“Why on earth did you write a book on weed? What is there to say?”
This is one of the first questions strangers ask when I tell them what I’ve been doing for the last three years. It’s a reasonable question ― I don’t present as a shaggy stoner; nor am I’m someone who blazes all day. Sometimes weeks go by without even thinking of being high. In fact, the answer to the question didn’t become clear to me until I had finished writing the book. Weed is ubiquitous, after all and that leads us to think that we know this stinky, sticky flower. As I learned we are only beginning to understand it.
The last 60 years of propaganda, disinformation and questionable science have effectively blurred the lines between fact and fiction. See for yourself:
True or False:
- Weed is addictive! (False)
- It can help hard drug addicts recover! (True)
- It kills motivation! (Sometimes)
- It’s a creativity stimulator! (Sometimes)
- It’s bad for your lungs! (Not necessarily)
- It helps people with asthma and COPD! (Apparently)
In my interviews with chemists, biochemists, biologists, botanists and other curious minds I have come to learn that cannabis is not just one thing: it’s a complex factory of compounds – 60 of which are actively involved in the high and the healing. Add to this, the fact that each strain has its own ratio of terpenes (pharmaceutical strength smell molecules) and phytonutrients (flavonoids) that steer the high in different directions. This is why certain strains bring you up or and others make you sleepy, why some make the mind race or others calm it. Like wine, weed is subtle and complicated, and only recently have we had the technology to discern its many components. A decade ago science thought it was comprised of 200 compounds. Today that number is over 700 and still climbing.
Second, the cannabinoids, terpenes and flavonoids – the active substances in each strain – all effect our body’s endocannabinoid system differently. What the hell is that, you ask? It’s a massive receptor network that wasn’t discovered until the 1980s. It extends throughout our bodies like a galaxy, with the densest receptor concentration – the Milky Way ― in our brains. It controls complicated functions such as intracellular communication, homeostasis and the head of the NIH said that it is apparently involved in “in almost all diseases affecting humans.” Many think of it as the body’s supercomputer.
This is complicated and subtle stuff, but the sheer size of the system and the number of things it controls is also why cannabis has such a wide range of seemingly contradictory medicinal uses. Research has shown that cannabinoids can positively impact PTSD, bone healing, traumatic brain injury and certain forms of cancer, and no, I wasn’t high when I wrote that last sentence. (For a comprehensive and in depth explanation of this see Chapter 7 in Brave New Weed). Suffice to say cannabinoids add a new, and bewildering, dimension to the way we think plant medicines. Aspirin (originally derived from birch bark) is the most obvious comparison. Rather than working as a single bullet treatment that zeroes in on only one illness, those little white tablets relieve symptoms ranging from headache to stiff muscles to sore throat. And even though it’s been around for over a century we still don’t really understand how it works.
The reasons we understand so little about cannabis are so confounding as to strain credulity. I am no conspiracy theorist but once I learned how the US government has, since 1937, campaigned to malign the plant, I have come to believe that the conspiracy is far more than just a “theory.”
Despite the trillions of Drug War dollars wasted trying to eradicate it and to limit people’s desire though legislation, weed is still the most popular plant on earth. An estimated 30-50 million Americans have used it consistently without the disastrous effects predicted. Instead, they’ve found that it increases sexual pleasure and relaxation. It’s anti inflammatory and relieves pain, and anti microbial so when applied as an unguent, stops pimples. It expands lateral thinking. Film editors and coders often use it to deepen focus—the FBI stopped banning tech users from the agency because they need those types of brains. Parents use it to attune to their childrens’ curious minds. Thousands of years of evidence show that weed used mindfully is one of earth’s least harmful substances. It won’t rot your guts like alcohol. It causes no physical addiction. It has never killed anyone.
To be clear; viewing cannabis as a wellness product isn’t some arbitrary marketing shift. It’s a profound reincarnation led by science. Prior to writing Brave New Weed I might have said that weed is less harmful than cigarettes or alcohol. Smoking kills 5 million people worldwide each year. Alcohol kills 88,000 Americans a year and is linked to domestic violence, car accidents, rape, homicide and a large percentage of suicides. But science is now showing that pot, used intelligently, might actually be good for you.
I’m ready to let science lead the discussion going forward. After all, prohibitionists have monopolized the conversation over the last 80 years. They’ve used fuzzy science, irrational laws, and cruel punishments that far outweigh the crime of getting high to make their case. Until recently the mainstream media has unthinkingly followed their lead without being held accountable.
But their arguments are proving increasingly hollow. As we can see from Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska, legalization has caused no societal earthquakes. The streets of those states aren’t choked in clouds of cannabis smoke. There has been no outbreak of schizophrenia, brain damage or arrests of people driving under the influence. There hasn’t even been an outbreak of the supposed laziness that weed brings on. As of December 2015, the cannabis industry in Colorado added 26,929 jobs, up 68% from the previous year.
All of these reasons make coming out as a cannabist (I prefer that word to “stoner” or “pothead” just as I prefer “wine enthusiast” to “drunk.”) a necessary act. But letting people know that I like weed as much as they like wine is also a direct result of my first coming out as a gay man. Owning my identity was one of the defining acts of my adult life and I will always believe that once everyone started doing it it paved the way for real, lasting change.
When I began this book, I was cautious about telling clients or strangers what I was doing. But as I learned, the weed world was far more diverse and included many more types than the shaggy haired ZZ Top stoner. The more I talked, the more I learned that my accountant, investment broker, lawyer all used cannabis ― one of my doctors asked me to get her some edibles when I was next in a legal state. It strikes me today, as it struck me 30 years ago when struggling with sexuality, that if regular people who hold jobs and have professional lives don’t come out as cannabists, opinions will stay stuck in a sort of cultural aspic.
I now make it a point to tell everyone about what I’ve learned. Some worry aloud about the effect it will have on my reputation, but most people dive right in and pepper me with questions. As it turns out there is a lot to say about this much maligned weed and I’m pleased to play my part in changing the conversation.
Joe Dolce is the author of BRAVE NEW WEED: Adventures into the Unchartered World of Cannabis available from Harper Wave October 4, 2016