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Is Hip Hop Too High?

Soundtrack: Dr. Dre “The Chronic (full album)”

I remember being a high school freshman in 1993 and 1994 and being a bit of an outcast because I smoked so much weed. Most of the girls who I talked to regularly expressed some concern for my well being based on my weed habit. They just couldn’t fathom why I wanted to get high so often.

20 years later, teenagers are embracing frequent marijuana smoking on a level that was inconceivable in my younger years. The chart below shows rates of marijuana use among 12th graders in the United States from the early 90’s until today. Part of what this illustrates is the low frequency of use that I just described in the early 90’s and then a fairly sharp increase in teen weed smoking in the years after that. It also shows that rates of use have either leveled off or started to decline since 2011. It is difficult to determine what has led to that decline.


I have a few questions about this. What caused the increase in weed smoking? Is smoking weed healthy or harmful or neither? Is any of this related to the increase in the number of Hip Hop songs and Hip Hop artists promoting being constantly high?

Like we always do about this time…let’s look at the history of the subject. Marijuana has been used for medicine and spiritual purposes in various parts of the world for thousands of years. It is important to distinguish between the two familiar subspecies of the cannabis plant. Cannabis sativa, known as marijuana, has psychoactive properties. The other plant is Cannabis sativa L. (The L was included in the name in honor of the botanist Carl Linnaeus.) This subspecies is known as hemp; it is a non-psychoactive form of cannabis, and is used in manufacturing products such as oil, cloth and fuel.

A second psychoactive species of the plant, Cannabis indica, was identified by the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, and a third, uncommon one, Cannabis ruderalis, was named in 1924 by Russian botanist D.E. Janischevisky.

Cannabis plants are believed to have evolved on the steppes of Central Asia, specifically in the regions that are now Mongolia and southern Siberia. The history of cannabis use goes back as far as 12,000 years, which places the plant among humanity’s oldest cultivated crops, according to information in the book “Marihuana: The First Twelve Thousand Years” (Springer, 1980).

world map_MarijuanaHistory_Draft

This map shows the general picture of how marijuana use spread throughout history and at what times. In 1596, famed Dutchman traveller and writer Jan Huyghen van Linschoten described the Egyptian’s use of weed (or “Bangue”) in edibles:

Bangue is likewise much used in Turkie and Egypt, and is made in three sorts, having also three severall names. The first by the Egyptians is called Assis (Hashish (Arab.)), which is the poulder of Hemp, or of Hemp leaves, which water made in paste or dough, wherof they eate five peeces, (each) as bigge as a Chesnut (and some more); such as eate it, for an hower after, are as if they were drunk, without sence, and as it were besides themselves, thinking they see many strange sights, wherein they are much pleased. This is used by the common people, because it is of a small price, and it is no wonder, that such vertue proceedeth from the Hempe, for that according to Galens opinion, Hempe execssively filleth the head.

Over the next centuries, cannabis migrated to various regions of the world, traveling through Africa, reaching South America in the 19th century and being carried north afterwards, eventually reaching North America. After this really long trip throughout the pre-modern and modern worlds, cannabis finally came to the United States at the beginning of the 20th century. It arrived in the southwest United States from Mexico, with immigrants fleeing that country during the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1911.

“Many early prejudices against marijuana were thinly veiled racist fears of its smokers, often promulgated by reactionary newspapers,” writes Barney Warf, a geography professor at the University of Kansas. “Mexicans were frequently blamed for smoking marijuana, property crimes, seducing children and engaging in murderous sprees.” American laws never recognized the difference between Cannabis sativa L. and Cannabis sativa. The plant was first outlawed in Utah in 1915, and by 1931 it was illegal in 29 states, according to the report.

In 1930, Harry Aslinger became the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) and undertook multiple efforts to make marijuana illegal in all states. In 1937, the Marijuana Tax Act put cannabis under the regulation of the Drug Enforcement Agency, criminalizing possession of the plant throughout the country. Here is some of what Aslinger preached in order to convince the country that weed needed to be highly regulated:

“There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.”

“Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.”

Between Anslinger’s ruminations on the need to keep marijuana away from people of color — especially the entertainers! — were countless other fabrications about the health effects of pot. It was “more dangerous than heroin or cocaine” and “leads to pacifism and communist brainwashing,” he claimed. “If the hideous monster Frankenstein came face to face with marijuana, he would drop dead of fright,” Anslinger declared in a line that underscored the type of extreme anti-marijuana hysteria that served as a catalyst for the 1936 propaganda film “Reefer Madness.”

Anslinger was also fond of pulling statistics out of the sky. As the drug war got going in the early 20th century, the bureau published surveys showing its efforts to combat drug use had led to dramatic declines over the decade of the 1920s. But drug historian David Courtwright, through a Freedom of Information Act request, got his hands on the actual surveys and found the data to have been fabricated. He also found a private memo from Anslinger admitting the numbers were made up. Nevertheless, Anslinger used that success to argue for an expansion of the drug war to weed in 1937.

Meanwhile, states throughout the south began implementing drug laws as part of the explicitly racist Jim Crow system, with southern lawmakers being quite open about the racist motivations behind the laws. And though the anti-marijuana hyperbole of the “Reefer Madness” era may no longer be believable today, our current anti-drug policies remain bolstered by arguments that have little, if any, factual basis. According to federal authorities, marijuana fully deserves its current standing as a Schedule I substance, alongside heroin, LSD, ecstasy and a “Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas”-length list of inorganic -dines, -mines, -dols and -ates. By definition, then, the government considers marijuana to have “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” It is among the “most dangerous drugs of all … with potentially severe psychological or physical dependence.”

Every person who has ever smoked a joint knows that this is some bullshit. This is why the movement to legalize or de-criminalize weed is quickly growing. And because of all of the evidence that marijuana can have a myriad of medicinal uses. But the extreme federal regulation of weed makes it difficult for scientists to do the level of research needed to really prove how marijuana can be used to treat diseases. To do research on marijuana, scientists need approval from several federal departments. And that approval is rare.

Most marijuana studies focus on the harm caused by the plant. The studies on its medicinal qualities are small, early stage or observational at best. Mainstream physicians won’t come near the stuff, even if they hear that it works, because without the research, without it approved in legitimate practice guidelines, they are going to worry about their license and their professionalism. Even with this situation, medical marijuana has been shown to have a positive effect on people suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, AIDS, Alzheimer’s, arthritis, asthma, cancer, chronic pain, Crohn’s Disease, epilepsy, glaucoma, and multiple sclerosis.

The health benefits of marijuana get a bit murky when it comes to the Hip Hop community. Across the board, the studies done on marijuana use are with people smoking weed in joint papers, or from a pipe, or vaporizer. There is a pretty big difference in the chemical composition of weed that comes from a vaporizer or in edible form as opposed to what happens to weed when you burn it, but I won’t get into that right now.

I am very interested in the common practice among my people of smoking weed in tobacco papers. With whatever confusion might be out there concerning what weed does or doesn’t do, there is no confusion about the health risks of smoking tobacco.

Cigarettes are the leading preventable cause of death in the United States.

  • Cigarette smoking causes more than 480,000 deaths each year in the United States. This is about one in five deaths.
  • Smoking causes more deaths each year than all of these combined:
    • Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)
    • Illegal drug use
    • Alcohol use
    • Motor vehicle injuries
    • Firearm-related incidents
  • More than 10 times as many U.S. citizens have died prematurely from cigarette smoking than have died in all the wars fought by the United States during its history.
  • Smoking causes about 90% (or 9 out of 10) of all lung cancer deaths in men and women. More women die from lung cancer each year than from breast cancer.
  • About 80% (or 8 out of 10) of all deaths from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are caused by smoking.
  • Cigarette smoking increases risk for death from all causes in men and women.
  • The risk of dying from cigarette smoking has increased over the last 50 years in men and women in the United States.

It appears that the Hip Hop community hasn’t fully thought through the idea that blunt wrappers contain tobacco and nicotine. The same stuff that kills people in cigarettes. The whole idea which we like to promote that “no one ever died from smoking weed” is rendered null and void when you smoke your weed in tobacco. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that our revered entertainers who are always seen with a blunt hanging from their lips are actually killing themselves.

How did rap and rappers become so seemingly synonymous with weed? Dr. Dre released the album The Chronic on December 15, 1992. It not only completely changed the way that Hip Hop sounded in terms of production, it also had a humongous impact on Hip Hop culture. It featured Hip Hop’s greatest producer in Dre and arguably its most charismatic rapper in Snoop Doggy Dogg. That album was followed up by the most highly anticipated debut album in rap history, Snoop’s Doggystyle, on November 23, 1993. It is not a coincidence that these dates coincide with the start of weed being consumed more frequently by 12th graders as we saw in the earlier chart.

This is ironic given that Dr. Dre said on the 1988 NWA song Express Yourself, “I don’t smoke weed”. I find it difficult to believe that a 23 year old Dre in ’88 didn’t smoke weed but the 27 year old Dre of ’92 smoked enough weed to wanna call his album The Chronic. But that’s just me.

Either way, weed has become such an omnipresent part of the culture since The Chronic that even artists like Jay-Z, 50 Cent, and Kendrick Lamar who admittedly don’t smoke weed have felt the need to make multiple songs about the topic. Hip Hop collectively has a marijuana obsession. So what are we to conclude from all of this?

Too much of anything can be a bad thing. Scientists have found that teenagers who smoke weed everyday for a few years end up with abnormalities in the brain’s hippocampus which leads to poor long-term memory in adulthood.  For the first several thousand years of weed’s use it was done on special occasions, in spiritual rituals and at celebratory gatherings. As with many other things in this modern world, especially food, current weed smokers are doing too much of a good thing.

I am glad to see that the statistics show that marijuana use may be leveling off after rising so much over the past couple of decades. It’s time for us as a culture to take a step back and analyze our cultural habits surrounding weed. Maybe we should do it in a way that doesn’t involve any tobacco. Maybe we should do it in a way that doesn’t involve any smoke at all since the smoke itself can have negative effects on the lungs. Given the availability of vaporizers and weed oil and weed butter and weed tinctures, there are many ways to get whatever is good about marijuana while minimizing some of its potential harms.

So if you’re going to celebrate this 04/20 maybe you should leave the Phillies and the Backwoods at the store and try the vaporizer instead. Or make some brownies to go along with the food at your party.

One more thing, if you wake up in the morning and the first thing you think about is “where the weed at?”, that’s called an addiction. That is an unhealthy thing. There is nothing cool about being an addict. How bout we limit our weed consumption to just the weekends? Is that feasible? I’m just saying…

(Editor’s Note: I said earlier that I wasn’t getting into the details of weed from a vaporizer as opposed to burning it. Well I’m adding this addendum to get into that now.

It’s really no question: health-conscious medical marijuana patients and casual tokers expose themselves to less carcinogens, and get more THC from vaping compared to smoking.

Whenever dried plant material is burned, it produces thousands of chemical substances in the smoke. It’s true for tobacco as well as weed. Burning breaks the chemical bonds between the carbon atoms in the large, organic molecules present in plants, creating very reactive fragments called free radicals. Free radicals can combine with each other or with other molecules to produce an amazing variety of products.

Many of these products, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), are highly toxic and are known to cause cancer. (See Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons: Chemistry and Carcinogenicity by Ronald G. Harvey). Significant concentrations of PAH are present in the brown tar stains observed on cigarette filters and the dark tar found in pipes used to smoke cannabis.

Some scientists believe cannabis smoke is less toxic than tobacco smoke because there is evidence that nicotine which is present in tobacco smoke, but not in cannabis smoke, increases the toxicity of PAH. Other studies have shown the cannabinoids (e.g., THC and CBD) which are present in cannabis smoke, but not in tobacco smoke, help to protect normal lung tissue cells from the effects of carcinogens like PAH.

Vaporizers use a stream of heated air to vaporize the active ingredients in cannabis without combustion. Vaporization simply converts the cannabinoids to a vapor that can be inhaled just like smoke. It has been demonstrated in a study conducted by California NORML and MAPS that vaporization of cannabis dramatically reduces formation of PAH relative to smoking cannabis.

“…vapor was remarkably clean, consisting 95% of THC with traces of cannabinol (CBN), another cannabinoid. The remaining 5% consisted of small amounts of three other components: one suspected cannabinoid relative, one suspected PAH, and caryophyllene, a fragrant oil in cannabis and other plants. In contrast over 111 different components appeared in the gas of the combusted smoke, including a half dozen known PAHs. Non-cannabinoids accounted for as much as 88% of the total gas content of the smoke.”

The authors of the study stated, “Harmful toxins in marijuana smoke can be effectively avoided by a vaporization device”. In an article in Harm Reduction Journal by Robert Melamede of the University of Colorado, the author stated, “It should be noted that with the development of vaporizers, that use the respiratory route for the delivery of carcinogen-free cannabis vapors, the carcinogenic potential of smoked cannabis has been largely eliminated.”

Another significant advantage of vaporization relative to smoking is that cannabis smoke contains many other components that do not cause cancer but do cause lung and respiratory irritation. Vaporization eliminates many of these components by avoiding combustion. Patients self-report decreased irritation with vaping, one study shows.

It should also be kept in mind that combustion of cannabis causes destruction of the active cannabinoids leading to a significant reduction in the desired effects of cannabis. The cannabinoid molecules are broken down into free radicals just like the other molecules in the plant when it is smoked. Vaporization does not break down cannabinoids. Thus, when a given quantity of cannabis is vaporized, tests show it delivers a larger quantity of cannabinoids to the user than the same quantity of cannabis when it is smoked.

So, the bottom line is that cannabis smoke appears to be less toxic than tobacco smoke. However, many of the same cancer causing PAH compounds that are present in tobacco smoke are also present in cannabis smoke. It just makes sense to avoid them by using a vaporizer. It also makes sense to avoid destroying a significant fraction of the cannabinoids by smoking cannabis. After all, the cannabinoids are responsible for the desired effects derived from using cannabis.)

(P.S. One more addition. While we’re talking about alternatives to smoking your weed, here is some information about tinctures from theweedblog.com.

“Tinctures are perhaps the least popular and beloved way of consuming marijuana. They don’t have the ritual that comes with smoking, nor the fun of edibles. Some long-term weed lovers might not even know exactly what tinctures are. Well, to clear that up, tinctures are a liquid concentration of cannabis, where the THC and cannabinoids have been leached out into alcohol. Put a few drops of this concentrated serum under your tongue, and within a few minutes you’ll be feeling the effects.

“Why are tinctures underrated, in my opinion? Unlike edibles, the effects of tinctures can be felt rather rapidly, usually within 15 minutes. Although the high varies with respect to the type of bud used, tinctures are known for delivering a peak rather rapidly and then bringing a steady high over a long period of time. Unlike eating weed, you won’t be waiting around for an hour and a half, wondering if you’ve peaked yet and if it’s safe to go about your daily activities, or if you should resign your seriously baked self to the house. Tinctures don’t have a smell (unless you open the bottle!), so you can discreetly carry some with you wherever you go, and you won’t have to worry about finding a place to smoke. Let’s face it, even with a medical marijuana card, it makes sense to avoid the stress of a run in with the law and having to explain yourself.

“And besides all those reasons, it’s just nice to have another way to medicate! You can purchase tinctures at most medical marijuana dispensaries. A small bottle of 100 drops will run you about $20, and 3 or 4 drops will deliver a moderate dose. Or, if you’re feeling creative, you can experiment with making your own tinctures at home.”)

One thought on “Is Hip Hop Too High?

  1. Thankfully at least dronabinol is approved but sadly it’s rarely prescribed to children who tend to benefit from it greatly due to the stigma.

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