Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Myths About Marijuana

"In all affairs it is a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark 
on the things you have long taken for granted."

-Bertrand Russell

Ah, the Devil's Weed.

Puff the Magic Dragon

The Legend: The Peter, Paul & Mary song, "Puff the Magic Dragon," is about smoking marijuana.

Status: False


It can't be false! Puff = how you smoke pot. Jackie Paper = rolling papers. "Autumn mist" = clouds of smoke. "The Land of Hanah Lee" = Hanalei, Hawaii, where they grow marijuana. It's all there. It must be true!

Sorry. Despite what you heard in high school, "Puff the Magic Dragon" is not about smoking pot or any other type of drug. It is simply a song about the innocence of childhood lost, as its writers have always claimed.

The original poem, which later became the popular song, was written in 1959 by Leonard Lipton, a 19-year-old Cornell student. Lipton passed his work on to his friend Peter Yarrow, who put a melody to the words and created the song, "Puff the Magic Dragon." The song was recorded by Peter, Paul & Mary and reached Billboard charts in 1963.

The 1960's, being what they were, led us to believe that many songs with vague lyrics were "drug songs," Puff included. This was further fueled at the time by a 1967 Newsweek story about hidden drug messages in popular music. This Newsweek article, about songs with drug references in their lyrics, selected innocent songs to show that any song could be interpreted to be about drug use if you really made the effort. It was intended as a tongue-in-cheek analysis of harmless songs, but spawned the rumors that are now shared widely as "known facts." The puff rumor even resurfaced in the 2000 film Meet the Parents.

Smoking marijuana wasn't that popular in 1959, so why write a song about it? Besides, contrary to rumors about the 1960's being such a drug-soaked decade, the Monitoring the Future survey reports that lifetime marijuana use in this country peaked in 1979 at 60%, (Monitoring the Future Study, 1996), not during the 1960's. Sorry kids, Puff was just a dragon.

Seeing Red!

The Legend:  An allergic reaction to marijuana is what makes your eyes red when you smoke it.

Status:  False


To really appreciate this particular legend you have to imagine a group of young people sitting around in someone's basement, in a circle, smoking pot.  They become intoxicated and look across the circle at each other, noticing that some of them have bloodshot eyes. 

"Whoa, dude, you should see your eyes, they're like SO bloodshot!" 
"I know, dude, so are yours!" 
"You know, I heard it's caused by an allergic reaction to the pot. Your eyes are red because you're both allergic, we all are!" 
"No way!" 
Riotous laughter ensues.

If you are a stoner reading this and are offended by the characterization of pot smokers saying lame things, it will be hard for you to mount a defense. A brief read through some online forums and chat rooms looking for answers explaining why marijuana causes bloodshot eyes yielded the following fascinating variations:
  • Marijuana increases your heart rate and that means your blood pumps more vigorously which causes red eyes.
  • Your brain calls for more blood because it heats up.
  • It's the coughing and laughing that leads to the bloodshot eyes, not the pot.
  • Marijuana dries out your eyes like a decongestant.
  • It's because you're forgetting to blink.
  • When you smoke marijuana your tear ducts relax and produce lubricants at a slower rate.
  • Weed gets into your bloodstream and when it goes through the blood vessels in your eyes it irritates them which turns them red.
  • Smoke makes them dry and stings them.
  • "Because pot messes with the nerves of your bran and that triggers your eyes."

What really happens is not nearly as interesting as these theories. Marijuana has a mild vasodilating effect. That means that it relaxes the smooth muscles within the walls of the blood vessel. This widens the blood vessel making it more visible. As a result, the eyes appear bloodshot.

You may have heard the rumor that marijuana is used to treat glaucoma, a condition where the fluid pressure in the eye increases and causes damage to the optic nerve. This is true, there has been some experimental activity in this area, (Tomida, et. al. 2006). When blood vessels relax and expand one of the results is reduced vascular pressure.

Getting Lucky

The Legend: Some packs of Lucky Strike cigarettes contain a marijuana cigarette.

Status:  False


It's been said that every so often in a pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes, the consumer would find a marijuana cigarette as a little bonus. In fact, they were called Lucky Strikes because the smoker would "strike it lucky" by finding this marijuana cigarette.

Rumors of the frequency vary. Were they stashed one per pack, one per every hundred, or one per carton? Lore also says that it was legal to do this since marijuana had not yet been criminalized.

In 1942, five years after marijuana was criminalized through the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, Lucky Strike changed its packaging from green to red and white. They said that the green ink they were using required copper that was being diverted to the war effort. By discontinuing the green color they were supporting the war effort. The resulting white pack with the red circular logo was rumored to be in honor of the US bombing of Japan - a red circle on a white background being the pattern on the Japanese flag.  One variation of this rumor claimed that the marijuana cigarette was hidden in the Luckies as a boost for US soldiers during World War II.

As is often the case, there is a grain of truth to this rumor. In 1952, a seaman aboard the SS Hibueras, Maguel Angel Pina, was found in possession of a pack of Luckies that contained 18 hand-rolled cigarettes. Later analysis determined that they were all marijuana. Obviously this had nothing to do with Lucky Strike manufacturing protocol and was simply Seaman Pina's way of transporting his marijuana, a method still used with great frequency today.

Packs of Lucky Strike cigarettes do not contain a marijuana cigarette and never have. If this had ever been true we would be hearing this rumor from sources other than school kids and chat rooms. We'd be hearing about it from our fathers and grandfathers who served in World War II.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

420 is the Number of Chemicals in Marijuana

The Legend:  There are 420 chemicals in marijuana.

Status:  False

  • '420' in drugspeak is the time to light up a joint.
  • '420' is the penal code section for marijuana use in California. (Nope. Section 420 of the California Penal Code refers to obstructing entry onto public land.)
  • '420' is the Los Angeles and New York police radio code for marijuana smoking in progress. (Nope, again.)
  • '420' is the number of chemical compounds in marijuana. (The number of chemical compounds in marijuana is around 315.)
  • April 20 is the date that Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin died. (Nope once more. Morrison died on July 3, Hendrix on September 18, and Joplin on October 4.)
  • The 20th of April is the best time to plant marijuana.
  • Albert Hofmann took the first LSD trip at 4:20 or on April 20, 1943. (Actually, Hofmann's first LSD trip, which was accidental, took place on April 16, 1943.  Coincidentally, his lab notes from that day say it was at 4:20 p.m.)
  • '420' is the code you send to your drug dealer's pager.
  • When the Grateful Dead toured, they always stayed in Room 420. (Untrue, says Grateful Dead Productions spokesman Dennis McNally.)

Just about everyone has heard that '420' (said "four-twenty") has something to do with pot smoking, but they never seem to know what the term actually signifies.

It is said that '420' originated in 1971 as a slang term used by a small group of high school kids, reminding each other of the time they planned to meet after school to get high, 4:20 p.m.  This was supposedly started at San Rafael High School in California, but there is no way to verity this.

'420' is now widely accepted pot-smoking lexicon. Cities celebrate "hemp fests" on April 20. There's a 4:20 record label, a band called 4:20, a snowboard company called Four 20, and texting '420' means marijuana. Atlanta's Sweetwater Brewing Co. sells its 420 Pale Ale in supermarkets and opens its doors to the public at 4:20 p.m. New York's 420 Tours sells low-cost travel packages to the Netherlands and Jamaica. Highway 420 Radio broadcasts "music for the chemically enhanced," and so on. 420s are also routinely slipped into popular movies and television shows, and can probably be found in your local graffiti, so keep your eyes peeled. It's everywhere.

As amusing as it is to tie 420 to pot smoking and hunt for it in popular movies, the number has its dark side. Hitler was born on April 20, 1889, and the massacre of 13 victims at Columbine High School in Colorado took place on April 20, 1999.

Pot Smoking Males May Grow Breasts

The Legend:  Men who smoke a lot of marijuana may grow breasts.

Status:  False

  • Smoking marijuana will reduce a man's testosterone levels.
  • Smoking marijuana will reduce sperm count.

Where did this information come from?  Back in the olden days, before we had such resources as chat rooms and message boards, one of the ways for people to share ideas was by writing letters to newspapers and magazines. That way many people would see their letters and could respond.

This is just what happened in this case. Two anecdotal case history letters to reputable medical journals, a 1972 letter to the New England Journal of Medicine (Harmon, 1972) and a 1980 letter to the Journal of Pediatrics (Copeland, 1980) discussed patients who were young males with breast enlargement or delayed puberty who were also marijuana smokers. The intent of the letter was to see if other doctors had seen this pattern. Instead, the story that "smoking pot grows breasts" began and has floated around for 30 years.

Breast enlargement caused by marijuana smoking has never been confirmed through research. If a marijuana user grows breasts it is likely a result of inactivity and a high calorie diet.


The Legend:  By legalizing hemp cultivation we could solve many environmental problems, such as deforestation.

Status:  False

  • Growing hemp will yield more cash per acre for farmers growing other crops.
  • Hemp is easier to grow than cotton because it is very low maintenance and requires fewer pesticides.
  • Big businesses like DuPont lobby to keep hemp illegal because it threatens their synthetic fiber market.
  • Hemp is a weed that can be grown anywhere.
  • George Bush was saved by a hemp parachute.

Earlier in U.S. history, Americans cultivated hemp for its fiber content, producing hemp-based products such as rope, paper and cloth. During the 1930's an anti-hemp movement led to passage of the Marijuana Tax Act (1937) effectively ending the U.S. hemp industry.

Is hemp marijuana? Is marijuana hemp? Hemp is made from the cannabis sativa plant, the same plant that gives us smokable marijuana. There are many different varieties of this plant. The psychoactive cannabis sativa that gives us smokable marijuana is a bushy plant with THC content between 3% - 15%. Industrial cannabis sativa is a tall, spindly plant with almost no THC, less than .5%, which makes it useless as a recreational drug.

It is illegal to grow hemp in the U.S. the reasons given by the government for this is that by legalizing hemp we are one step closer to legalizing marijuana. They fear the two varieties of hemp will be grown side by side which would be undetectable by air-based enforcement. Marijuana growers say they would never plant industrial hemp near their marijuana plants because it would cross-pollinate and lower the THC content, and therefore the value of their marijuana.

Funny thing is, at the height of hemp production in the U.S. there were only a few thousand acres being cultivated. It just wasn't that profitable or desirable of a crop when legal, so what do proponents think has changed? Yes, hemp can be used to make paper and cloth, but not great paper or great cloth. Hempseed and hempseed oil are nutritious, but so are many other seeds and seed oils.

Re-legalizing hemp will not end deforestation, which is more about lumber and agricultural land, two things unrelated to hemp or hemp-based products. Hemp is also not a threat to synthetic fiber manufacturers as the two materials are used for different things.

The Canadian ban on hemp cultivation was lifted in 1998, so let's watch and see what happens there.