Cannabis Sativa

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This is the botanical name for the Hemp plant that originated in Asia. It is the basis of the hemp industry as well as the source of the widely used intoxicant Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active agent in Marijuana, Hashish, Ganja, and Bhang.


The use of Cannabis sativa has been recorded for thousands of years, beginning in Asia. It was known to the ancient Greeks and later to the Arabs, who, during their spread of Islam from the seventh to the fifteenth centuries, also spread its use across the Levant and North Africa. Some 200-300 million people are estimated to use Cannabis in some form worldwide. Thus, it is not only one of the oldest known but also one of the most widely used mind-altering drugs.

Since the 1960s, the rise in its use in the United States has been enormous and associated with the youth movement and countercultural revolution. Although the drug was in use before that time, it was popular only in some ethnic and specialized groups (e.g., jazz musicians). By the 1990s, some 30-40 million Americans are estimated to have used it and a substantial number use it regularlyalthough since 1979 the number of youngsters initiated into its use has been declining after a steep rise with an increasingly lower age of first use.


Cannabis sativa grows in the tropical, subtropical, and temperate regions. It is generally considered a single species of the mulberry family (Moraceae) with multiple morphological variants (e.g., C. indica or C. americana ). It is an herb of varying size; some are quite bushy and attain a height of 10 to 15 feet (3 to 4.6 m). Due to genetic differences, some plants produce strong fibers (but little THC) and others produce a substantial quantity of THC but weak fibers. The fiber-producer is grown commercially for cloth, rope, roofing materials, and floor coverings; this was cultivated as a cash crop in colonial America for such purposes (Hart, 1980). During World War II, when it appeared that the United States might be cut off from Southeast Asian hemp, necessary to the war effort, the plants were cultivated in the mid-western states. Some of them continue to grow wild today, but since they are of the fiber-producing variety, they contain little drug content.

The drug-producing variety is widely cultivated in societies where its use is condoned. Illegal crops are also planted, some in the United States. The choice parts are the fresh top leaves and flowers of the female plant. The leaves have a characteristic configuration of five deeply cut serrated lobes. When they are harvested, they often resemble lawn cuttingswhich accounts for the slang term "grass."


The collective name given to the terpenes found in Cannabis is cannabinoids. Most of the naturally occurring cannabinoids have now been identified, and three are the most abundantcannabidiol (CBD), tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), and cannabinol (CBN). The steps from CBD to THC to CBN represent the biosynthetic pathway in the plant. THC is an optically active resinous material that is very lipid-soluble but water-insoluble; these physical properties make pharmacological investigations difficult, since various nonpolar solvents must be used. Although many other materials have been found in this plant, the cannabinoids are unique to it and THC is the only one with appreciable mental affects. THC is believed to be largely, if not solely, responsible for the effects desired by those who use Cannabis socially. Virtually all the effects pro-Biosynthetic Pathway of Cannabinoids duced by smoking or eating some of the whole plant can be attained by using THC alone.


Cannabis grows so easily that it is called a weed. In the United States, where it remains illegal, it is possible for those who wish to use it as a social drug to grow their own supply. The ease of cultivation keeps the price of imported illicit marijuana down, which helps account for some of its widespread use. Such cultivation is, however, as illegal as possession of the drug obtained from illicit "street" sources.

(See also: Anslinger, Harry J., and U.S. Drug Policy ; High School Senior Survey )


Hart, R. H. (1980). Bitter grass: The cruel truth about marihuana. Shawnee Mission, KS: Psychoneurologia Press.

Razdan, R. K. (1986). Structure-activity relationships in cannabinoids. Pharmacology Review, 38, 75-148.

Leo E. Hollister