Behind the name "cannabis"
Updated: Mar 16, 2020
Cannabis, or hemp, is one of the oldest, yet most misunderstood, medicines utilized by humans today. Along with the cultivated hop (used in beer), cannabis is part of the botanical family of Cannabaceae, and is thought to have originated in Asia over 5,000 years ago. The capabilities to determine whether cannabis was a single genus or a plant consisting of several sub-species (indica, sativa, ruderalis) did not exist until only recently so back then, all cannabis was funny looking green plant with hard stalks and flowers that proved useful.
When writing about the history of cannabis in my book, The Cannabis Prescription: How to Use Medical Marijuana to Reduce or Replace Prescription Medications, I use the words “hemp”, “cannabis” and “marijuana” interchangeably. The chemical variances that determine the sub-species were not discussed until around the turn of 20th century.
Cannabis is made up of over 400 molecules including cannabinoids, flavonoids, and terpenes. Cannabinoids, such as THC and CBD, were not identified until after 1940, and we simply don’t know how much THC and CBD was contained in cannabis strains grown 200 years ago. By today’s standards, anything with more than 0.3% THC is considered industrial “hemp”, a specific strain of Cannabis sativa. Familiar strains of Cannabis sativa that are rich in THC are Thai stick, Sour Diesel and Haze. All strains, either sativa or indica, naturally appear on the planet where the climate best suits their finicky growing requirements.
The molecular differences between hemp and other strains of cannabis were established in the 1960s by the work of a young doctor in Israel, Dr. Raphael Mechoulam. I met Dr. Mechoulam at a seminar several years ago. He is humble and kind and said he started studying cannabis simply because no one else was doing it.
As he was expanding the scientific knowledge of cannabis by discovering cannabinoids like THC and CBD, the government continued to spread their negative propaganda which was never based in science (or reality for that matter). At the beginning of the 20th century there was a massive increase in immigration from Mexico to the United States which brought with it the term “marijuana”, a Spanish slang term that translates to Mary + Jane. The name was thrown around by people like Harry Anslinger, the head of the FNB, a precursor to the DEA, who touted the cannabis plant as a substance which created violent criminals that lost their minds when they smoked it and fanned the flames of fear with negative propaganda. His inflammatory rhetoric was debunked with the 1944 Laguardia Report which concluded there is no link between cannabis and violent behavior.
The argument over whether cannabis is just a single species or multiple different species continues to this day. Botanist Richard Evan Schultes, the man who created the original taxonomy for cannabis in the 1970s, misidentified Cannabis afghanica as Cannabis indica, the name most people are familiar with today. As it turns out, Cannabis sativa should have been identified as cannabis indica, because it originated in India (hence indica). Cannabis indica should have been identified as Cannabis afghanica, because it actually originated in Afghanistan. Finally, it seems that Cannabis ruderalis is actually what people mean when they refer to Cannabis sativa.
So, if you are confused at what to call cannabis…you should be! Even the experts can’t make up their minds. Today, we have laboratories that can test for the levels of THC and CBD so hemp can be identified based on the current legal standards.
A study published in Biological Psychiatry that looked at the levels of THC in plants from 1995 to 2004 found the levels of THC back in 1995 was around 4%THC, much, much lower than the strains grown today, which can contain levels of THC above 30%. It is very possible the strains of the 19th century had even less THC than those from 1995. Simply put, we do not know the components of cannabis from 1850 or 1700. The research of William Brooke O’Shaughnessy, MD confirms the existence of THC through his anecdotal research studies where patients were clearly intoxicated, but what other cannabinoids were involved in this mix we will never know for sure.
As we enter 2020, much has changed regarding cannabis in just the last few decades. Cannabis prohibition has lost its support and the majority of citizens across the globe believe it is irrational and just plain stupid to continue to spend massive amounts of money to keep cannabis illegal and to put people in jail who consume it. Additional medical benefits are discovered every day and its safer than alcohol and tobacco, which is the basis for the argument to keep it illegal. I believe it’s only a matter of time before a full federal rescheduling of cannabis to a legal status will happen so all this nonsense goes away once and for all.
I hope we decide on a name by then.