Grass, hash, weed, bud, hemp, tea, skunk, Mary Jane, sinsemilla, pot, ganja, reefer… All names for one of Mother Nature’s most popular products: marijuana, Latin name: cannabis sativa or cannabis indica. If only for the sheer number of euphemisms, the wacky baccy should hold some sort of record. But it’s not what we call it, it’s what we do with it that counts and alongside the rather more hardcore opium, cannabis is probably one of humankind’s oldest ways of putting itself into an altered state.
For some reason, it’s also one of the most controversial. Which is a little strange given it’s such a mild drug. I don’t mean to underplay the effects of a nicely-rolled ‘fattie’ or Camberwell Carrot but most studies – even the government-sponsored ones – show it to be less physically addictive than alcohol or nicotine. Granted if you smoke it every day, you might exhibit a little psychological or habitual dependence (beware of making it part of your daily routine, kids!) and your memory might become shockingly bad, but if you stop, the withdrawal symptoms are minimal and in no way life-threatening.
So, why the obsessive fascination? Is it because it’s cheap? Readily available? Easy to grow your own? (Well, easier than cultivating and processing poppies, anyway.) Whatever, it’s definitely a big part of 20th and 21st century popular culture. From 1930s jazz musicians partaking of ‘muggles’ to the coughing intro of Black Sabbath’s “Sweet Leaf”, smoking a doobie while you listen to your favorite sounds is a pastime that unites all music fans. Regardless of opinionated differences over the actual music, all agree that a toke can transform and enhance the auditory experience.
Then you have the whole medical marijuana debate. The dread weed has been labelled a ‘gateway drug’, linked to schizophrenia (Reefer Madness, anyone?), and even in April 2014, we had Fox News warning us that regular use leads to cardiovascular disease and ultimately death (incidentally, the one certainty in life is that everything ultimately leads to death). After decades of demonizing by the likes of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and then the DEA in the U.S., it turns out that the odd spliff may actually be good for what ails you. Certainly, plenty of multiple sclerosis sufferers would say so.
So, lets’ wander tranquilly through a short history of the leaf: its first medical use in asthma-relieving cigarettes, its criminalization, the confused and contradictory scientific evidence, the Castaneda-inspired hippiedom, the constantly debated shifting and emerging legality, and even the hushed up non-psychoactive uses for the hemp plant. Just try not to white out…