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What is Marijuana?

Michael Anissimov
Updated Jan 27, 2024
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Marijuana, also known as cannabis, is an annual plant that is grown worldwide for its fibers, which are used to make hemp fabric; its seeds, which are used for birdseed; and its buds, which can be smoked for recreational and/or medicinal purposes. The plants are usually between 1 and 5 feet (0.3 to 1.5 m) tall and can thrive in a variety of climates given adequate light, including indoor "grow rooms."

The plant is thought to have originated in Central Asia, near present-day Tibet. Evidence of marijuana's use and cultivation stretches back to 10,000 BC, represented by charred seeds found in a ritual brazier in Romania. It is estimated that about 4% of the world's adults use it annually and 0.6% use it daily. This translates to about 264 and 40 million people respectively.

Much of marijuana's fame — and controversy — comes from its use as a psychoactive drug. As a drug, marijuana has many names — ganga, weed, trees, etc. In many countries, it is expensive because its use as a drug is either illegal or tightly regulated. In many other countries, however, like Mexico, Canada, the Netherlands, Spain, Australia, Russia, Iran, France, and Italy, the plant is either legal or nominally illegal but the penalties for its use are rarely enforced in practice. This makes it less expensive and more widely available.

When smoked, marijuana gives the user a "high," a mild feeling of elation, pleasure, and wonder. The onset is rapid, taking about 2 to 5 minutes, and lasts for about 30 minutes to three or four hours, depending on the dose. Being high on marijuana changes the way people interpret sounds and color, making auditory and visual experiences more stimulating and intense. This is why its use was been intensely promoted by music fans in the 1960s and 70s, and it continues to be used frequently at rock concerts. Using it gives the user a soothing sensation that diminishes the pain of diseases like cancer and AIDS.

Besides the positive aspect, marijuana has some downsides. It may cause a slight feeling of paranoia in the user, which may exacerbate pre-existing paranoia derived from using an illegal drug in the first place. It causes lethargy and poor motor coordination, meaning that operating heavy machinery or driving under the influence is inadvisable. In some countries, using or possessing it is illegal, meaning that being caught with it can lead to fines or jail time. In some countries and areas, like Hong Kong for instance, the plant is so illegal that growing or distributing it can lead to life imprisonment.

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Michael Anissimov
By Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime AllTheScience contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

Discussion Comments

By Boscoboo — On Jan 11, 2013

I want to drug test my son. How long does marijuana stay in your system? What would be a good schedule for testing? What tests are the least expensive, but accurate?

By anon255083 — On Mar 15, 2012

@gaboi: Independent studies have been done that show it would take the consumption of 24.5 pounds of weed in the period of 30 minutes to cause the human brain to overdose. Also, a study was done under the Nixon administration in 1974 that concluded marijuana was as safe as aspirin. This report was, of course, buried and is very difficult to get a copy of. Even if you could find a copy, it would have lovely black bars all through it.

This ongoing conspiracy benefits the rich. The clothing, textile, petroleum and other industries would be immediately affected by the legalization of a product that can replace currently used processes. The tobacco and alcohol industries account for 100,000 deaths (minimum) per year from cancer and alcohol-related car accidents. But, rich white idiots keep cashing in on it -- sick, right?

And, no, there are no indications that weed has any addictive properties. Neither is it a "gateway" drug. Those of us in the 420 community love weed and don't use anything else. If you are experimenting with coke, heroin, acid, etc., you have an addictive and possibly destructive psychological trait that needs to be addressed. Weed is habit-forming, but not addictive.

By gaboi — On Mar 15, 2012

I never heard of anybody smoking too much weed and dying. You can eat a whole pound of it and you aren't going to die. You'll pass the hell out, get up, eat everything in the house and probably go to a friend's and eat their food too, but you're not going to die.

The side effects of smoking green are being high, hungry, sleepy and it makes some people horny. Now alcohol, you can overdose on. People OD on that crap every day. It's not just about side effects. It makes a lot of people get themselves knocked out, killed or put in jail. It also causes liver cancer, when weed helps prevents some cancers and it's the best damn pain med around, and you can't get hooked on it, either.

By anon131654 — On Dec 03, 2010

In Pakistan, the plant is called "Bhang". Here one kilo will cost you about $10 max.

By anon89351 — On Jun 09, 2010

to anon24409: in regions where there is money, a gram can easily go for $20 usa dollars.

By anon87976 — On Jun 02, 2010

you are paying too much then. in new york or philadelphia, Mids can be achieved for around 2-5 dollars, and the rarest of strains such as Hydro Sour diesel can be acquired for as low as 20. Heads and Beasters can be gotten for around 10.

By whyn0t — On Apr 06, 2009

Alcohol causes so many problems; people get violent, fights break out, it causes paranoia, etc., but it's legal! Marijuana, besides prescribed use, is illegal and doesn't have any of these negative affects. I don't understand this. As for medicinal purposes, from personal experience, yeah, it does help a lot with headaches, back pain and tummy bugs.

By Zombiman — On Feb 11, 2009

@Zazuna3: No, the effects last for a few hours (depending on potency) and will cause you to test positive for 7 days or more. If your body chemistry and the strain you are smoking cause you to feel paranoid, it will only affect you while you are high.

Michael is right, if you are generally uncomfortable about smoking for what ever reason, you are definitely going to be noided out when you are high. Just chillax and enjoy it... peace.

By Zazuna3 — On Feb 05, 2009

Does the paranoia stay after the users high? As in does the paranoia become permanent, or is it short term?

By anon24409 — On Jan 12, 2009

I noticed that in the 3rd paragraph it shows that a gram in USD costs 20$. I do have a hard time believing that since I am part of a marijuana forum and the majority of them are from the states and they say they pay 10$ for mids (average marijuana) and 20$ for headies (high quality marijuana).

Michael Anissimov

Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime AllTheScience contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology...

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