This morning, I had the pleasure to revert back to Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire and expand upon my knowledge of marijuana in every way possible (such as in science, religion, spirituality, practicality and use, and history).
Pollan M. 2001. The botany of desire. Toronto (ON): Random House of Canada Limited. 271 p.
In this chapter of the book, Pollan explores one of humankind’s most interesting relationships with plants – their ability to alter our consciousness. He specifically devotes a quarter of the book to Cannabis sativa (or Cannabis Indica), arguably the most widely used psychedelic plant in the world, and asks, why is this simple weed the most largest cash crop in the Unites States? Or rather, what service does it provide that humans so greatly desire?
Pollan begins to explain our attraction to these curious plants by illuminating the fine line between poison and intoxication. He writes that many of these plants are toxic if taken in large dosages, and humans have vicariously learned through animals that small amounts may result in euphoria or hallucinations, which makes it a rather “complicated desire” (Pollan 118).
Pollan explains that the marijuana plant may have been used for thousands of years by the Chinese or Arabians, however its history is quite clouded since the travelers who brought it back to their lands may have edited the plants origins and history if the plants were thought of as taboo. He writes that throughout history marijuana has been used to make fibers, by shamans to gain spiritual transcendence, by witches to alter a person’s brain chemistry, and by healers to alleviate pain, stress, or suffering (Pollan 119). Today, marijuana is mostly used for recreational purposes, however it is also used medicinally. Many people all over the world use marijuana to ease pain, to help with sleep, or to lighten their mood. Some cancer patients use the plant to help stimulate appetite, as well as alleviate pain.
Although there is growing research on the plant’s potential beneficial properties, it is especially hindered in some countries where the plant is stigmatized or illegal. Despite what I already knew about America’s ‘war on drugs’ and harsh criminal penalties for marijuana use, I was still very shocked that in 1988 there were nearly 700,000 marijuana arrests, and 88% of those were just for possession (Pollan 126). While it is impressive to think that a plant can wield such a great power on us, it saddened me to think of all the resources expended on this war against cannabis that could have gone to incarcerating murderers and rapists, or increasing available mental and physical medical aid in the US.
Still, Pollan’s short story of his experience growing the weed was hilarious. I loved how he also went to Amsterdam to fully immerse himself in cannabis culture, and how he described himself as being near some of the most ingenious gardeners as he stated, “it dawned on me that this was what the best gardeners of my generation had been doing all these years: they had been underground, perfecting cannabis” (Pollan 129). This reminded me of a classic Canadian TV show, Trailer Park Boys. One of the main characters, Ricky, is best known for growing amazing weed despite having only a grade eight education. In one episode he turns his entire trailer into a herbarium.
It was remarkable to learn that some growers could harvest around three pounds of dried buds in less than a month, and would make approximately $13,000 (Pollan 138). Just by looking at the sheer amount of money people have spent on weed, it is easy to accept the notion that “the desire to alter one’s experience of consciousness may be universal” (Pollan 139).
Pollan attempts to explain our deep attraction to marijuana despite it not conferring any sort of evolutionary advantage (or serving a nutritional need). He points out that it may just be an intuitive desire. I think that could be true, or it may just be that we haven’t figured out (or scientifically established) how it may be beneficial, which is big reason to continue research with this plant.
In fact, as soon as Pollan mentioned the cannabinoid receptors in the human body, I was immediately reminded of a paper I read last week. I was researching articles for a psychology class in which I had to write an annotated bibliography on the etiology of schizophrenia. Recently there have been papers stating that there may be a corrrelation between marijuana use and schizophrenia. This paper, however, explained that the upregulation of anandamide (an endocannabinoid) could decrease the occurrence of negative symptoms of schizophrenia (Aguilar et al. 2016). Th researchers of the study administered dosages of either THC and an inhibitor of the anandamide catabolic enzyme in schizophrenic rats and found that both altered neuronal firing. The researchers emphasized the importance of studying the cannabinoid system in humans to better develop new medications for schizophrenia.
Aguilar D, Giuffrida A, Lodge D. 2016. THC and endocannabinoids differentially regulate neuronal activity in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus in the subchronic PCP model of schizophrenia. Journal Of Psychopharmacology [Internet]. [cited March 12, 2016]; 30(2): 169-181 13p. Available from: CINAHL Complete.
I think that this chapter has special relevance to my generation not only because Canadians may be on the verge of legalizing marijuana in the very near future, but because the strength and type of marijuana has changed considerably in a very short time. For example, when I was in high school (only around four or five years ago), teens were never really threatened by weed laced with drugs like fentanyl, whereas today, that is a major concern and cause of death for many young adults. After reading this chapter, I really do hope that Canada will legalize marijuana, as having it regulated and controlled may stop unnecessary deaths, and the money collected may go to mental health services greatly needed in our Canadian communities. Or like in some European countries that have legalized drugs, there may be an initial increase in drug usage, but then an eventual decline as the original excitement wears off.
I also think that in this chapter, Pollan skillfully noted that plants are not used bu humans just for sustenance, but can also change our perception of life and our surroundings. It was very interesting to read of the importance of forgetting that Pollan talked about, and how great philosophers have time and time again written of the importance of grounding yourself and being aware of the current moment – a task that becomes more and more difficult in this increasingly busy world.