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Marijuana: Separating fact from fiction

Posted by mandyf on January 17, 2012

The Cannabis sativa plant commonly known as marijuana or pot has a long history wrapped in both truth and outright fabrication which at times becomes so blurred it is hard to separate them. This article is not to advocate for against the use of marijuana in any form, but rather to look at the history and science behind the plant regarding its usage and the manner it impacts a person both good and bad. To further demonstrate the broad reach of marijuana where applicable the most currently accepted research, statistics, and counterpoints will be presented for a balanced view of each side.

We know that marijuana was cultivated some 2,700 to 3,000 years ago based on finding THC traces in the remains of ancient Egyptian mummies. Furthermore there are Chinese records which date back to as far as 28 B.C. discussing the cultivation and use of marijuana for what is believed to have been medical purposes. Some even say it can be traced back as much as 10,000 years. While there is no certainty in where marijuana originated from, it is primarily believed its genesis lies north of the Himalayas in India. It is also common knowledge that marijuana plants grow in two varieties which are commonly referred to as the male and female, although there are plants which do have both. The male is characterized by flower growth which appears in elongated clusters. After blossoming they turn yellow in color and die. The female plants take on more of a spikelike clustered growth and remain a very deep green up to about a month or so after blossoming.

Looking at the plant itself, there are over 400 chemicals in the Cannabis sativa plant, but the one people are most familiar with is THC (Delta 9-Tetrahydrocannabinol) which is a psychoreactive chemical. It is also known that THC in conjunction with the other chemicals affects coordination, apettite, short term memory, has cancer causing agents, can increase anxiety, and raises the heart rate of the user. Of the 400 plus chemicals present, 60 are categorized as cannabinoids. Other chemicals you are likely familiar with are piperidine, choline, and eugenol. The potency of the plant is primarily based on three factors: the conditions it was grown under, the genetic line of the plant, and the process used to harvest it.

There are basically two ways a person uses marijuana, the most common being smoking, and the second is by eating it. Smoking is the quickest way to deliver THC to the body because the aleveoli of the lungs absorb and deliver it within seconds. Eating takes longer to deliver the THC as it is transported through the bloodstream. Either way, the THC makes its way to the brain and produces what we call the “high.” Either way the distribution is widespread throughout the entire body sooner or later. In general the initial reaction of THC meeting the brain is mellow laid back feeling. Peripheral effects may be seeing colors more vibrantly, dilated eyes, and a feeling of all senses (tactile, smell, taste, hearing) being enhanced in the short term.

This all happens because of the manner THC interacts with neurons and neurotransmitters. Neurons are cells that process information in the brain, and the neurotransmitters are what allow the neurons to communicate with each other and deliver the information to where it needs to go. In simple terms they do this by being a bridge of sorts which bonds to protein receptors which act like a light switch turning processes on and off. When THC comes into play certain actions are blocked or aped, tricking the neurotransmitters into believing a process has or has not been carried out. How the high occurs is that the brain has several cannabinoid receptor centers which all impact activities like problem solving, coordination, short term memory, and learning. These specific receptors rely on anandamide to function. Anandamide itself is in fact a cannanabinoid, so when THC is delivered to them the THC binds with the receptors rather than the anandamide which is why everything changes so quickly and radically. In a sense, your neurotransmitters have been hijacked.

The good news is that the neural effects generally are over within two hours. The bad news is that depending on the genetics of the marijuana ingested and the amount used it has a terminal half life of anywhere from about 1 to 10 days, which means the high has worn off but the chemicals are sticking around. This in part leads to the discussion as to whether or not marijuana is an addictive drug. Reputable scientists and labs are split on each side of this debate. Those who say it is addictive point to withdrawal symptoms like irritability, unprovoked outbursts, insomnia, severe changes in eating habits, anxiety, and depression. Those on the other side say those are unrelated and can usually be traced to other issues than the cessation of marijuana use. The one thing they do both agree on is that it is very possible that those who do use marijuana regularly are at risk of forming a psychological dependence on the drug, and that alone could be enough to trigger the above mentioned withdrawal symptoms. So the real debate boils down to whether or not marijuana is physically addictive or not, and the jury on that may be out for a very long time.

The second thing that the researchers do agree upon is that smoking marijuana does come with many of the same potential risks associated to smoking cigarettes. Emphysema, bronchitis, and bronchial asthma are very real possibilities for the regular smoker. There is of course damage to the lungs and reproductive system, and according to the DEA regular marijuana use may be linked to heart attacks. That final assessment is not wholly agreed upon by all authorities however.

With some of the negatives of marijuana usage pointed out it is worth examining if there are any positives, and research does say there are. Medical marijuana is gaining favor as it has demonstrated time and again that under certain circumstances marijuana can be a very effective tool in alleviating the symptoms associated to some terrible conditions. Marijuana is known to alleviate menstrual pain, increase the appetite, stop or at least significantly diminish convulsions, relieve eye pressure and muscle spasms, and eliminate or decrease nausea. These symptoms are associated to such conditions as glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, cancer, and AIDS. It is not a question of whether or not marijuana delivers the above cited relief to many people prescribed it for those symptoms, but more so at what dosage is it therapeutic.

When the U.S. federal government banned the use of marijuana in 1937 they unknowingly set the first step in motion towards the process of making the United States one of the most coveted markets for drug traffickers until the current day. Current estimates point towards about 14.8 million Americans being what is termed a regular marijuana user. What is a regular marijuana user remains up for debate as some criterion say a person that partakes of the plant once per week all the way down to a dozen times per year can be a regular user. The one thing that can be agreed upon is that nobody really has a true estimate of marijuana usage as most people that are polled, even when done anonymously, do not generally answer as true as researchers would hope. As such estimates are commonly derived from blind raw data of THC in drug tests (Submitted without identifying information), criminal convictions, and of course the ever present polling which has been established as not totally reliable.

At this time nine states in the U.S. have approved marijuana for medical use. Whether or not it will ever be decriminalized is an entirely different matter. All that can be said for sure is that the use of marijuana does have many positive applications, and the abuse of it has many negative implications. The same can be said of any number of things. Many believe that making marijuana illegal is the very reason why it has become a problem and that if it was regulated and distributed along the same lines as alcohol is as other industrialized nations have done much of the stigma attached to it would be eliminated.

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2000/03/0003310 90541.htm
http://familydoctor.org/online/famdocen/home/common/ addictions/drugs/485.html
http://www.nytimes.com/1999/03/18/us/government-stud y-of-marijuana-sees-medical-benefits.html
http://www.jneurosci.org/cgi/content/full/21/4/1104
http://www.biomedcentral.com/1471-2091/10/14
http://www.ch.ic.ac.uk/vchemlib/mim/bristol/thc/thc_ text.htm
http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/People/injury/research/job1 85drugs/cannabis.htm

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