COMMON NAMES: Agra, Bang, Bushman Grass, Canape (Italian), Canep (Albanian), Cannabis, Dagga, Damo (Tagalog, ‘grass’), El-keif (Lebanese), Entorpecente (‘sedative agent’), Esra (Turkish, ‘the secret one’), Fuve (Hungarian), Gallow Grass, Green Goddess, Hajfu (Turkish), Hapis Ciel (Serf, ‘green tobacco’), Happy Smoke, Hashish (Arabic), Indracense, Kamanin (Japanese), Kif, Lubange, Macusi (Huichol), Mala Vida (‘bad life’), Marijuana, Nasha, Opio do Pobre (Portuguese, ‘opium of the poor’), Panama Red, Planta de Felicidade (Portuguese, ‘plant of happiness’), Rafi, Santa Rosa (Mexican, ‘sacred rose’), Siyas (Turkish, ‘the black one’), Trava (Croatian), Ugwayi Abadala (‘smoke of the ancestors’), Wacky Weed, Yesil (Turkish, ‘the green one’), Zhara
Cannabis sativa is an annual, herbaceous plant that is probably originally native to south Central Asia. It is now cultivated worldwide, especially in North America, Europe, and Africa. When mature, Cannabis plants can grow up to 5 meters (8 to 12 feet) tall; the leaves are lanceolate, on average 10 cm (4 inches) long with serrated edges, and grow opposite each other on a stem which is frequently hollow and resinous (Duke 1983).
A dioecious plant, Cannabis sativa is typically divided into male and female plants, although sometimes monoecious, i.e. hermaphroditic plants can naturally grow from seed. The flowers of the female C. sativa plant are arranged in racemes that produce hundreds of seeds; female Cannabis flowers are also the part of the plant commonly used as a medicine and psychoactive for both recreational and ritual use (Duke 1983).
It’s crucial to make a distinction between the two main forms of Cannabis sativa: industrial hemp and marijuana: although taxonomically identical, hemp and marijuana have opposite ratios of cannabinoids. Industrial hemp contains, by definition, a higher ratio of CBD (cannabidiol), a cannabinoid which actually cancels out the effects of ∆9 THC (delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol). This means that only the marijuana variety of Cannabis sativa is useful for psychoactive and medicinal purposes. Hemp is used as a source of fiber and the oil and seeds are consumed for food. While nutritious, neither hemp oil nor hemp flowers have any psychoactive effects (West 1997).
TRADITIONAL USE: Today, the United Nations Council on Drugs and Crime lists Cannabis sativa as the most widely used illicit drug in the world (World Drug Report 2010). The popularity of Cannabis sativa may partly reflect its relative accessibility, versatility and ease of use, but is probably equally related to C. sativa’s long history of use as a food (seeds and oils), recreational and ritual herb, and medicine that has attained the status of cure-all in India and south Central Asia.
The earliest evidence of Cannabis sativa consumption dates back to the 3rd Millennium BCE (or almost 5,000 years ago), from plant material recovered from a fire pit in Romania. Archaeological evidence from China, India, Tibet and central Asia suggests that Cannabis sativa has also been consumed in these regions for thousands of years, likely as a part of shamanic ritual: for instance, the body of a mummified shaman, discovered in western China in 2003, was found in association with a basket containing preserved seed and leaf fragments of Cannabis sativa. Both the mummy and the leaf fragments were dated to between 2,500 and 2,800 years old (Xinhua News Agency 2003).
As these finds suggest, Cannabis sativa may have had its longest history of religious and recreational use in Asia, particularly in India and Tibet. The so far unidentified drug soma in the Hindu Vedas has been equated with Cannabis sativa, and those texts also mention Cannabis as one of the five sacred plants that comprise the Tree of Life. A Vedic legend goes that in the ancient past, the gods and demons got together to churn the ocean of creation to obtain a sacred nectar, called amrita. Cannabis was created in this process, either as a byproduct or as the nectar amrita itself. The legend cogently reflects the importance of Cannabis sativa in Hindu religious thought and practice: preparations of Cannabis sativa, often as a beverage infused with Cannabis seed, are offered to the patron deities of different Hindu sects in India, such as Kama, Vishnu and Indra; this beverage may be set in a bowl beside the statue or even poured over the deity figure. Smoking Cannabis sativa is also one of the few traditional indulgences of the sadhu, or Indian wandering ascetic, and anecdotal reports state that many Indian families keep one or two Cannabis plants on hand should a sadhu stop by their village (Touw 1981).
The properties of Cannabis sativa in both its psychoactive and non-psychoactive hemp form have also long been known in China: hemp is included in the list of the five grains in ancient China, along with rice, soy bean, millet, and barley, and hemp fiber was also used to make rope. Although the Chinese also knew of Cannabis sativa’s psychoactive properties, Chinese literature on the effects of C. sativa mostly casts them in a negative light: Chinese texts claim that smoking or ingesting Cannabis sativa leads to hallucinations (literally, “seeing devils”) and mental stupefaction, a pejorative view of Cannabis’ effects that may have resulted from Cannabis sativa’s association with practices of central Asian shamanism, which began to be marginalized in China during the Han Dynasty (Touw 1981).
Tibet may have the longest history of continuous use of Cannabis sativa as a ritual sacrament in Asia. In Tibet and the Himalayas, monks and various Buddhist practitioners have used Cannabis smoking as an aid to meditation and Tantric ritual (which may or may not involve sexual intercourse). In Tantric Buddhism, practitioners consume large doses of Cannabis sativa by mouth, with the peak of the herb’s effects timed to coincide with the climax of the ritual. Cannabis sativa also makes an appearance in Mahayana Buddhist scripture and artwork: some ancient Tibetan statues depict the Buddha with serrated leaves in his begging bowl— attributed to the unidentified plant soma— which appear very similar to Cannabis sativa leaves. One Buddhist legend also states that in his quest for enlightenment, the Buddha subsisted on one hemp seed daily (Touw 1981).
Moving westward, Cannabis sativa also shows up as both a sacrament and possible recreational herb in central Asia and the Ancient Near East. Archaeological evidence suggests that Aryan peoples of central Asia (who later migrated into India) introduced Cannabis smoking to other cultures of the steppe such as the Scythians, Thracians, and Dacians, the last of whom had a class of shamans who may have burned Cannabis sativa on a brazier as incense in order to access trance states. Etymological analysis of the Old Testament indicates that Cannabis sativa may have been a sacramental herb in ancient Israel in Levantine states (what are now Jordan, Syria, etc.), and that the word Cannabis may even come from the Hebrew word for this herb, kaneh-bos, meaning fragrant reed. In Biblical times, Cannabis sativa flowering tops were likely infused into olive oil and applied topically to the skin where their psychoactive compounds would be absorbed (Touw 1981).
In more recent times, Cannabis sativa has emerged as the ritual sacrament of Rastafarianism, an Afro-centric religious movement begun in Jamaica in the 1930s by Marcus Garvey. By the 1940s, Rastafarianism had proclaimed Cannabis sativa a sacramental herb to be smoked as an aid to meditation and means of worshiping the religion’s preeminent spiritual figure, the Ethiopian king Haile Selassie I. Usually of the resinous ganja variety (see Traditional Preparation), Cannabis sativa is viewed as one of the five herbs that compose the Tree of Life mentioned in the Bible, and as a “vehicle to cosmic consciousness” that brings a Rastafarian closer to God when smoked. Although Cannabis smoking isn’t a requirement of Rastafarianism, the practice is still ubiquitous among practitioners. Cannabis sativa is usually smoked during “reasoning sessions” during which adherents get together to discuss Rastafarian perspectives on philosophy, spirituality, and life; in these sessions, Cannabis sativa is often smoked from long-stemmed water pipes that are dedicated to Haile Selassie I before being used (Watchman Expositor 2000).
TRADITIONAL PREPARATION: Cannabis sativa can be eaten, smoked, or as mentioned above, absorbed through the skin using oil as a carrier. The simplest way to prepare Cannabis is to dry the flowering tops and chop them to a fluffy consistency; traditionally, this dried herbage is then be packed into a pipe and smoked. This preparation is known as bhang in India, and typically yields a product with a lower amount of THC (~5% by weight) compared to preparation methods in which Cannabis resin is exuded, which will be discussed below. In making bhang, Cannabis sativa flowering tops and foliage are exposed alternately to sunlight and dew in order to make them wilt before being sun dried a final time. Bhang is sometimes mixed with foods such as ghee (clarified butter), milk, flour, honey, onions, or curry spices such turmeric and coriander, then consumed orally as a medicine or for recreational purposes. Some recreational oral preparations also mix Cannabis sativa or Cannabis indica with opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) seeds, Strychnine tree (Nux vomica) seeds, and Datura metel or another species of Datura (Touw 1981).
In a more labor-intensive preparation common in India, Cannabis sativa flowering tops are harvested and then either rolled by hand or trodden on to express the sticky resin from the flowering trichomes. This exudate makes the foliage clump together in distinctive lumps or rolls. The clumps of resin and foliage are then allowed to dry in the sun before being pressed or rolled again. Called ganja, this preparation of Cannabis traditionally comes in two varieties, with the Bengal or rolled variety rumored to be of higher potency, and thus better for medicinal purposes, than the Bombay or trodden variety (Touw 1981).
In North Africa, Cannabis sativa flowers may be selectively harvested to make kief, a type of Cannabis powder consisting of only the flowering trichomes, the part of Cannabis sativa that produces the cannabinoid-rich resin (Duke 1983). Kief powder can be consumed directly or pressed into cakes of concentrated resin called hashish. Resin procured from a ganja preparation may also be used to make hashish, which is also called hasheesh, hashisha, or simply hash. Hashish is much more potent than unprocessed Cannabis plant material, with a THC concentration of about 20% by weight. The resin varies from brown to golden in color depending on its purity, and can be smoked or eaten for an effect (Touw 1981).
In Western parts of India and central Asia, Cannabis sativa leaves and flowers are often boiled in butter to create hashish, though in more eastern parts of South Asia this is thought to render an inferior product. The most potent type of hash is called charas, and is traditionally collected either by hand-rolling the flowers or, more dramatically, by sending people out in leather garments to crash through fields in which flowering Cannabis sativa plants are growing. The resinous exudations of the flowers adhere to the leather, where they may later be scraped off (Touw 1981).
MEDICINAL USES: The seeds of Cannabis sativa (both of the hemp and marijuana varieties) have been eaten for analgesic effects in Europe, China and Russia, even though the seeds do not contain the plant’s main psychoactive substance, THC. One hypothesis is that Cannabis sativa seeds contain other cannabinoids such as cannabinol and cannabidiol, which would be responsible for the analgesic effects. C. sativa seeds also contain enzymes like amylase, lipase, maltase and tryptase, which may have therapeutic effects and are also nutritious (Touw 1981).
Cannabis sativa has the longest and most comprehensive history of medicinal use in India, commensurate with its long history as a spiritual sacrament: in Indian philosophy, Cannabis sativa is said to vanquish evils, and its long history of both medicinal and spiritual use suggests that these evils might well apply to physical as well as spiritual ailments. In Ayurvedic medicine, the functions of the body are divided into three categories: vatha, kapha, and pitta. Pitta represents the warming metabolic functions of the body and has its seat in the liver. Cannabis sativa is considered pittala, a medicine that activates these warming functions generally and liver functions specifically (Touw 1981).
Cannabis sativa features in almost all aspects of traditional Indian medicine, both as a broad-spectrum analgesic and herb to encourage overall vitality, and as a treatment for extremely specific ailments. Bhang (dried chopped Cannabis flowers) is a nearly universal ingredient in oral preparations designed to treat coughing, diarrhea, pain, and lack of sexual desire, sometimes in combination with other ingredients that cast some doubt on how much medicinal effect the Cannabis itself has. For instance, take the “Jatiphaladya churna” preparation, used to treat “diarrhea, indigestion, cough, loss of appetite and impotence” (Touw 1981: 4): in addition to Cannabis sativa, the preparation includes cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, ginger, cumin, cardamom, camphor, pepper, sandalwood, and bamboo manna, all of which are good digestive agents; the Cannabis sativa may be included for its anti-tussive and calming properties (Touw 1981).
Preparations of Cannabis sativa, either dried or as a resin, with or without other ingredients, have also been used in targeted ways to treat specific conditions. A partial list of some specific medicinal uses of Cannabis sativa follows:
-Antispasmodic: Cannabis sativa has been used as an antispasmodic to control coughing, as well as an anti-phlegmatic to dry up secretions such as excess phlegm (by acting as a expectorant) and diarrhea. Cannabis sativa is also used this way to relieve intraocular pressure caused by fluid buildup in the eye, and as a diuretic. There is also some evidence that Cannabis sativa may work directly to relieve some symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis (Touw 1981).
-Analgesic: in addition to being a broad-spectrum analgesic, Cannabis sativa is used specifically to treat headaches and migraines, especially those associated with malaria. C sativa is also employed to treat facial neuralgia and sciatica, and was thought to be pain relieving for almost any inflammatory condition. The herb’s analgesic properties were so revered in India that C. sativa was even used as a liniment for broken bones, in combination with other herbal ingredients (Touw 1981).
-Topical/ointment: Cannabis sativa flowering tops may be used either in an oral herbal complex, or as a topical ointment for the treatment of several diseases of the skin, as well as for parasites such as earworms. Cannabis sativa liniment is traditionally applied to the skin in combination with turmeric and onions to treat piles (hemorrhoids), and in other herbal combinations in the treatment of leprosy, and for poisonings resulting from snakebite and scorpion stings (Touw 1981).
-Psychological: Much as it is illicitly used in other parts of the world today, Cannabis sativa is traditionally used in the treatment of hysteria, what in modern times would be categorized as anxiety. People would also smoke or eat Cannabis sativa to ease the symptoms of mania and to cure insomnia, both of which might indeed be somewhat affected by Cannabis’ sedative effects, which are especially evident at higher doses (Touw 1981).
-Respiratory: possibly due to its documented anti-convulsant and anti-tussive effects, Cannabis sativa oral and smoking preparations were also used to ease whooping cough, bronchitis and asthma; for these purposes, the concentrated resinous charas was thought to be most effective. An especially delicate mixture of Cannabis sativa and Atropa belladonna was even used to treat infant convulsions under this regime. In an interesting crossover between Indian folklore and medicine, a Cannabis sativa plant that had been planted at the spot where a cobra was killed and buried was said to be especially effective in treating bronchitis (Touw 1981).
-Urinary/Reproductive: As a leaf poultice, Cannabis sativa foliage has also been used to treat everything from urinary tract infections and urethritis to testicular swelling and dysmenorrhea (menstrual discomfort). It was also used in the topical treatment of sexually transmitted diseases like gonorrhea; in Muslim medicine, the male Cannabis sativa plant specifically is used against gonorrhea. Cannabis sativa poultices are also used to ease or eliminate the pains associated with childbirth, to amplify uterine contractions, and to guard against uterine hemorrhage during and after birth (Touw 1981).
TRADITIONAL EFFECTS: As well as treating the above conditions, Cannabis sativa is of course also smoked and eaten recreationally in India, Tibet, Africa, and many other parts of the world. Cannabis sativa flowers contain the cannabinoids ∆9 THC (delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol), CBN (cannabinol), and CBD (cannabidiol), phytochemicals that are structurally similar to the cannabinoid compounds naturally produced by the human body (Pacher and Mechoulam 2011). The cannabinoids in Cannabis sativa have an affinity for two different cannabinoid receptors in the human brain and body, the CB1 and CB2 receptors. THC’s partial binding to CB1 receptors in the brain may explain this compound’s euphoric and anti-convulsant effects, while the binding of CBN and CBD to CB2 receptors is now thought to have a role in Cannabis sativa’s anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects. CB2 pathways may also be implicated in repairing and protecting tissues from damage and in boosting immune function (Pacher and Mechoulam 2011).
In relatively low doses, Cannabis sativa inspires energy or stimulation, euphoria, humorousness, creativity, and ideation, often referred to as a “flight of ideas” (Touw 1981: 5). This herb can also have marked aphrodisiac effects. In higher doses, Cannabis sativa encourages drowsiness, increase in social withdrawal and introspection, and tends to impair the fluidity of thought seen at lower doses. An interesting feature of the South Asian literature surrounding Cannabis sativa is that Ayurvedic texts gloss over many of the effects seen at higher doses, as well as some more undesirable effects of chronic Cannabis sativa usage. In contrast, Persian medicinal literature clearly highlights the dose-dependent effects of Cannabis sativa consumption, stating that the herb’s early effects include “exhilaration, excited imagination, improvement in complexion, and increase in appetite and sexual desire” (Touw 1981: 5), while in higher doses and longer timeframes of use, these effects give way to “melancholy, weight loss and indigestion, impotence and edema” (Touw 1981: 5). The sedating and depressive effects of Cannabis sativa are almost wholly absent from Indian medicinal texts, suggesting that chronic Cannabis use was either ignored or rare.
Since ancient times, peoples have recognized the potential of Cannabis sativa as a medicine, recreational herb, and spiritual sacrament. It remains to be seen if Cannabis sativa will be granted the same accord in the modern Western world sometime in the near future.
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“Lab work to identify 2,800 year-old body of shaman: scientists”, December 26th, 2003. Xinhua News Agency. http://english.peopledaily.com.cn/200612/23/eng20061223_335258.html
Pacher, P. and R. Mechoulam. April 2011. “Is lipid signaling through cannabinoid 2 receptors part of a protective system?” Progressive Lipid Research 50 (2): 193-211. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3062638/?tool=pmcentrez
“Rastafarianism Profile”, The Watchman Expositor (religious site), Watchman Fellowship Inc., 2000. http://www.watchman.org/profile/rastapro.htm
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“World Drug Report 2010”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, United Nations Publication, p. 198. http://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/data-and-analysis/WDR-2010.html