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The History and Biology of Cannabis

Updated: Apr 16, 2020

Cannabis, weed, marijuana, dope, Mary Jane, the Devil’s lettuce… whatever name you know it by, cannabis is perhaps one of the most beloved plants around the world. No, not only for its psychoactive properties but for many more reasons outside of that. As you may have observed, the cannabis plant can take many forms in its usefulness to humans' (and animals’!) daily lives.

Its alternate form, hemp, can be used in the fabrication of clothing and rope, whereas strains with THC are used for recreational and medical purposes. Further, when the CBD is isolated from the plant, it can be used to treat pain and even calm the anxiety of family pets like dogs and cats.

All of these applications make cannabis one of the most versatile plants humans have cultivated for several millennia. Ancient cultures once used the plant for ceremonial purposes, making the use of cannabis – yes, even with its psychoactive effects – a norm. Political, socioeconomic, and racial inequities of the past and present have now made cannabis taboo, however, barring many from knowledge on the science of the species until recently.

Photo by Esteban Lopez on Unsplash

The Origins of Cannabis

There are several strains of cannabis. The most well-known are Cannabis indica and C. sativa L., while a third, lesser-known strain is C. ruderalis. C. sativa L., the “L” added onto the name in honor of the great biologist who discovered the species, Carl Linnaeus, is otherwise known as “hemp.” There is a bit of disagreement on whether that name references the C. sativa species itself or subspecies, especially colloquially. Primarily, what must be understood is that there are two major forms – one that is psychoactive and the other, which is not. The non-psychoactive subspecies of C. sativa is used for oil, fuel, cloth, and more.

Then, there is C. indica. This species was discovered by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, another historical scientist known for his contribution to the development of our understanding of evolution. Russian botanist, D. E. Janischevisky, discovered C. ruderalis quite recently, in 1924. Both of these latter species retain the psychoactive properties the group is known for.

Scientists believe that cannabis plants evolved on Central Asia’s steppes, particularly in what is now Mongolia and southern Siberia, as recently as 12,000 years ago. (For a bit of evolutionary context, this species is 25x younger than humans, based on maximum estimates of Homo sapiens emergence approximately 300,000 years ago.) Although it is a relatively young species, cannabis is one of humanity’s oldest cultivated crops.

Cannabis in Ancient Cultures

Historically, cannabis plants have been used for a wide variety of purposes ranging from medicinal applications to integration into meditative ceremonies. For instance, in the 1830s, an Irish doctor by the name of Sir William Brooke O’Shaughnessy discovered that extracts from the plants could be used to reduce pain and instances of vomiting in patients suffering from cholera. This led to the popularization of the use of cannabis in the medical field throughout the U.S. and Europe.

Further back in time, there have been several cultures that have used the herb for the psychoactive effects. Records of the Greek historian, Herodotus, feature descriptions of a group of nomads known as Scythians smoking cannabis seeds and flowers. Throughout the Middle East and in some parts of Asia around 800 CE, cannabis was smoked as “hashish.” Hashish is simply a purified form of cannabis meant to be smoked in a pipe. Since the Quran did not specifically prohibit the use of cannabis, the popularity of the plant rose in parallel with the spread of Islam at the time.

Burned cannabis seeds have been discovered in ancient Siberian burial grounds and were dated back to as early as 3000 BCE. Tombs of nobles in China’s Xinjiang region have been discovered to hold large amounts of mummified psychoactive marijuana as well, dating back to 2500 BCE.

The use of the plant for medicinal purposes is known to have been a standard occurrence in ancient China – both in the forms of hemp and psychoactive variations. Scientists have estimated the first records of such uses to be around 4000BCE, and have been rumored to have been indulged by Chinese Emperor Shen Nung (whether Shen Nung was a real or mythical Emperor is a debate for another time).

Korean farmers brought cannabis from China around 2000BCE and the herb began its expansion into the world soon after. It became popularly used in India, where it was possibly first acknowledged for its assistance in soothing the anxiety of individuals who partook of the plant. In an ancient Sanskrit Vedic poem, the name of which translates to “Science of Charms,” cannabis was celebrated as one of the “five kingdoms of herbs… which release us from anxiety.”

Photo by Esteban Lopez on Unsplash

The Journey of Cannabis into The Americas

After its movement throughout these continents, the plant was taken to Africa, then Europe, and eventually made its way to the Americas. Its primary use during trade and expansion was its form of hemp, which was then used by merchants to make clothing, rope, sails, and paper. From the seeds, many people would make food as well.

Its versatility helped the plant to gain popularity quickly as a staple crop (also due in part to its fast-growing nature). In the early 1600s, colonial farmers in Virginia, Massachusetts, and Connecticut were required to grow hemp for the aforementioned applications, helping to form the foundation of trade in that time. The plant was grown throughout the original colonies and later at Spanish missions in the Southwest, and it became a standard part of colonial life. Even George Washington expressed an interest in farming hemp during the 1700s, emphasizing the fact that the plant was not considered taboo at the time, even to governmental authority figures.

In the early days, Cannabis plants did not have high levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) at all, even with the evidence that ancient cultures did use the plant ceremonially to take advantage of the psychoactive effects caused by the compound.

Because of the low concentrations, researchers believe that people may have been inspired to cultivate strains of Cannabis to produce higher levels of THC to use in these ceremonies and as medicine. (This is the case now, as cannabis breeders intentionally breed strains of cannabis for either higher or lower concentrations of either THC or CBD.)

Although the plant has been present in the Americas since the 1600s, the widespread use of the plant for recreational purposes was not widespread until the 1900s. During this time, immigrants from Mexico retreated to the U.S. seeking refuge from the violence of the Mexican Revolution. These individuals introduced the use of cannabis recreationally to more populations in the colonial U.S., spreading its popularity as a psychoactive drug. It was this societal shift that led racist groups, calling the plant the “Mexican Menace,” to lobby for the outlaw of the drug.

Photo by Jossuha Théophile on Unsplash

A Brief Biological Overview of Cannabis

Part of the reason we know so little of cannabis now is due to the social stigmas attached to the drug due to tensions between racial and political groups during and after the Mexican Revolution. When you look at the plant objectively, however, apart from the negativity of human use and legislative restriction, it is quite an interesting species. First, there is the fact that the species is able to flourish globally.

Like grasses, cannabis is one of the most widely distributed plants in the world due to its adaptability and ability to grow quite rapidly. Naturally, the species is known to grow in open habitats that experience periodic environmental disturbances (the perfect recipe for growing in or near anthropogenic landscapes!). The generalist species are capable of growing in any mild climates – great for a cultivated crop, not so great when the plants “escape,” in a sense, and become an invasive species.

All Cannabis species have been determined to be both in the nettle and mulberry family in the past, however, it was ultimately found that they belong in their own family, Cannabaceae. This family also includes hops (genus Humulus) and hackberries (genus Celtis). These annual plants rely on the wind for seed dispersal and are primarily dioecious (either male or female), however, they can be monoecious (having both male and female reproductive organs).

Perhaps supporting to their ability to so readily adapt to environments around the globe is the Cannabis species’ ease of hybridizing with their sister species. This is a trait that cannabis cultivators take full advantage of. The female flowers are considered to be the most desirable element of the plant, as it contains the highest concentrations of THC.

The Significance of THC

People are quite familiar with what THC does for those who consume it as a concentrate or by smoking the flower, but few know for sure what it does to benefit the plant itself.

THC is a secondary metabolite – this means that it does not play a direct role in the plant’s growth or reproductive capabilities. So then, what does it do? So far, research suggests that THC has multiple roles in the plant’s biology:

· Protects the plant from dangerous fungal infections

· Provides defenses against microbial infections

· Deters herbivores

· Shields the plant from sun exposure due to high UV-B absorption rates

Research is still being conducted to allow us to further expand our knowledge on THC, cannabis, and all of its evolutionary significance. Whether you partake of the herb or not, unfolding objective, scientific information on the species is the best way to overcome the stigmas attached to this plant that has been a staple of ancient cultures worldwide.

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