Marijuana: Cannabis sativa

General and Botanical Information:

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Marijuana (Latin binomial:Cannabis sativa), a member of the Cannabaceae family (, is counted among the most timeless plants in human his500px-Cannabis_sativa_Koehler_drawing.jpgtory; the plant itself has been sought after for its hallucinogen properties, medical benefits, its fiber, oil, and seeds. Marijuana, due to its use all over the world, has developed various strains to the point that "taxonomists believe it should be divided into at least three separate species based on size and growth habit"(Plants and Society 348). Plants can vary in size from below one foot, to over 25 feet! Some are tall and skinny, others are short and bushy, many are in between this range. The marijuana species has separate male and female plants (dioecious annuals); aka the pollen bearing staminate and ovule-bearing carpellate flowers are located on separate plants. The clusters of flowers or inflorescence occurs in the axils of the upper leaves, and the leaves themselves are some of the most recognized leaves on planet earth; consisting of between 3-7 (most commonly 5) "toothed leaflets" (Plants and Society 348). The glandular hairs of the plant produce Resin which coats the unfertilized flowers and leaves. It is this resin that is sought after by those looking to use the plant for psychedelic purposes because this resin contains the potent chemical THC which will be discussed in greater length later.
Marijuana plants contain more than 400 chemicals, including choline, eugenol, guaicacol and piperidine (Bonsor 2009), however, the effects that marijuana has on the brain are all generally attributed to THC, whose potency is dependent on growing conditions and genetic strains.

Geographical Use:

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These statistics are based on a 2006-2007 study done by the United Nations. The dark red areas demonstrate countries whose use of marijuana exceeds 8% of the population. It is coincidence that marijuana usage coincides mostly with the designated "western world"? "Marijuana is the most widely used illicit drug on the planet. Intertwined with culture, economics, law enforcement and perhaps medical miracles, this plant holds both peril and promise" (National Geographic, 2009). Marijuana is a natural growing plant, typically requiring tropical conditions. However, in recent times, growers of the plant have established more effective methods for growing especially potent strains of marijuana indoors. "By judiciously manipulating the five main environmental factors under their control-water, nutrients, light, carbon dioxide levels, and heat-as well as the genetics of the plant, growers found that the marijuana plant, this remarkably obliging weed, could be made to perform wonders... 'the gardener is [now] Mother Nature, but even better" (Pollan 133-134).

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History of the Human Use of Marijuana:

"The species is believed to have originated in central Asia" (Plants and Society 348) "as far back as the Neolithic era (8,000-5,000 BC), where charred remains of cannabis seeds have been unearthed in ancient braziers of present day Romania" ( "About 5000 years ago, the legendary Emperor Shen Nung recommended marijuana for the treatment of rheumatism, gout, malaria, beriberi, absentmendedness, female disorders, and constipation. There is also some evidence that the Chinese knew of and used the plant for its hallucinogenic properties, but this practice was not as prevalent here as it was in India" (Plants and Society 348). In 4000 BC textiles made of hempwere being utilized in China, articles ranging from clothes to ship sails were created utilizing the strong fibers found in the marijuana plant. Hemp and Marijuana spread throughout Asia, being utilized for its fibrous properties and medicinal purposes. In 500 BCE hemp is introduced into Northern Europe by the Scythians, who were the first to document its hallucinogenic properties, and it spread throughout this region for the next 500 years. From 1271-1295 Marco Polo gives accounts of Cannibus and his experiences in Asia throughout Europe. In the 17th century the British and French begin growing cannibus in their colonies at Port Royal, Virginia, and Plymouth.Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were known to grow Cannabis on their plantations in the 1700s, most likely for the production of hemp (
In 1798 "Napoleon discovers that much of the Egyptian lower class habitually uses hashish (Kimmens 1977). He declares a total prohibition. Soldiers returning to France bring the tradition with them" ( Medical usage of Marijuana in the United States did not begin until 1840, and by the early 20th century was being outlawed for any purpose other than designated by a doctor. Smoking marijuana was made popular by jazz musicians of the age, and the drug spread among the urban poor. In 1936 the propaganda film Reefer Madness was produced to scare American youth out of using the drug. The Federal Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 gave control over selling the plant to the government and virtually elimiated Cannibis from U.S. medicine. The social revolution of the 1960's saw an incredible increase in Marijuana use in the United States, and by the 1970's state governments were relaxing their laws pertaining to the drug. Use declined until the 1990's and then a resurgance of the drug came in full force bringing us to current times where governments abroad as well as domestic state governments have began relaxing use and possession laws regarding marijuana.

Psychoactive Uses:

Cannabis is made up of over 60 phenolic compounds; these compounds are "pure hydrocarbons, with 21 carbon atoms in an elaborate 2-3 ring structure" (Plants and Society 348). The psychoactive component of marijuana was identified in 1964 as delta-9-tetrahydro-cannabinol (aka THC).external image moz-screenshot-1.jpg
marijuana-thc-molecule.jpgTHC typically reaches the brain just mere seconds after inhalation. "Marijuana users often describe the experience of smoking marijuana as initially relaxing and mellow, creating a feeling of haziness and light-headedness. The user's eyes may dilate, causing colors to appear more intense, and other senses may be enhanced. Later, feelings of a paranoia and panic may be felt by the user. The interaction of the THC with the brain is what causes these feelings" (Bonsor,


High concentrations of cannabinoid receptors exist in the parts of the brain called the hippocampus, cerebellum and basal ganglia. The hippocampus is located within the temporal lobe, its primary function concerns short term memory. When the THC binds with the cannabinoid receptors inside the hippocampus, it interferes with the recollection of recent events. THC also affects coordination, which is controlled by the cerebellum. The basal ganglia controls unconscious muscle movements, which is another reason why motor coordination is impaired when under the influence of marijuana (Bonsor,

Additional Effects:

In addition to brain damage, loss of coordination, loss of memory, and difficulty thinking, marijuana effects other parts of the body as well. Although the initial effects of the marijuana will wear off after a few hours, the terminal half life of THC is from about 20 hours to 10 days, depending on the amount and potency of the marijuana used. What this means is that THC will remain in your body, continuing to cause adverse effects for substantially longer than you are feeling the effects. Studies are ongoing, but initial findings relate the following symptoms to continual marijuana use: irritability, nervousness, depression, anxiety and even anger, restlessness, severe changes in appetite, violent outbursts, and insomnia. Most doctors maintain that marijuana causes many of the same problems that smoking Tobago causes, such as "bronchitis, emphysema, and bronchial asthma. Other effects include dry mouth, red eyes, impaired motor skills and impaired concentration. Long-term use of the drug can increase the risk of damaging the lungs and reproductive system, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). It has also been linked to heart attacks" (Bonsor,
In very rare occasions marijuana can trigger serious mental illness.
Those that smoke marijuana heavily over a long period report feeling like they are in a permanent brain fog. Serious paranoia is also a potential permanent side effect (BBC,

*Wild Card* Lesson Plan on the Counter Culture of the 60's and Drugsold_hippie_very_old_hippies_1.jpg

The incorporation of marijuana into a high school social studies class is really very straight forward, and as far as I'm concerned should be a part of the lesson already. But since many teachers have a fear of speaking about anything illegal, I have opted to create a lesson plan dedicated to an era often skipped over by traditional history teachers.

Ideally the students and I would have been covering the conservatism of the 1950's prior to the beginning of this unit. I would begin the unit by explaining to the students the new concept of "youth", for the past generations once someone hit 19 they were considered an adult, this "youth" movement changed all that. These young American's were not ready to give up their childlike freedom (i.e. flower children, or hippies) just as they were entering the ages when they could really enjoy all of earth's beauty and opportunity. This youth movement became an entity in itself, accepting all people from early teens to 30 years old. It was practically doctrine back then not to trust anyone over the age of 30!

This brief lecture would then move into the tumultuous 60's, the youth movement was standing witness to a war that it largely opposed, and not only that, but it was the youth that was fighting it! Vietnam is still one of the most controversial wars ever fought, with thousands of American's losing their lives for what would appear to be no real gain. The purposes for going to Vietnam in the first place was to maintain the statement of the Truman Doctrine, which dedicated the United States to a policy of containment in regards to communism and the U.S.S.R. As the death toll mounted, and no gains were made, the opposition grew, protests became more centralized and extreme, and musicians were writing songs about revolution. At this point I would play a video clip of protests during the 60's found on the and play the song "Revolution" by the Beatles, the students would be given a copy of the lyrics so that they could see the message that they were proclaiming. The 1960's was also the time of President Kennedy's assassination, arguably the most beloved president in United States history, the world truly appeared to be coming to an end.

The youth movement saw two options to the depressing world around them, death and drugs. The vast majority chose the latter. It provided an escape from the horrors of the world and provided a sanctuary for their last glimmers of hope. Drug use represented the ultimate freedom because it was freeing people from their own minds.

By 1967 song writers had responded to this new wave of drug popularity with “psychedelic” music. Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze,” the Beatles “Sgt. Peppers” album, Jefferson Airplane’s “Surrealistic Pillow” and the Cream’s “Disraeli Gears” are but a few of the albums that attempted to recreate the LSD experience. I would bring in a number of these songs as well as lyrics for the students so that they too could close their eyes and listen to the lyrics, then go back and read over what they actually just heard. It would be an interesting experiment to have the students listen to the songs first with their eyes closed, then have them write down what the music made them feel, and then examine the lyrics as a class and discuss the meaning behind them.

I would continue to clarify the separation between the counter-culture and "the establishment" by explaining that the issue of drugs not only broadened the gap between youth and the establishment, it solidified the young’s sense of belonging to their own community. This youth community questioned everything society held sacred so it was not surprising that even the love songs of this period would illustrate a change in attitude. At the end of this lesson or unit, I would ask the students to talk about their own feelings towards "establishment", or rules put in place that they feel are just there to hold them back because they are younger; some examples may be driving age, voting age, drinking age, certain school rules, curfews, etc. I have found through my own student teaching that when you can relate the material back to the student's own lives that they get much more involved and excited about the lesson. By getting them to open up about their own feelings on these types of issues I think the class will be enthralled by constructive discussion.

Works Cited:


  • Levetin , Estelle and McMahon, Karen. Plants and Society, Fifth edition. (2008) McGraw-Hill, NY.

Pollan, Michael. The Botany of Desire. Random House Publishers. New York, New York. 2002.