Marijuana: Chemical | Organic composition

Last modified: Sunday, 31. May 2009 - 5:01 pm

More than 400 chemical compounds have been identified in marijuana. Approximately 60 of these are unique to the cannabis plant, substances called cannabinoids. Of the cannabinoids, a group of isomers (chemically similar substances) called tetrahydro-cannabinols (THC) are thought to be the most psy-choactive. These are ∆1-THC (also called ∆9-THC) and ∆6-THC (also called ∆8-THC). Other cannabinoids include cannabidiolic acid (CBDA), cannabidiol (CBD), and cannabinol (CBN). Their role in marijuana intoxication is less well understood. The amount of THC produced depends on the strain of cannabis and on environmental factors such as growth, harvest, and storage conditions.
Because marijuana is a natural product it can also harbor bacteria and fungi, some of which can be harmful if inhaled. Scientists have found bacteria such as Aspergillus, Salmonella, Klebsiella, Enterobacter, and Streptococcus on marijuana samples. This is especially significant for people with compromised immune systems, such as cancer or AIDS patients, many of whom may consider marijuana to counter some of the effects of their disease or treatments.
Not all chemicals found in marijuana occur naturally. When the plant is burned for smoking, hundreds of additional chemicals are produced in the process. Among them are carbon monoxide, cyanide, benzopyrene, and tar, the same toxic chemicals present in cigarette smoke. (Some researchers feel that any beneficial effects that may be found in the medicinal use of marijuana are actually negated by the current lack of a suitable alternative delivery method.) Additionally, any pesticides sprayed on the plant by the grower are present in the smoke, and are inhaled along with the THC.
Types of cannabis
Indian cannabis. In India, where cannabis has been part of the culture for centuries, three types of cannabis are used.
Bhang is the mildest of India’s cannabis concoctions, and is usually eaten as a sweetmeat or consumed as a beverage. It consists of dried cannabis leaves that are ground to a fine paste, mixed with a combination of sugar, spices, and fruit. Because the cannabis is ingested orally, the drug’s effects are felt more slowly than when it is smoked. In India, bhang is a poor man’s drug and is used the way beer and wine are in the West. Like alcohol, bhang is often a part of social and religious occasions. Bhang is the weakest of all cannabis preparations and generally has a low THC concentration.
Ganja, like marijuana, is made from THC-rich cannabis flowers and resin. It is smoked (sometimes mixed with tobacco) in a pipe, a cigarette, or in bidis, small Indian cigars. Like bhang, ganja is favored by the lower classes of Indian society. It is usually at least twice as potent as bhang, with a higher THC concentration.
Charas is the nearly pure concentrated resin of the cannabis plant. Like ganja, it is smoked, but its THC concentration is far higher.
Marijuana. Marijuana is the dried tobacco-like leaves and flowers of the cannabis plant and is the most common form of the drug in the United States. Marijuana is usually smoked, although it is occasionally baked into foods such as brownies or brewed as tea for drinking. Different grades of marijuana have different levels of THC. Sinsemilla (Spanish for “seedless”), which contains mostly flowers and buds with few or no seeds, is considered the most potent form of marijuana.
Hashish. Like charas, hashish is a highly potent, concentrated cannabis resin that has been collected, dried, and pressed into bricks. It is sometimes mixed with tobacco or marijuana and is usually ingested by smoking.
Hashish oil. Also known as hash oil, this substance is cannabis resin that has been extracted from the plant with a chemical solvent such as alcohol or butane. Like hashish, it contains very high concentrations of THC. Hash oil is usually added to tobacco or marijuana cigarettes and is ingested by smoking.
Drug combinations. Marijuana is frequently combined with other drugs, including heroin, cocaine, crack cocaine, LSD, and ecstasy. One particularly dangerous drug combination, called “wet sticks” or “dip sticks,” appeared in the 1990s. These are marijuana joints that have been soaked in embalming fluid, then dried. They are frequently laced with PCP (phencyclidine) as well, although users may not be aware of this. Embalming fluid is extremely poisonous as it contains both formaldehyde, which can cause brain damage and lung failure, and methanol, which can lead to convulsions, coma, and death. PCP is a notoriously unpredictable drug that can lead its users to violent and self-destructive acts. Newer varieties of wet sticks have been discovered to contain both PCP and ether. All are extremely dangerous.
Taking any combination of drugs is always risky because the effect of each drug is amplified and unpredictable. When ingested with alcohol, marijuana’s anti-emetic (antivomiting) properties can suppress the gag reflex. This may prevent the body from purging toxic amounts of alcohol, which could lead to alcohol poisoning. People on antidepressant medication such as tri-cyclics who also use marijuana can develop an accelerated heartbeat and high blood pressure, both of which can be dangerous over the long term. Patients who take selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as Paxil and Prozac, and also use marijuana, are at greater risk for severe psychotic episodes. When marijuana is combined with cocaine, the body’s drug absorption rate doubles and the stress on the cardiovascular system can rise to dangerous levels since both drugs speed up the heart and raise blood pressure.
Dronabinol. Dronabinol is a synthetic form of THC that was approved for medical use by the FDA in 1985. Sold under the trade name Marinol, it is prescribed as an antiemitic for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy and as an appetite stimulant for AIDS patients who become anorexic. Marinol is manufactured in 2.5-, 5-, and 10-mg capsules, which are taken orally. Critics argue that suppositories would be more useful than capsules since cancer and AIDS patients are often unable to keep food down.
Marijuana’s potency depends on the amount of THC it contains. This is determined by many factors, among them the type of drug (marijuana, hashish, hash oil) and the strain of cannabis from which it came. In the decades since the 1960s, the potency of marijuana has increased markedly, from 10 to 25 times the average THC content, according to the United States government. Other sources give different figures, but few dispute that cultivation, especially hydroponics, has dramatically increased the THC content of marijuana over the years.

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