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The Evolution of Cannabis Science Part 1

Part one discusses Cannabis science evolution, how it's illegality has hindered proper research, and cultivation myths.

By Heather Ritchie, Staff Writer for Terpenes and Testing Magazine

Everyone knows that cannabis is not a new herb on the scene with healing and psychoactive properties. Humans have used it for thousands of years for a variety of purposes. Charred seeds were even found in burial mounds dating back to 3000 B.C. Thousands of years ago the Chinese began using it for medicinal purposes. Even George Washington grew hemp hundreds of years ago at Mount Vernon.

At this time, we don’t have a fossil record of the earliest cannabis plants because of the rate of the plant's dispersal through human trade and migration. Researchers and scientists use knowledge of similar plant families and deductive reasoning to hypothesize the herb’s true origins.

It wasn’t until 1837 that an Austrian botanist named Stephan Endlicher bestowed cannabis and humulus (its sister plant) with their own family, Cannabaceae under the order Urticales. That would change a few times until after a 2003 article on the relationship between plants and parasites by Drs. Judy Nicholson and John McPartland was published. They noted that the plants’ hosted seven parasites also found on other plants in the Urticaceae and none with some previously assumed relatives. Hence per Fahrenholz’s rule, we theorize that Cannabaceae evolved from alongside or from Urticaceae.

Setbacks from Cannabis’s Illicit Status

Its illegal status created a serious problem for the science of cannabis. Research has been limited on cannabis because the Schedule I drug classification has made it hard for scientists to obtain. For most of the U.S.’s history, cannabis was a common ingredient in many medical extracts and tinctures. Then, cannabis and its potential research was driven underground through negative propaganda like the films Reefer Madness, Marijuana, Assassin of Youth, and The Devil’s Harvest, as well as claims of cannabis being a “gateway drug”.

Now, people have begun slowly returning to the herb to treat illnesses, diseases, and pain and the science of cannabis has been resurrected. Many states have legalized cannabis for medical purposes, and families have uprooted themselves to migrate to those legalized locations to start loved ones, often children, on a daily regimen of cannabis medicine with many amazing results.

The UC Botanical Garden at Berkeley held a lecture series on the “Science of Cannabis” to demystify some of the science behind the substance. Lecturers included a broad range of expertise from cognitive scientists to corporate executives.

Cannabis Cultivation Myths

One of the topics discussed during the lecture series was cannabis cultivation myths. Many of these myths have sprung from a general lack of knowledge regarding cannabis.

First, there’s the myth that sun-grown crops utilize rat poisons for pesticides and that cultivators clear-cut the fields they’re grown in. People associate these illegal cannabis farming practices with all cannabis planting operations. Now that cannabis cultivation is legal in many states, the trend of craft cannabis cooperatives that focus on producing the highest quality crop possible is the future.

Another myth is that only cannabis grown indoors is quality product. Cultivating plants outdoors may introduce better therapeutic advantages as the terpenoids and cannabinoids from plants grown under natural sunlight have been implicated as providing more potent plants.

Cultivating cannabis in its more natural, outdoor ecosystem also provides environmental benefits from utilizing Mother Nature, as opposed to further taxing the energy grid. Dr. Amanda Reiman, Vice-President of community relations for Flow Kana explained further in her lecture; “There was a study done in 2011 by Dr. Eva Mills that said the U.S. cannabis production and distribution had energy costs of $5 billion, creating 17 million tons per year of greenhouse gas emissions, which is equal to the emissions of 3 million average-sized cars.”

A third myth is that if cannabis is grown outside people will be intimidated to use it. Reefer madness is deep-rooted in American culture, and it contributes to that baseless fear. No matter where it is grown it won’t influence people who don’t use it. Reiman said, “At the end of the day, when you get in your Tesla and drive to your solar-powered home, why would you be smoking cannabis grown indoors?”

Taking Growing Crops Back to the Basics

Essentially cannabis grown since the 1960s is a confused mixture of genes. During his lecture, Mowgli Holmes, the CEO, and co-founder of Phylos Bioscience said that that the names are wrong and growers in the past mixed bud strains to produce a variety of potent results like increased creativity. Holmes described it as a “poly-hybrid soup.” This type of selective plant breeding isn’t how natural evolution happens.

He described a plant’s genealogy as a linear family tree, but with cannabis that hasn’t been the case. Holmes also said that people argue a lot over whether this “soup” of variations represents different species or not. He clarifies that they are just one species with many varieties. Most of all the cannabis grown today is a result of past hybridization. Phylos Biosciences created an interactive galaxy tool that illustrates the unorthodox evolution of cannabis utilizing samples collected from all over the world.

Cannabis is still sold under descriptions like “sativa” or “indica.” The names under which the herb sells today are actually marketing strategies that don’t say much about the chemovar’s effects. Terpenes are the key to each strain’s impact on users. For instance, chemovars with high levels of limonene are thought to stimulate while those high in myrcene sedate users. The only exact way to discover what terpenes are in any chemovar is to measure them in an analytical lab.

Plant breeding continued to change chemovar’s over time to improve potency and quality, making it still an important part of many cultures for the same reason people hundreds and even thousands of years ago used it for medicinal purposes, ceremonies, or to relax. Next week we’ll continue to delve deeper into the evolution of the science of cannabis, focusing on chemistry.

To read more, visit terpenesandtesting.com.

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