass, muggles, mezz, moota (moota?) and a
thousand other names in a thousand other places.
But whatever you call it, the
real story about marijuana today involves the drug inside the
And no matter what form that
drug comes in — whether plain, old-fashioned, crushed-and-dried
weed or the pressed resin known as hashish or the liquid resin
known as hash oil — that story’s a big story today, indeed.
So what kind of drug is marijuana?
That’s a simple enough question.
Too bad it doesn’t get a simple answer.
Why not? Because pot isn’t a
simple drug. It isn’t even a single molecule like other drugs,
like alcohol and cocaine.
Instead, it’s a complex mix of
some 420 different compounds. And, of them, 60 or so (known as
cannabinoids) exist nowhere else in nature.
The most important cannabinoid
in pot is a little number known as delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol
(THC, for short). THC is the main mind-altering ingredient in
marijuana, and the biggest news about it is how much of it is
turning up in new, high-potency forms of pot.
Just a few years ago, most marijuana
sold in the United States averaged about 2 percent of the drug,
which was (and is) plenty.
Today, it’s not hard to find
pot with a THC content of 7, 8 or even 10 percent. And that extra
potency packs a punch — in the form of more intense effects
and greater potential risks.
Still, THC isn’t the whole story.
Because even though it’s the chemical most responsible for pot’s
effects, it’s not alone. Other cannabinoids — with names like
cannabinol, cannabicyclol, and cannabidiol — are there, too.
And, for the moment, they’re still mostly unaccounted for.
has some idea about what the marijuana high is like, we’re not
going to waste a lot of time talking about that.
What we will
say is that most effects — euphoria, sensory distortions, and
altered feelings — kick in fast, usually before a smoker finishes
kick in quickly, too, including time distortion and increased
appetite (AKA “the munchies”), which can show up in
the form of an inexplicable urge for a 36-inch extended-family-size
pizza or a sudden impulse to build a truly world-class
sub out of everything in the refrigerator.
effects peak in about an hour and wear off in 2-4 hours. So do
pot’s main objective effects — ones that are detectable outside
the body, like bloodshot eyes and increased heart rate.
We could spend
a lot of time talking about external changes. But if we did,
we’d miss the real story, the one that takes place inside the
body — and mind.
To see how that
story unfolds, let’s take an imaginary trip inside the body tissues
and organs of a smoker to track some of the more important changes
as they occur.
Our trip won’t
cover all the things that pot does in the body, but it should
be enough to give you a better idea of what marijuana does to
a person when a person does marijuana.
a smoker lights up, the first big biological change comes in
the form of a blast of tar and other gases that rushes to the
lungs, after first ir-ritating the tissues of the mouth, nose,
You might also
hear a cough as the lungs do what they’re supposed to do — expel
the lungs adjust, and the smoke stays down. That’s when THC and
other chemical components of marijuana pass through the bronchial
tubes to the capillaries, where they’re absorbed into the bloodstream.
Once in the bloodstream,
cannabinoids rush to the heart, where they trigger a jump in
heartbeat, sometimes as much as 50 percent above resting rate.
isn’t a problem for most people, but researchers warn that it
could be more serious for older people and those with heart disease.
BioTransport. All that activity in
the heart has one clear effect, though: It pumps cannabinoids
to other body organs, triggering a variety of physical effects,
from decreased pressure inside the eye to increased muscular
relaxation — also not a problem for most people.
But since cannabinoids
are fat-soluble, they zero in on areas having a high fat content,
such as the sex glands and brain.
Once THC hits
the brain and acts on receptors there, the subjective feeling
of being high kicks in. That’s when marijuana’s thought
and mood changes start.
At this point,
the liver and kidneys swing into action, breaking THC and other
cannabinoids down into less-complicated, more easily-eliminated
About half the
breakdown products (or metabolites) leave the body within
24 hours, but others — stored in fatty tissue — hang around,
almost like biochemical leftovers.
But unlike leftover
food in a refrigerator (which can disappear faster than a pot
smoker can say “Hold the mayo”), cannabinoids are detectable
for days or weeks.
do they produce while they’re hanging around?
No one knows
for sure, but since they are still drug molecules, they could
cause subtle effects that would be almost impossible to trace.
..Pot’s Hot Spots
So much for the
grand tour. Now we’ll narrow our focus down to examine what pot
does to key body systems.
though no one knows yet what all those effects are, we know enough
about some of the hotter research topics to consider them in
are grouped around three major body hot spots: the lungs, brain,
and the organs and glands that regulate growth and sexual development.
Lungs. Probably the clearest
health risk posed by pot is the danger to the lungs.
marijuana smoke contains the same cancer-causing chemicals found
in tobacco smoke. And since pot smokers hold marijuana smoke
in the lungs longer, regular use could pose the same kinds of
cancer risks as cigarette smoking.
pot smokers also raise their risk of other lung problems, including
bronchitis and emphysema.
That risk is
considered higher still for people who smoke both pot and cigarettes.
Brain. Since THC accumulates
in the brain for such long periods of time, and since the brain
is so near and dear to all of us, research into its actions there
has been the most closely-watched area of marijuana research
in recent years. And from what we know today, those effects are
something to think about.
most striking set of effects involve memory. Recent studies show
that pot can disrupt short-term memory — the process in which
recent events are encoded and stored in the brain.
This effect can
be a disaster if you care about your grades and your future —
and a serious drag, even if you don’t.
problems aren’t much fun, either.
reading comprehension, and other abilities can also be dulled
by the drug, with effects lasting several hours after the high
disappears. And the more you smoke, the longer they seem to last.
The same thing
happens to reaction time and visual tracking ability, which could
be a problem in certain circumstances, like driving a car. That’s
why it’s as bad an idea to drive after smoking as it is to drink
Sexual Development. Another hot spot that’s attracting serious scrutiny
involves body systems that regulate growth and sexual development.
has heated up as the age of pot smokers has dropped. And as users’
ages have fallen, concern about possible risks have increased
— and for good reason.
at the moment is that marijuana causes changes in hormone levels
of users which could alter normal patterns of growth and sexual
In boys and men,
it causes decreased blood levels of testosterone, the main male
sex hormone. In women and girls, levels of two hormones drop
following marijuana use.
sure if any serious problems result from reduced hormone levels
in adults. What it could mean to younger people is another question,
to most experts, it’s as good a reason as any for kids to pass
on pot altogether.
..Up In Smoke
Urg and his pals
(remember them?) didn’t have the gadgets to measure all
the effects of pot. But even if they did, they would have found
that some effects are hard to measure — so hard, in fact, that
their modern-day descendants are still arguing about them.
One thing a lot
of people are still arguing about is marijuana’s links to motivation,
and whether or not it reduces the drive to excel. In the past,
this suspected effect was labeled “amotivational syndrome.”
Today, most experts
consider marijuana use and decreased interest in goals as a kind
of chicken-and-egg situation. (Does pot reduce motivation or
does it just appeal to people who are already unmotivated?)
On the other
hand, many ex-users call pot a “spectator drug,” one
that turned them into passive onlookers in their own lives.
reason for the passivity linked to pot is that smokers don’t
have to actually do anything to be happy or entertained. All
they have to do is get high, and pot does the rest.
And while it
might look like fun to cruise through life stoned, it’s a lot
less fun than learning to pull your own strings and make life
happen the way you want it to happen. Think about it.
Because too many
people already have had to admit they watched the best years
of their lives go up in smoke. They just didn’t realize it at
the story (more or less) of marijuana in America today.
Some love it, some hate it, and there’s even one or two out there
(maybe) who just plain don’t care.
So what’s left
biggest thing to remember is that marijuana is a complicated
drug, so much so that, even after decades of research, we still
can’t describe all of what it does, everywhere in the body.
to consider is that long-term effects still aren’t fully understood.
But just because researchers can’t prove the problems they suspect
doesn’t mean they’re not there.
After all, it
took 100 years for the case against cigarettes to be nailed down,
but the risks were real all along.
That may be the
most important point of all to keep in mind about marijuana today
— to have a healthy respect for it and the problems it can cause,
and steer clear of them.
though a lot of the wild and woolly “reefer madness”
scare stories of the past weren’t true, that doesn’t mean pot
can’t cause real problems for real people. Make sure you’re not
one of them.
..Sidebar | Marijuana & the Mind
as pot’s effects on the body are, its effects on personality
and behavior are just as important and every bit as complex.
Interest in marijuana’s
effects on the mind have heated up in recent years, since the
discovery of receptor sites in the brain for THC, pot’s main
at the moment revolve around the following issues:
“Reefer madness” stories of the past were far-fetched,
often the ravings of the misinformed or the misguided. But recent
research suggests that marijuana may leave a more lasting mark
on the mind.
In a 1990 study,
researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm found that
people who smoked pot more than 10 times were 2.3 times more
likely to develop schizophrenia than non-smokers. And even though
it remains unclear whether the link is causal or coincidental,
those who smoked 50 times or more were found to be 2.9 times
more likely than non-smokers to develop the disease.
pot is linked to an unknown, but increasing, number of panic
reactions. In 2005, pot figured in to more than 242,000 U.S.
emergency-room admissions, many involving anxiety reactions in
Memory impairment. Pot’s effects on short-term
memory have been known for a long time. What’s new is evidence
that impairment may last as long as six weeks after use is stopped
by heavy smokers and users of high-potency pot.