l. “You will be carrying money, of course. And our weapons.”
“Hey, buddy. I want you to know something,” Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán-Loera said to the veteran helicopter pilot who he nicknamed ‘Tinieblo’ (Twilight). The pilot had just arrived in Sinaloa, Mexico from Miami, to begin flying for Guzmán-Loera.
“I’m all ears, Mr. Guzmán,” answered the pilot. He knew his new boss was no saint, but didn’t know much else.
“Do you recognize me?” inquired Guzmán.
“I’m afraid I don’t, sir,” answered the pilot.
“I’m no little angel,” Guzmán said. “But later I’ll tell you the story of a cardinal of the Catholic Church they assassinated, mistaking him for me.”
There are hundreds of strains of marijuana — each containing hundreds of different chemicals — but only one molecule makes much difference, scientists say.
It’s all about the THC.
Purveyors and boosters of marijuana — or cannabis — whether recreational or medicinal, counterclaim that the experience varies to great effect among all the amazing varieties cultivated over thousands of years.
Almost five millennia after the Chinese used medicinal cannabis, Colorado voters approved it in 2000, and they did the same for adult recreational use in 2012. A majority of the state’s voters have decreed cannabis is good medicine and good fun, but they might not know what the drug is doing to the body.
When a person smokes, inhales or ingests marijuana or pot — the green, brown or grayish dried and shredded leaves, stems, flowering buds or seeds of plants called cannabis sativa or cannabis indica — more than 200 different chemical compounds course through the body. About 60 of them are called cannabinoids.
“Everybody likes something different,” said Ean Seeb, co-owner of the Denver Relief Medical Marijuana Dispensary. “They can now pick what really works for them.”
Yet after some 75 years of scientific research, it has been found the concentration of the psychoactive compound, THC, is what really matters, said psychopharmacologist Kari Franson, an associate dean and professor with the University of Colorado Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences.
Franson worked at an institute that studied the effects of cannabinoids in healthy volunteers in the Netherlands, where it was easier to do research on it than in the U.S.
“You can study, study, study it, but it’s THC (Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol) — that is the active ingredient,” Franson said. “And there are certain things that happen to everyone who takes THC.”
These, she said, are a feeling of pleasure or high, motor instability, decreased reaction time, attention deficit and increased heart rate.
“People think it mellows them out, but it causes an average increase in heart rate of 16 beats per minute,” Franson said. “That’s why people who take high doses they are unaccustomed to can experience significant anxiety or paranoia.”
Other THC effects commonly experienced are increased appetite, decreased nausea, decreased motivation and decreased pain perception.
Additional typical effects are bloodshot eyes, decreased pressure inside the eye (it’s used to treat glaucoma), heightened sensory perception (intense colors and sounds), distorted sense of time and sometimes a dry mouth.
Some effects are felt as soon as THC enters the bloodstream — much more quickly if inhaled. Delivery is key — joint, blunt, water pipe or a volcano (in which vapor only is collected in an expandable bag). Effects typically last an hour to a few hours, but the fat-soluble chemicals stay in the body for much longer.
Absorption of ingested THC is much slower.
After the high is over, some users feel sleepy or depressed.
Whatever is happening, Franson said, it’s THC that’s doing it.
“I think it all has to do with dose. The rest is marketing,” Franson said. “It’s folklore.”
Users beg to differ.
Seeb and many others say the two main types of cannabis, sativa and indica, produce very different effects. Marijuana strains range from pure sativas to pure indicas, but most are combinations or hybrids after thousands of years of cropping and recropping, he said.
Indica, nicknamed “in da couch,” provides a deep feeling of relaxation or sleepiness compared with sativa, “viva sativa,” which provides a more energetic or uplifting high, Seeb said.
Other users have strong preferences for different tastes and smells, which contribute to the subjective experience of pleasure.
“There are really pronounced differences across thousands of strains,” Seeb said. “Some smell very sweet, like oranges or grape Kool-Aid. Some people like the stinkiest cannabis they can find. It can smell like skunk, diesel fuel (Bio-Diesel) or a dirty diaper (Sour Diesel). Gumbo is a delicious, sweet and spicy indica strain with beautiful floral hints, but also strong and pungent.”
Seeb, who suffered a traumatic skiing accident that left him with chronic muscle spasms in one arm, said he is a big fan of Ultimate ’91 ChemDawg. It helps him relax his muscles and fall asleep after long workdays of 16 to 18 hours. No motivation problems here.
“I can’t make any claim one strain will have any one effect on everybody,” Seeb said. “What makes one person giggle will make someone else paranoid.”
For those who abstain and wonder about whether making their way through a haze of marijuana smoke can get them high, Franson says not to worry.
“It takes an absurd amount of marijuana secondhand smoke to cause a positive test in a nonsmoker,” Franson said.
A test 20 years ago showed that it required the smoke of 14 marijuana cigarettes in an unventilated 10-foot-square room before a nonsmoker had detectable amounts in his system.
“That’s pretty smoky,” Franson said.
Most of THC’s activity is in the brain and central nervous system, although there are receptors located in the heart and other cells, such as the body’s inflammatory-response cells.
Human bodies naturally manufacture chemicals similar to THC, which is why it works on us, Franson said. It hijacks receptors in the brain used by natural chemicals called neurotransmitters, specifically endogenous cannabinoids. One of them, anandamide, has been identified as regulating mood, memory, appetite, pain, learning and understanding.
These receptors are all over the brain — including the basal ganglia (which affects involuntary muscle movements), the hippocampus (used in short-term memory) and the cerebellum (which controls motor coordination).
“The cannabinoid receptor system is one of the biggest systems. Your brain is chock-full of them,” said Dr. Christian Hopfer, an associate professor of psychiatry at University of Colorado Hospital’s Center for Dependency, Addiction and Recovery.
“You need (the body’s natural cannabinoids), and it has an effect when you’re messing with those receptors,” Hopfer said.
THC mimics the body’s cannabinoids. Both interact with the same receptors. When THC binds to the receptor, it interferes with normal brain function, such as dopamine regulation.
Dopamine is part of the body’s natural reward system and a key molecule in many brain functions, such as attentiveness, motivation, learning, memorization and motor control. THC increases dopamine in the short term, but ultimately interferes with the body’s own reward circuit.
One of the body’s own cannabinoids’ purposes is to decrease the excitability of brain cells, or neurons, activated by adrenaline (or norepinephrine) in a fight-or-flight response to a perceived threat.
“But we eventually have to turn off this response or the neuron dies,” Franson said.
That’s the job of the body’s cannabinoids. But they jump on and jump off receptors much faster than THC, Franson said. The body’s cannabinoids don’t create a high.
“But THC jumps on and stays there,” she said. “It has a prolonged and pronounced effect.”
With chronic cannabis consumption, the body decreases the number of receptors for its cannabinoids. Researchers have found that this results in reduced blood flow — and glucose and oxygen — to the brain. This could manifest as attention-deficit, memory loss and other impaired mental abilities.
“There is evidence you don’t recover all your mental capacity when you quit using,” said Hopfer, who treats marijuana and other addictions. “It’s a very insidious addiction. It’s very hard to treat. Its effects are subtle, gradual and less dramatic. And it’s been trivialized.”
He said he thinks the media overall has been pro-marijuana in its coverage of legalization.
“People shouldn’t assume they know this drug based on Cheech and Chong movies,” Franson said.
Marijuana continues to be listed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a Schedule I drug — high potential for abuse and no currently accepted medical use — along with opiates and derivatives (heroin), stimulants (methamphetamine) and hallucinogenics (LSD) and depressants (methaqualone).
“There’s something crazy about the feds labeling cannabis Schedule I and states legalizing it,” Hopfer said. “It strikes me as a bad way of doing public policy. The truth is we don’t really know that much about marijuana. We need to sort it out. But we have declared it a medicine by popular vote. It’s a bad system. Now the popular view here is that it should be regulated like tobacco.”
When cannabis is smoked like a cigarette, the smoker’s lungs take in a horde of chemicals and particulates.
“Do I know that direct contact of these compounds doesn’t harm the lungs. I don’t know that. And nobody knows that,” Franson said.
Cannabis boosters and detractors offer conflicting evidence of whether it prevents or causes cancer, or does both.
“We just don’t have full understanding,” Franson said. “I think we ought to know what this stuff does before we (broadly) use it as medicine.”
Her main complaint about cannabis as medicine is that it’s not “pharmacological,” by which she means you can’t administer a consistent dose and predict a consistent response.
Nevertheless, she acknowledges cannabis is being used successfully to alleviate pain, lessen the bad side effects of chemotherapy and prevent blindness from glaucoma.
And, with much less scientific evidence behind it, it is also used to treat epileptic seizures, stop the spread of cancer (with a chemical called cannibidiol, not THC), slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease and more. Franson said these claims are not well-supported.
Where cannabis is concerned, however, many voters and users are willing to rely on anecdotal evidence and personal experience — and are just trying it out as a cure for an increasing number of ailments.
“We have such a wide variety of patients who come,” Seeb said. “We’re really starting to see the plant is a miracle plant that heals many things.”
“The same ship that made us a laughing stock around the world, took the piss out of us, too,” ’Ndrangheta boss Michele Rossi is heard saying to an associate, Massimo Tiralongo, according to police officers investigating the organisation’s vast cocaine-trafficking operation.
In addition to vessels operated by Costa Cruises, ’Ndrangheta also placed its drugs on ships owned by MSC and Norwegian Cruise Lines, which travel between Europe, North America and the Caribbean, according to details of the criminal investigation revealed in La Repubblica.
Officers from the organised crime investigation group in Florence say that the drugs on the Concordia, which have not been found, were stowed aboard without the knowledge of senior officers or senior company officials, but almost certainly with the complicity of one or more crew members.
The Concordia, with more than 4,000 passengers and crew aboard, partially capsized on the night of 13 January 2012, close to the island of Giglio, after the captain performed a risky manoeuvre which caused it to crash into rocks near the shore, tearing a huge hole in its side.
In February this year, Francesco Schettino, the Concordia’s captain, was found guilty of manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning ship before his passengers. He was given a 16-year jail sentence.
The Concordia was towed to Genoa in July last year to be scrapped in a complex, €100m operation, which is expected to last nearly two years.
Barack Obama called HBO series The Wire “one of the greatest pieces of art in the last couple of decades” in an interview with the show’s creator that was released today at the Bipartisan Summit for Criminal Justice Reform. The Wire chronicled the effects of the drug war as it was waged on the streets of Baltimore in the early 2000s, detailing how both drug use and the clumsy, heavy-handed law enforcement response to it devastated many urban communities.
As Simon summed it up, “what drugs don’t destroy, the war against them is ripping apart.”
Interestingly, Obama spoke of the incarceration problem as much from an economic perspective as from a social justice one.
“The challenge,” he said, “is folks go into prison at great expense to the state, [and] many times [are] trained to become more hardened criminals while in prison, come out and are basically unemployable and end up looping back in” to the prison system.
“When you break down why people aren’t getting back into the labor force, even as jobs are being created, a big chunk of that is the young male population with felony histories,” Obama said. “So now where we have the opportunity to give them a pathway toward a responsible life, they’re foreclosed. And that’s counterproductive.”
Fiscally speaking, mass incarceration is “breaking the bank,” Obama said. “It means everyone’s taxes are going up, and services are being squeezed.” Many elements in the Republican party have become receptive to these message in recent years.
But in the Senate especially there remains ahardline of lawmakers who cut their political teeth during the tough-on-crime era and who remain enthusiastic proponents of harsh sentences for drug offenders, despite reams of evidence showing they don’t work.
The Justice Department under Obama deserves a great deal of credit for taking administrative steps to reduce the burden of incarceration, including modest sentencing changes and an explicit hands-off approach to the states that have legalized marijuana.
But as Obama notes in the interview, the real work of reform will have to be done through Congress.
Back in the 60s LIFE had a series of hardcover books—26 volumes total—called the LIFE Science Library that tackled many subjects like Mathematics, The Mind, Health and Disease, Time, Food and Nutrition and so on.
One of the volumes printed in 1967 was simply titled Drugs and it gave the history of medicines and how drugs affect the human body.
Now if you were to judge a book by its cover, the LIFE hardback cover on drugs looks pretty boring, right?
I woulda walked right past it without a second thought!
The thing is, if you’d open it up, it’s chock full of trippy eye-candy delights.
Why such a boring cover with such delicious psychedelic imagery on the inside?
My observations as an artistic, writer, blogger, computer geek, humanist, mental health activist, lifelong learning and researcher of life living with lifelong severe depression, anxiety, social anxiety with agoraphobia, PTSD, A Nervous Breakdown, as well as a Survivor of Sexual Abuse and Rape.