Cannabis is a flowering plant native to central and south Asia which contains a variety of psychoactive substances, most notably tetrahydrocannabinol or THC. Cannabis can be cultivated to be tall and fibrous, useful in the production of paper and textiles, in which case the THC content is minimal. However, it can also be cultivated to produce higher concentrations of THC, making it suitable for the production of the drug marijuana.
The history of psychoactive drugs can be difficult to trace, as the cultural practices surrounding a given drug can vary immensely in different places and times. One culture’s harmless pastime is another’s destructive addiction. Many drugs are safe if used in moderation and in the right circumstances, and many drugs which a culture considers safe are capable of being abused. The history of marijuana is a good illustration of what this looks like.
In the United States, cannabis was grown to produce hemp fibers for industrial use since colonial times. During the 19th century, the psychoactive use of cannabis became popularized due to contact with Middle Eastern cultures. Cannabis-based drugs were regulated in the U.S., and historical reports of the drug’s effect described a peaceful, euphoric feeling with minimal aftereffects.
The public perception of cannabis began to change dramatically in the early 20th century, following the Mexican Revolution in 1910. In Mexico, the drug had become associated with criminals and soldiers, and reports linked the use of the drug to outbursts of uncontrollable violence. This view of the drug’s effect spread with Mexican immigration to the United States after 1910, spurred by negative perceptions of immigrants. The Spanish term “marihuana”, which is of uncertain origin, began to replace the word “cannabis”, and the anglicized form “marijuana” was negatively associated with Mexican immigrants.
Throughout the 20th century this dichotomous account of the drug’s effects has persisted. Some accounts describe marijuana as a self-destructive addiction for degenerates and criminals, whereas others describe it as a peaceful recreation, no more harmful than alcohol. The critical perspective has generally won out at the political level: marijuana was illegal for most of the 20th century, and possession of even a small amount sometimes carried harsh mandatory prison sentences.
However, illegality has not prevented the drug from becoming extremely popular. It is the most used illegal drug in the U.S., and approximately half of Americans report having used it.
The drug’s popularity has led to a reassessment of its effects and legal status. Unlike alcohol, marijuana is non-toxic so it is not possible to overdose on it. Similarly to alcohol, though, marijuana temporarily impairs cognitive functions and is therefore a common cause of automobile accidents. Marijuana is also similar to alcohol in that its use among young people has been known to hinder brain development, and chronic use of the drug can have negative social consequences. Marijuana smoking is also harmful to the lungs, comparable to tobacco.
The addictiveness of marijuana is an interesting study in the meaning of the word “addiction”. It is commonly reported that marijuana is only minimally chemically addictive, but like any habit it can be psychologically addictive. However, medical professionals do not distinguish between chemical and psychological addiction. To a psychiatrist, an addiction is a habit that harms a person’s life which they are unable to stop. By this definition, marijuana is somewhat addictive: 10% of users report becoming addicted, compared to 15% of alcohol users, 20-30% of tobacco users, and 25% of heroin users.
Most defenders of marijuana would admit that it can have harmful effects under certain circumstances; however, they believe that it should be legalized and regulated like tobacco and alcohol. Supporters argue that the legal status of marijuana has led to social problems far in excess of the drug’s danger. They argue that the huge number of arrests and prison sentences issued over marijuana possession and distribution has an extremely harmful influence on those affected, and that non-white communities are unfairly targeted by these laws.
Since the 1990s, marijuana has been legalized in some states for medicinal use, as a pain and nausea treatment for patients suffering from painful diseases like cancer and AIDS. This mode of legalization is controversial, particularly because marijuana-based drugs with THC as the active ingredient are also available, and many professionals feel these synthetic drugs are easier to regulate.
More and more states are decriminalizing the possession of marijuana, which makes possession a “violation” comparable to a parking ticket. In 2013, Colorado and Oregon made recreation use and distribution of marijuana completely legal within their states; however, marijuana is still illegal under Federal law, so these state-level legalizations remain controversial.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
Have you ever tried marijuana? How would you describe the psychological effects?
Do you think it’s a problem for something as popular as marijuana to be illegal? If enforcement of a law is selective, do you think law enforcement agencies might have ulterior motives as to when they enforce the law?
Do you think that marijuana is more harmful than alcohol or tobacco? What do you think should be the legal status of these three drugs?
Marijuana is a psychoactive substance with effects that have been greatly debated, though they are most often compared to the effects of alcohol and tobacco. Marijuana has had a long and conflicted history in the United States: just like alcohol and tobacco, it has been celebrated by some and denounced by others, and it has played a surprising role in a range of social conflicts. In recent years, marijuana’s legal status has begun to approach the position of alcohol and tobacco.