Science Seeks to Unlock Marijuana Secrets As the Once-Vilified Drug Becomes more Accepted
Picture of a cannabis strained named Blueberry Cheesecake
Marijuana’s advocates believe the long-maligned plant can enhance life—and help deliver people from sickness and pain. A Seattle cannabis worker cradles the resin-dusted bud of a strain called Blueberry Cheesecake.
PHOTOGRAPH BY LYNN JOHNSON
By Hampton Sides
Photographs by Lynn Johnson
This story appeared in the June 2015 issue of National Geographic magazine.
There’s nothing new about cannabis, of course. It’s been around humankind pretty much forever.
In Siberia charred seeds have been found inside burial mounds dating back to 3000 B.C. The Chinese were using cannabis as a medicine thousands of years ago. Marijuana is deeply American too—as American as George Washington, who grew hemp at Mount Vernon. For most of the country’s history, cannabis was legal, commonly found in tinctures and extracts.
Then came Reefer Madness. Marijuana, the Assassin of Youth. The Killer Weed. The Gateway Drug. For nearly 70 years the plant went into hiding, and medical research largely stopped. In 1970 the federal government made it even harder to study marijuana, classifying it as a Schedule I drug—a dangerous substance with no valid medical purpose and a high potential for abuse, in the same category as heroin. In America most people expanding knowledge about cannabis were by definition criminals.
But now, as more and more people are turning to the drug to treat ailments, the science of cannabis is experiencing a rebirth. We’re finding surprises, and possibly miracles, concealed inside this once forbidden plant. Although marijuana is still classified as a Schedule I drug, Vivek Murthy, the U.S. surgeon general, recently expressed interest in what science will learn about marijuana, noting that preliminary data show that “for certain medical conditions and symptoms” it can be “helpful.”
Picture of two marijuana growers photographing their product
Picture of a medical marijuana dispensary employee
Left: In northern California, recovering meth addicts Nicholas and Richard Lopez take photographs of their harvest to share online. Right: At Noho’s Finest, a medical marijuana dispensary in the Los Angeles area, Damaris Diaz checks the scent and stickiness of her products.
PHOTOGRAPH BY LYNN JOHNSON
Picture of the cash revenue from a marijuana business next to guns
Cash is the norm for many cannabis businesses, even in Colorado, because banks are reluctant to handle money from marijuana-related sales. Jayson “Giddy Up” Emo, who runs a Denver firm that makes machines for extracting chemicals from cannabis, protects his proceeds the old-fashioned way—with firepower.
PHOTOGRAPH BY LYNN JOHNSON
In 23 states and the District of Columbia cannabis is legal for some medical uses, and a majority of Americans favor legalization for recreational use. Other countries are rethinking their relationship to pot too. Uruguay has voted to legalize it. Portugal has decriminalized it. Israel, Canada, and the Netherlands have medical marijuana programs, and in recent years numerous countries have liberalized possession laws.
Ganja is simply around us more, its unmistakable but increasingly unremarkable smell hanging in the air. Yes, smoking it may lead to temporary laughing sickness, intense shoe-gazing, amnesia about what happened two seconds ago, and a ravenous yearning for Cheez Doodles. Though there’s never been a death reported from an overdose, marijuana—especially today’s stout iterations—is also a powerful and in some circumstances harmful drug.
Still, for many, cannabis has become a tonic to dull pain, aid sleep, stimulate appetite, buffer life’s thumps and shocks. Pot’s champions say it peels back layers of stress. It’s also thought to be useful as, among other things, an analgesic, an antiemetic, a bronchodilator, and an anti-inflammatory. It’s even been found to help cure a bad case of the hiccups. Compounds in the plant, some scientists contend, may help the body regulate vital functions—such as protecting the brain against trauma, boosting the immune system, and aiding in “memory extinction” after catastrophic events.
In the apparent rush to accept weed into the mainstream, to tax and regulate it, to legitimize and commodify it, important questions arise. What’s going on inside this plant? How does marijuana really affect our bodies and our brains? What might the chemicals in it tell us about how our neurological systems function? Could those chemicals lead us to beneficial new pharmaceuticals?
If cannabis has something to tell us, what’s it saying?
The Chemist: Treasure Trove
Even into the middle of the 20th century, science still didn’t understand the first thing about marijuana. What was inside it and how it worked remained a mystery. Because of its illegality and tainted image, few serious scientists wanted to besmirch their reputations by studying it.
Then one day in 1963 a young organic chemist in Israel named Raphael Mechoulam, working at the Weizmann Institute of Science outside Tel Aviv, decided to peer into the plant’s chemical composition. It struck him as odd that even though morphine had been teased from opium in 1805 and cocaine from coca leaves in 1855, scientists had no idea what the principal psychoactive ingredient was in marijuana. “It was just a plant,” says Mechoulam, now 84. “It was a mess, a mélange of unidentified compounds.”