By Martin Booth
Picador Copyright © 2003 Martin Booth
All rights reserved.
THE FRAGRANT CANE
ONCE UPON A TIME, ACCORDING TO A STORY RECOUNTED BY the Islamic chronicler al-Maqrizi (1364–1442) in AD 1155, the founder of the Persian Sufi Hyderi sect, Haydar, left his cell in a monastery in the mountains near Neyshaur, in the Khorasan region of north-eastern Iran, and went out for a walk. Discovering a plant standing unwithered by the blazing sun, he grew curious and wondered how it withstood the desiccating heat, so he cut a few leaves and chewed on them as he went on his way Usually a taciturn man, he returned in a fickle frame of mind, with a smile on his face. Swearing his fellow monks to secrecy, he told them what he had discovered. Thereafter, it is said, he remained in a capricious mood until his death sixty-six years later. What he had purportedly discovered was a drug from a common plant. The plant was cannabis.
Cannabis is the generic name for hemp, an adaptive and highly successful annual found growing throughout the temperate and tropical zones of the world. Its classification was, for a long while, a botanical enigma. First considered a relative of the nettle (Urticaceae), it was then thought to be a member of the Moraceae which includes the fig but, today, it is regarded as an herbaceous plant with its own specific botanical group, the Cannabaceae, in which only cannabis and Humulus lupulus, the hop, are included. The plant received its full botanical nomenclature from Carolus Linnaeus, the Swedish 'father of botany', who named it Cannabis sativa in 1753. The latter specific name derived from the Latin meaning 'cultivated'.
Linnaeus' chosen generic name was not plucked from the air. He based it upon the word kannabis, the classical Greek word for hemp which, in turn, derived from the Sanskrit cana. Other languages had used similar names: Assyrian qunubu (or qunnapu), Slav konopla, Hebrew qanneb, Arabic qannob, Persian quonnab, Celtic quannab and Spanish cañamo. It has been suggested the name may have come from the Assyrian qunnabu, meaning 'noise': it was thought the Assyrians used cannabis as an incense in religious ceremonies and were quite vocal after inhaling it. On the other hand, kan, which was common to many ancient languages and referred to both hemp and cane, might be a more apt derivation. That said, the third syllable bis more than likely comes from the Hebrew bosm or the Aramaic busma, meaning 'aromatic'. Cannabis, it seems, is the fragrant cane.
There has been much controversy about whether there exists one species of cannabis with different varieties (described as monotypic) or several distinct species (polytypic). In 1783, the famous French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck suggested that the hemp plant found in Europe was sufficiently different from that growing in India for them to be separate species. He reclassified them, retaining Linnaeus' Cannabis sativa for the European plant and naming the Indian Cannabis indica after its country of origin. Then, in 1924, a Russian botanist called Janischewski, studying wild cannabis growing in the Volga River system of western Siberia and central Asia, recognized this as a third species which he named Cannabis ruderalis. Consequently, the polytypic side of the argument has mainly come to be accepted although, even now, there still linger doubts because the cannabis plant, being very ready to botanically adapt to its environment, has been found capable of botanically 'adjusting' itself. It has been discovered that seeds taken from, say, a European Cannabis sativa plant and cultivated in India come to display some of the characteristics of the Cannabis indica plant in just a few generations — and vice versa.
Of the three species, Cannabis sativa is the most widespread. A gangling, open-branched plant, it can grow to 6 metres in height, whereas Cannabis indica grows only to about 1 metre and is conical in shape with dense branching. Cannabis ruderalis reaches only three-quarters of a metre at best with few if any branches.
Where cannabis originated is unknown. Most studies imply, with justification, that it probably evolved in the temperate zones of central Asia, possibly near the Irtysh River which flows from Mongolia into the western Siberian lowlands, along the edge of the Gobi desert south of Lake Baikal or the Takla Makan desert in China's Xinjiang province, north of Tibet, where it still occurs wild wherever the earth has been disturbed, by erosion or flood. On the other hand, it is also found in abundance across central Asia from the Altai Mountains to the Caucasus, in the Yangtze and Yellow River systems in China, throughout the southern foothills of the Himalayas and in the Hindu Kush.
The fringe regions of such topographical locations as the Gobi and Takla Makan deserts have for thousands of years provided the perfect climate for the evolution of annuals that rely upon wind as a vehicle for pollination. If cannabis did originate here, the prevailing winds would certainly have aided its distribution to the surrounding regions. The picture is further confused, however, by the fact that cannabis was one of the first plants to be cultivated by mankind and present-day areas of wild growth may have resulted from plants escaping from prehistoric cultivation.
To say cannabis is versatile is to understate its resourcefulness and adaptability. It can grow at altitudes of up to 8000 feet, has a life cycle of only three to five months and germinates within six days: in a fortnight, it is well established as a seedling and can grow at a rate of 15 centimetres a day, although between 2 and 5 centimetres is the norm. Requiring very little water except during germination and early growth, it will easily grow in poor, sandy soils; to realize its maximum potential, it prefers loamy earth. As it is heliotropic, preferring direct sunlight, it does not thrive in shade but prefers open ground and is less tolerant to low temperatures. It is, furthermore, dioecious, which means that the plants are individually male or female, the former producing pollen and the latter seeds: hermaphroditic plants are not unknown but are rare. In many cannabis-producing areas, male plants were traditionally destroyed as it was thought that if the female plants were fertilized, they would produce an inferior intoxicant.
The plant stalk is angular, hollow, branched and covered in fine, matted hairs: it can reach 5 centimetres in diameter. The leaves are distinctively palmate and serrated. The male plant is the taller and usually comes into flower approximately a month ahead of the female plant. The male flowers are small and pale green, yellow, or purplish-red or -brown in colour. They appear in dense pendulous bunches and release thick clouds of wind-dispersed pollen after which the plant withers and dies. The female flowers, which grow tightly together to form clusters, consist of a pair of white stigmas approximately 1 centimetre long in an erect V, joining an ovule at the base which contains a small green pod formed of modified leaves called bracts and bracteoles. The flowering period usually lasts between four and eight weeks, the seed taking from ten to thirty-five days to mature, depending upon growing conditions. Once the female flowers have been fertilized, the plant concentrates much of its strength into seed development and tends to lose many of its leaves. The fruit is a slightly flattened oval achene, which by definition is small, dry and contains only one seed: it does not open to liberate the seed, which is brownish in colour and hard.
Both male and female plants produce an amber-coloured resin, although the latter produces a far greater amount. Smelling vaguely like peppermint and found throughout the plant with the exception of the roots and seeds, it is predominantly secreted by tiny, pluricellular glandular hairs on the anthers of male stamens and the perianths of the female flowers and the leaves closest to them. It may be so prevalent as to make it appear as if the plant is covered with dew. Production of this resin continues to increase until the female plant reaches maturity when, the seeds near to ripening, it ceases abruptly.
The primary function of the resin is unknown. It has been postulated that it aids in preventing the seeds from suffering high water loss due to transpiration for, the higher the ambient temperature, the more resin is produced. Indeed, in very hot climates, the cuticle can split to allow the resin to ooze down the stems. When caked on the plant, it hardens to an impermeable, water-insoluble varnish. Other theories suggest it is to protect the seeds from ultra-violet radiation or to trap pollen. The resin has another property, however. It contains a powerful intoxicant drug which has led some observers to believe its function is to discourage birds and insect pests. This does not seem likely for cannabis can be infected by whitefly, spider mites, cucumber beetles and thrips.
For many centuries, cannabis has been the source of a versatile natural fibre, an oil-rich seed and, most famously, a drug with the power to affect human consciousness. Cultivated in prehistory, it may well have been amongst the first plants to be farmed or, at least, utilized. As with the opium poppy, it is reasonable to believe its psycho-active, mind-bending properties were discovered very early in man's agricultural development.
The fibre, made from the stalks and one of the strongest and most enduring in nature, is commonly known as hemp, the name deriving from the Old English henep or haenep and the Old Saxon hanap. Most commonly, it was — and still is — used in rope-making but it was also used in the manufacture of coarse cloth, hessian, twine and paper.
The method of fibre extraction begins with a process called retting. The stems are soaked in water until they partially decompose or break down through osmosis, the non-fibrous tissue falling or being stripped away. This complete, the stems are bent to separate the fibres which can then be spun as thread or twisted into rope. Today, the word hemp is generally used as meaning cannabis grown for its fibres. However, there are other sources of 'hemp' including Manila hemp or abaca from the Philippines, derived from a plant in the banana genus, sisal hemp from the sisal cactus, New Zealand hemp from the harakeke plant, Deccan hemp from a species of hibiscus and jute (also, confusingly, known as Indian hemp) from the jute shrub. The real thing, however, comes from cannabis.
The cannabis seed contains a greenish-yellow oil, rich in unsaturated fatty acids, which in the past was used as a lamp fuel and in the manufacture of soap. Supplanted by hydrocarbons, it was then used in the making of high-quality varnish, as an emulsion in the pharmaceutical industry and as a substitute for linseed oil in artists' oil paints. The oil content aside, it is also a foodstuff, containing substantial quantities of sugars and albumen. Birds eat it in the wild, where it seems to act as a tonic for them, as do rabbits, hares and other mammals. Where humans are concerned, crushed cannabis seed has been used as a food source during famines and shortages, such as in China during Mao Zedong's disastrous 'Great Leap Forward' of the early 1960s and in Europe during the Second World War. In India, it is a staple of the poor who make bosa and mura with it, the former consisting of cannabis seed mixed with goose grass seed, the latter a mixture with amaranth or rice and parched wheat. Cannabis seed is also used to flavour alcoholic drinks and, on occasion, chutney. In parts of sub-Saharan Africa, ground cannabis seed is sometimes used as a baby food.
Yet cannabis is most famous throughout the world as a source of a drug and it is as a psycho-active agent that it is most used. Indeed, it is arguably more widely taken than any other drug save tobacco, alcohol and aspirin.
Plants which contain psycho-active compounds are divided into two groups. One category produces psychotropic drugs which affect the central nervous system whilst the other provides psychotomimetic drugs (sometimes known as hallucinogenic or psychedelic drugs) which affect the mind, altering perception. Cannabis is of the latter category, but it differs from others in the group in that most hallucinogenic plant chemicals are alkaloids, but the active ingredients of cannabis are nonnitrogenous substances called cannabinoids and unique to it.
Of the approximately 460 known chemical constituents of cannabis, more than sixty have the molecular structure of a cannabinoid, but the most important of these, present by up to 5 per cent by weight, is Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol, more commonly known just as tetrahydrocannabinol or THC for short. It is this, perhaps in collaboration with other cannabinoids, that is the psycho-active element.
In addition to THC, there occur cannabidiol (CBD) and cannabinol (CBN) which appear as the resin ages. CBD has no psycho-active capability but CBN is a mildly psycho-active chemical. Tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV) and cannabichromene (CBC) are also important cannabinoids with others, such as cannabicyclol (CBL), being formed not by the plant itself but by the chemical decomposition or degradation of THC or other cannabinoids. Apart from the cannabinoids, cannabis also contains six essential oils, at least eight alkaloids, flavonoids and sugars. As well as being a euphoric intoxicant, THC also works as an analgesic, muscle-relaxing, anti-depressant and anti-emetic agent, it can reduce epileptic fits, stimulate appetite and dilate bronchial tissue. Why the plant produces THC is unknown but what is certain is that cannabis grown in temperate climates contains less THC than cannabis raised in hot ones, but a higher percentage of CBD.
The study of cannabinoids goes back over a century. CBN, at first thought to be the principal psycho-active agent, was identified in the 1890s, then, in the 1930s, CBD was isolated. However, it was not until 1964, with the post-war advances in organic chemistry, that two Israeli chemists, Gaoni and Mechoulam, isolated and identified THC. Since then, studies have discovered a long list of other cannabinoids, many of which have yet to be fully investigated.
Three tests exist to determine the presence of cannabis by identifying the presence of CBD. The Duquenois Test, which has been modified a number of times since its development in the 1940s, uses vanillin, acetaldehyde or metaldehyde, methanol and hydrochloric acid, producing a violet colour if added to CBD. It is not, however, specific and shows similar results with coffee, citronella, myrrh and orris. The Furfural Test, developed in the early 1940s by an American chemist, Charles C. Fulton, also identifies the presence of CBD, but additionally shows the presence of, amongst others, cinnamon, ergot, nutmeg and tea. Only one test, the Beam Test, developed about a hundred years ago, is specific. The plant resin is extracted with petroleum ether which is evaporated off to leave a residue which is then mixed with ether, alcohol, hydrochloric acid and potassium hydroxide. The presence of CBD is indicated by a red, violet or purple coloration.
Most of the THC (and other cannabinoids) in a cannabis plant is synthesized in the resin-producing glands and concentrated in the resin itself, the female containing more than the male, the highest strength being found in unfertilized flowers.
The psycho-active products of cannabis are hashish, marijuana and, rarely, hashish oil. The THC content of these is 5–10 per cent in marijuana, up to 20 per cent in hashish and as high as 85 per cent in hashish oil.
Hashish is usually made from just the resin or resin glands of the female plant. The name, which has in the past been spelt 'hasheesh' or 'haschisch', most likely comes from the Arabic word for dry fodder or herbage. For a while, it applied to any cannabis preparation, most of them involving drying and powdering either the whole plant or the flower heads. However, hashish today is made by isolating and concentrating only the resin and resin glands.
Two collection methods are used. The traditional time-consuming and labour-intensive technique, found in the Indian sub-continent and South East Asia, involves rubbing the living flowers with the hands or a leather apron or cloth. The resin sticks to the skin or surface and is then removed either by robustly rubbing the hands together or by using a strigil or similar blunt blade. The process has given rise to one of the many romantic stories to append themselves to cannabis. In the nineteenth century, it was said the resin was collected by people running naked through the cannabis plantations, their bodies becoming caked with it: the story was false, told to gullible Europeans by whom any exotic story was believed. Once collected, the resin is compressed by hand or simple press into malleable blocks which quickly blacken as they are exposed to air. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Cannabis by Martin Booth. Copyright © 2003 Martin Booth. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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