Marijuana 101

June 21, 2019

             

 

            Marijuana: it’s been used in recorded human history for 8,000 years, and yet it remains highly controversial and its effects are often misunderstood. Despite being the most commonly used and least harmful recreational drug available, it has been illegal in the United States for 82 years. In the past two decades, however, since California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana in 1996, legal discussion surrounding the drug has changed dramatically. So, what exactly are the different kinds of marijuana, and how is it used? How has it changed in quality, quantity, and availability in legal and illicit markets, and what does weed legislation reform look like in Texas? Let’s investigate.

 

   Most people who have used marijuana themselves or done any kind of research on the plant are probably familiar with the two groups or strains commonly used to classify weed: indica and sativa. We associate indica with a physical high—particularly one that will have you slumped on the couch—and sativa with a more mentally stimulating, energized high. Many smokers use these classifications to guide their choice of product, yet research suggests that the only distinction between indica and sativa is the appearance of the plant. Neurologist Ethan Russo, who has conducted extensive research in cannabis psychopharmacology told Leafly.com “The way that the sativa and indica labels are utilized in commerce is nonsense. The clinical effects of the cannabis chemovar have nothing to do with whether the plant is tall and sparse vs. short and bushy, or whether the leaflets are narrow or broad.” He’s right--the meaning of the terms indica and sativa has been twisted around since the 1700s, when scientists first classified cannabis into subspecies. You may be surprised to learn that there are actually three subspecies of cannabis, and they are primarily divided by their appearance.

 

   So, can you still “design” your own high? Well, yes and no. Rather than the labels “sativa” and “indica,” buyers should focus on the ratio of chemical compounds in the strain as well as their own tolerance, biology, dosage, and how they plan to consume it. As far as chemical compounds, those most indicative of the experience they will produce are called cannabinoids and terpenes. The most common cannabinoids are THC, which makes us “high” and can provide pain relief, and CBD, which has no mind-altering effects but can help with things like anxiety, insomnia, pain, and inflammation.   Choosing a strain that is higher in CBD can help calm smokers who experience certain unwanted effects of THC such as paranoia and anxiety, while those seeking a more mind-altering experience should opt for strains higher in THC. Strains with an equal balance of THC and CBD are best for those who are new to marijuana use or unsure of their preferences. Terpenes also have a certain bearing on whether your high is calm or energetic, although their effects are harder to predict than cannabinoids. Terpenes are compounds responsible for the scents different strains exhibit, and are found in other plants, including many fruits and spices.

 

      While your mental image of cannabis might take the form of a Cheech-and-Chong-esque blunt or joint, the plant has dozens of other uses—and not all of them involve getting high. Humans have been using hemp, which contains less than 0.3% THC, for a multitude of industrial purposes for thousands of years. Hemp can be used to produce rope, fabric, building materials, paper, cosmetics, and a host of other goods. For those who are seeking the mind-altering experience cannabis offers, there are many different ways to consume it (see graphic).

Everyone has their own preference when it comes to consuming pot. One aficionado from Houston has tried it all and weighs in on his favorite ways to get high. “I don’t smoke blunts,” he says. “I don’t want my pot contaminated with tobacco, and inhaling cigar smoke gives me a headache. A joint is very satisfying to smoke, but it’s for a group of people. That’s too much for one person. I prefer a water pipe or vaporizer because it gives just the right size hit every time. Wax is way too concentrated. People do that for the rush, like cocaine. I really like edibles. They are efficient, and last a long time with none of the rush component of smoking.”

 

In states where marijuana is still illegal, the majority of “black market” weed is no longer smuggled in from Mexican cartels or small-time farmers in the Midwest, says Forbes contributor Mike Adams. Instead, it is being imported from states where it is legal, namely Colorado, Washington and California. This has opened up a much larger variety of strains and forms of weed for consumers; Adams says that the legalization of marijuana in some parts of the country has resulted in a “much better black market” in “prohibition” states. Dealers in prohibition states have begun to mimic legal dispensaries to a certain degree, offering a number of different strains, edibles, waxes, etc. because their options are no longer limited to whatever is supplied from abroad. The effect of legalization in certain states is so large that cartels have pretty much given up on selling marijuana in the U.S., and have “shift[ed] their focus to harder drugs like meth and heroin.”

 

A Texan and lifelong pot smoker can attest to the changes in street-bought dope over the past few decades. “When I was a teenager” he explains, “pot was cheap, and mostly poor quality Mexican grown. Occasionally a high quality batch from Columbia, or California, Hawaii, or Asia would arrive, and the price would increase 50%. There were no choices. Today, the variety changes all the time. The Mexican weed is still available at the same low price, but the high quality pot is 4 times the price, and abundant in many varieties.”

 

Much to thousands of Texan weed smokers’ chagrin, our state is certainly not one of the forerunners in marijuana policy reform. Thirty-three states have legalized some form of marijuana, and ten states as well as the District of Columbia have legalized all uses of marijuana. However, according to Leafly, the only legal form of cannabis in Texas is a cannabinol oil with less than .5% THC and only sufferers of drug-resistant epilepsy are legally allowed to use it. What’s more, there are only three companies legally allowed to provide it. As a result of these strict marijuana policies in our largely conservative state, around 75,000 Texans are arrested annually for possession of small amounts of marijuana. In fact, marijuana arrests make up the majority of all drug arrests in Texas.

 

Despite some pushback, there does seem to be hope for reform on the horizon. Governor Greg Abbott stated recently he “[doesn’t] want to see jails stockpiled with people who have possession of a small amount of marijuana,” and the Republican party has also stated it supports reform decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana.

 

Even for conservatives, attitudes surrounding more lenient marijuana laws are changing. In late April this year, a bill reducing the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana to a Class C (rather than Class B) misdemeanor passed the Texas House by a vote of 98-43. This change in classification would eliminate jail time for minor possession and instead only impose a fine. Additionally, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) reported on May 23 that a new bill was approved by Texas legislators that will allow patients suffering from a wide variety of conditions—including ALS, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, autism, multiple sclerosis, terminal cancer, and all forms of epilepsy and seizure disorders—to be treated with medical marijuana. This is a step forward considering the only condition that is currently legally treatable by medical marijuana in Texas is refractory or drug-resistant epilepsy.

 

 

        In March, officials from the Texas Police Chiefs Association and the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas stated that legalizing weed would “bring increased crime, entice a dangerous black market and lead to increased use of other, more addictive drugs.” However, in states like Colorado where marijuana has been legalized for all uses, arrests have decreased dramatically, use among youths has not increased, traffic deaths linked to marijuana use have decreased, and revenues have skyrocketed. Moreover, studies show that most Texans are fed up with spending tax dollars and law enforcement resources on petty marijuana arrests. Despite a claim by Grand Prairie Police Chief Scott Dye that the legalization of marijuana is backed by a “minority of our population who use marijuana and/or stand to gain from marijuana production,” a poll of registered voters conducted in 2018 showed that 53% of Texans supported the legalization of marijuana in some form or another.

 

What many lawmakers fail to recognize is how the legalization of cannabis in Texas would mollify the negative effects of marijuana use, as the consumer would be aware of the potency and origin of their weed, rather than blindly purchasing it from the guy down the street who has no legal obligation to be transparent about their product.“If weed were legalized here, that would change the entire game for me personally,” says one Galveston native. “I feel like I’ve never been able to enjoy weed because I’m so sensitive to THC that I freak out pretty much every time I smoke. It’s like rolling the dice, you know, never knowing what you’re buying--or even knowing that it’s safe. Dispensaries would eliminate that guesswork.”

 

Legalizing weed would make it safer on one hand by eliminating the risk of synthetic marijuana, which looks exactly like natural cannabis but can lead to overdose and death. Synthetic marijuana, also known as “K2,” “Spice,” or “AK-47” is mainly manufactured outside of the U.S. and can be mixed with a variety of different substances, from opioids to heavy metals, pesticides, mold, and a host of other harmful chemicals. As opposed to natural marijuana which is relatively safe, synthetic marijuana has been linked to anxiety, paranoia, psychosis, seizures, heart attacks, vomiting, and damage to the muscles and kidneys. Overdoses of this drug are unfortunately common across the U.S., and the regulation of marijuana through legalization would eliminate the accidental use of laced and synthetic weed, and would improve both medical and recreational users’ experiences.

 

Since cannabis was first used for food, textiles, and medicine in Ancient China, humans’ interaction with the plant has expanded, and so has our knowledge of it. Although customizing your experience using marijuana recreationally may be more complicated than simply choosing between indica or sativa, it is certainly possible and is best facilitated through legal dispensaries that are regulated and well-informed about their products. Most recently, legalization in some states has revolutionized even the black market for marijuana, expanding the quality and variety of products available to consumers. Our own state still has strict laws guarding marijuana use, but many Texans support the reform of these regulations, and lawmakers are currently showing progress toward making marijuana legal and accessible.