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Oldest evidence of marijuana use discovered in 2500-year-old cemetery in peaks of western China

THC levels in braziers show mourners along the ancient Silk Road inhaled

  • 12 Jun 2019
  • By Andrew Lawler

Today, more than 150 million people regularly smoke cannabis, making it one of the world’s most popular recreational drugs. But when and where humans began to appreciate the psychoactive properties of weed has been more a matter of speculation than science. Now, a team led by archaeologists Yang Yimin and Ren Meng of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing reports clear physical evidence that mourners burned cannabis for its intoxicating fumes on a remote mountain plateau in Central Asia some 2500 years ago.

The study, published today in Science Advances, relies on new techniques that enable researchers to identify the chemical signature of the plant and even evaluate its potency. “We are in the midst of a really exciting period,” says team member Nicole Boivin of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History (MPI-SHH) in Jena, Germany. The paper is part of a wider effort to track how the drug spread along the nascent Silk Road, on its way to becoming the global intoxicant it is today.

Cannabis, also known as hemp or marijuana, evolved about 28 million years ago on the eastern Tibetan Plateau, according to a pollen study published in May. A close relative of the common hop found in beer, the plant still grows wild across Central Asia. More than 4000 years ago, Chinese farmers began to grow it for oil and for fiber to make rope, clothing, and paper.

Pinpointing when people began to take advantage of hemp’s psychoactive properties has proved tricky. Archaeologists had made claims of ritual cannabis burning in Central Asian sites as far back as 5000 years ago. But new analyses of those plant remains by other teams suggest that early cannabis strains had low levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the plant’s most powerful psychoactive component, and so lacked mind-altering properties. One academic who works in Central Asia said he and colleagues tried to smoke and eat wild varieties—but got no buzz.

Ancient people put cannabis leaves and hot stones in this brazier, and likely inhaled the resulting smoke.

The cannabis burned 2500 years ago at the Jirzankal cemetery, 3000 meters high in the Pamir Mountains in far western China, was different. Excavations there have uncovered skeletons and wooden plates, bowls, and Chinese harps, as well as wooden braziers that held burning material. All are typical of the Sogdians, a people of western China and Tajikistan who generally followed the Persian faith of Zoroastrianism, which later celebrated the mind-expanding properties of cannabis in sacred texts. At Jirzankal, glass beads typical of Western Asia and silk from China confirm the long-distance trade for which the Sogdians became famous, and isotopic analysis of 34 skeletons showed that nearly a third were migrants. Radiocarbon analysis put the burials at about 500 B.C.E.

The wooden braziers were concentrated in the more elite tombs. Yang’s and Ren’s team ground bits of brazier into powder and applied gas chromatography and mass spectrometry to identify chemical compounds left behind. They found unusually high levels of THC compared with typical wild cannabis, although much less than in today’s highly bred plants. The cannabis was apparently burned in an enclosed space, so mourners almost certainly inhaled THC-laced fumes, the authors say, making this the earliest solid evidence of cannabis use for psychoactive purposes.

Archaeologists have spotted signs of ancient cannabis use from western China to the Caucasus.

The region’s high altitude could have stressed the cannabis, creating plants naturally high in THC, says co-author Robert Spengler, also of MPI-SHH. “It is quite likely that people came across cannabis plants at higher elevations that were naturally producing higher THC levels,” he says. But humans may also have intervened to breed a more wicked weed, he adds.

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“The methods are convincing, and the data are unambiguous regarding early use of cannabis as a psychoactive substance,” says Tengwen Long, an environmental scientist at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom who has researched cannabis origins. But Megan Cifarelli, an art historian at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York, who has studied ancient drug use, notes the aromatic fumes might also have had another purpose: to mask the smell of a putrefying corpse.

Yang’s and Ren’s team thinks cannabis use was restricted to elites until potent pot began to spread across Central Asia through the Silk Road linking China with Iran. In 440 B.C.E., the Greek historian Herodotus wrote that the nomadic Scythians, who controlled vast areas from Siberia to Eastern Europe, made tents and heated rocks in order to inhale hemp vapors that made them “shout for joy.” And Andrei Belinski, an archaeologist based at the heritage museum in Stavropol, Russia, in 2013 began to excavate a nearby 2400-year-old Scythian tomb that held gold vessels bearing residues of both opium and cannabis, supporting the idea that elites used the drug first.

Ancient artwork and textual references from Syria to China hint at even earlier cannabis drug use, and the new analytical methods could soon provide concrete evidence of this, says Michael Frachetti, an archaeologist at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. But it’s already clear that the ancient Silk Road trafficked in more than spices, grains, and ideas. “Crops weren’t just about food,” he says. “They were also about making contact with another world.”

Marijuana gives you the munchies. What about CBD?

As a dietitian, I always receive an influx of New Year’s emails predicting upcoming food trends. This year, several experts have forecast an increase in foods and beverages containing cannabidiol, a chemical compound found in cannabis plants. More colloquially called CBD, cannabidiol has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat some forms of epilepsy and shows potential in treating pain, nausea, anxiety and depression — without making users high.

But what about its effect on hunger? After all, smoking or ingesting cannabis is associated with the munchies. So, I wondered: Does CBD have the same effect? Could a trend toward CBD-infused foods lead to weight gain? And how might CBD affect people who have conditions that make it difficult to keep weight on (such as those with HIV/AIDS, cancer, eating disorders or depression)? I decided to consult some experts.

To understand their answers to these questions, first, a quick tutorial. Cannabis plants contain more than 100 cannabinoids, although the therapeutic and psychoactive effects of most of them aren’t yet known. The two most-researched cannabinoids are CBD and tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the main psychoactive cannabinoid. THC makes you high; CBD doesn’t. And, it turns out, they affect appetite in different ways.

THC produces the well-known cravings for sweet and fatty foods through several mechanisms, according to the experts I consulted. First, “THC increases the hormone ghrelin, which causes you to feel hungry,” says Janice Newell Bissex, a registered dietitian and holistic cannabis practitioner in Melrose, Mass. If your stomach is empty, she says, you produce more of the hunger hormone ghrelin, which tells the brain to generate the sensation of hunger. But THC can increase ghrelin and trigger the feeling of hunger even if your stomach isn’t empty.

Second, THC hits a part of the brain that controls hunger. “The appetite-promoting effect of THC is mediated by CB1 receptors located in areas of the brain involved in appetite control,” explains George Kunos, scientific director at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda.

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And third, THC boosts dopamine, the “feel-good” chemical in the brain, “so you get more pleasure from eating,” Bissex says. “THC can increase the sense of smell and taste, so people are more inclined to want to eat.”

7 Smokable Plants You Can Grow That Aren’t Marijuana

Here’s a non-trend that you’d think would be more hip: tobacco-free herbal smoking blends.

Quite a few plants may be safely, and pleasurable, lit up in a pipe or rolling papers. Those listed below are legal, unregulated, and totally safe to use. They are also non-hallucinogenic and non-addictive—perhaps that explains their lack of popularity?

While they won’t get you high, when blended according to the instructions below, these herbs produce a smooth, tasty smoke and give a gentle, relaxing buzz. All of the following varieties may be purchased online or at any well-stocked herb store. You may also grow your own. Of course, we’d be remiss not to remind you to discuss any questions with a doctor.

While scores of herbs are smokable, those listed below are among the most commonly used and easily grown at home. Skip to the sidebar to learn how to dry your herbs into the perfect smoking blend.

Mullein (Verbascum thapsus)

Herbal Properties: Mullein has a long history of use as a lung tonic. It can actually help you stop coughing when you’re sick.

Smoking Qualities: The smoke is extremely light and mild, almost like smoking air, and virtually flavorless.

Type of Plant: This biennial herb grows up to two feet wide at the base, with flower stalks rising six feet or more.

How to Grow: Considered by some a garden weed, this fuzzy-leafed plant is very easy to grow from seed planted directly in the garden in spring. It prefers a sunny location and soil that is well-drained and not too fertile. It benefits from a bit of irrigation as a seedling but is drought-tolerant once established.

Skullcap (Scutellaria spp.)

Herbal Properties: Skullcap has a mild calming effect when smoked.

Smoking Qualities: This herb is a medium smoke, with a fairly neutral flavor.

Type of Plant: A spreading perennial that grows about a foot tall, skullcap makes an attractive groundcover in the garden.

How to Grow: Sow seeds indoors in spring, planting the seedlings in a sunny or partly shaded location with rich soil once the weather has warmed. Skullcap requires weekly irrigation during dry periods. Cut the dried foliage to the ground each fall.

Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara)

Herbal Properties: Coltsfoot is an expectorant, helping to free phlegm from the lungs.

Smoking Qualities: This herb is a light smoke with a neutral flavor, but can cause harsh coughing if used in a high concentration in smoking blends.

Type of Plant: This 6- to 12-inch tall groundcover spreads by underground rhizomes to form extensive colonies under optimum growing conditions.

How to Grow: Dried coltsfoot seed rarely germinates, but “fresh” seed, as well as potted plants, are available online. Rich, moist soil and a location in full sun or part shade are this plant’s preferred growing conditions.

Mugwort (Artemesia vulgaris)

Herbal Properties: Many ancient cultures smoked mugwort to promote vivid dreams. It also produces a very mild psychotropic effect while you’re awake.

Smoking Qualities: This herb is a light smoke with a pleasant, slightly sweet flavor.

Type of Plant: Mugwort is a spreading perennial growing up to 2 feet tall.

How to Grow: While seeds are available online, mugwort is easier to start from a potted plant, or by transplanting a clump from an established patch. Mugwort thrives with little care once established, but beware: it can become invasive, especially in moist locations. Cut the dried stalks to the ground each fall.

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Uva-Ursi (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi)

Herbal Properties: Also known by the Algonquin name kinnikinnick, this native plant has long been smoked by Native American tribes for ceremonial purposes.

Smoking Qualities: Uva-ursi herb is a medium smoke with a strong earthy flavor.

Type of Plant: This attractive woody groundcover, which grows about 6 inches tall, is a popular landscaping plant.

How to Grow: Uva-ursi is very difficult to propagate by seed, so it’s best to obtain potted specimens from a native plant nursery in your area, or from an online supplier. Grow in full sun or light shade; excellent drainage is essential. Uva-ursi is drought-tolerant and requires little care once established.

Mint (Mentha spp.)

Herbal Properties: Mints are used primarily to impart flavor to smoking blends. There are many varieties worth experimenting with, including spearmint (Mentha spicata) (pictured above), peppermint (Mentha piperita), and chocolate mint (Mentha x piperita ‘Chocolate’). Close relatives of mint, including lemon balm (lemony flavor) and yerba buena (sweet menthol flavor), are often incorporated in smoking blends, as well.

Smoking Qualities: Varies by species.

Type of Plant: These herbaceous perennials spread to form extensive colonies under optimum growing conditions.

How to Grow: Mints are easier to establish from potted plants, or by transplanting a clump from an established patch, than by sowing seeds. Part sun and rich, moist soil are the preferred growing conditions. Mints can become invasive in the garden, especially in moist areas, so you may want to confine them to a pot. Cut the dried stalks to the ground each fall.

Sage (Salvia spp.)

Herbal Properties: Sages are used primarily to impart flavor to smoking blends. There are many varieties worth experimenting with, including white sage (Salvia apiana), black sage (Salvia mellifera), and pineapple sage (Salvia elegans) (pictured above). Beware though: One type of sage, Salvia divinorum, has strong psychotropic properties and is illegal in many states (many gardeners find themselves accidentally breaking the law).

Smoking Qualities: Varies by species.

Type of Plant: Most sages are shrubby perennials, ranging from less than 1 foot to more than 6 feet tall.

How to Grow: Growing conditions vary by species, but most sages prefer full sun and dry conditions. Cut them back about 50 percent each fall.

How To Make Your Own Herbal Smoking Blend

Smoking mixtures are largely a matter of personal tastes and preferences—experiment with different herb combinations to see what suits you best—but here are the basics to get you started.

  1. Harvest fresh, young leaves, ideally in the morning after the dew has evaporated.
  2. Dry the leaves slowly indoors—try hanging them in bundles from the ceiling or spreading them out on a window screen (see our article on drying techniques here). Don’t dry them fast in an oven, as you want the leaves to retain a bit of moisture for a smoother smoke.
  3. Once dry, crush the leaves by hand into an even consistency.
  4. Combine according to the guidelines below:

General Guidelines:

  • Mullein is the ideal “base” for smoking blends because it is such a light, smooth smoke. It should form about 50 percent of the mixture.
  • Then add several other herbs for the “body” of the blend. Mugwort and skullcap create a headier smoke, while uva-ursi gives it more of a tobacco-like quality. Add a bit of coltsfoot if you’re lungs are irritated from frequent tobacco use. Combined, these herbs should constitute about 40 percent of the blend.
  • Use flavoring herbs, like mints and sages, for the final 10 percent of the blend.
  • If the blend is too harsh when you smoke it, trying spritzing the dried herbs with a spray bottle to reintroduce moisture.
  • Store smoking blends in glass jars or resealable plastic pouches.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Modern Farmer.