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Cannabis: the story

From ancient China to gangster-led factories, find out how cannabis has become the worlds favourite hallucinogen.

What is cannabis?

Cannabis is one of the world's most popular illegal drugs. Originally employed as a medicine in ancient China, the mild hallucinogen has grown in popularity as a recreational drug and was used by 143-190 million people around the world in the year of 2007, according to the United Nations' World Drug Report.

Also known as marijuana, pot, ganja and dope; cannabis usually comes in the form of bushy weed, solid hash or oil. People can smoke it (with or without tobacco), eat it, or drink it in tea to induce feelings of relaxation, happiness and laughter. Some users also report tiredness, paranoia and hunger - known as the munchies - when getting stoned.

Hemp rope

Hemp fibres are used to make rope

Where does cannabis come from?

Cannabis comes from the Cannabis sativa plant, which grows naturally in Asia and Africa. The Neolithic Chinese used the plant's strong hemp fibres to make clothes and fishing nets, but many ancient civilisations, including the Chinese, Indians and Scythians, unlocked the hallucinogenic powers of the drug as they believed it would help them communicate with their gods.

In 2737 BC, Chinese emperor Shen Nung became the first person to use cannabis as a medicine when he prescribed the drug to ease the symptoms of constipation, 'female weakness', gout, malaria, rheumatism and absentmindedness. Use of cannabis as a medicine spread throughout Asia and Africa, but in Europe it was mainly used to make rope and paper.

It was Scottish doctor WB O'Shaunghnessy who introduced cannabis to western medicine in 1841; 39 years later it was prescribed to Queen Victoria to ease her menstrual cramps.

Fears over the potential psychological effects of cannabis caused UK and US governments to ban the drug in the early part of the 20th Century, and usage declined dramatically until the hippy movement of the 1960s kick-started a revival. Debates over the psychological damage to users and potential benefits of cannabis to medicine are ongoing, as evidenced by the UK's decision to reclassify the drug to Class C in 2004, only to put it back to Class B four years later.

"Debates over the psychological damage to users and potential benefits of cannabis to medicine are ongoing."

How is cannabis produced?

In areas where climate and the law prevent Cannabis sativa growing in the open, it is cultivated in houses or greenhouses using soil or hydroponics. When left unpollinated the flowers and buds of the female plant produce delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, known as THC, which creates the 'high' effect on the brain.

Once the plants have been harvested, the dried, shredded flowers and buds are sold as weed. The resin is scraped from the plant, pressed into blocks and made into hash, or can be percolated through a solvent to create oil. Whilst the strengths of oil and resin tend to be reasonably uniform, the potency of weed can vary dramatically - the higher the concentration of THC, the stronger the cannabis.

Nowadays, according to The Home Office's Cannabis Potency Study 2008, there is more high-grade weed on the streets of the UK than ever before. In 2004-2005 weed accounted for 55% of police cannabis seizures compared to 30% in 2002. The average concentration of THC in this weed was 15% compared to 5% for resin. This has led to fears that cannabis users are damaging their mental health, but independent think-tank Drugscope says there is no evidence to back this up.

How does the cannabis trade work?

The global trades in weed and hash are completely different, according to the UN. Whilst the weed market, valued at $113b, is generally confined to production and consumption within a country, the $29b hash trade is built around smuggling and trafficking.

The UK used to import most of its cannabis from overseas, but now grows an estimated 90% of its own marijuana in carefully planned underground factories.

"Up until around 2004 most of the cannabis in the UK was resin that came from North Africa," says Drugscope's Harry Shapiro. "Then the Moroccan authorities clamped down and into the void came commercial cannabis growers. They tend to be Vietnamese gangsters who rent houses, gut them and turn them into farms. They use hydroponic systems to grow super-strength cannabis. It means there's a shorter supply chain and they don't have to worry about smuggling their product through customs, but there are lots of tell-tale signs about these places and they have to work quickly to avoid the police."

By contrast, most of the world's hash is produced in Morocco or Southwest Asia and consumed in Europe, where two thirds of the world's resin seizures were made in 2007. Hash is generally smuggled into Europe via the Iberian peninsular or via Rotterdam, according to the Serious Organised Crime Agency, before being taken onwards in vehicles with specially designed concealment areas. The main points of entry into the UK are Dover, Felixstowe, Harwich and Folkestone.

Updated: 06/06/2011

Written by Paul French

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