Cannabis has changed since the ’60s

Marijuana today isn’t what it was in the 1960s — it’s not your grandmother’s weed.

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(This is the first in a series of stories about cannabis, which became legal for recreational use in California on Jan. 1, 2018.)

This isn’t your grandmother’s weed.

Back in the day, in the halcyon ‘60’s, when marijuana/pot/weed was illegal, you’d contact your dealer, who got it from a friend. 

If you were really flush, you’d spend $10 for a lid. (A lid was one ounce.) If you weren’t so rich, you could usually find $2.50 for a matchbox (one-quarter ounce). Really good stuff like Panama Red, Acapulco Gold or Maui Wowie was going for $30 a lid. 

If you couldn’t afford your own weed, you could always go to a Grateful Dead concert and get high breathing in the exhaled smoke. At first, essentially the whole plant was smoked. Another name for it was Mexican ragweed.

Then Thai sticks came in. High quality flower buds from Northeast Thailand were tied together with a hemp fiber known as a “rasta hair.” Thai sticks were laden with golden pollen and cost about $40 an ounce. 

Today, high quality weed in California averages $256 per ounce, according to the website, In March 2018, Roseville marijuana was listed at $160 per ounce for medium quality.

A study in Colorado estimated that an average person would use about 100 grams of pot per year. That is equivalent to about one-quarter of an ounce per month. Self-reported use of pot in online blogs varies widely, both way higher and lower than that figure. You do the math to figure out what one might spend on smoking pot. 

Not only has the price changed, but knowledge of the characteristics of the plant, its chemistry and the chemistry of the human body and brain has increased vastly since cannabis was first used. 

Throughout history, healing properties of marijuana have been described in many civilizations — China, Persia, India, Egypt, Greece, Rome.

Although the first medical use of marijuana is often attributed to a Chinese emperor, Shen Nung, who is said to have lived around 2700 B.C.E., he was, in fact, a legendary character. A book of herbal medicine recipes published around 1 A.D. was attributed to Shen Nung, so he got the street cred. Marijuana was recommended for use in gout, rheumatism, malaria and absent-mindedness among 100 other conditions. 

Marijuana proponents think that the holy oil described in the Bible in Exodus 30: 22-34, used to anoint Aaron and the tabernacle, contained marijuana. A translation error ascribed the Hebrew kaneh-bosm to another herb in the King James version.

Marijuana pollen was found on the mummy of Ramses II (ca. 1200 B.C. E.). It was recommended for glaucoma, inflammation, cooling of the uterus and administering enemas in ancient Egypt.

The Greek historian Herodotus described the hallucinogenic properties of marijuana being exploited by the Scythians. The Scythians were a people of Iranian nomads who lived north and west of the Black Sea and were a powerful empire from the 8th to 4th century B.C.E. 

Herodotus wrote: “Hemp grows in Scythia; it is very like flax; …the Thracians make garments of it which closely resemble linen… The Scythians, as I said, take some of this hemp-seed, and, creeping under the felt coverings (of their tents), throw it upon the red-hot stones; immediately it smokes, and gives out such a vapour as no Grecian vapour-bath can exceed; the Scyths, delighted, shout for joy, and this vapour serves them instead of a waterbath; for they never by any chance wash their bodies with water.” 

Marijuana was brought to the New World by both the Spanish missionaries in South and Central America and the United States Southwest and also by Jamestown colonists. It was brought, not for its medicinal properties, but because cannabis, aka hemp, is crucial in producing fiber for rope, as necessary for ships and other crucial mechanical and industrial uses. In fact, in 1762, fines were imposed on Jamestown settlers who did not grow hemp. 

Hemp and marijuana both come from the same plant, Cannabis sativa. Marijuana comes from a cannabis plant that is bred to produce potent amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active ingredient in marijuana, found on the female flowers of the plant. Industrial hemp is a high-growing Cannabis sativa plant with less than 0.3 percent THC, grown for its fibers and used in products as diverse as fuel, milk, paper or cloth. 

The medicinal properties of cannabis were “rediscovered” in 1830 when Sir William Brooke O’Shaughnessy, an Irish doctor serving in India, returned home with knowledge of the usefulness of the plant. It was promoted for stomach pains, vomiting and cholera. 

By the end of the 1800s, cannabis extracts were a common feature of doctors’ offices and pharmacies in the United States. 

The combination of the Great Depression of the 1930s and Prohibition resulted in 29 states outlawing the “evil weed” by 1931. A popular movie, “Reefer Madness,” showed how use of marijuana led to murder. In the 1970s, the Nixon administration passed the Controlled Substance Act that labeled marijuana, heroin, LSD and ecstasy as drugs with “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” These drugs are still on the federal list.

In 1996, California voters passed the Compassionate Use Act, which legalized marijuana for medical use. Today, 29 states and the District of Columbia allow marijuana use for medical purposes.

In January 2018, on the basis of a voter initiative, California became the ninth state, in addition to D.C., to legalize marijuana for recreational use.

In the years since your grandmother was puffing on illegal weed, an enormous amount of research has been done on plant breeding, the chemistry of marijuana and biochemistry of the naturally occurring psychoactive compounds in our brains. 

The primary active compound responsible for giving a marijuana “high” is tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). But there are hundreds of other cannabinoid compounds made by the cannabis plants which have varying degrees of medical activity, including pain relief, anti-inflammation, sedative, anti-fungal and anti-psychotic effects. 

The plants also manufacture compounds called terpenes that are responsible for the smell and flavor of cannabis, and can also have medical effects. 

It is possible today to get a marijuana preparation that has relatively little “high” component but has other cannabinoids that are analgesic, anti-pain medications. The drugs come in smokable, vapable and edible varieties, or in creams or distilled oils and tinctures. They are available in different strengths. Even more than in grandma’s day, it requires caution in using marijuana preparations. 

For example, in the 1990s, the average THC concentration of confiscated weed was about 4 percent. By 2014, that number was 12 percent, and some strains of cannabis can be as high as 37 percent. 

Gone are the days of the carefree use of marijuana as exemplified by the Grateful Dead, who had a Dead Family saying, “No left turn unstoned.”


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