- There is a plethora of urban legends surrounding cannabis, a plant that has been around for about 10,000 years.
- From its use as a truth serum in World War Two prisoners to being a source of inspiration for men of letters including William Shakespeare, the stories attributed to marijuana are many and varied.
- In this article we debunk some of the most popular myths surrounding the plant.
1- Is cannabis in North Korea as popular as they say?
For years, North Korea has been believed to be something of a cannabis paradise. The urban myth has it that the plant grows wild in this country, were it is sold freely in shops similar to bazaars, North Koreans being allowed to smoke whenever and wherever they prefer.
Yet the reality is quite different from the myth: cannabis is an illicit substance classified in the same category as cocaine and heroin, meaning it is illegal to sell or smoke. Apparently, the confusion exists because hemp grows in abundance in the country, were it is used for producing towels, cooking oil and rabbit feed, among other commodities, as the species is officially considered "perfect for the 21st century" because of its environmentally friendly qualities.
2- Did Shakespeare write his plays under the influence of cannabis?
"To smoke or not to smoke" was apparently also among the dilemmas addressed by William Shakespeare, who might have written his plays while high.
This is what emerges from residue from early 17th century clay pipes found in the playwright's garden in Stratford-Upon-Avon, which were analysed with gas chromatography in 2015. Of the 24 pipe fragments loaned from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust to the University of the Witwatersrand, cannabis was found in eight samples.
Is it safe to say, then, that one of the best playwrights and poets of all times was a cannabis smoker? The assumption appears even more plausible in the light of Sonnet 76, which includes the verse "... and keep invention in a noted weed". Considering the abundance of wordplay in Shakespeare's work, experts believe the fragment could be interpreted as a reference to the playwright's inclination to resort to cannabis for inspiration.
3- Was cannabis used as a truth serum in World War Two prisoners?
During World War Two, the US Office of Strategic Services, a predecessor to the CIA, was commissioned to investigate the possibility of using drugs during interrogation. Among the studied substances was also cannabis, which was reported to "lower inhibitions making a person more likely to reveal the truth."
"However, marijuana can also bring out fantasy and can be unreliable," concluded the report, which was probably the reason why cannabis fell into disuse as a truth serum in early 1943. Jack Herer, the author of The Emperor Wears No Clothes, says the prisoners under interrogation would often end up giggling at their captors, and were therefore unable to provide any sort of reliable information.
4- Were the first US presidents frequent cannabis users?
It is a common believe among cannabis enthusiasts that the founders of America used to grow and smoke cannabis. George Washington allegedly smoked weed to soothe the pain of his false teeth, James Madison is said to have conceived the U.S. constitution in a cloud of cannabis smoke, and there's a quote attributed to Thomas Jefferson that reads: "Some of my finest hours have been spent on my back veranda, smoking hemp and observing as far as my eye can see." Unfortunately, there's no truth to any of it.
Early American presidents may have been in favour of growing low-THC hemp for producing rope and paper, but there's no evidence that they ever consumed it. In fact, the misunderstanding is largely due to a hoax spread in the 70's by The Seed, an underground Chicago newspaper that published a satirical story portraying seven early American presidents as cannabis smokers. Eventually, their supposed penchant for weed became an argument used by pro-legalisation activists to justify their claims.
5- Was Hollywood once called "Hollyweed"?
Hollywood went green once, though not the way one might think. On New Year's Eve 1976, the iconic "Hollywood" sign overlooking Los Angeles was vandalised to read "Hollyweed". The CNN reported that a prankster "used tarps to change the O's in the sign to E's." But this wasn't the only time the sign was altered to look greener, the last being New Year's Eve 2017.
6- Did ninjas jump over cannabis plants as part of their training?
There's an old Nipponese belief, which Kenji Nakagami, one of the most prominent Japanese writers of the 20th century, describes in one of his books, that people who jumped over a hemp plant without being physically prepared would die, because the jump required flying like a ninja. The tale also says ninjas improved their jumping abilities with hemp, a fast-growing plant that forced them to take slightly bigger jumps every day.
Cannabis has been at the very heart of Japanese culture for thousands of years, yet most Japanese people see the plant just as a subculture of Japan. In fact, the country has some of the harshest anti-cannabis laws in the world, a prohibitionist approach introduced by the U.S. in 1948 that annihilated an age-old culture now unknown to most. Unsurprisingly, the move was orchestrated by the U.S. petrochemical industry in an effort to kill off the Japanese fibre industry, opening the market to artificial materials including polyester and nylon.
7- Is cannabis today 5 times more potent than in the 80's?
The figures speak for themselves: while records show cannabis in the 80's had THC levels of 2 to 5 per cent, many varieties today contain THC levels as high as 20 per cent. These are the findings of a study led by Christian Hopfer, professor of Psychiatry at the University of Colorado Boulder. Hopfer's study, the largest and most long-term analysis of cannabis to date, has shown the plant's strength has increased at least fivefold over the last 40 years.
A similar conclusion has been reached by a research group from the University of Mississippi. The researchers analysed about 39,000 cannabis samples seized by the DEA between 1995 and 2014, and concluded that cannabis today is much stronger than some years ago. In fact, their study found that THC levels had tripled during the period under analysis, rising from 4 per cent in 1995 to about 12 per cent in 2014.
8- Does cannabis affect men and women differently?
Research has shown that the plant may have different effects in men and women due to sociocultural and biological factors including sex hormones – testosterone, estrogens and progesterone interact with the endocannabinoid system in the brain.
While women have a higher tolerance to THC – the cannabis compound that gets you high – and thus benefit less from its analgesic effect, men are more susceptible to getting the munchies.
There's also evidence to suggest that cannabinoids may help improve women's fertility, also increasing female sex drive when taken at low doses – high doses may have the exact opposite effect, reducing libido drive rather than increasing it.