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Marihuana - The Mexican dope plant is the source of a social problem

By CLAIR A. BROWN Associate Professor of Botany, Louisiana State University


MAN has turned the products of the soil to many uses and produced from them many things, from rubber tires to perfumes. Most of these uses have been good, but now and then the properties of plants have been put to destructive uses. One of these is marihuana, whose name has lately gained the newspaper headlines and won attention in the newsreels because of the drive against traffic in the narcotic drug that bears the name of the plant, and which comes from a resin it produces.

To those fighting to break up the distribution of illicit narcotics marihuana is a social problem. To the botanist it is an annual herb that grows from three to fourteen feet tall. In order that you may know it when you see it, the botanist will tell you that the leaves are palmately compound with five to seven, and occasionally eleven, leaflets, which may be alternate or opposite on the same individual. The margins of the leaflets are coarsely serrate, and the tips and base are long and sharply pointed. The stem and foliage are pubescent with curved hairs. The upper surface of a leaflet is definitely roughened. The staminate and pistillate flowers are borne on separate plants. The staminate flowers are in axillary panicles with five green sepals and five stamens. The petals are wanting. The pistillate flowers are solitary in the axils of the leaf like bracts. The staminate plants have an elongated, pyramidal inflorescence, whereas the pistillate plants appear dumpy with a compact, flat-topped inflorescence.

The plant, Cannabis sativa, is a native of India, but has been introduced into many parts of the world. It apparently can grow under a wide variety of climatic conditions and soil types, and in many places is considered a weed. It has been cultivated in limited sections in Kentucky, Indiana, New York, Wisconsin and California for its fiber-hemp. In fact, it is probably more widely known as the hemp plant or red root than as marihuana. The cultivation of the plant for hemp has declined in late years, but the seed is widely used in poultry feed and is also pressed for an oil.

In India the plant is cultivated for the fiber and for the narcotic resin. Apparently the plant is peculiar in that it does not produce the narcotic resin in quantity everywhere it is grown. There are definite statements that the resin is produced only in warm climates or under tropical conditions. But there is evidence that plants growing under northern conditions apparently produce some narcotic resin.

As a drug plant, it is known under many names in addition to marihuana, or marijuana, or marajuana, which are three spellings. The names vary according to geographical location, and the names may be used for the plant itself, for the preparations made from it, or for both. Some of these names are guaza, ganjah, hashish, bhang, charas (India), momeka, kanab, siddi, sabsi, manzoul, moogoun, esar (Turkey), chisa (Tunis), djambo (Brazil), as well as Indian hemp, Cannabis indica, Cannabis americana, and Cannabis africana. The last three names are used in the drug trade to designate the source of the product. Material from India apparently contains the most narcotic resin. The crude material is sold in three forms to the lawful drug trade-first, the pistillate flower tops with their resin, which bring the highest price; second, the resin, which is knocked or scraped off and kneaded into balls; and, third, masses of leaves with their resinous deposits. The drug Cannabis indica, or cannabin, is a mixture of two alkaloids, a volatile oil and a strong narcotic resin; these have not been isolated, purified, or chemically identified. Physicians sometimes prescribe this drug for relief in migraine, neuralgia, hysteria, spasmodic cough, and in preparations for intestinal disorders.

In the illegal trade the narcotic resin is prepared to be smoked, inhaled, ingested as a sweet, or as a drink. Bhang is a liquid preparation frequently sweetened or spiced to be used as a drink. The resin is extracted with butter and goes into the preparation of candy, preserves, and sweetmeats with various kinds of nuts. As a smoke it is used alone or mixed with tobacco and other adulterants. The effect of the resin is stronger when eaten than when smoked. In muggles, as the marihuana cigarets are called by the peddlers in Louisiana, the foliage, small stems, and flowers are used. In this state severe penalties are imposed for the growing, sale, or possession of the plant or its extracts or compounds. Our knowledge of the effects of this drug on man is imperfect. Prior to 1930 it had received only sporadic medical attention. It appears that it is a distinct depressant of the brain and spinal cord activities. It acts slowly and continues for a long time. The resin has a stimulating and intoxicating effect, which is frequently called cannabis intoxication. Small quantities produce a pleasant excitement, which passes into delirium and catalepsy if the quantity is increased. Large quantities are definitely poisonous. Individuals react differently, sometimes periods of exaltation and hilarity are exhibited; at other times, hallucinations and premonition of impending death seize the victims. It destroys time perception so that a minute may seem as long as a day, or an hour only a minute. A continued use of the drug is said to produce a deterioration of the mind, and a weakening of memory.

In the last few years officials have been seriously concerned with the increased use of the drug. Medical men and scientists have disagreed about its properties, and the danger following its use. Some have a tendency to minimize the influence of marihuana, but the evidence is accumulating that it is a breeder of crime. The stimulation from smoking marihuana cigarets has led many individuals to take part in violent crimes. It apparently releases natural restraint and gives a false courage. The smoking of marihuana is spreading to people who hitherto have not been users of drugs. One of the worst features concerning it is the activity of peddlers in introducing it to high school students, with the resultant destruction of moral standards, in order to create new outlets for their nefarious trade.

H.J. Anslinger, Commissioner of the Bureau of Narcotics in Washington, recently released the following figures concerning seizures of marihuana: In 1936, thirty-nine states reported to his office 338 seizures totaling 5892 cigarets, and more than three tons of bulk marihuana, and the destruction of 181,225 pounds of growing plants. Twenty seizures in Louisiana, for example, yielded 1217 cigarets, 1195 pounds of bulk marihuana and destruction of 10,600 growing plants.

Nature Magazine, Vol. 31, No. 5. May 1938 - published by the American Nature Association. 1214 16th St. N.W., Washington DC.

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