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What Is Cannabis Microdosing (And How Is It Done)?

If you find that weed benefits you for the most part, but hurts your productivity, microdosing cannabis could give you the herbal boost you need. You won’t get too high (in fact, you might not get high at all), but you’ll be able to take advantage of everything else the plant has to offer, all while staying responsible and lucid.

Smoking or ingesting cannabis doesn’t have to involve hitting bongs and munching edibles until you can’t keep your eyes open. Although smoking a lot at once is fun, small and frequent doses could keep you elevated without hurting your productivity. Known as microdosing, this process of taking small yet effective doses isn’t exclusive to cannabis, but stoners can certainly benefit.

WHY MICRODOSE CANNABIS?

Microdosing cannabis involves finding your own unique minimum effective dose. But why would you want to do that in the first place? Well, microdosing offers the best parts of smoking weed while removing some of the inconvenient parts.

Ideally, after a microdose, you’ll still feel emotional and mental elevation. Your surroundings will seem brighter; you’ll get creative inspiration, and you might be more talkative and friendly than usual. However, you won’t feel paranoid, overwhelmed, or too blazed to function.

Overall, when done right, microdosing will allow you to experience the benefits of smoking or ingesting weed with minimal intoxication. In turn, it’s a great strategy to boost your workflow and enhance your mindset while going through your regular life.

HOW DOES MICRODOSING CANNABIS WORK?

Many cannabis lovers are used to smoking large amounts of weed over a shorter period of time. Perhaps you wait for the day to wind down before rolling up a few grams. Maybe you wait to go hard on the weekend with your smoking buddies.

  • Microdosing cannabis involves the polar opposite strategy: smoking little, but often. It’s all about hitting your vape pen or a small joint every now and then. Just enough to feel minor effects, but not enough to get high.

Although some cannabis users might scoff, teetering on the edge of high and sober comes with a myriad of benefits. Your satisfaction for life could increase, and you could be more motivated to get things done during the day.

HOW MUCH CANNABIS TO MICRODOSE

Not shackled by a strict definition, a microdose will vary from person to person. In other words, it’s entirely subjective. A single hit from a dab pen might serve as a microdose to one person. For someone else, an entire joint of low-THC weed might do the trick. It depends on individual experience and tolerance.

The way you take it will also play a role in how much you need to achieve a successful microdose. For example, you could try hitting a joint once per minute until you find your sweet spot. However, edibles are a different story. They take longer to set in, and do so with more intensity. Take a few nibbles and wait at least an hour, if not two, before indulging further.

  • A good general rule to follow: start low and slow. If you’re experimenting with microdosing during the work week, take things easy so you don’t bump into your boss while red-eyed. Start trying to discover your sweet spot at home in the evenings. Once you’re confident you’ve perfected it, you can start introducing microdoses into your daily routine.

HOW TO MICRODOSE CANNABIS

As any experienced cannabis user knows, there are many ways to introduce cannabinoids into the body. You can microdose using all of these different methods. Just make sure you take much less than you usually do. The following are, in our opinion, the easiest ways to microdose.

SMOKING

Smoking provides an easy and ritualistic way to microdose. You can roll a fat joint that’ll last you several days, only taking one or two tokes at a time. The weed might get stale that way, though, so you could try little cones that equal one microdose instead. The choice is yours either way.

Yes, smoking exposes the lungs to higher levels of carcinogens. Many smokers, though, adore the ritual of sitting down, rolling a joint, sparking the tip, and taking that first hit. Even then, you can make things a little easier on your body by using organic hemp rolling papers.

VAPING

First off, cannabis users can vape on the go in a quick and discreet manner. They’ll also be able to choose between extracts, concentrates, and regular bud. Plus, lower temperatures and lack of combustion keep volatile terpenes intact and are less harmful to the lungs. Overall, it’s one of the most efficient ways to microdose.

EDIBLES

You can use ingredients like cannabutter to infuse almost any dish or snack with cannabinoids. You’ll need to be accurate with your dosing, though, to ensure the butter doesn’t make your microdose a standard dose. You can also make individual chocolates and candies with specific amounts of extract to ensure you’re getting a specific dose. Alternatively, place a few drops of pre-made oil onto your meals and salads for a microdose during your lunch break.

OILS AND TINCTURES

Well-crafted oils and tinctures help users dose cannabinoids with extreme accuracy. Many products come with a data sheet that will tell you exactly how many milligrams are in each drop. You’ll also have the choice of changing up the way they enter your system. Swallow your drops for a similar effect to edibles, or place them under your tongue for quicker absorption.

WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF MICRODOSING?

Microdosing offers a host of benefits that can make a normal day a great one. These advantages include an enhanced mood, strengthened creative drive, and a notably positive affect. With this new mindset and drive, you might also find that you have a better workflow than when you’re sober. Then, when you take time to meditate or do yoga, you might also find these sessions feeling better than usual.

MICRODOSING THC VS CBD

Cannabis contains over 100 unique cannabinoids besides THC. With that in mind, wouldn’t it be a shame to limit your herbal experience to THC alone? Sure, the psychoactive effects are fun, but cannabis offers so much more. Users can also microdose other cannabinoids, such as CBD, to improve their mental state and infuse their day with positive vibes.

Certain extracts and cannabis strains also contain high levels of CBD and varying levels of THC. 1:1 strains offer both in equal parts, whereas high-CBD varieties offer lots of cannabidiol with only a little THC.

SHOULD YOU TRY MICRODOSING CANNABIS?

Yes! We mean, at least give it a go. If you find that you’re very sensitive to THC, microdosing might unlock a new world for you. There’s a risk of overdoing things when trying to find your sweet spot, but take things slow and you’ll be fine!

Microdosing won’t be for everyone, and there will always be smokers that love to go hard with every session. However, it could change the game for others. Will you be one of them?

If you want to incorporate weed into your everyday life without hurting productivity, cannabis microdosing can help! Find out how to do it inside!

Microdosing Cannabis

Overview

Many individuals who have integrated microdosing cannabis into their weekly routine also report higher levels of creativity, more energy, increased focus, and improved relational skills, as well as reduced anxiety, stress, and even depression. Some enthusiasts also report that microdosing has helped them heighten their spiritual awareness and enhance their senses.

While there isn’t much empirical evidence proving the efficacy of microdosing cannabis, some clinical research does support the practice. In a 2012 study, for example, patients with advanced cancer were given high, medium, and low doses of a THC/CBD compound. [2] Those who received the lowest dose reported the greatest reduction of pain. In another study, a group of incarcerated individuals was given low doses of a synthetic cannabinoid to treat symptoms of PTSD. The majority of the subjects saw a significant drop in insomnia, nightmares, general symptoms, and even chronic pain. [3]

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Experience

How to microdose cannabis

Ideally, a microdose will not cause a substantial change in mood, disposition, or mindset. Instead, its effect will be subtle but present—maybe an increase in focus, decrease in anxiety, or easier access to flow states.

Cannabis’ subjective effects also tend to depend on the dose as well as the strain, in particular the ratio of THC to CBD. That’s because CBD can alleviate some of the more negative effects of THC, which include anxiety, paranoia, memory impairment, and loss of psychomotor control. [4]

That said, microdosing is a fairly straightforward process, once you find your ideal dose. The Marijuana Policy Project has designated 10mg of THC as a standard dose per serving, so anything below that can be considered low-dose. [5] Products that call themselves low-dose tend to be in the 1mg to 5mg of THC range. We tend to recommend 2.5mg as the ideal starting point for microdosing, but always experiment to see what is best for you. Potency levels vary greatly between products and brands, and everyone’s personal tolerance level is unique. As a general rule, it’s best to take it slow and steady. After taking a microdose, wait around 2 hours to see the full effects before taking more.

Method of consumption

How you choose to ingest your microdose will also have an impact on your experience. There are three main options, with pros and cons to them all.

While pipes or joints are likely to be the easiest ways for you to get started, combustion is actually the most expensive and least-clean method of use that provides the least dosage control. One puff can easily take someone beyond the sought-after microdose—and even if you find your sweet spot, there’s no way of knowing exactly how much you ingested in order to hit that mark again next time. One study also found that 90% of combusted cannabis contained no cannabinoids or terpenes [6] , meaning you could miss out on some of the benefits of cannabis consumption.

However, if combustion is your chosen method, there are some ways to get a ballpark figure of the potency you’re dealing with. THC levels fall somewhere between 3% to 30%, but the average is around 10% [7] . So, to estimate the THC strength of plant material based on 1g, divide the THC percentage into 1000 to obtain the per/mg amount (1g = 1000mg).

An online Marijuana Dosage Calculator is actually available, but you need to enroll in a 10-minute “online dosing class” to gain access.

Vaporization

Vaporizing cannabis is a good option for several reasons. For one, it allows you to avoid the harmful carcinogens associated with smoking. [8] But it also facilitates a more accurate and precise dose. You can vape either dry flower or oil concentrates. The latter is easier to measure properly since oil concentrates are pre-dosed, while the THC content of flower can vary. If using flower, though, the temperature of the vaporizer can be altered to change the effect. Lower temperatures (365º or under) ups the flavor while relieving anxiety; 356° to 392° leads to a moderate body high; and 392° and above for can create a heavier body effect. [9] While these may not be felt as much with a microdose, it’s still useful to think about the kind of experience you’re looking for.

Ingesting cannabis orally is the easiest and most precise way to microdose—dosages are clearly measured and marked on the packaging, and available products range from gummies and mints to under-the-tongue capsules and tinctures. However, ingestion requires some patience. The effects can take anywhere between an hour to two hours to set in, making titration—the gradual adjustment of a dose—much trickier. Again, slow and steady is the key to the overall practice of microdosing. So, keeping in mind the sub-perceptual nature of microdosing, pay attention to the most subtle effects of your use irrespective of your chosen method, and then carefully adjust the subsequent doses (up or down) to settle into your optimal microdose.

Effects

Pharmacology

Cannabis contains more than 100 cannabinoids, which are terpenophenolic compounds (a mixture of terpenoids and phenols) that protect the plant from parasites. [10] [11] Some of the most common cannabinoids are THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol), CBD (cannabidiol), CBC (cannabichromene), CBN (cannabinol), CBG (cannabigerol), and THCV/THV (tetrahydrocannabivarin). Many of these are non-psychoactive and may have therapeutic benefits.

The main psychoactive cannabinoid in cannabis is THC, a hydrophobic, lipid-soluble compound that, unlike other psychedelics, is non-nitrogenous. It’s usually present in the plant as monocarboxylic acids that decarboxylate when heated to produce psychoactive THC. [12] Underlying this cannabinoid’s unique effect is a carbon side chain that increases in potency with length. [13] Metabolism in the liver produces 11-hydroxy-THC, a more potent compound capable of crossing the blood-brain barrier with ease. [14] [15] [16]

CBD is a structural isomer of THC, which means it has the same atoms but in a different configuration. It converts into THC through a process of cyclization (the formation of a new carbon ring) in acid. [17]

Terpenes are molecularly similar to the cannabinoids. [18] Although mostly responsible for the flavor and aroma of cannabis strains, some, like myrcene, are also psychoactive. [19]

Receptor Binding

The two receptors most clearly involved in cannabis’s mechanism of action are the cannabinoid (CB) receptors 1 and 2. [15] [20] CB1 receptors are found mainly in the central nervous system (such as in the brain), while CB2 receptors are mostly in the immune system, where they modulate cytokine release, among other functions. [21]

The activation of CB receptors has been linked to anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects. [20] CB1 receptors also mediate the release of dopamine, serotonin, noradrenalin, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), glutamate, and acetylcholine. [21] CB receptors are normally activated by endocannabinoids (cannabinoids produced by the body), such as anandamide (AEA). [15] However, since endocannabinoids dissolve much faster than phytocannabinoids, compounds like THC interact with a greater number of receptors before breaking down. [22]

THC primarily activates CB1 receptors, but it can also block them. Its inhibitory and stimulatory effects on various neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, may help to explain its mixed psychoactive effects, which range from excitatory to depressant. Increased dopamine release also stimulates appetite. [20] [22] [23]

CBD, meanwhile, has a relatively low affinity for the CB receptors, but does show a little inverse agonistic and antagonistic activity. [23] It also activates 5-HT1A (serotonin) receptors and has been found to regulate the psychoactivity of THC with its antidepressant and anxiolytic effects. [24] [25] [26]

CBD also binds to ion channels such as the TRPV1 receptors, activating them to mediate pain, inflammation, and temperature. Meanwhile, its antagonism of GPR55 receptors modulates blood pressure and bone density—an effect that’s of interest for cancer treatment. By inhibiting the enzyme FAAH, CBD also slows the breakdown of anandamide and other endocannabinoids, leading to increased CBD levels in the brain. [23] [27] [28] [29] [30] [31]

Both CBD and THC can also potentiate the effects of opioid agonists through their activity at the mu- and delta-opioid receptors. [32]

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Benefits & Risks

Potential Benefits

Cannabis microdosing has crossed vocational and age divisions, with professionals using it on workdays for benefits like creativity and focus. It can also be useful for socializing—after all, “there’s only so much drinking people can do.”

The array of health issues that microdosing cannabis is proving beneficial for is vast: Users are addressing anxiety, chronic pain, stress, ADHD, inflammation, and indigestion, among others, while mood and emotional enhancements are frequently reported. [33]

But it’s not just your mood that microdosing cannabis could improve: a recent study in mice found that frequent, low doses of THC can reverse aging-related memory loss in older mice. [34] In other words, microdosing cannabis helped older mice feel young again. We still need to see how this translates to humans, but it’s possible that occasional cannabis microdoses could keep memory loss at bay.

Risks

Compared to the majority of drugs and pharmaceuticals (notably including aspirin, which kills several thousand people each year in the US), cannabis is extremely safe. [35]

The dosage at which 50% of an animal sample dies is said to be 20,000 to 40,000 times the average content of a joint. This is roughly equivalent to 1,500 pounds of cannabis, consumed within 15 minutes. Even with pure extracted THC, a man weighing 175 pounds would need to consume 53g at once—more than 5,000 times the standard single dose. [36] [37]

There are risks associated with smoking cannabis, however. Since combustion releases carbon monoxide and other harmful chemicals, smoking cannabis often could lead to respiratory problems and lung cancer. In fact, cannabis smoke is actually found to contain 50% more benzopyrene and 75% more benz[a]anthracene than tobacco smoke. [38] On the other hand, cannabis also contains a number of cannabinoids with anti-cancer properties. [39] [40]

While vaporizing eliminates many of the long-term risks associated with smoking, it still releases ammonia. [39] [41] This can result in asthma, bronchial spasms, and effects on the central nervous system. [38] [42]

Another concern, particularly for people with cardiovascular disease, is the effect of cannabis on heart rate and blood pressure. According to one study, the risk of a heart attack in young male patients was 4.8 times higher for 60 minutes immediately following cannabis use, possibly due to a constriction of the coronary arterial smooth muscle. [43] A review of 34 case reports also found a significant correlation between cannabis use and strokes, with many repeat strokes occurring after re-exposure to cannabis. [44]

That said, since people tend to use tobacco and alcohol as well as cannabis, it’s hard to isolate the cause of these issues. [45] [46] It’s also important to keep these risks in perspective. As psychiatrist and neuropsychopharmacology professor David Nutt pointed out, sports, sex, and even just straining on the toilet can pose similar risks for anyone with existing heart problems. [47]

While cognitive function and development are likely to be impaired by chronic cannabis use, [48] negative residual effects usually fade within 25 days of abstinence. [49] One notable exception is chronic use that begins in adolescence. Because teens’ cognitive functions haven’t matured, they may develop long-term cognitive issues, including reduced verbal fluency. [50]

The effects of cannabis on anxiety and depression are not fully understood. While some say cannabis can help alleviate such psychological issues, others believe it can aggravate them. More research is called for, taking environmental and genetic factors into account. [51] [52]

The same is true of schizophrenia. Although a definite correlation exists between chronic cannabis use and psychosis, the relationship might not be causal. [53] [54] [55] While cannabis use has become more prevalent over the past few decades, diagnoses of schizophrenia have remained more or less the same. [53] Even if cannabis use does cause psychosis, it may have more to do with the lifestyle that goes with it, often involving a fear of getting arrested, social stigma, and the loss of family support. [53]

Pregnant and breastfeeding women should probably avoid cannabis. Although research is limited and often contradictory, there is evidence linking cannabis to ectopic pregnancies, miscarriages, attention deficit disorders, and slightly below-average birth weights. [15] [56] [57] [58] [59] [60] [61] [62]

One final issue that affects long-term cannabis users in particular is cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome, a rare condition characterized by uncontrollable nausea, vomiting, and abdominal cramps, as well as a compulsion to take hot baths for relief. This syndrome usually subsides by ceasing cannabis use. [63] [64] [65] [66]

Driving on cannabis, and especially on edibles and extracts, is strongly discouraged. While many find it makes them drive slower, it also slows down reactions, posing a danger on the road. [67] [68]

Therapeutic Use

A 2020 study, for example, found that very low doses of THC significantly reduced pain levels in patients with chronic pain. [69] A 2012 study gave patients with advanced cancer who were unresponsive to traditional opioid painkillers low, medium, and high doses of a THC/CBD compound. Patients who received the lowest dose actually showed the greatest reduction in pain, while higher doses reportedly led to more pain. [70]

In another study, a group of incarcerated individuals was given low doses of a synthetic cannabinoid to help treat PTSD. The majority of men involved in the study showed significant improvements in the insomnia, nightmares, chronic pain, and more associated with their PTSD. [71]

Anecdotally, microdosing cannabis has also proved effective for treating other chronic conditions. One doctor, for example, uses small doses of cannabis to help manage multiple sclerosis. And one patient microdoses to treat her neuropathy and fibromyalgia.

Beyond microdosing, cannabis has proven beneficial for the treatment of a host of other ailments and illnesses. To read more about the general therapeutic benefits of cannabis, check out our Cannabis Guide.

Personal Growth

Cannabis may also improve productivity, at least according to professional creatives who use it to get “in the zone” and see things from different perspectives. [73] Despite the received wisdom that cannabis causes laziness, many find sativa strains boost motivation—if only because they make work more fun. [74] [75] [76]

Cannabis also fosters psychospiritual benefits, including deeper meditation and a sense of oneness or unity with people, the planet, and the universe. [77] Many users report out-of-body or ego-dissolution experiences, even on relatively modest doses. [78] [79] Mystical encounters with God or “spirit” are also fairly common, as well as increased present and awareness of the moment. [78] [79] [80] Some claim to have “awakened” on cannabis to gain profound new insights into otherwise abstract subjects, such as life and death, self and others, perception and mind, and other philosophical realms. [79] [81] [82] [83] Cannabis can also help those suffering from bereavement to come to terms with their loss, or even to accept their own mortality in the face of a terminal illness. [81] [84]

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Macrodosing

Common effects include mood enhancement and euphoria, accompanied by laughter and relaxation, as well as an increased enjoyment of music, food, tactile sensations, and activities you may normally find dull. Thoughts tend to flow more freely, often leading to creative, philosophical, or spiritual insights. At higher doses, the flow of ideas can even become overwhelming.

Cannabis is a mild psychedelic, so visual effects tend to be limited to color enhancement, moderate closed-eye patterns, and increased sensitivity to light. At very high doses, however, cannabis can induce psychedelic hallucinations—especially if you’re in the dark.

More negative cannabis experiences can include panic attacks, confusion, memory loss, and depersonalization or derealization, as well as dream suppression.

The medical applications of cannabis are many and well known, and the list is continually growing. Substantial evidence, drawn from years of clinical research, supports its use as a treatment for nausea and vomiting in chemotherapy patients; appetite loss and wasting syndrome (cachexia) in HIV and cancer patients; spasticity in multiple sclerosis (MS) patients; and neuropathic or chronic pain, such as fibromyalgia.

It also shows promise for treating symptoms of Tourette’s syndrome, spinal cord injury, Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), glaucoma, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), migraine, anxiety, schizophrenia, dystonia, and epilepsy. [85]

Higher doses of cannabis may also improve productivity, at least according to professional creatives who use it to get “in the zone” and see things from different perspectives. [86] Despite the common idea that cannabis causes laziness, many find Sativa strains boost motivation—if only because they make work more fun.

Cannabis also fosters psychospiritual benefits, including deeper meditation and a sense of oneness or unity with people, the planet, and the universe. [87]

Legality

Medical Use Only

Alaska – Arizona – Arkansas – California – Colorado – Connecticut – Delaware – District of Columbia – Florida – Hawaii – Illinois – Louisiana – Maine – Maryland – Massachusetts – Michigan – Minnesota – Missouri – Montana – Nevada – New Hampshire – New Jersey – New Mexico – New York – North Dakota – Ohio – Oklahoma – Oregon – Pennsylvania – Rhode Island – Utah – Vermont – Washington – West Virginia

Medical & Recreational Use

Alaska – California – Colorado – Illinois – Maine – Massachusetts – Michigan – Nevada – Oregon – Vermont – Washington – Washington D.C.

Limited Use

Alabama – Florida – Georgia – Indiana – Iowa – Kentucky – Mississippi – North Carolina – South Carolina – Tennessee – Texas – Vermont – Virginia – Wyoming

Illegal

Idaho – Kansas – Nebraska – South Dakota – Wisconsin

For an up-to-date list from Norml.org, see here.

It’s important to note the difference between legalization and decriminalization. While legalization effectively ends prohibition, decriminalization only eliminates the threat of getting arrested and given a criminal record and/or jail sentence for possession. Since it remains illegal, however, there may still be a fine. [88]

Unfortunately, decriminalization does nothing to undermine the criminal supply chain. In the Netherlands, where cannabis has long been decriminalized for sale in coffee shops, the coffee shops themselves are forced to rely on the unregulated black market to source their product. This raises ethical and economic concerns, as well as health issues since many unregulated growers use potentially dangerous pesticides. [89] [90]

In the UK, against the recommendations of scientific advisors, medical professionals, politicians, and even police commissioners, cannabis remains a Class B drug. [91] [92] Possession is punishable by up to five years in prison, an unlimited fine, or both. [93] Even the medical use of synthetic cannabinoids remains controversial and practically unworkable, despite the legalization of their use for a limited number of diseases. While MS patients (and only MS patients) are allowed to use Sativex, the drug is prohibitively expensive everywhere but Wales. [94] [95] [96] There is some hope, though. In June 2018, a public outcry over the confiscation of a 12-year-old’s life-saving epilepsy medication caused even conservative politicians to call for a review of the UK’s stance on medical cannabis use, and potentially recreational use as well. [97]

Cannabis in Canada is legal for both recreational and medicinal purposes. Recreational use became legal October 17, 2018, giving adults the freedom to possess and share up to 30 grams of dried cannabis, or the “equivalent” in non-dried forms. In addition to being able to buy cannabis from licensed producers (or sell it as one), Canadian adults are also allowed to grow their own cannabis at home, as long as they have no more than 30 seeds in their possession and no more than four cannabis plants per residence. The use of organic solvents to make concentrated cannabis products (e.g. butane-extracted dabs) remains illegal, as does unlicensed distribution and transportation across Canadian borders. It’s also illegal to give or sell cannabis to minors, which is a new criminal offense with a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison. [98] Canada was the second country to legalize recreational cannabis after Uruguay, which legalized in 2013.

In Australia, cannabis is legal for medical use and scientific research. It’s also decriminalized for personal use in some territories. [99] In New Zealand, medical use is legal but limited, but advocates and politicians alike are working on a recreational legalization referendum that could open the industry up. [100] [101]

Cannabis has also been decriminalized or partially decriminalized in a number of European countries, including Austria, Germany, Italy, and Portugal. [99] In Belgium and Spain, cannabis social clubs (CSCs) allow small collectives to legally operate closed circuits of production and supply among members—similar to the way regulated cannabis plants are tracked in the United States. [103] In the UK and a number of other countries where cannabis remains illegal, CSCs have been set up by activists as models for regulation. [103] [104] [105]

History & Stats

Early Origins

Archeological records date the earliest cannabis cultivation to more than 10,000 years ago when it appeared in both Europe and Asia. [106] Fibers from the Eurasian nation of Georgia also suggest that wild cannabis was in use much earlier—perhaps as early as 30,000 years ago—for textiles and rope. [107]

The ancient Chinese valued cannabis not only for its hempen fibers (which they used to make paper and textiles) but also for its myriad medical benefits. The mythical emperor Shennong is said to have prescribed the plant for more than 100 medical conditions, including malaria, beriberi (thiamine deficiency), constipation, rheumatic pains, absent-mindedness, and “female disorders.” [107] [108] Interestingly, the psychoactive properties of cannabis appear to have been largely ignored in China up until the 6th century BC, when they were hinted at somewhat disapprovingly in Zhou Dynasty inscriptions and the writings of Confucius. [107] [109] [110]

In India, cannabis was taken for a variety of ailments, including dysentery, dandruff, headaches, fever, insomnia, earache, venereal disease, whooping cough, tuberculosis, and “poor judgment.” And according to the 6th-century physician Sushruta, it could even be used to cure leprosy. In fact, cannabis was so venerated by the ancient Indians that while sowing, weeding, or harvesting the plant, they would chant the name “Gangi” for Shiva. [109]

Botany and Pharmacology

Cannabis sativa L. was named in 1753 by Carl Linnaeus (hence the ‘L’). Back then, he assumed it was the only species to belong to this new genus, which was originally considered a Fig (Moraceae) or Nettle (Urticaceae). [109] In 1785, however, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck identified a second species and named it Cannabis indica. A third, Cannabis ruderalis, was discovered in the early 20th century but is largely non-psychoactive. [19] C. Ruderalis is also sometimes described as a subspecies of C. sativa, and sometimes all three are. [111]

Toward the end of the 19th century, cannabinol (CBN) was the first of the cannabinoids to be isolated. It was first synthesized in 1940 by Roger Adams in the US and Lord Todd in the UK. In the same year, Adams isolated cannabidiol (CBD). Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) was isolated in 1942 by Wollner, Matchett, Levine, and Loewe. [112]

Both CBD and THC were studied more closely in the 1960s by Raphael Mechoulam, who was the first to synthesize them. After the synthesis of THC in particular, the race was on to develop more potent analogues on the one hand and, on the other, compounds that had all of the medical benefits and none of the psychoactive effects.

Pfizer introduced levonantradol, a powerful THC analogue, in the 1980s. Unlike opioid analgesics, its action was not blocked by naloxone and, being water-soluble, it was easier to deliver than natural THC. Due to its psychoactivity, however, the manufacturer abandoned levonantradol. Another synthetic THC analogue, nabilone, was also withdrawn from the market for unknown “commercial reasons.” [13]

It was also during this decade that the cannabinoid receptors were confirmed to exist by Allyn Howlett. This led to a search for the endogenous cannabinoids that interact with them. The first—Arachidonoyl ethanolamide (AEA)—was identified in 1992 by William Devane and Lumír Hanuš, and was given the name anandamide from the Sanskrit ananda, meaning “bliss.” [112] Interestingly, this endocannabinoid is released during vigorous exercise. [113]

Since the 1960s, there has been great interest in making cannabis more psychoactive as well, giving rise to the first hash oil—“smash”—in 1967. In the early 1970s, sinsemilla was introduced as one of the first “super strains,” containing more than 10% THC. Skunk, another potent strain, was developed as a hybrid of C. sativa and indica around the same time. [114] [115] [116]

Synthetic products such as Spice appeared in the 2000s. By 2011, the DEA had placed five of them in Schedule I. More recently, high-THC extracts called butane hash oil (BHO) or dabs have been growing in popularity throughout the United States and Canada—despite safety concerns over extraction. [114] [113] [117]

Prohibition

The earliest stirrings of cannabis prohibition in the US began in 1860, when New York introduced state laws regulating “Indian Hemp.” Other states followed in the early 1900s, and, in 1906, the Pure Food and Drug Act made it mandatory to label any remedy containing cannabis. Since it was also mandatory to label medicines containing alcohol, morphine, opium, cocaine, and other controversial substances, the act clearly identified cannabis as dangerous. [114] [118]

In 1915, California became the first state to enact cannabis prohibition, followed by Texas in 1919, Louisiana in 1924, and New York in 1927. In 1925, the US had voted at the International Opium Convention to support cannabis control, an issue raised on the agenda by Egypt and Turkey. [114] [113] [118]

Based on these recommendations, the UK implemented its Dangerous Drugs Act in 1928, banning the recreational use of cannabis and leading to frequent raids on jazz clubs. In turn, this strengthened the association between cannabis and black people. [114] [119]

However, it wasn’t until the following decade that the real crackdown began. In 1930, Harry Anslinger, former chief of alcohol prohibition, was appointed commissioner of the newly created Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN). In this role, he took an extreme anti-cannabis stance and immediately set about soliciting recommendations for its ban.

When the majority of states failed to adopt his unilateral anti-drug laws in 1935-36, he decided to change his tact and ban cannabis alone. In 1937, he brought in the Marihuana Tax Act. And the very next day, he arrested 57-year-old farmer Samuel Caldwell for selling cannabis to Moses Baca. Sentenced to four years’ hard labor, Caldwell died within a year of his release. [113] [118]

Many believe Anslinger had motives besides imposing his own version of moral order, and even beyond targeting blacks with his “new Jim Crow” laws. According to cannabis rights activist and author Jack Herer, Anslinger was actually conspiring with a group of powerful industrialists whose profits were threatened by hemp. Around the time of the Marihuana Tax Act, for example, DuPont had invented nylon and heavily invested in rayon – two synthetic fibers that were substantially inferior to hemp, both practically and economically. They also patented a new process for making wood-pulp paper—one of their most important products, and another one inferior to hemp. Suspiciously, Andrew Mellon, the chairman of Mellon Bank, DuPont’s main investor, was also the US Treasury Secretary who had appointed Anslinger to the FBN. Anslinger was also married to Mellon’s niece. [118] [120]

Herer also pointed out that William Randolph Hearst, whose newspapers so fiercely led the charge against cannabis, owned huge swathes of forest. Since the recently invented decorticator machine would have produced as much paper from 10,000 acres of hemp as 40,000 acres of timber, his investment had come under threat. Consequently, Hearst helped to demonize cannabis with sensationalist news stories linking the plant to violence, corruption, and incurable insanity. The foreign term “marijuana” was always used in preference to cannabis, playing on fears of an unknown immigrant menace. [118] [120]

The 1936 propaganda film Reefer Madness can be seen as the culmination of this sustained and ultimately very successful anti-cannabis campaign. Although Anslinger acted against the recommendations of the American Medical Association and numerous other experts, cannabis was removed from the US Pharmacopeia in 1942. [113] [118] [120]

And while the Marihuana Tax Act was eventually overturned and declared unconstitutional in the case of [Timothy] Leary v. United States (1969), [121] by this time it was too late. Congress had already approved participation in the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which heavily restricted cannabis use. The Controlled Substances Act was passed in 1970, placing cannabis in Schedule I, and, the following year, Nixon declared his “war on drugs.” [113]

Activism, medical marijuana, and legalization

As soon as 1973, the Shafer Commission—appointed by Nixon himself—recommended that cannabis be legalized. But they were ignored on the basis that it might lead people onto “harder drugs.” [114]

Meanwhile, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), set up in 1972, campaigned against the lobbyist-coerced federal downgrading of “harder drugs” such as pentazocine. [108]

The pharmaceutical Marinol, or dronabinol (synthetic THC), was also approved by the FDA despite it being around four times more potent than cannabis. [122] And the administration has often flat out denied that cannabis has any therapeutic benefits to begin with, despite hundreds of studies to the contrary. [123] [124] Usually, the process of FDA approval takes just one or two studies to get started.

In 1986, the DEA finally agreed to a public hearing on the reclassification of cannabis. But they ignored the verdict of their own administrative judge Francis L. Young when he recommended that it be downgraded. [108]

NORML appealed, arguing that the DEA’s criteria for reclassification—that the drug be in widespread use by doctors or supported by standard medical texts—could never be met by Schedule I drugs. The DEA was ordered to review but again refused to reclassify cannabis. [108]

Campaigning against prohibition alongside NORML was High Times magazine, which was set up by Tom Forçade in 1974. By 1978, the magazine had 4 million readers per month and, in 1988, held the first Cannabis Cup—a major international trade show that continues to this day. High Times also helped to promote the famous 4/20 counterculture holiday as an occasion for public cannabis consumption. “420” was originally code for cannabis among a group of high school students calling themselves “the Waldos.” [125] [126]

The medical benefits of cannabis couldn’t be denied forever. In 1976, the FDA was forced to grant individual approval for compassionate use to glaucoma sufferer Robert Randall. They were also forced to grant similar concessions to others. Known as Individual Treatment INDs (Investigational New Drugs), applications were evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Unfortunately, however, the application process was extremely drawn-out. Physicians first had to file individual forms with both the FDA and DEA, then, if approved, a separate order form with the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA). At the time, NIDA operated America’s only legal cannabis farm, in Mississippi. After verifying the order, NIDA then prepared and sent the cannabis from Mississippi to a facility in North Carolina, where it was rolled into joints. Finally, these were shipped to a specific pharmacy with strict, DEA-compliant regulations in place. The whole process could take up to eight months, with both the FDA and DEA constantly dragging their heels—ignoring calls, “losing” forms, and otherwise being unhelpful. In the end, most physicians didn’t bother applying. [108]

But with INDs medical marijuana, at last, had legal precedent, and support continued to grow. While George H. W. Bush suspended the IND program in 1992, individual states continued to decriminalize cannabis as a medicine. [113]

When Proposition 215 passed in 1996, California became the first state to fully legalize medical marijuana. At first, the federal government resisted, threatening to revoke the medical license of any physician who prescribed it. But this was declared unlawful by the Supreme Court, and Alaska, Oregon, Washington, Maine, Hawaii, Colorado, and Nevada all legalized cannabis for medical use between 1998 and 2000.

And despite continuing DEA interference and federal disapproval, other states followed—ultimately culminating with the first state legalization of cannabis for recreational use as well, in Washington and Colorado in 2012. [113]

In 2014r—amid continuing state legalization and despite heavy lobbying from Big Pharma—new federal guidelines were drawn up that allowed banks to finance medical marijuana growers. The Department of Justice also exempted Native American reservations from cannabis prohibition in states where it remained illegal. In 2016, the DEA even promised to increase the number of registered cannabis manufacturers. [113]

US models of legalization have also encouraged governments of other countries. There is some hope, for example, that a regulated global cannabis industry could boost the economic growth of developing countries such as Jamaica. [127] [128]

Besides undermining the black market and diverting criminal profits to the state, legalizing cannabis also promotes public health. As activists have consistently pointed out, criminalizing cannabis and other drugs gives governments significantly less, not more, control over their distribution and use. In fact, it simply hands control over to criminals, increasing the risk of misuse (including by children), as well as the risks posed by other crimes financed by or committed for the purpose of selling drugs.

Fortunately, governments around the world are finally accepting this fact. In June 2018, Canada became the first G7 nation to legalize cannabis for recreational use. Although Uruguay already did so in 2017, Canada’s relative importance on the international stage makes their decision all the more significant, setting a bold example that is hard for other nations to ignore.

Importantly, the stated aims of Canada’s Cannabis Act (Bill C-45), which allows adults to buy, sell, possess, and produce cannabis, run parallel to those of the outdated War on Drugs: to limit cannabis use among minors; to protect public health; and to deprive criminals of crucial revenue. [98] The difference is that legalization actually does all of these things—and more.

Current Usage

Cannabis is by far the most popular illicit substance in the world. According to the World Health Organization, 147 million people, or 2.5% of the global population use it, compared to just 0.2% for cocaine and opiates. Unsurprisingly, it also accounts for half of all drug seizures worldwide. [129]

Reflecting softening anti-cannabis stances, use of the plant in the US increased from 10.4% to 13.3% between 2002 and 2014. Meanwhile, perceptions of it as harmful have decreased from 50.4% to 33.3%. [130]

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