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American Journal of Nursing (Aug 1938)

Dangerous Marihuana

by Frederick T. Merrill

Only about ten years ago the use of marihuana for narcotic purposes was virtually unknown in this country except to the itinerant Mexican laborers of the Southwest. In the last six months a flood of publicity in the newspapers, magazines, and even movies has awaked the public to the fact that a dangerous narcotic is being used--and has been for several years--not only in certain circles of the underworld, but also in the high schools and colleges.

The smoking of marihuana by adolescents is more widespread than most people realize. It has become a new fad, appealing to the curiosity and recklessness of youth. The greed of unscrupulous peddlers, the immense profits, the cheap price for which a marihuana cigarette retails, and the availability of supply from a plant that grows wild almost everywhere are all contributory reasons for its prevalent use. If the abuse of this narcotic drug is not stamped out at once, the cost in crime waves, wasted human lives, and insanity will be enormous.

The word, "marihuana," is both the Mexican-Indian slang word and the legal term for the portions of the plant Cannabis sativa L. which are thought to contain the narcotic element. In general, this applies to very nearly the entire male and female plant, although it is usually the flowering tops and leaves of the latter that contain the richest amounts of the narcotic principle. Because the plant is often known as Indian hemp and its stalk produces a fiber useful in making twines, ropes, and certain grades of paper, it is sometimes confused with other species of hemp. It has also been mistakenly identified with "loco weed."

The cannabis plant grows to a height of over twelve feet, but five to eight feet is more common. The stalk varies from one-half to two inches in thickness. The configuration of each leaf with its five or six leaflets resembles the human hand. Each leaflet, pointed at both ends, is from two to six inches in length and one inch in width. The male and female plants can be distinguished only when mature, the inconspicuous female flowers being found among the small leaves at the end of the branches. The male plant at maturity has very visible flowers which shed pollen profusely. The seeds may be dark in color or distinctly mottled; they are the size of a wheat kernel but nearly round. Under a microscope these seeds are particularly characteristic.

To prepare marihuana for smoking, it is merely necessary to dry the flowering tops and leaves, crush into a coarse powder, and roll it into cigarettes. Under such names as "reefers," "muggles," "Indian hay," "tea," and "goof butts," they are sold in poolrooms, dance halls, and other places where young people congregate, for prices ranging from ten to fifty cents. Some cigarettes are strong in narcotic content; others mild. The strongest sometimes contain enough narcotic poison to deal a knockout blow to the smoker, inducing a condition which may lead to all types of violent crimes and debauchery, about which the smoker probably will have no recollection later. Although it produces none of the addiction symptoms (the withdrawal phenomenon) which occur in morphine or heroin users, it does give rise to a craving and may very easily lead to morphine or heroin addiction.

Individuals react differently toward equal doses of this narcotic, depending on their racial, physiological, and emotional constitution. The complete unpredictability of the effect of marihuana on any given individual makes its use in medicine worthless. It is this uncertain effect that makes it one of the most dangerous drugs known, for one dose may bring about acute intoxication, raving fits, and criminal assaults.

The physical effects of smoking marihuana appear about an hour after consumption in the form of muscular trembling, acceleration of the pulse, dizziness, and sensation of cold in the hands and feet. Constrictions in the chest, dilation of the pupil of the eye, and muscular contraction follows. These physical reactions increase in intensity until either vomiting or complete stupefaction occurs. Restless sleep, accompanied by bizarre phantasmagoria, then overcomes the victim.

The mental effects are more variable since the emotional and imaginative attitudes of the smoker are the major determining factors. The drug affects the entire nervous system, especially the higher nerve centers. Illusions, inordinate and senseless laughter, and a loss of spatial and temporal relations are the first effects observable. The auditory sense is particularly distorted, which accounts for the not infrequent use of marihuana by members of "hot" orchestras. Even in the earliest states of intoxication the will power is destroyed and inhibitions and restraints are released. The most harmful anti-social effects of the drug occur during the later stages. The intense over-excitement of the nerves and emotions leads to uncontrollable irritability and violent rages, which in most advance forms cause assault and murder. Amnesia often occurs, and the mania is frequently so acute that the heavy smoker becomes temporarily insane. Most authorities agree that permanent insanity can result from continued over-indulgence.

The files of the United States Bureau of Narcotics contain many records of crimes committed by persons under the influence of marihuana. The drug is often used by petty criminals to bolster up their courage for contemplated crimes, for it gives the illusion of increased physical strength. As a result, these crimes are often violent ones. In other cases, an overdose of marihuana may be either the direct cause of a fatal automobile accident or a meaningless murder. It is important to note that juries and judges are not allowing pleas of marihuana intoxication as an extenuating circumstance for criminal acts committed under its influence. Both the peddler of the drug and the individual who commits a crime after smoking marihuana should receive maximum penalties if society is to be protected from crimes of this nature.

Marihuana has been known for many centuries by the peoples of India and the Mediterranean littoral, mostly by such names as hashish, charas, bhang, or kif. It is at present subject to international restrictions in respect to its trade, while certain governments have legislated against its abuse. The United States congress passed a Marihuana Tax Act last summer, as the various state laws lacked uniformity and were providing loopholes for traffickers. The Act is an internal revenue measure, but indirectly it limits the use of the drug to proper medical channels. The taxation and registration provisions of the law publicizes the cultivation of the plant and makes its transfer extremely difficult. Illegal transfers are subject to heavy penalties, up to two years in jail.

A new crop of marihuana will be harvested illicitly this fall in spite of the successful efforts state and federal authorities have been making in uprooting and destroying tons of the wild plant in all sections of the country. Those interested in the welfare of young people should be on their guard against its appearance in the form cigarettes in their neighborhood. Boys and girls of high school age and older should be told just how dangerous it is to try even one cigarette. Marihuana dives must be discovered and peddlers apprehended. An aroused public can do much to eradicate this evil.

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