The Evolution of Marijuanas
A flower by any other name would smell (and taste) sweet. Or dank, depending on the strain you choose. The history of cannabis is interesting, and in a way, marijuana has come full circle. In 2022, legal sales of cannabis (recreational and medical) reached over $17 billion. By 2030, some predict the legalized cannabis market will reach $100 billion per year or more.
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From a plant revered for medicinal benefits to being the star of a propaganda film Reefer Madness. One that turned the healing herb into the “devil’s lettuce” with all sorts of negative society-corrupting attributes. And presumed gateway drug, prohibited on a list of dangerous controlled substances.
Though opinions and laws regarding marijuana have changed a lot, the plant has remained structurally unchanged. However, selective cannabis cultivation has made marijuana more potent, with higher levels of THC today than ever before. And secondary cannabinoid content that can offer wellness benefits.
In this article, we will take a look at the history of the cannabis plant. And how marijuana has become one of the highest (pun intended) grossing industries in the United States.
Where Did Marijuana Originate From?
For decades writers have shared that use of marijuana dates back at least 5,000 years. Some people have provided archaeological evidence that marijuana was an ingredient in many different religious rituals and for medicinal healing.
- Cannabis was included in the “official recipe” for baptismal and last rites anointing oil. This was according to the original Hebrew version of the Exodus in the Bible.
- Ancient Egyptians commonly used marijuana to treat inflammation and health conditions like glaucoma.
- Historical journals from 2,900 B.C. written by Emperor Fu Hsi of China documented cannabis as an effective and popular medicinal treatment. By 100 AD, there were more than 100 medicinal uses of cannabis documented in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).
- In 1,000 BC, people in Ancient India were using a mix of goat and cow milk combined with marijuana for a variety of medical treatments. They used it to help with leprosy, dysentery, anxiety, fevers, and insomnia and as an anesthetic. On the metaphysical side, it was believed that cannabis could prolong life and improve judgment and critical thinking. The Hindu God Shiva is often depicted sitting with a cannabis plant.
- The Library of Alexandria in Greece was the epicenter of knowledge about science and medicine. Founded in 300 BC, historical texts refer to the medicinal benefits of cannabis. Ancient Greek physicians discussed the use of cannabis for inflammation, ear aches, and other symptoms.
- In 70 AD Rome, historical texts talk about cannabis too. It was used to treat arthritis, migraines, and chronic pain. Romans also believed that cannabis could be an effective way to suppress an overactive sex drive. Interesting! They may have been using Indica strains and experienced couch lock instead of cuddles.
- In Victorian England, circa 1837, doctors were prescribing cannabis for a variety of reasons. Some of the conditions treated with cannabis included muscle spasms, cramps, and chronic pain, insomnia. It was also used to reduce pain and stimulate contractions during childbirth.
Most of the health conditions that our ancient ancestors used cannabis for are still being used by patients today. Most state medical marijuana regulations have an extensive list of symptoms and diagnosed conditions that allow patients to use doctor-supervised cannabis legally.
How Many Strains of Cannabis Are There?
The latest estimate from many online sources shares that there are 779 cataloged strains of the cannabis plant (marijuana) today. That is due to the hybridization of cannabis or the creation of new strains by cloning and selective breeding of the plants.
Cannabis hybrids are developed by taking male plants with positive attributes and allowing them to pollinate with high-quality female plants. Phenotypes or phenohunting is the process of identifying the most desirable traits in cannabis strains. And then breeding those attributes into a new hybrid strain.
After cross-breeding, the female plant is allowed to flower and produce seeds. The seeds are then collected and cultivated into new plants. Once the first generation of hybrid plants is developed, they are tested for cannabinoid and terpene content.
Once a new hybrid strain is developed, there is no need to cross-breed female plants to produce more seeds. When the hybrid is perfected, it can easily be cloned. That is the process of cutting off a branch from the living mother plant and placing it in a water solution to grow roots. The clones become exact replicas of the mother plant.
Cloning cannabis plants is the preferred method for commercial cultivators. Not only is it faster than propagating plants from seeds, but the clones also provide another benefit. They help ensure quality control with exact cannabinoid, terpene, and flavonoid content for consistency.
What is the Difference Between Marijuana and Hemp Plants?
There is a lot of confusion about the difference between cannabis Sativa and hemp plants. For starters, some people believe that the hemp plant and the cannabis plant are two different species. They are, in fact, the same plant and from the same genus or family called Cannabaceae.
Science doesn’t view hemp and cannabis as separate plants; only two varieties within the same species. The one distinguishing quality is tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content. Hemp has very little of it, and marijuana strains have a lot.
What is the Average Potency of a Hemp Plant?
Since the Farm Bill of 2018, where Former President Trump federally legalized hemp, there has been a surge in agricultural hemp cultivation in the United States. Before the federal government legalized hemp, growers and trucks transporting hemp were often pulled over. Sometimes resulting in charges.
That is because, to most people, hemp and cannabis plants look the same. And since testing the potency of a hemp plant outside of a lab is almost impossible, some truck drivers and growers were actually incarcerated.
Hemp plants are legal to produce, sell, and transport (over state lines) if they have 0.30% THC content or less. If the plants have more than 0.30% THC, they are legally classified as marijuana.
Another way to tell is by the small differences between the hemp plant and cannabis Indica, or Sativa. Hemp plants can have thinner stalks. It grows tall and the plant overall is thin looking. This contrasts the marijuana plant, which is bushier, with more leaves and shorter in most cases.
When talking about the differences between hemp and marijuana, it all comes down to the potency. The first time the 0.30% THC limit was mentioned was in a book called “The Species Problem in Cannabis: Science & Semantics,” published in 1979. The author Ernest Small indicated that it was just an arbitrary number he proposed from his research, but it was sticky and became the norm.
Can You Get High from Smokable Hemp?
Consuming any product with any amount of THC could cause psychoactive and physiological (body) effects. While it is not impossible to ‘get high’ from smoking hemp, you would have to smoke a large quantity of legal hemp because it would have 0.30% THC or less.
That is not to say that there are no hemp plants that may have much more THC than the federally legal amount. In fact, that is central to a growing dispute between federal and state governments and agricultural hemp producers.
You see, when the Farm Bill of 2018 legalized hemp; it was worded in a way that may have been too broad. For example, the legislation stated that any hemp-derived products with less than 0.30% tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content were legal.
Hemp-Derived Delta-THC Popularized in the United States
That created an unexpected surge in semi-synthetic cannabis products called Delta-THC. There are two main types of Delta-THC products; those that are sedative (Delta-8) and Delta-10. The Delta-10 THC is more uplifting and similar to taking a Sativa strain of cannabis.
Unlike cannabidiol (CBD) supplements, Delta-THC products can (and will) cause impairment. Experienced cannabis users claim that Delta-THC is milder, and the psychoactive effects don’t last as long compared to marijuana.
While many states have moved to legalize marijuana, both medical cannabis and recreational use, Delta-THC remains legalized but not regulated. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has yet to regulate hemp-derived cannabidiol (CBD) products. The Delta-THC market was born in the wake of the federal government’s slowness in regulating CBD.
Several states like Texas and Tennessee have moved to ban Delta-THC or hemp-derived THC products (as they are also known) from retail shelves. The cases have gone to state Supreme Courts, with Delta-THC brands (so far) winning the write to grow, process, produce, and sell Delta-8 and Delta-10 products.
How Did Cannabis Get to the United States?
Early in the 20th century, Mexican laborers began migrating north to the United States. Many of the migrants were seasonal workers on farms and in agricultural food production. What the workers brought with them from 1910 to the late 1920s was called marihuana.
Before the influx of laborers from Mexico, the term marijuana was never used. However, starting in the mid-1930s, an anti-immigrant and racist sentiment began to spread across America. At the time, however, there were no restrictions to importing cannabis from another country or between states. The migrant workers were not breaking the law at the time.
However, as the racial anger grew toward Mexican immigrants, so did the propaganda about marijuana. In fact, a man named Harry Anslinger launched the first “War on Drugs” campaign.
What happened next was racially motivated propaganda that depicted every individual from Mexico as a drug addict or criminal drug importer. And further, millions of lives were changed during the Anslinger era when he was the head of the Federal Narcotics Bureau (now DEA).
Cannabis Racial Bias and Campaigns Against Brown and Black Americans
The ‘evils of marijuana’ were attributed next to anyone with black or brown skin. That also caught Black Americans in the turmoil. The prison sentences handed out during the Anslinger era were longer than other more serious offenses for possession for personal use.
During the same time, Black Americans were emerging in the Jazz Age. Many Black Americans migrated to northern states, which felt safer than the punitive and prejudiced southern states of the day. And many of the advertising campaigns provided by Anslinger’s branch of power depicted Black American youth ‘corrupting’ white Americans with cannabis.
At the same time, Harry Anslinger was also responsible for the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. This legislation taxed and controlled everything from importation to cultivation and distribution of cannabis prior to cannabis becoming federally prohibited in the Controlled Substances Act of 1970.
Harry Anslinger was proud of his bigotry, and the word marijuana today still holds some unpleasant sentiments as a racially insensitive term. Today, the arrest rate for non-violent personal possession of marijuana is still much higher for Black Americans.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Black Americans still suffer an arrest rate that is 4X the incarceration rate of white Americans for the same marijuana offenses. Despite the prejudice in the history of cannabis, federal laws and the Controlled Substances Act haven’t changed much in over sixty years.
This is also why the subject of social equity is important when states legalize medical cannabis. Guaranteeing a place for Black and Brown Americans in the growing cannabis industry is, in part, reparation. A small way to help undo the generational damage done to Black communities in the United States by the War on Drugs.
What Was the Average Potency of Cannabis Fifty Years Ago?
If your parents told you that they used cannabis in college (and did inhale), they were smoking and eating very low-potency strains of cannabis. In fact, some studies suggest that the average potency of cannabis used recreationally in the 1960s and 1970s may have ranged between 3% to 5% potency.
Today, the potency of cannabis is much stronger. Specifically, potencies for recreational use can exceed 80% THC content in concentrated products. That is a big jump! Interestingly, recent clinical studies are measuring the rapidly increasing potency of illicit cannabis products.
One early study, “Changes in Cannabis Potency over the Last Two Decades (1995-2014) – Analysis of Current Data in the United States,” documented a rise in potency from 4% in 1995 to 12% by 2014. The study also reported that from 2001 to 2014, cannabidiol (CBD) content dropped significantly.
Today, instead of cannabis strains that have high CBD and low THC, we have the opposite effect. The most popular and best-selling strains at both recreational and medical cannabis dispensaries are 20% THC or higher. This is true for other countries that have legalized medical marijuana use.
Concerns Over Cannabis Concentrates and Long-Term Health Risks
With an increase in potency also comes an increase in psychoactive properties. Traditionally, cannabis was not seen as an addictive substance. Or something that could cause negative health outcomes for patients. However, that is quickly changing.
With concentrated potencies available averaging anywhere from 60% THC to over 80% or more, there are increased risks. Particularly for individuals that engage in daily cannabis use for long periods of time.
Many clinical studies, however, suggest that medical marijuana, when used as part of a doctor-supervised treatment plan, may be safer than other alternatives. Some states have added opioid abuse or misuse and cessation as a qualifying health condition for medical cannabis.
Unlike prescription opioid medications, there is no clinical evidence that suggests cannabis can increase pain sensitivity with long-term use. There is ample research data that has shown for some patients; opioids can increase the severity of pain symptoms with consistent and long-term use.
How Has Cannabis Evolved in the United States?
One of the biggest changes to cannabis in the United States, aside from increased potency, is the number of hybrid strains that are currently available. States began legalizing cannabis sales around 2016, and medical marijuana cultivators were quick to learn what strains patients preferred.
All cannabis strains and hybrids are descendants of the original Landrace strains. Cannabis was born in Asia and Africa, and that is where the pure cannabis strains were born. They grew wild in their native environments before civilizations began to explore cannabis as a medicinal herb.
The officially recognized Landrace cannabis strains are:
- Acapulco Gold (Mexico)
- Lamb’s Bread (Jamaica)
- Durban Poison (Africa)
- Panama Red (South America)
- Colombian Gold (South America)
- Thai (Asia)
- Afghani (Afghanistan)
- Hindu Kush (Central Asia)
- Lashkar Gah (Central Asia)
Each hybrid cannabis plant originates from one of the Landrace or ancient cannabis strains. Cannabis seeds from Landrace plants were sold and shipped all around the world, primarily for recreational purposes. And for many decades cannabis leaves, stems, and flower were formulated at home into other products like baked edibles, concentrates, and hash oil.
Hemp Seeds and Hemp Fiber
The federal legalization of hemp also grew other industries. Hemp plants produce a strong fiber that has been used in a variety of industrial and commercial products—everything from material for sailboats, parachutes, and clothing to ropes, paper, and building materials.
Fun fact! During the height of World War II, Henry Ford, President and Founder of Ford Motor Company, made a car from hemp fiber. Hemp was combined with flax, wheat, and spruce pulp to create an automotive building material that was tougher than steel but lighter than fiberglass. The car ran on ethanol produced from hemp and other types of agricultural byproducts, and it was featured in the New York Times on February 2, 1941.
Hemp seeds also have a variety of uses. Consumers purchase them because they are an excellent source of healthy and soluble fiber. In addition, hemp seeds contain over 30% fat. The good kind of fat, like omega-6 and alpha-linolenic acid (omega-3), as well as gamma-linolenic acid. All three types can provide health benefits.
Since hemp was federally legalized in 2018, it is legal to grow a hemp plant at home. Healthy hemp plants can produce bud, and they may have much higher cannabidiol (CBD) and terpene content than cannabis flower.
Some positive benefits of taking raw hemp include anxiety and stress relief, increased energy levels, moderation of appetite and cravings, and improved mood. While you will not ‘get high’ from ingesting hemp, it can, in some cases, make you feel relaxed and sleepy.
I am a Chief Marketing Officer at DocMJ, a leading provider of medical cannabis health services to qualified patients. I have over 20 years of experience in healthcare marketing and communications, with a proven track record of delivering impactful and compliant campaigns that educate, inform, and empower patients to make better choices for their health and wellness.