Cannabis (Cannabis sativa), an herb at the center of a sordid history, deep controversy, and huge fanfare. An herb that’s been used for healing purposes, for recreational purposes, and to promote a racist, supremacist legal agenda. An herb that’s been more manipulated, more closely studied, and more genetically engineered than staple crops like wheat and corn. Cannabis is illustrative of the powerful effects plants can have when cultures assign them such significance; it has been manipulated to be so potent, and so prevalent, that in many ways it’s become a balm for our times.
Etymology & Botany
Cannabis is an annual, dioecious, flowering herb with palmate, compound leaves and serrated leaflets. It usually has imperfect flowers, with staminate “male” and pistillate “female” flowers occurring on separate plants. It was first classified as a genus by botanist and taxonomist Carl Linnaeus in 1753, using the “modern” system of taxonomic nomenclature. Since he was only familiar with European hemp, which was a popular cultivar of the time, he named this single species “Cannabis sativa.” In 1785, biologist Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck named a second species of Cannabis, native to India, “Cannabis indica.” C. indica was described as having poorer fiber quality but greater effect as an inebriant, compared to C. sativa.
There are also wild species, such as “Cannabis ruderalis,” first described by Russian botanist D. E. Janischewsky in 1924. The term ruderalis comes from the Latin rūdera, meaning rubble. Some botanists consider C. ruderalis to be its own species, though some consider it a C. sativa subspecies. Modern hybrid strains have been genetically modified to contain traits of both C. sativa and C. indica, depending on the desired effects. 6
Cannabis, also known as “hemp” (though this term is often used to refer to Cannabis with low levels of THC, the principal psychoactive cannabinoid), has been used for millennia cross culturally for fiber, food, hemp seed and hemp seed oil, and medicinal and entheogenic purposes.
Cannabis sativa is indigenous to Eastern Asia, and quickly spread to be naturalized across Europe, whereas C. indica originated in the Hindu Kush mountains of The Middle East. C. ruderalis grows wild throughout Russia and Siberia, central and eastern Europe, and the midwestern U.S. 2
Herbal History of Cannabis
The first recorded humxn use for Cannabis was 10,000 years ago in Taiwan, where it was used for fiber and food. The oldest Chinese pharmacopeia, Pen Ts’ao Ching, compiled in 2700 BC, lists it as a medicinal herb, prized for its anaesthetic properties, but also recommended it for 120 different forms of disease, menstrual disorders, and topical wounds. The ancient Egyptians used Cannabis to treat glaucoma and inflammation. In medieval India, it was mixed with milk for use as an anesthetic, sleep aid, and digestive aid. In the 19th century, Cannabis grew in popularity in western medicine; it was a proprietary ingredient in several patent medicines and there were at least 2000 medicines containing Cannabis in circulation, produced by nearly 300 manufacturers prior to 1937, when the Marihuana Tax Act was passed, banning its production and distribution.
The first Cannabis monograph was introduced into the United States Pharmacopoeia in 1850, but by 1942, it was removed from its twelfth edition, due to legality. Today, it is again legal for recreational and medicinal use in certain countries and territories globally. It’s widely used to treat issues like chronic pain, to mitigate the side effects of chemotherapy, to calm nervous system disorders, autoimmune disorders, and to help manage glaucoma, among many, many other diseases. 6
However, it’s impossible to write about Cannabis without at least touching on the ways in which it’s been used as a tool of racial oppression and incarceration, beginning during the Nixon administration’s “War on Drugs” and continuing to modern day policies. Since, many officials have admitted that the Nixon era White House, despite conducting a war in Vietnam, “viewed Black people and “the antiwar left” as its two enemies.” 2 Black and brown people are disproportionately arrested and charged with harsh, often outlandish sentences and incarcerations.
The reality that some of the U.S. population (disproportionately white, affluent folks) can legally purchase and freely use and administer it as a medicine and recreational substance while so many citizens are still incarcerated for minor Cannabis-related “offenses” is a gross breach of justice. If you are a citizen of privilege interested in using it as herbal medicine, I implore you to also look into how you can help end racist Cannabis incarcerations. To start, visit Last Prisoner Project for more information on how you can get involved.
Cannabis of all species is cooling energetically, and depending on the strain and the individual’s physiology, can act as a sedative or stimulant. It can also have the following herbal actions: antiemetic, antispasmodic, anti-convulsant, analgesic, anti inflammatory, appetite stimulant, adaptogen, anti-tumoral, antioxidant, antispasmodic, nervine, and hypnotic. 3
Anti-inflammatory and Analgesic
Cannabis works so effectively for so many different imbalances in the body because it interacts with our Endocannabinoid Systems (ECS), a molecular system that’s basically responsible for regulating and balancing many processes in the body, including immune response, cellular communication, appetite and metabolism, memory, inflammatory response, and more. Mammals produce their own, endogenous cannabinoids, which bind with cannabinoid receptors to fine tune issues like inflammation. Cannabis provides the body with phytocannabinoids, which are uptaken and used in the same way as our own endogenous cannabinoids, optimizing the abilities of the ECS. Studies have demonstrated that administration of Phytocannabinoids resulted in immunosuppression, the downregulation of cytokine and chemokine production, and the upregulation of T-regulatory cells which suppresses inflammatory response and aids immunoregulation. Cannabis is specifically indicated in cases of arthritis, MS, Parkinson’s disease, autoimmune issues, and other inflammation-related symptoms. 7
Nervous System & Mood Support
Cannabis has been shown to have nervine qualities, and has shown a marked decrease in feelings of stress and anxiety. Similarly, it has been shown to have mood boosting properties in cases of depression. Chronic stress can deplete the ECS, so supplementing with Phytocannabinoids can help to restore balance to the ECS by boosting your body’s production of endocannabinoids. The ECS also interacts with the Central Nervous System, helping to relax tense muscles, and reducing feelings of stress and anxiety. Simultaneously, Cannabinoids bind to the 5-HT1A serotonin receptors, which are thought to have the strongest role in anxiety disorders. Generally, strains with higher CBD and lower THC are recommended for anxiety, stress, and depression; occasionally, higher THC strains can trigger feelings of paranoia or anxiety. 5
Complementary Cancer Care
While studies have shown that Cannabis itself has anti-tumoral and cancer-slowing action, it’s also a wonderful remedy for inhibiting the undesirable side effects of chemotherapy and other pharmaceutical treatments, working to decrease feelings of nausea, increase appetite, reduce aches and pains, and alleviate stress and worry. Strains with higher levels of THC work best for mitigating nausea and increasing appetite; currently, it is the only anti-nausea medicine that also increases appetite. Additionally, Cannabis can elevate cancer patients’ mood at critical moments, help them step outside their situation, and psychologically come to grips with the journey ahead. 1
Contraindications of Cannabis
It is a relatively safe drug that has not led to overdose-related deaths; acute side effects primarily affect the mind, psychomotor functions, and the heart and circulatory system. These effects—dry mouth, rapid heart beat, paranoia, lethargy, perspiration—usually vanish after a short period of time. Due to its psychotropic effects, Cannabis medication is contraindicated for patients suffering from severe personality disorders and who have a higher risk for psychoses. The abuse risk of cannabis is low compared to other substances, however, long term or heavy use can lead to constitutional imbalances and has been linked to psychoses. 4
Methods of Medicinal Use
Cannabis may be used in many forms by the skillful herbalist; the following preparation suggestions are the most widely used and accessible to obtain.
Cannabis Oil, Topicals and Edibles
Cannabis oil is perhaps the most common medicinal preparation available to purchase, as well as fairly easy to make. Phytocannabinoids CBD and THC are both hydrophobic, meaning they are repelled by water molecules. However, they are both fat soluble and like to bind with fatty acid molecules–such as those found in oil. Cannabis oil is great in that it’s versatile. Once the oil is made, it can be taken directly, drop by drop; cooked or baked with; or used topically for localized pain and inflammation.
To make Cannabis oil at home, a simple recipe may be used:
- Decarboxylate the desired amount of raw, ground up Cannabis by heating it in the oven, on a baking tray, at about 250 F for 25-30 minutes.
- Get out a double boiler (or use a crock pot at the low/warm setting). Add water to the bottom pan and desired amount of oil (I like fractionated coconut oil or olive oil) to the top section of the double-boiler.
- Add the decarbed Cannabis. Heat and stir occasionally, keeping oil at around 150 F, for about 1 hour.
- When the time is up, line a strainer with cheesecloth over a glass bowl. Let the oil cool slightly, then pour the Cannabis and oil mixture through the strainer. Gather the cheesecloth and gently squeeze out the excess oil from the Cannabis.
- Store the strained cannabis-infused oil into a glass container with a tight-fitting lid. Use however you see fit!
To make a salve, melt beeswax into the strained oil to desired consistency. To make edibles, replace oil in the desired recipe with Cannabis-infused oil.
Smoking is perhaps the most ubiquitous way to consume it, and there’s many different ways to combust and inhale Cannabis smoke (which I won’t get into at this juncture). Vaping has become very popular recently as well; vaping is generally an inhalation-triggered heating device that vaporizes Cannabis liquid, oil, or wax in the cartridge or reservoir resulting in Cannabis infused vapor. A benefit to smoking or vaping Cannabis is the quickness with which its effects can be felt, so it’s ideal for folks who experience acute symptoms like nausea or panic attacks. Long term or heavy smoking or vaping, however, is not advisable as both have deleterious effects on the lungs, mouth and throat.
Tincture, or an alcohol extract, is another viable and rather easily made preparation. Similarly to making the oil:
- Decarboxylate the raw flower (see above for instructions).
- Place about 1 ounce of the decarboxylated Cannabis flower in a pint-sized mason jar, pour overproof alcohol of choice (I use everclear) over the Cannabis, so that it is completely submerged, then cap tightly and shake gently.
- Keep the tincture in a cool, dark location, removing to shake gently at least once daily for 4-6 weeks.
- After this time, strain the tincture through a coffee filter or cheesecloth into a clean mason jar.
- Some folks like to evaporate off the alcohol or add a little water so that the taste is less harsh.
- Use drop doses at first, increasing slowly until desired effects are felt.
Cannabis is a controlled substance in many parts of the world, so before you source any, make sure you’re aware of the legal and societal implications of doing so. In places where it is legal or accessible, it can be purchased at a dispensary, a medical dispensary, from someone who’s grown it, or you can cultivate a few plants yourself! Try to get organic, non-gmo Cannabis if possible. If it isn’t legal in your area, try purchasing organic, non-gmo Cannabidiol, or CBD preparations (without the psychoactive THC) which will provide nearly all of the same medicinal benefits.
Make sure any products you purchase are from reputable sources, like local herb stores, established dispensaries, or places like The Alchemist’s Kitchen, that celebrate the power of plants by providing their own extensive line of high quality CBD products, Plant Alchemy. My favorites include these super potent 750mg CBD gel caps, this amazing 1000mg Concentrated CBD Oil, and this beautiful 600mg CBD Cool Soothe salve.
- Bienenstock, David. “A patient’s guide to using Cannabis for cancer.”
- Cooke, Justin. Cannabis “(Cannabis sativa/indica)”
- Hobbes, Christopher. “Herbal Actions”
- Nagarkatti, Prakash et al. “Cannabinoids as novel anti-inflammatory drugs.” Future medicinal chemistry vol. 1,7 (2009): 1333-49.
- Ruehle, S et al. “The endocannabinoid system in anxiety, fear memory and habituation.” Journal of psychopharmacology (Oxford, England) vol. 26,1 (2012): 23-39
- Russo, Ethan. “History of cannabis and its preparations in saga, science, and sobriquet”. Chemistry & Biodiversity. 4 (8): 1614–1648.
- Stockings E, Campbell G, Hall WD, et al. Cannabis and cannabinoids for the treatment of people with chronic noncancer pain conditions: a systematic review and meta-analysis of controlled and observational studies. Pain. 2018;159(10):1932-1954.