Hemp has been cultivated by humans for much of the last 12,000 years. However use of wild hemp dates back a lot further with evidence of hemp cordage during palaeolithic times. Anthropologists believe hemp was first cultivated near the Irtysh River in the central Asian steppes of Kazakhstan from where it spread east through China. Its residue has been found among pottery belonging to Tapenking culture excavated at Yangmingshan near Taipei on the island of Taiwan. Cannabis is the generic name for hemp the name given to it by Carl Linaeus deriving the name from the classical Greek word Kannabis which in turn emanated from the Sanskrit word Cana. Throughout the course of its long and varied history, hemp fibres have been used as a food source, for paper, roping, and of course for the manufacture of textiles used in clothing. Moreover, and somewhat lost, is the fact that hemp fibres can be synthesised for oil and plastics. Aside from the industrial use of hemp, the plant has a long tradition of medicinal use in ancient, indigenous and non western societies. Recorded medicinal use of cannabis in China can be traced as far back as 2737 BCE.
In the subcontinent of India stretching from the foothills of the Hindu Kush to Bangladesh, there is recorded use of medicinal cannabis during the Vedic period which lasted from 1500 – 500 BCE. Herodotus in histories recorded use of hemp by the Scythians for incense and medicine in the 5th century BCE, making it the first recorded reference of use in classical antiquity. It is well recognised that Cannabis is among the oldest and most widely used forms of medicine by mankind; used predominantly for the treatment of pain and spasm as well as other recognised conditions. However, notwithstanding its long recorded history and the fact that it was used both by indigenous and non- western societies, cannabis and its medicinal benefits were first popularised in modern Western medicine by Irish physician William Brooke O’Shaughnessy.
Nature of Cannabis
Cannabis belongs to a genus of flowering plants which includes three recognised species: Cannabis Sativa, Cannabis Indica and Cannabis Ruderalis all of which are indigenous to Eurasia and south Asia respectively. The Eurasian Cannabis Sativa and the Indian variety Cannabis Indica were first classified in 1753 by Carl Linnaeus in his Species Planatarum. The third recognised species of Cannabis, Ruderalis was classified in 1924 by a Russian botanist DE Janischewski and is largely found in north eastern Europe and the Volga region. Cannabis Sativa represents the largest category in cultivation and use, followed by Indica.
Varieties of Cannabis
Notwithstanding the medicinal as well as the numerous industrial uses of the plant, cannabis is better known among the wider population as a recreational drug with psychoactive properties. In terms of recreational use, there are a variety of cannabis byproducts which maybe used psychoactively, however the most ommon can be broadly divided between the resin based hash and the leaf based marijuana. Hash which is made fromresin is known by many names, including bhong and ganja, and is traditionally more potent than the herbal based marijuana.
There are approximately 470 known chemical constituents in the average cannabis plant which include compounds that have both medicinal as well as psychoactive use. Cannabinoids are unique chemical structures that can only be found in the cannabis plant. The main psychoactive constituent of cannabis is tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, however it is not the only important cannabinoid found in the plant, which also includes cannabidiol (CBD) and cannabinol (CBL) respectively. It is generally believed that CBD the most abundant cannabinoid in the plant has anti-anxiety effects, and would appear to have the potential to prevent psychotic symptoms having been used in clinical trials on patients with schizophrenia. The evidence as published seems to support the view that CBD operates in the same way that regulated pharmaceutical drugs do when it comes to treating certain disorders such as schizophrenia.
Cannabinol (CBN) is a cannabinoid and an oxidation product of THC it is normally only found in aged samples of cannabis. and cannabis resin. CBN is only very weakly psychoactive and not unlike CBD interacts with THC to reduce its effects. CBN was first isolated in 18991 with CBD being identified in 1949 . However, it wasn’t until 1964 when Israeli scientist Raphael Mechoulum isolated THC as the main psychoactive component of cannabis.Notwithstanding, Mechoulum’s discovery of THC, it wasn’t until the discovery of the endocannabinoid system in the human brain and the peripheral nervous system in the 1980s did scientists begin to comprehend the full extent to which each person has their own cannabinoid processing system which is now known as the endocannabinoid system.
The Endocannabinoid system
The endocannabinoid system is a lipid signalling system that has been with humans since early in our evolution and serves important regulatory functions throughout the human body. The system consists of a family of cannabinoid receptors; G-protein-coupled receptors, endoligands which activate these receptors; and in addition two enzymes, amide hydrolase and monoacylglycerol lipase to metabolise the endoligands. The endoligands of the cannabinoid receptor system, are small molecules derived from arachidonic acid, are called endocannabinoids.. What this suggests is that these naturally found receptors have developed in tandem with human evolution and physiology receptors which are naturally activated by the use of cannabis, in short humans may have been using cannabinoids far longer than was originally perceived.
In terms of taking cannabis there are two main ways (whether medicinal and/or recreational) inhaling or ingestion resulting in THC entering the bloodstream through the brain. Inhaling THC takes less time to absorb and its effects pass more quickly through the system than ingestion which can take up to an hour before absorption into the bloodstream and consequently its effects last longer. Pharmacologically speaking, cannabis is a mild hallucinogen which depending on the strength gives the user a mild euphoric lift or ‘high’. Unlike opiate based drugs, cannabis while it may give rise to psychological dependence in some people with addictive personalities it is highly unusual for users to become physiologically dependent in the same manner as habitual users of heroin or cocaine would.
Distinctions in use and effect
One of the major distinctions between opiate derived drugs and cannabis derivatives is that the later is less toxic, in so far that there is no scientific evidence that a user can overdose in the same way users of heroin, cocaine and other synthetic drugs can. Moreover, cannabis is less toxic and harmful than alcohol and tobacco, as evidenced in research published by The Lancet in which the researchers ranked twenty drugs on 16 criteria, nine of which related to individual harm and seven on harm to others; each drug was scored out of 100 with alcohol scoring 72, heroin 55, crack cocaine 54, Tobacco 26 and Cannabis with 20.
A long established myth about cannabis use is that it serves as a ‘gateway drug,’ which has been rejected by medical and scientific research which notes that there is no sequential or progressive pattern discernible in leading one drug use to another. The gateway drug advocates suggest that beginning with tobacco and alcohol, the user progresses to cannabis and other illicit drugs as a matter of cause and effect, but there is no evidence to back this up. Rather if as research suggests a gateway pattern exists (and that remains in doubt) then it reflects unmeasured causes rather than causal effects of specific drugs on subsequent use of others. This implies that successful efforts to prevent use of specific ‘gateway’ drugs’ may not themselves lead to major reduction in the use of later drugs’
Global prohibition and the accompanying War on Drugs has for many years done significant damage to the reputation of cannabis as a therapeutic drug. Notwithstanding the difficulties created by global prohibition and the hurdles placed in the way of carrying out clinical research, a significant body of research demonstrates that ‘Cannabinoids have many distinct pharmacological properties. These include analgesic, antiemetic, antioxidative, neuroprotective, and anti- inflammatory activity, as well as modulation of glial cells and tumor growth regulation.
Cannabis Prohibition in Ireland
To understand how Hemp became prohibited in Ireland, one has to understand international diplomatic developments which took place in the mid 1920’s. The circumstances of how cannabis became prohibited internationally at the League of Nations 2nd Conference on Opium in 1925 has long been the subject of controversy. The focus of the conference was supposed to be opium and cocaine, however a dispute arose between the United States delegation and the British / Indian representatives over the scope of restrictions on opium; the Americans sought to curtail supply, the British on the other hand favoured moderating demand. The Americans tabled a motion which went beyond what was already agreed should be the objective of the conference and it was into this void that a resourceful prohibitionist from Egypt, Mohammad El Guindy suggested that cannabis should be included on the list of prescribed drugs. Initially perceived as diplomatic posturing, El Guindy cleverly exploited the differences between the American and British delegations over the agenda and the nature of the proposals concerning controls on opium. El Guindy managed, with the assistance of questionable scientific data and puritanical zeal to have cannabis listed as a controlled substance.
The Dangerous Drugs Act 1934
In response to El Guindy hijacking the agenda at the 2nd League of Nations Conference, small nations like Ireland introduced prohibitory controls. The 1934 Dangerous Drugs Act firstly repealed the earlier 1920 Act (which was introduced to regulate opium) and secondly allowed the Minister to make regulations for controlling or restricting the production, possession, sale and distribution of Indian Hemp and resins obtained from Indian hemp and all preparations of which such resins form the base. Under the definition section, Indian Hemp was described as the dried flowering or fruiting tops of the pistillate plant known as cannabis sativa from which the resin has not been extracted.
International Drug Control Conventions
Hemp has been the unfortunate victim of the International Drug Control Conventions. with very strict controls being placed on the production, manufacture, import and export of the Cannabis plant. Under the United Nations Single Narcotic Drugs Convention 1961 (as amended by the 1972 protocol) severe and disproportionate restrictions were placed on the cannabis plant. these restrictions have hindered the development of hemp cultivation. Those restrictions became part of Irish law with the introduction of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977.