This week many celebrated marijuana on 4/20, while we also honor Earth Day on 4/22. Earth Day is not so much a celebration as a call for us to become aware of the incredibly widespread destruction and havoc humans have wreaked upon our environment and a plea for us to dramatically change this before we destroy our habitat. The closeness of 4/20 and 4/22 is apropos, as the banned and controversial cannabis plant offers arguably the single best way to ameliorate many of the problems our society and ecosystem currently face.
Cannabis (also known as hemp and marijuana) is one of the oldest cultivated plants. I know of no plant with such a wide range of beneficial uses. It is claimed that the hemp plant has 50,000 uses. Cannabis is among the very best sources of food, cloth, oil, paper, and building materials. It grows quickly (like a weed), thrives in a variety of climates, is naturally resistant to most plant diseases, requires little weeding and enriches the soil it is grown in.
Hemp is a superb source of fiber, historically being used for rope, cloth and paper. The sails and ropes on Columbus’s ships (and most ships in that era) were made from hemp, the first American flag was made from hemp and the Declaration of Independence was written on hemp paper. From 75%-90% of all paper in the US was made from hemp until the late 1800’s. George Washington famously wrote “Make the most you can of the Indian Hemp seed and sow it everywhere” and grew it at Mount Vernon. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison also grew hemp. They grew it for its industrial uses and it is unlikely that they used it medicinally. Ben Franklin started the first hemp paper mill in the US.
An acre of hemp will produce 4.1 times as much pulp for paper per acre as an acre of trees. It will produce 2-3 times as much fiber for cloth per acre as cotton. Cotton production requires very intensive use of water, pesticides and nitrogen-based fertilizers which increase nitrogen dioxide emissions, which are 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas and which also contaminate groundwater. Cloth made from hemp is softer, stronger, warmer and more durable than cotton. The first Levi jeans were made from hemp cloth.
Hemp-based materials can replace wood and other building materials used in foundations, walls, shingles, paneling, pipes and paints. Concrete made from hemp, such as Hempcrete, is lightweight, waterproof, fireproof, self-insulating and pest-resistant and can be used to build roads and bridges.
The oil from hemp plants can be used as a fuel. Henry Ford expected that ethanol distilled from hemp and other biomass plants would be the preferred fuel for cars and built a car made from plastic-like material derived from hemp fiber that ran on fuel distilled from hemp. This plastic was 10 times stronger than steel and weighed far less.
Hemp is the most efficient producer of biomass per acre on Earth. Hemp can be distilled into charcoal, methanol, pyrolytic oil and gasoline at a 95.5% fuel to feed ratio. It burns much cleaner than fossil fuels, producing virtually no sulphur or ash. While burning it does produce carbon dioxide, that same amount of carbon dioxide is converted back to oxygen by growing hemp plants, creating a completely balanced cycle that adds no net carbon dioxide to our atmosphere!
Hemp is a also a valuable source of food. Hemp seeds are a powerhouse of nutrition, containing one of the highest protein contents of any food including all 20 amino acids and all 9 essential amino acids. It is nature’s highest source of essential fatty acids with an optimal 3:1 ratio of omega 6 linoleic acid to omega 3 linolenic acid. It is a rich source of minerals such as magnesium, potassium and iron and has many vitamins, especially Vitamin E, and is an excellent source of dietary fiber. It is highly digestible and undoubtedly one of nature’s most perfect foods. Hemp seed oil is perhaps the healthiest oil (and makes a fine salad dressing) and hemp milk is a nutritious milk substitute.
While industrial hemp is the same plant as medicinal cannabis, the strains grown for industrial use have minimal levels of THC and other psychoactive compounds, while the strains used medicinally have been bred to have very high levels of psychoactive compounds.
The cannabis plant has been used medicinally for thousands of years, being mentioned as a popular medicine in ancient China in 2900 BC and was widely used in Asia, India and the Arab world. According to Medical Marijuana Law by Boire and Feeney, “By 1850, marijuana had made its way into the United States Pharmacopeia [an official public standards-setting authority for all prescription and over-the counter medicines], which listed marijuana as treatment for numerous afflictions, including: neuralgia, tetanus, typhus, cholera, rabies, dysentery, alcoholism, opiate addiction, anthrax, leprosy, incontinence, gout, convulsive disorders, tonsillitis, insanity, excessive menstrual bleeding, and uterine bleeding, among others. Patented marijuana tinctures were sold” and widely used as a medicine in the US until 1937, when it was outlawed (despite opposition by the AMA!).
While there is a surprising amount of modern research on the medicinal uses, such research has been limited due to its legal status. The conditions marijuana are most widely used for include nausea and vomiting (particularly associated with chemotherapy), seizure disorders, migraine headaches, glaucoma, muscle spasms, including those associated with multiple sclerosis, Tourette’s syndrome, obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention deficit disorder, irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease, premenstrual syndrome, menstrual cramps, Alzheimer’s disease, poor appetite associated with wasting diseases like AIDS and with chemotherapy, asthma, insomnia, anxiety, depression and chronic pain, especially neuropathic pain, a difficult-to-treat type of pain associated with cancer, diabetes and neurological disorders. Medical marijuana is also increasingly being used to treat cancer based on recent research showing it can kill at least some types of cancer cells. There are many individuals with conditions for which medical marijuana appears to work far better than any known pharmaceutical medicine.
Twenty-four states and Washington DC have legalized the medical use of marijuana (and two of these have legalized it for recreational use). This is leading to refinement of its medical uses. There are 2 main strains, sativa, which is more stimulating, and indica, which is more sedating, but there are hundreds of substrains that contain various mixtures of the 400+ chemicals found in cannabis. The main chemical in cannabis that causes the “high” is THC ( Tetrahydrocannabinol), which also appears to have anti-cancer properties. The other main medically-active substance is CBD (Cannabidiol). This does not make people feel “stoned” but is anti-inflammatory and reduces pain, anxiety and muscle spasm and also appears to have anti-cancer properties. Thus, some strains are better for insomnia or muscle spasms, some better for nausea or appetite, etc. Besides smoking the plant, it can be used orally and topically. Vaporizers allow one to inhale the vapors without smoke. Many users do not want the “high” associated with marijuana. Using it topically relieves pain without altering consciousness, as does ingesting the juice of fresh leaves, or choosing strains high in CBD.
No medicine is equally suited for everyone. Marijuana certainly does not agree with everybody, creating anxiety and paranoia in a significant proportion of users, and, like all medicines, should be used with caution. However, those who have negative experiences with it tend to learn this quickly and avoid it. Also, those who react poorly to strains rich in THC may still have medicinal benefits from strains rich in CBD.
Among the more useful links I have found:
Hemp: A New Crop with New Uses for North America
This is a chapter from an academic agriculture book. It is extremely thorough and very well-documented.The Emperor Wears no Clothes
Full text of the 11th edition of the seminal “book that started the hemp revolution,” first published in 1985, which has sold over 600,000 copiesEnvironmental Benefits of Hemp
A succinct summary of the environmental benefits of hemp from McGill University
History and Benefits of Hemp
Recent Research on Medical Marijuana
Excellent review by NORML of the surprising amount of scientific research conducted 2000-2013
The Science of Cannabidiol
Excellent website providing extensive documentation of the science on the medical uses of CBD (Cannabidiol)
Marijuana and Cancer
A summary of research on the use of marijuana to treat cancer
History of Marijuana as Medicine – 2900 BC to Present
An interesting, enjoyable and documented chart
Raw Cannabis-Medicine Without the High
Fine article by Deborah Malka MD, PhD along with an extremely impressive testimonial by patient Kristen Peskuski
Recent Research on Marijuana and IQ
4/13 Pew Research Survey on Marijuana