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Reefer Madness

Reflections on all that an ancient plant continues to offer.

Original Post on Psychology Today, February 21, 2024 | Reviewed by Davia Sills

KEY POINTS

  • Our interactions with the cannabis plant go back to ancient times in cultures all around the world.

  • The plant has been used since antiquity for its many industrial, medicinal, and spiritual benefits.

  • Those benefits, curtailed in the 1930s, are once again becoming available in the United States and abroad.

  • A growing body of practitioners, researchers, and, most importantly, patients, can now access the plant.

As a registered cannabis practitioner in New York since 2016 (when the use of medical cannabis was legalized in the state), I’m constantly trying to make sense of why a plant with its history, whose many benefits to patients I see daily, remains classified by the DEA as a Schedule 1 narcotic (along with drugs like heroin and quaaludes).

Cannabis Plant

Hemp and cannabis (nearly identical plants) were well-known and cultivated in the United States from the time the Puritans brought them over in 1645. Its fiber was used to make the first American flag1, and the Declaration of Independence was written on hemp parchment.

Cannabis sativa was a patent medicine used commonly in the United States in the 1800s and into the 20th century. It was listed in the United States Pharmacopeia from 1850 until 19372 when a combination of the E.I. Dupont Company, William Randolph Hurst, Harry J. Anslinger of the newly formed Dept of Justice, and the film Reefer Madness conspired to turn “cannabis” into “marijuana.” Using this word allowed them to demonize it, associate it with people of color, and limit or curtail its cultivation and use.


Of course, anyone who’s ever listened to Fats Waller’s “You’re a Viper (the Reefer Song)” or watched Cab Calloway’s riotous rendition of “Reefer Man” on YouTube knows how that only forced it underground. I had a patient from the South Carolina Low Country who talked about growing up with a mother and aunts who, every Fall, would harvest a certain plant in the fields and then spend days cooking up what they called “Rabbit Stew.” She realized much later that the basis of this concoction, which was used for healing and spiritual purposes, was C sativa growing in the wild.


Despite its long history as a medicine, it was only in 1964 that THC was discovered to be the major active ingredient (cannabinoid) in the plant (morphine, the active ingredient in the opium poppy, was discovered in 1806). Thirty years after THC was isolated, scientists showed that we make our own endocannabinoids and that we have an endocannabinoid system (ECS), a vast network of transmitters and receptors that are distributed extensively through our bodies and brains. This ECS is stimulated when we ingest THC or CBD or any of the other hundred-plus cannabinoids contained in the plant.


Our interactions with the plant go back to antiquity, and the ECS appears to be phylogenetically ancient—meaning it is found in mammals, birds, amphibians, fish, and even the most primitive animal with a nerve network, the Hydra.

The world’s oldest known pharmacopeia, the Pen-Tsao Ching (The Herbal), written over 5,000 years ago in China, talks about using C sativa to alleviate an array of conditions, including intestinal constipation and rheumatism.

And it’s believed that God commanded the priests at the First Temple in Jerusalem to be anointed with an oil made of “canna bosm.” Evidence for that belief was recently given more credibility when the residue of cannabis (along with frankincense) was found in an ancient temple in the Negev.3

It’s also been speculated by Carl Sagan and others that because of its multitude of beneficial properties, the plant brought us from being hunter-gatherers to living in an agrarian society. To be able to make use of all it has to offer: seeds and leaves for food, stalks for clothing, sails, and rope, and flowers for their medicinal and spiritual properties, one must sow those seeds, cultivate the shoots, and then harvest the mature plant.

It seems quite possible that our ancestors recognized that to utilize the whole plant, they had to put down roots, as it were. Community cultivation of cannabis may well have curtailed their roaming of the ancient plains and steppes as groups began a society around the plant, firmly established in one stable location.

After 1937, cannabis remained illegal until its abundant use in the late ’60s erupted in the face of Richard M. Nixon. Nixon, who supposedly called it “roofer,” made it a Schedule 1 narcotic under the mandate of the newly established Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). Being listed under Schedule 1 meant it was considered a “substance with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”

Many believe Nixon’s putting it there was to purposely prosecute the vast array of people using it: people of color, hippies, and political troublemakers whom he feared and despised. They’d be busted, taken off the streets, and thrown into prison. Purposefully or not, it had the desired effect, and we are now struggling with pulling ourselves out of this self-created disaster for so many of our (mostly brown and Black) fellow citizens.

And because of the persistence of the Schedule 1 classification, patients can’t be reimbursed for medical consults or for purchasing cannabis from legal dispensaries; research into its benefits and liabilities is restricted, and veterans with many issues amenable to treatment (like PTSD, chronic pain, and anxiety) are unable to get or use it through the VA.


It’s now understood that the plant and the ECS it stimulates have a homeostatic role, promoting behaviors such as “eat, sleep, relax, forget, and protect.”4 And it’s been proposed that migraine, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, and related conditions represent clinical endocannabinoid deficiency syndromes (CEDS).

Because of my experiences over the past nine years, I spend much of my time trying to educate my colleagues, informing the public so that more deserving patients can have access to the plant, and working with legislators to get cannabis removed from its Schedule 1 status, a place it should never have been.


And every day, I hear from my patients and their families: “This has been a game changer”; “I wish I’d known about this years ago”; “Mom’s quality of life has improved dramatically. She’s actually interacting with us so much more.”

These are the patients I treat with diseases such as chronic pain, seizures, neuropathy, autoimmune conditions, and, increasingly, in the last few years, dementia.

I’m now in my fifth decade as a physician, and I feel that being deeply involved in the world of medical cannabis has been the most gratifying and intellectually provocative time in my career. I look forward to many more such patient encounters and their subsequent responses, and I hope that before the next election, the DEA will finally come to its senses and deschedule cannabis entirely.

Kenneth R. Weinberg, MD. © 2024 References

1) USDA (2000) Industrial hemp in the United States: Status and market potential. Available at: https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/41740/15853_ages001ec_1_…. (Accessed: 21 February 2024).

(2) Bridgeman, M.B. and Abazia, D.T. (2017) Medicinal cannabis: History, pharmacology, and implications for the Acute Care Setting, P & T : a peer-reviewed journal for formulary management. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5312634/# (Accessed: 21 February 2024).

(3) ‘Cannabis burned during worship’ by ancient Israelites—study (2020) BBC News. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-52847175 (Accessed: 21 February 2024).

(4) Bridgeman, M.B. and Abazia, D.T. (2017a) Medicinal cannabis: History, pharmacology, and implications for the Acute Care Setting, P & T : a peer-reviewed journal for formulary management. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5312634/# (Accessed: 21 February 2024).


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Dani
Dani
Feb 24
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

A much needed perspective! Thank you so much what a great article Dr. Weinberg!

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