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A Medical Marijuana Primer Part 1: It all began with a little squirt!

Written by Jeff Drake
8 · 01 · 17

Nature’s Marijuana Remedy – It all began with a little squirt!

We humans are an interesting species.

For example, we tend to like finding answers to our questions and sometimes when we don’t know the answers, we fill in the gaps of our knowledge with wonderful bits of folklore and mysticism. Questions as to why ingesting marijuana gets us high, heals us, and how the hell it does this, are not new. People have been theorizing different answers to these questions for centuries. Remarkably, it is only within the last 20 years that we have been able to begin to find answers to these questions.

Many of us don’t have to stretch our imagination too far to be able to jump to the conclusion that if Mother Nature went through all the trouble of creating a plant that causes us humans to experience a very pleasant altered state of consciousness and which has medical benefits to boot, well, then Mother Nature must have put that plant on earth just for us! It’s her way of communing with us and allowing us to commune with her. It’s so obvious. Thank you, Mother Nature! We love you!

Now, I’m a child of the 1950’s and 60’s, so this kind of folklore still occupies a warm place in my heart. I have spent many an evening over the years, smoking a bowl and pondering such things. But unfortunately, like all folklore, this utopian story is fiction. Yet, questions of how and why marijuana gets us high and also heals us, are still of great interest.

To me, whenever a question that was believed to have an answer wrapped in mysticism is shown to be rather unmystical, I get even more interested in it, because then I know a real, factual, answer is possible and perhaps within my grasp. And that’s exciting, because the answers potentially mean that I will learn even more about this world and my place in it, and believe me, I’m all about that these days. Tick, tock. I’m not getting any younger!

So, I’m going to put mysticism and hippie-dippy utopian folklore behind me for a few minutes and pose these questions again, this time separately:

  1. Why does cannabis affect us the way it does?[1]
  2. How does the cannabis plant cause these effects in us humans?

My purpose with this Medical Marijuana Primer blog series is to provide answers to both questions. I will try not to get bogged down in the medical science technical mumbo-jumbo. After all, I’m not a doctor and don’t even play one on TV, so I will just try to summarize the knowledge I’ve gained through reading; watching tutorials, videos, etc. and where pertinent, I will reference the appropriate medical journals, research, etc. so you can look it up yourself, just like I did. If you trust that I did the necessary legwork before writing this series and are just interested in my summation, skip the footnotes and enjoy. The way I look at it, is I am doing the legwork so you don’t have to.

Before I get into the meat of the questions above, however, I want to quickly address the issue of the historical relationship between cannabis and humans and put it behind us.

You all know that I’m not a scientist and while I have read about evolution and get the gist of how it works, I don’t know enough to soundly dispute the not uncommon belief that the cannabis plant, with such clear medical benefits to humankind, must have evolved these traits just for our benefit. Otherwise, what’s the point, right? Why would a plant evolve to provide such profound recreational and medical benefits for humans if it wasn’t intended for our consumption?

I can see the logic and the emotion of such a position. But, when I take time to really think about it, this argument only has legs if the cannabis plant evolved after we humans appeared, or if it evolved with us, marching in lockstep with our own human evolution. Are either of these a correct depiction of what happened? If not, then what the hell is going on?

To answer, we need to expand our minds and the context for answering this question. We need to look beyond the cannabis plant we know and love and beyond our own human history, farther into both our pasts, back to a time on Earth before there were plants and animals, back 600 million years to the primordial sea that covered the planet, a place where creatures like the sea squirt lived and thrived.

Huh? That’s right. The sea squirt.

sea squirt-1

Graphic 1: Sea Squirt

600 million years ago the lowly sea squirt, a broody little bottom feeder, was fat and happy, living on the ocean floor, sucking up and filtering mud to extract all the lovely juicy bits. The original posterchild for gender identity crisis, the sea squirt was neither male nor female, neither plant nor animal, but a bit of both. (It still exists today, by the way). The sea squirt, you see, was the first creature to develop the receptors for the chemicals found in cannabis, what we today call “cannabinoids,” long before plants or animals.

Think about this. Do you see it now? Do you see how evolution may have come up with something that affected both plants and animals, but did so with really neither in mind? It makes sense that this biochemical development must have happened before the cannabis plant or even us humans – during a time when the lines between the plant and animal kingdoms were blurred and indistinct – than it does to imagine that cannabis evolved the way it did just for our benefit. We now know that the biochemical properties later inherited by the cannabis plant and us humans, originated from a common ancestor – the sea squirt! Sorry, folks, no mysticism here, just science.[2]

Cannabinoids in context

Graphic 1: The prehistoric context for cannabinoids.

Thus, the ability to respond to THC preceded both plants and animals. For reasons having to do with evolutionary selection and survival, the sea squirt’s nervous system developed the ability to use additional chemicals than it had before, an ability that would be inherited by all vertebrate animals that followed and even a number of plant species (e.g., cannabis). The chemicals I’m referring to are called “cannabinoids”. Scientists named these chemicals after the cannabis plant, because cannabinoids are similar in structure and shape to the primary psychoactive chemical found in cannabis – tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Thus,  cannabinoids preceded the existence of any cannabis plant (see Graphic 1 above).

I find this all very interesting, but it still begs the question as to why the cannabis plant in particular, developed this ability to receive and react to THC? Unfortunately, the answer is we don’t know for sure, but enough other research has been completed to allow scientists to make some educated guesses. For example:

  • Environmental stressors, like insects, perhaps. THC may have originated as a defense mechanism against insects (similar to nicotine, which evolved as a natural pesticide). THC has been found in some research to kill or impede the development of certain insects, although no THC receptors have been found in insects – yet, so they don’t know why.
  • Birds, mammals and reptiles may have developed these receptors for THC as a means of psychoactive warfare between birds, mammals and reptiles with insects.
  • Much scientific evidence points to the long history of co-evolution occurring between plants and mammals. It is thought that just as some plants have developed the ability to synthesize defensive chemicals to mimic brain neurotransmitters, over time mammals developed a certain adaptation that could exploit this feature for personal gain. For example, early forms of the cannabis plant had much less THC than the cannabis plants we have today. It is likely that this is due to the affect humans had on cultivating and cross-breeding the plant over thousands of years, to increase its psychoactive properties (for our personal gain).
  • In ancient human societies, exhibiting positive emotions were interpreted as signs of good health, happy hunting, successful breeding, etc. Ingesting cannabis and thereby enjoying and exhibiting the positive effects of THC (euphoria, smiling, laughing, decreased negative emotions) could arguably be a useful effect, one worth exploiting.

We still have much to learn about the relationship between cannabis and the animal kingdom and we happen to be living in a time when age-old questions may finally get answered, which is exciting!

Now that we have some idea of the historical context and evolution of the chemical properties found in cannabis, my next blogs in this series will address questions #1 and #2 above:

  1. Why does cannabis affect us the way it does?
  2. How does the cannabis plant cause these effects in us humans?

Stay tuned! (pun intended).

[1] Although I am focusing on humans here, all animals, not just humans, have receptors for using THC. THC can affect birds, reptiles and mammals, not just humans. In fact, the only creatures not affected by the properties of cannabis are insects.

[2] Research conclusions from the School of Biological Sciences at Queen Mary, University of London and the University of Kyoto in Japan. Research conducted by Dr. Maurice Elphick.

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1 Comment

  1. MBC

    Thanks Jeff! Nice little article!


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Jeff Drake

Retired IT consultant, world-traveler, hobby photographer, and philosopher.
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