Marijuana, the most commonly used illegal drug in America, is going mainstream. It’s now legal to use marijuana recreationally in eight states — Alaska, California, Colorado, Oregon, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Washington — and the District of Columbia. Pot seems poised for wider use, too: There are 21 states that now allow the possession and use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
But just how much do you know about the wacky weed and its odd effects? How exactly does marijuana provide its high, and who discovered the effects of smoking the plant in the first place? Read on for some of the stranger facts about cannabis consumption.
The hippie generation did not discover pot. But the drug’s true origins remain a bit murky.
For example, one source, the Drug Enforcement Administration Museum in Arlington, Virginia, states that the oldest written references to cannabis date back to 2727 B.C., when the Chinese Emperor Shen Nung supposedly discovered the substance and used it medicinally.
But there’s one problem with this putative fact: Shen Nung, if he existed, was not the emperor of China. The first emperor of a unified China was Qin Shi Huang, who was born around 260 B.C. — significantly later than the supposed Shen Nung. Nor is it entirely clear where or how this Shen Nung recorded his medicinal marijuana experiments. The earliest examples of written Chinese characters date to the Shang dynasty, between 1200 B.C. and 1050 B.C., when oracles carved symbols on bones and turtle shells. Though the story of Shen Nung permeates pot histories online, his existence seems to be more marijuana myth than fact.
Still, the Chinese deserve some credit. The ancient Taiwanese were using hemp fibers to decorate pottery about 10,000 years ago, according to “The Archaeology of Ancient China” (Yale University Press, 1968).
But the identity of the first person to discover pot’s intoxicating effects is lost to prehistory.
Weird ways to use hemp
The marijuana plant isn’t used only for smoking; its fibers can also be made into rope or fabric. Perhaps the oddest use of hemp rope on record is as a method for transporting giant stone statues. In 2012, archaeologists created reproductions of Easter Island’s statues, trying to figure out how ancient people may have moved the iconic 9,600-lb. (4.35 metric tons) heads from their quarry. Theorists have suggested everything from log rollers to extraterrestrial help for the task, but in 2012, California State University Long Beach archaeologist Carl Lipo proved that all that was needed is hemp rope.
By attaching three hemp ropes to the statue and having a team of 18 people rock it back and forth until it “walked,” Lipo and his team were able to move the hunk of stone 328 feet (100 meters) in less than an hour, they reported in the Journal of Archaeological Science. Easter Islanders would have had woody shrubs similar to marijuana plants to use in making rope, the researchers argued.
Hemp versus pot
What’s the difference between hemp and pot, anyway? A single genetic switch. In 2011, researchers from the University of Saskatchewan announced that they’d discovered the genetic alteration that allows psychoactive cannabis plants (Cannabis sativa) to give users a high (as compared to industrial hemp plants, which are no fun for smoking).
Industrial hemp plants are the same species as marijuana plants, but they don’t produce a substance called tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA). This is the precursor to tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive ingredient in pot. Hemp plants fail to produce this substance because they lack a gene that makes an enzyme to produce THCA, according to University of Saskatchewan biochemist Jon Page.
In contrast, marijuana plants do produce THCA but don’t create much of a substance called cannabidiolic acid (CBDA), which occurs in abundance in hemp but competes with THCA for raw materials. Thus, hemp is rich in nonpsychoactive CBDA, while marijuana is chock full of mind-bending THC.
Smoking up could be a very different experience for men and women, according to a 2014 study in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence. In research on rats, Washington State University psychologist Rebecca Craft found that females were more sensitive to cannabis’ painkilling qualities, but they were also more likely to develop a tolerance for the drug, which could contribute to negative side effects and dependence on marijuana.
The female rats’ higher levels of the hormone estrogen seem to play a role in these sex-specific effects. Female rats are more sensitive to the effects of cannabis at ovulation, when estrogen levels are highest, Craft said in a statement.
Pot for your pets?
People have used medicinal marijuana to ease everything from glaucoma to the side effects of chemotherapy. So why shouldn’t man’s best friend give medicinal pot a shot?
Pet owners are already using marijuana medicinally to help their suffering cats and dogs, according to a 2013 article in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. Most of the time, animals that ingest pot get over the effects within a few hours, veterinarians say. But in large quantities, pot can be deadly to animals.