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Science for potheads: Why they love to get high

There’s so much misunderstanding around marijuana. Here’s what’s really happening to people when they smoke weed

By K.M. Cholewa
September 8, 2013 8:00PM (UTC)

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Drug warriors have long tried to smear marijuana as a dangerous scourge, seeking to criminalize possession of a leaf they clearly do not understand. The key to comprehending its effects is by better grasping our physiology.

Marijuana is not magic. Marijuana (botanical name, cannabis) affects the human body because the plant-based cannabinoids in marijuana, once ingested, can “plug into” the cannabinoid receptors that are used by the cannabinoids made by our own bodies.

It’s not just people that have cannabinoid systems. All mammals have them. All creatures do, except bugs. Although cannabinoid systems can utilize the plant-based cannabinoids in marijuana, the cultivation and preservation of cannabinoid systems by the evolutionary process has nothing to do with pot. The cannabinoid receptor appeared on the planet at least 550 million years before marijuana.

Evolution has selected for cannabinoid systems, meaning once they emerged, they were retained, and broadly adopted. A cannabinoid system must make living here on this planet easier, or even possible, for those who have them. That’s why life cultivates and retains certain mutations, such as fins, eyes or bigger brains. They’re useful, or at least once were. Why would the cannabinoid system be any different?

A sea squirt is a tunicate, and tunicates contain a host of potentially useful chemical compounds that are effective against various types of cancer. In the May 2007 issue of The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) Journal, researchers from Stanford University showed that “tunicates can correct [biological] abnormalities over a series of generations… the mechanisms underlying the phenomenon may lead to insights about the potential of cells and tissues to be reprogrammed.”

Could that underlying mechanism allowing for “reprogramming” involve the cannabinoid system?

Tunicates evolved in the early Cambrian period, a period that featured the Cambrian explosion that was characterized by increased diversity and diversification of organisms by an order of magnitude. The Cambrian explosion marked the sudden (in geological terms) emergence of almost every biological type known.

Prior to 580 million years ago, life forms were simple. Over the following 75 million years the rate of evolution accelerated. Charles Darwin considered the Cambrian explosion one of the best arguments against his theory of natural selection. Paleontologists Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldridge’s theory of punctuated equalibria challenged the idea that evolution took place exclusively gradually over the generations and asserted that instead there were eras where rapid change ensued. Gould pointed to stasis in most of the fossil record for evidence.

Could there be a connection between an accelerated rate of evolution 580 million years ago and the emergence of the cannabinoid system 600 million years ago? Is it possible that it is a system involved with evolution itself?

The capacity to change is essential to survival. Grow a fin. Resist bacteria. Accept a new idea. The ability to change can mean the difference between life and death, at the individual level or for a species. We know we can change biochemically. There has to be a biochemical reason for that. Such a biochemical system would be mandatory for most species when it comes to survival in a changing world.

The cannabinoid system seems at least in part to be associated with the capacity to “shift,” i.e., change, dislodge stagnancies and interrupt patterns (“forget”). Memory is not just an act of the mind. The body has memory, too. Marijuana affects “memory by way of the receptors in the limbic system’s hippocampus, which “gates” information during memory consolidation.”

According to Judith Horstman in “The Scientific American Brave New Brain,” learning is a product of memory formation. Memories are created “when messages are sent across the tiny gaps between neurons called synapses… A memory is held in the connections made by this network and firmly established when a network of synapses is strengthened… Over time, this net of memories can be strengthened further, weakened, or broken, depending on your brain chemistry, your genes, and your actions.”

So, these networks can be viewed as grooves that get dug and create underlying structure. Information gets trained to the tracks. So what if the well-dug groove becomes maladaptive, or even detrimental to survival? What if the dug groove was grounded in misinformation? What if the underlying structure distorts the information running through it? How do you realize it? (How does the body realize it?) How do you know to jump the tracks? And if you do jump them, jump them into what?

Unlearning, or pattern breaking, under certain circumstances is critical to the ability of life itself to persist. It may be equally important in organisms, organizations and even software to have a mechanism for pattern interruption when changes in the environment make a formerly useful pattern destructive. The interruption serves as a reset button and causes the system to reassess and aim for optimizing in current reality as opposed to maintaining historical patterns.

The researchers who work with cannabis, the cannabinoid system and cannabis science often refer to cannabinoids as working like “grease” and facilitating transitions from one state to another, and as allowing change. Certainly, more study in these areas is desirable, and necessary. But the federal government systematically blocks such studies.

Whereas clinical researchers can get permission from the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to grow or create restricted compounds like LSD, MDMA or psilocybin in the lab, they are unable to do so when it comes to marijuana.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) currently is funding a nearly $2 million study in an attempt to find a link between marijuana use and domestic violence, even though a recent study published by the journal Neuropharmacology has found that cannabinoids may reduce aggression and improve social interactions.

Despite such obstacles to research, there are more than 20,000 published studies or reviews in the scientific literature pertaining to the cannabis plant and cannabinoids. Other countries, such as Israel, are moving ahead to study cannabis’ therapeutic applications.

The paradigm is changing for marijuana in America. According to Thomas S. Kuhn in his landmark book, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”:

The decision to reject one paradigm is always the simultaneous decision to accept another, and the judgment leading to that decision involves the comparison of both paradigms with nature and with each other. [T]he transition of a paradigm in crisis to a new one from which a new tradition of normal science can emerge is far from a cumulative process, one achieved by the articulation or extension of the old paradigm. Rather it is a reconstruction of the field from new fundamentals, a reconstruction that changes some of the field’s most elementary theoretical generalizations.

We may be in for exciting times.The cannabinoid system is an ancient one. Life organized around it. The illegal status of marijuana is less than 100 years old. Political institutions and economic interests organized around it.

How the cannabinoid system functions may be a door to more secrets about the workings of our physiology. And, as when we figured out that the earth revolves around the sun and not the other way around, it might shake up some faulty premises and challenge the work of authorities.

Marijuana medicine and science will change things. New information that conflicts with the prevailing paradigm always does.

Marijuana economics may change things, too. Whether it does depends largely on how the regulatory models shake out and whether the resources – the money – generated under legal status flow to new players, provide broad opportunities for entrepreneurship, build the middle class, or find their way to the more deeply dug grooves of those who already command the resources of the economy.

Marijuana politics is the tool that is used to reinforce current patterns, networks and flows — or to dig new grooves and enable change.

K.M. Cholewa

K.M Cholewa has worked as a political writer, policy consultant and lobbyist in Montana for 22 years, including on issues related to medical marijuana. Her novel, Shaking Out the Dead, is due out Spring 2014. Follow her on Twitter @katecac.

There’s so much misunderstanding around marijuana. Here’s what’s really happening to people when they smoke weed

15 Reasons Why Smoking Weed Is Actually Really F*cking Good For You

As more statesВ join the movement to legalizeВ marijuana, smoking weed is becoming more mainstream than ever.

Unfortunately, marijuana still tends toВ get a pretty bad rap.

But if you ask me, there are all sorts of reasons why smoking weed is actually really good for you.

And I’m not just talking about weed’s ability to make you feel more creative or the fact that it helps you chill out, either.

Apparently,В getting high can also have a myriad ofВ health benefits.

That’s right. Sparking up can improve your health in all sorts of unexpected ways, and research showsВ that marijuana can improve your mood,В boost your energy, help you lose weight and even prevent certain diseases.

If you’re looking for yet another reason to justify your weed-smoking sessions, here are 15В advantages to getting lit AF on the reg:

1. Cannabis unlocks your creative potential.

A study found that cannabis causes psychotomimetic symptoms, which could lead users to make connections between ideas that aren’t exactly related.

This type of thinking is often crucial to creativity, so grab some ganja, and get those creative juices flowing.

2. Trees can be used to treat depression.

A study conducted by Rudolf Magnus Institute of NeuroscienceВ found that THC “reduces the negative bias in emotional processing,” which means weed could be used to help people cope with depression and other psychiatric disorders.

Plus, a study published by USC and SUNY Albany found that “those who consume marijuana occasionally or even daily have lower levels of depressive symptoms than those who have never tried marijuana.”

So if you’re feeling blue, brighten up your day by packing a bowl.

3. Weed can help you lose weight.

Although marijuana is notorious for giving you a mean case of the munchies, aВ study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that pot smokers are less prone to obesity.

Another study in the American Journal of Medicine revealed similar results, finding those who light up on the reg are actually a bit skinnier than those who don’t smoke marijuana.

In addition to giving you a smaller waistline, researchers also discovered that marijuana may boost your metabolism, increase fat loss and lower cholesterol. So next time you’re tipping the scale, try swapping out your salads for a different type of green.

4. Lighting up can lower your risk of diabetes.

A study published in The American Journal of MedicineВ found that people who smoke marijuana had lower insulin levels and insulin resistance levels by 16 and 17 percent, respectively.

This suggests that cannabis may play a role in regulating blood sugar, which can decrease your risk of developing diabetes.

5. Cannabis keeps you calm, cool and collected.

Researchers interviewed Swiss inmates who regularly smoked marijuana in prison and found that marijuana made the inmatesВ calmer and less stressed. Plus, marijuana use among prisoners also prevented violence and acted as a “social pacifier.”

I guess they don’t call it a “peace pipe” for nothing.

6. Sparking up is a great social activity.

Weed serves as a great icebreaker since it reduces social anxiety, encourages you to open up and makes you more accepting of others.

Plus, let’s be real: There’s no better way to spend a night in with your friends than hotboxing your basement, ordering pizza and watching all of your favorite TV shows.

7. Pot can make your periods suck less.

When it comes to managing premenstrual symptoms, marijuana could be a natural alternative to Midol.

StudiesВ have found that THC is an analgesic and antinociceptive agent that can alleviate the pain of those killer cramps and pounding headache.

Plus, marijuana has also been found to have anti-inflammatory propertiesВ that can help with the bloating that occurs around that time of the month.

8. Getting high doesn’t give you a hangover.

A night of drinking beers with your BFFs will leave you feeling pretty shitty the next morning. However, unlike drinking, smoking weed doesn’t result in a deathly hangover.

So you can get lit with your squad and still feel pretty amazing the next day.

9. Marijuana makes food taste a million times better.

There’s nothing better than getting stoned and stuffing your face with an endless array of snacks. But have you ever wondered why marijuana makes food taste soВ magical?

A study published in Nature NeuroscienceВ found that, thanks to THC’s effect on the brain’s cannabinoid receptors,В food appears more appetizing as a result of a heightened sense of smell.

Therefore, it’s probably a good idea to stock up on bagel bites and Dino nuggets before you spark up.

10. Smoking a bowl can boost your energy.

There’s a stigma surroundingВ marijuana use that it makes you lazy. However, not all strains of cannabis turn you into a complete couch potato.

Research has supported a link between the brain’s CB-1 and CB-2 cannabinoid receptors and dopamine. Essentially, small doses of marijuana won’t hurt your efficiency level, and an increase in dopamine levels gives you the focus you need to get your shit done.

If you’re looking for a little pick-me-up, swap out your coffee and smoke a Sativa-dominant strain like Sour Diesel or Jack Herer, instead.

11. Smoking weed can help you fall asleep.

Everyone knows weed helps you unwind.

While there is considerable debate over the long-term effect marijuana has on sleep cycles, someВ feel that smoking a bowl before bedtime actsВ as aВ better sleep aid than other substances, like alcohol and certain sleeping-inducing medications.

(Unfortunately, though, it’s said that marijuana’sВ effectiveness as a sleep aid decreases with increased usage.)

12. Marijuana can also eliminate nightmares.

Marijuana is also known to disturb the sleep cycle and suppress REM sleep.

Since dreams occurring during this type of sleep, marijuana can be used to interrupt this REM sleep and eliminate your full capacity to dream, thus eliminating your nightmares.

13. Everyone respects someone who can roll a blunt that’s lit AF.

Every pothead knows rolling the perfect joint or blunt is basically a form of art.

Learning how to roll an impressiveВ blunt takes a lot of time and practice to master, so people will always respect a stoner who has decent rolling skills.

14. Smoking weed makes you worry less.

An article published in a 2010 Harvard Mental Health Letter also suggestedВ marijuana alleviated symptoms of anxiety when administered in small doses.

The article also mentionedВ that small doses of THC act as a sedative, decreasing symptoms of anxiety. So the next time you can’t stop worrying about something, break out the weed.

15. Ripping the bong can actually be good for your lungs.

A study published in theВ Journal of the American Medical Association indicated that marijuana smoke is not detrimental to your lungs.

In fact, past studiesВ found lighting up can briefly increaseВ your lung capacity in the short term. you know, from all that inhaling you’re doing.

As more states join the movement to legalize marijuana, smoking weed is becoming more mainstream than ever. Unfortunately, marijuana still tends to get a pretty bad rap. But if you ask me, there are all sorts of reasons why smoking weed is actually…