Marijuana for the Masses
- Traumatic violence and the threat of nuclear war in the early 1960s set the stage for the widespread use of marijuana as a medically unsupervised anxiety-relieving drug among young people later in the decade.
- Stress causes the brain to generate cortisol and other steroid hormones, which trigger the release naturally occurring endogenous marijuana-like compounds.
- The Reagan administration underwrote scientific research that led to the discovery of the endocannabinoid system, a major (unintended) scientific breakthrough.
- Marijuana, an herbal adaptogen, can calm overactive nerves, relax musculature, lower blood pressure, and ease PTSD .
Why did cannabis become so popular in the 1960s? And why is it even more popular today?
Once confined to America’s lower socioeconomic strata, the illicit weed smoked by marginalized Mexicans and African-Americans jumped its racial boundaries and found favor among white middle class youth during the social tumult loosely known as “the Sixties.”
The serrated marijuana leaf would become a totem of rebellion, a badge of antiauthoritarian identity during the 1960s, when cannabis first emerged as a defining force in a culture war that has never ceased. Nearly everything was being questioned and most things tried in an orgy of experiment that shook the nation at its roots. Marijuana was an integral part of that social experiment.
But why marijuana? And why then?
No single factor can account for why cannabis has proven so attractive to so many people on an ongoing basis since the mid-1960s. In some unexplained way, the much-maligned herb addressed the needs of young Americans as they grappled with “growing up absurd” in a catch-22 world.
In the Fall of 1962, the United States and its Cold War enemy, the Soviet Union, went eyeball to eyeball and the world held its breath. Historian Arthur Schlesinger described the Cuban Missile Crisis as the most dangerous moment in history. The turn of a key could have triggered nuclear war and the extinction of humankind. The whole thing seemed suicidal, completely absurd, yet it was precisely the ghoulish irrationality of “Mutually Assured Destruction” that gave the superpowers their credibility in the modern world. Those who came of age during these anxious times made their stand not only as a “lost generation” but also as potentially the last generation.
President John Kennedy was assassinated 13 months after the Cuban Missile Crisis. These shocking events traumatized the nation’s psyche. It’s not coincidental that within a year after the JFK assassination, smoking marijuana, an herb that can facilitate the extinction of traumatic memories, would increase exponentially among white middle-class youth, including some of America’s best and brightest college students. And now that the genie was out of the bottle there was no way to put it back in.
Contrary to rampant scare stories about devious pushers and deviant youth, that fateful first toke didn’t lead to ruin. It didn’t turn young people into miserable junkies or psychos or couch potatoes. More often than not it relaxed them and made them laugh or gave them the munchies. And it also set their skeptical minds in motion: If government officials dissemble about marijuana, what else do they lie about? If marijuana prohibition is based on blatant falsehoods, are other policies just as arbitrary, capricious, and groundless?
Not surprisingly, marijuana smokers in the mid-1960s tended to harbor antiestablishment attitudes. It wasn’t the chemical composition of the herb that engendered skepticism toward officialdom in general — it was the chasm between irrefutable lived experience and the government’s rabid antimarijuana mythology enshrined in federal legislation that mandated five years in prison for possessing a nickel bag of grass.
A pivotal year for pot
Marijuana’s status as a forbidden substance added to its allure. But it doesn’t explain the herb’s enduring popularity since 1964. That was when white America discovered pot and “marijuana” became a household word. This unexpected development was reflected in news stories with headlines such as “Dope Invades the Suburbs” and “The College Drug Scene.” What the magazines called “drug abuse” was almost entirely a matter of young people smoking weed.
Nineteen-sixty-four was also the year that President Lyndon Johnson’s Advisory Commission on Narcotics and Drug Abuse issued a report about mood-changing meds in America. The commission noted that “the rarest or most abnormal form of behavior is not to take any mind-altering drugs at all. Most adult Americans are users of drugs, many are frequent users of a wide variety of them.”
Physicians routinely prescribed Valium, Librium, Miltown, and other highly addictive hypnotics and tranquilizers — known as “dolls” in mainstream happy-speak — along with a cavalcade of uppers and diet pills to help Mom and Dad get through the day and fall asleep at night. These substances were often misused. Overconsumption of alcoholic beverages was even more commonplace.
Post-world-war-two Baby Boomers were the first demographic to smoke marijuana en masse. In the 1960s, few people were thinking about marijuana as a medicine. But the controversial plant may have had an unacknowledged therapeutic impact during that turbulent decade.
For Sixties youth, cannabis was like catnip for a cat, a poorly understood but nonetheless efficient herbal means of navigating the ambient anxiety and frenetic complexity of modern life. “The need to self-medicate symptoms of adolescent angst is much more important than simple youthful hedonism,” according to Dr. Tom O’Connell, who studied juvenile marijuana initiation and usage after serving as a captain in the U.S. Army Medical Corps during the Vietnam War.
Dr. O’Connell asserts that repetitive drug consumption usually entails a more serious purpose than mere recreation. He maintains that young people embraced marijuana to assuage the same emotional symptoms “that made anxiolytics, mood stabilizers and antidepressants Big Pharma’s most lucrative products.”
Adopted as a safe, effective, and medically unsupervised anxiolytic by legions of Baby Boomers, marijuana became the central focus of a deceitful and disastrous war on drugs launched by a Machiavellian president. The drug war that Richard Nixon set in motion in the early 1970s would escalate and metastasize under Ronald Reagan and his Oval Office successors.
Ironically, it was President Reagan who unintentionally shed light on the scientific basis of cannabis therapeutics when he expanded and militarized the war on drugs in the 1980s. The Reagan administration poured tens of millions of dollars into research that would prove once and for all that marijuana damages the brain—or so it was thought. But rather than showing that marijuana caused brain damage, the Reagan administration underwrote a series of experiments that led to the discovery of “the endocannabinoid system,” which actually protects the brain and buffers stress when activated by cannabis components.
This major scientific breakthrough would have significant implications for nearly every area of medical science. It opened up new vistas of understanding human biology and went a long way toward explaining how and why cannabis is such a multifaceted medicinal herb — and why it’s the most popular illegal substance on the planet.
The emergence of marijuana as the anxiolytic drug of choice among tense teens and anxious adults in the 1960s and its durable popularity makes sense in light of scientific studies, which have documented how marijuana “turns on” receptors in the brain and body that regulate our ability to adapt to stress. On a cellular level, stress is the body’s response to any stimulus that creates a physiological demand on it. When a person is stressed, the brain generates cortisol and other steroid hormones, which, in turn, trigger the release of naturally occurring marijuana-like compounds that are produced in the human brain and body. These endogenous “cannabinoids” bind to cell receptors that restore physiological homeostasis by down-regulating the production of stress hormones. Marijuana, an herbal adaptogen, essentially does the same thing: When consumed in moderation it can calm overactive nerves, relax musculature, lower blood pressure, and ease acute and post-traumatic stress.
Stress is unavoidable in daily life. Whereas activation of the body’s innate stress response (“fight or flight”) is essential for responding to acute survival threats, too much stress can increase one’s susceptibility to disease and damage an organism in the long run. Chronically elevated stress levels boost anxiety and hasten the progression of Alzheimer’s dementia. Emotional stress has been shown to accelerate the spread of cancer. Stress alters how we assimilate fats and other nutrients.
What was true for Baby Boomers also applies to Millennials and everyone in between: We have been under assault from an unprecedented array of debilitating stressors, a noxious swill of junk food, electromagnetic radiation, information overload, and tens of thousands of unregulated chemical pollutants, which wreak havoc on metabolism and psychological development. There’s also dog-eat-dog stress, bad relationship stress, the stress of extreme economic disparity, war-without-end stress, god-awful government stress, ecological doom stress. The cumulative effect can be seen in epidemic levels of diabetes, autism, ADHD , hypertension, and depression.
Marijuana, the little flower that millions like to smoke, helps people cope with the stress of living in the modern world.
Copyright, Project CBD . May not be reprinted without permission.
Why did cannabis become so popular in the 1960s? And why is it even more popular today?
Was Marijuana Really Less Potent in the 1960s?
How incomplete government data encourages a pervasive pot myth
One of the strongest known strains of marijuana in the world is called Bruce Banner #3, a reference to the comic-book scientist whose alter ego is the Hulk. This is probably an appropriate nickname. With a THC concentration of 28 percent—THC is one of the key chemicals in marijuana—Bruce Banner #3 packs a punch. It’s something like five times as potent as what federal researchers consider to be the norm, according to a 2010 Journal of Forensic Sciences paper. High Times marveled in a review: “Who knows what you’ll turn into after getting down with Bruce?”
As marijuana goes increasingly mainstream—and, crucially, develops into big (and legal) business—more super-potent novelty strains are likely to crop up. Bruce Banner #3 is the marijuana industry’s answer to The End of History, an ultra-strong Belgian-style ale that the Scottish beer-maker Brewdog made in a specialty batch—which was then served in bottles inside taxidermied squirrels—in 2010. Its alcohol by volume was 55 percent. That’s way, way stronger than most beers. “It’s the end of beer, no other beer we don’t think will be able to get that high,” James Watt, one of the founders of Brewdog, told me when I visited the Brewdog headquarters in Scotland in 2010.
Yet three years later, another Scottish brewery had whipped up a batch of barley wine called Snake Venom that boasted higher than 67 percent alcohol by volume.
This is human nature. Or maybe it’s just capitalism. One person makes a superlative product, which prompts the next person to best them. Given the opportunity to try something extreme—the biggest, the strongest, the best, the craziest—plenty of people will go for it. But most people don’t pick Snake Venom as their typical pint. And Bruce Banner #3 probably is not representative of the average joint.
For years, people have talked about increasing marijuana potency. The idea that pot is getting stronger—much stronger than the stuff that got passed around at Woodstock, for instance—is treated like conventional wisdom these days. Maybe it shouldn’t be.
“It’s fair to be skeptical,” said Michael Kahn, the president of Massachusetts Cannabis Research, a marijuana testing and research lab in New England. “Back then the predominant method for quantitation was gas chromatography, which is not quite appropriate for cannabinoid quantitation. This is because [it] heats up the test material before analysis, which also alters the chemical profile—including breaking down the THC molecule.”
Kahn’s lab uses a technique called liquid chromatography instead. Another potency tester, Denver-based CannLabs, uses a similar method. “Depending on what the sample is—flower, hash oil, hundreds of edibles ranging from ice cream to pasta sauce to seeds—you use different solvents to do the extraction,” said Gennifer Murray, the CEO of CannLabs. “You mix it with a special solvent, basically shake it around, centrifuge it, and then it goes onto the instrument. That’s the liquid chromatograph.”
The federal government has been testing marijuana potency for more than 40 years, and has long acknowledged the limitations to its methodologies. Along with some of the issues with gas chromatography—which it was still using at least as recently as 2008—the National Institute on Drug Abuse potency testing has always depended on what researchers have been able to get their hands on. Since 1972, tens of thousands of test samples for the Potency Monitoring Program have come from law enforcement seizures, which have varied dramatically in scope and type. A drop in THC concentration in the early 1980s, for instance, was attributed to the fact that most of the marijuana researchers analyzed came from weaker domestic crops.
In National Institute on Drug Abuse studies over the past several decades, the age of samples has varied from a few weeks old to a few years old—and researchers made no attempt to compensate for the loss of THC during prolonged storage, according to a 1984 paper. They also get different results when taking into account how the potency of a particularly large seizure could skew the overall sample. For example, measured one way, researchers found what looked like a continuous and significant increase in potency in the late 1970s. But normalizing those findings showed there was “an increase up to 1977 with slight decline in 1978 and a significant decline in 1979,” according to a 1984 paper in the Journal of Forensic Science.
More recently, researchers found a THC concentration that “gradually increase[d]” from 1993 to 2008, according to a 2010 paper in the Journal of Forensic Sciences. And despite testing limitations, researchers have always maintained potency is likely trending upward. But they’ve also always been upfront about the limitations to their findings: “The change in cannabis potency over the past 40 years has been the subject of much debate and controversy. The [Potency Monitoring] program has strived to answer this cannabis potency question, while realizing that the data collected in this and other programs have some scientific and statistical shortcomings.”
Ultimately, researchers have found a “large variation within categories and over time,” they wrote. That’s in part because sample sizes have fluctuated. (In the 1970s, researchers assessed anywhere from three to 18 seizures a year. In 2000, they analyzed more than 1,000 seizures.)
In other words, it’s difficult if not impossible to classify average potency in a way that can be tracked meaningfully over time. So while there’s almost certainly more super-strong pot available today—if only by the fact that it’s now legal to buy in multiple states—it doesn’t mean that all marijuana is ultra-potent today, which is how the narrative about potency is often framed. There’s also a point at which most strains can’t get much stronger. “Anyone getting a reading over 25, it’s really hard to do,” said Murray of CannLabs. “And then it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to quote-unquote get higher. There’s a lot of things that go into the plant—over 500 constituents of the plant that play into this.”
Federal researchers, too, have characterized marijuana strains with THC concentrations above around 15 percent as unusual. “The question over the increase in potency of cannabis is complex and has evoked many opinions,” researchers at the University of Mississippi wrote in a National Institute on Drug Abuse analysis of marijuana potency between 1993 and 2008. “It is however clear that cannabis has changed during the past four decades. It is now possible to mass produce plants with potencies inconceivable when concerted monitoring efforts started 40 years ago.”
Even without knowing reliably what potency was like in the 1960s and 1970s, it’s reasonable to guess it will increase, says Kahn, of Massachusetts Cannabis Research. “I think the mega-potent strains may soon represent the norm, if not already—the market selects for potency.” But with customers clamoring for the strong stuff, there’s also a question of whether manufacturers are labeling accurately. A Denver Post investigation last year found wide discrepancies between labeling and THC content—in many cases, products advertised a much higher percentage of THC than an edible product actually contained.
Either way, a shift toward high potency has arguably more to do with contemporary market forces than with a younger generation of marijuana enthusiasts. “The Baby Boomers have been growing for 40 years,” Murray said. “And now they can grow without being worried about the police.”
How incomplete government data encourages a pervasive pot myth