What is Cannabis?

Cannabis sativa

Many people hear the word “cannabis” and immediately think of marijuana. While people often use these words interchangeably, marijuana typically refers to the drug prepared from the plant.

So, what is cannabis? Cannabis is a genus of flowering plants that belong to the Cannabaceae family. The plant is indigenous to parts of Asia, but it’s now cultivated throughout the world.

Cannabis is much more than a recreational drug. Over the centuries, people have also grown it for its fibres and healing properties.

What else can this plant do and why did people start smoking it? Here’s an overview of what I discovered about cannabis.

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Multiple Varieties of Cannabis Plants

Cannabis is not a single plant. It is a genus that includes three recognized species – Cannabis Sativa, Cannabis Indica, and Cannabis Ruderalis. However, some believe that the latter two species should not technically receive their own classifications.

Cannabis sativa remains the most widely cultivated variety for both medicinal and recreational use. A sub-species called cannabis sativa L. (Linnaeus) is known as hemp, while the main variety is often known as marijuana.

These plants originated from Central Asia before reaching Africa and Europe. By the early 1600s, early American colonists were growing hemp.

Cannabis plants are unisexual, but plants with both male and female parts can occur, resulting in either sterile or fertile plants. The plants are wind-pollinated and grow very quickly.

Cannabis Contains Many Cannabinoids

Most of the research related to cannabis involves the effects of cannabinoids, the naturally occurring compounds found in the cannabis plants. Researchers have uncovered close to 500 compounds in cannabis plants, including at least 113 of these cannabinoids.

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and Cannabidiol (CBD) are the most well-known of the cannabinoids. THC provides the euphoria and other psychoactive effects of cannabis use, while CBD appears to offer healing properties.

These two articles, What is Cannabidiol (CBD)? and What is Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)? will help you understand much more about these compounds.

The Use of Cannabis Throughout History

As cannabis grows quickly and in a variety of climates, many cultures have cultivated the plant. In fact, the plant now enjoys widespread cultivation throughout the world.

One of the earliest uses of cannabis was for fibre. Thousands of years ago, civilizations used the hemp variety of cannabis plants to produce rope and clothes. Up until the 1930s, companies cultivated hemp for paper products.

The plant is easy and affordable to grow, while the resulting fibres are incredibly durable. Hemp also contains only trace amounts of THC.

You can now find the oil from hemp seeds in a variety of body care products, such as soap and shampoo. Other hemp products include detergents, inks, fuel, paint, and plastics. Hemp even has a use as a feedstock for biofuel production.

Civilizations also used cannabis plants for medicinal purposes throughout history. Early traditional Chinese medicine includes cannabis for various treatments dating back to 4000 BC.

Historians believe that cannabis reached the Middle East between 2000 BC and 1400 BC. From there, it started to reach other parts of the world.

While early colonists cultivated hemp plants, recreational cannabis remained unheard of in the United States until the early 1900s. Mexican immigrants fleeing the Mexican Revolution brought the custom with them.

A combination of unfounded fears and racist propaganda led to the criminalization of the cannabis plant, including both hemp and marijuana. In 1937, the Marijuana Tax Act gave the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) the power to prosecute citizens for possession of the plants.

The Legalization of Cannabis Production

All varieties of cannabis plants remained illegal for many decades, until the US state of California passed the Compassionate Use Act of 1996, legalizing medicinal marijuana.

In the next two decades, 33 US states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana. Several states have also legalized recreational marijuana and hemp. However, the federal government still classifies marijuana as a controlled substance.

While recreational marijuana remains a Schedule I Controlled Substance, in the same category as LSD and heroin, the US Government decriminalized hemp with the 2018 Farm Bill.

Besides the United States, other countries have recently changed their laws regarding recreational and medical marijuana. Some of the countries where citizens can use marijuana for medical purposes include:

  • Argentina
  • Australia
  • Bermuda
  • Canada
  • Chile
  • Colombia
  • Croatia
  • Finland
  • Georgia
  • Germany
  • Greece
  • Italy
  • Jamaica
  • Netherlands
  • New Zealand

Many countries allow medicinal marijuana, but Uruguay and Canada remain the only countries to fully legalize recreational cannabis.

Latest Research on CBD and THC

As mentioned, THC and CBD are the two main cannabinoids found in the cannabis plants. These compounds are the focus of most cannabis-related research.

One of the first uses of medical marijuana was to help ease symptoms related to chemotherapy. Cancer patients reported less nausea and increased appetites after using medical marijuana.

Researchers believe that these positive effects come from the THC. Studies have found that marijuana helps treat nausea, neuropathic pain, and lack of appetite.

In recent years, CBD has started to receive more attention compared to THC. One recent study suggests that CBD may help treat pain related to arthritis, thanks to its anti-inflammatory properties.

Another study found that CBD oil may help relieve pain for multiple sclerosis patients, also due to the anti-inflammatory properties of CBD.

CBD may even counter the negative effects associated with THC. In the past, researchers believed that THC may increase the relapse of psychotic behavior for those suffering from schizophrenia. A recent study found that CBD may provide antipsychotic effects.

While THC may increase anxiety in some users, CBD could offer a potential treatment for anxiety disorders.

These are just a few of the ways that CBD and THC provide medicinal value. More research may uncover even more reasons to continue decriminalizing and legalizing cannabis plants.

Summary – Cannabis Usage Continues to Grow

Cannabis is an old drug. People have used cannabis for thousands of years and continue to do so.

It appears that these plants are becoming more popular in part thanks to the medical research that helps showcase the positive effects of THC and CBD.

While there’s a lot of research highlighting the power of the plant, many countries and regions haven’t legalized it yet. With changing attitudes about cannabis, this may change.

In fact, many areas are already allowing the cultivation of cannabis for hemp production. For now, it’s interesting to note that cannabis includes a few varieties of plants and not all of them get you high. CBD comes from hemp, which contains hardly any THC. There are even some CBD products with zero THC.


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