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This site uses botanical names. Click here for an A to Z common name to botanical name converter.

Cannabis sativa, marijuana


Whole books and websites are devoted to discussing whether this complex plant deserves its harmful reputation but, in reality, our understanding of it hasn't advanced very far from the 12th century when Hildegard of Bingen said it would benefit some and harm others.



Meaning of the Name

Cannabis sativa, marijuana

Cannabis sativa, marijuana


There are many alleged origins of the word ‘Cannabis’.  It is said to come from the Assyrian ‘qunubu’ meaning "way to produce smoke", but Martin Booth, in ‘Cannabis, a History’ says the Assyrian word was ‘qunnabu, meaning ‘noise’.  Many ancient languages, however, use some form of the word ‘kan’ to mean ‘cane’.  The Hebrew ‘bosm’ and the Aramaic ‘busma’ both mean ‘aromatic’ and may have led to the third syllable ‘bis’.  Booth concludes that ‘Cannabis’ is the ‘fragrant cane.’ 

This derivation seems to accord with the view that the kaneh-bosm mentioned in Exodus 30:22-25 is cannabis and not camalus as in most translations since early times.  Camalus is Acorus camalus or Sweet Flag, a marsh plant of little value but, in Ezekiel 27:19, it is said that goods have been bought by exchange for ‘wrought iron, cassia and kaneh’ suggesting that kaneh-bosm is valued.

Cultivated, possibly to distinguish it from Althea cannabina which had been called cannabis sylvestris.

Species, Common Names and Synonyms

Throughout this site, I refer only to Cannabis sativa. That's because the whole question of species and varieties of the Cannabis genus is too complex to go into in detail. Because of its unregulated development, due to its legal status, there is no structured classification of the many different types. There is even disagreement over how many species there are with some people adding C. ruderalis to the generally accepted C. sativa and C. indica. Any definitive statement (such as 'sativa has more CBD' or 'indica has the highest THC') is bound to be wrong. As the legal status of cannabis changes there will be scientists who try and formalise the naming of the many variations. Until then, I use Cannabis sativa and risk the wrath of those who claim to know better.

cannabis, marijuana, hemp, bhang, ganja, hashish, weed and many others. Marijuana is the name most often used in the USA.

The name 'marijuana' arose from the importation of cannabis from Mexico in the early 20th century. In Mexico, cannabis was available from brothels and Mexican men would euphemistically describe visiting a brothel as 'going to see Mary & Jane' - Maria y Juana in Spanish. That became marijuana in the USA.

How Poisonous, How Harmful?

There is no evidence that anyone has ever died purely from consumption of cannabis though the Pembrokeshire coroner, in 2004, did claim that Lee Maisey died as a result of cannabis toxicity. There was no medical evidence to support that claim and, indeed, the International Association for Cannabis as Medicine (IACM) said that the cannabinoids in Mr Maisey blood suggested he had smoke no more than 1 or 2 joints.

The official drug poisoning deaths for England and Wales give a figure of 11 deaths against the heading 'cannabis' for 2010 and this leads to reports that cannabis can be lethal. The statistics, however, show only deaths where the substance was mentioned and do not prove that the substance named was the principal cause of death. There are 2 deaths recorded where no other 'drug' was mentioned but there are 6 deaths where alcohol was also mentioned. The data tables don't make clear whether these 6 include the 2 where no other drug was mentioned. There is still a problem in documenting harm of getting alcohol to be recognised alongside the illegal substances.

Cannabis is one of the most complex plants with over four hundred compounds identified. The complex interactions of these compounds are impossible to model and its variable effects on different people are well-known. Recent research has even suggested that cannabis affects different parts of the central nervous system in different ways in the same person.


Cannabis sativa, marijuana

The iconic cannabis leaf

The odd status of cannabis as a widely used but illegal substance leads to some odd stories about its availability and attitudes towards it.

A resident of a respectable suburb in Brisbane bought two plants from a market stall. In his hurry, he didn’t notice what else was on the stall. Some weeks later, with plants growing well either side of his front door, a neighbour asked him if he knew it was illegal to grow cannabis. When he saw the stall, the following week, he realised that all the other goods on sale were connected with growing and smoking cannabis.

A plumber was asked to repair an oil-fired central heating system while the owner of the house was out. He could not find the stop valve for the oil tank and looked in a garden shed where he found cannabis plants growing. His customer suffered from MS so he shut the shed door and said nothing.

A woman mistook her husband’s fishing bait for garden fertiliser and spread it around her plants. Some, if not all, of the bait had missed the heat treatment process intended to make it sterile and she was soon growing a healthy field of cannabis. It was her postman who identified it and, after that, she could never see the postman without wondering how he knew.

Folklore and Facts

Cannabis is one of only two genera in the family Cannabaceae. The other is Humulus, hops. Within this genus the best known species is H. lupulus, the common hop, which is the plant used in brewing.

Within the genus 'Cannabis' there are only two accepted species; C. sativa and C. indica. There is a third which some regard as a species but others say is a hybrid of the two. Though there are a great many varieties and cultivars of cannabis, its illegal status means these are not fully incorporated into formal botany and terms like 'variety', 'hybrid', 'type' and 'cultivar' are used interchangeably.

There is much debate about how long cannabis has been known and whether its past use was entirely for its hemp fibre rather than it's psychoactive effects. In December 2008, researchers reported finding cannabis in a grave in the Gobi Desert believed to date from 700BC. Analysis suggests the substance would have had intoxicating effects and its presence in a grave with other high value items is taken as an indication that it was a valued substance. In addition, only female material was present suggesting that even then the difference in potency of male and female plants was understood.

Some people think the name 'marijuana' dates back a very long time but it appeared in the southern USA early in the 20th century as a corruption of Maria y Juana because it was available from the brothels Mexican men visited using the euphemism that they were going to visit Mary & Jane.

Cannabis sativa, marijuana

Resin laden buds

Marijuana is, undoubtedly, the most widely used of the illegal substances. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, UNODC, believes that over 160 million people aged 15 to 65 use cannabis at least once a year. The figure for England is 1 in 9 and other surveys have suggested that, by the age of 25, 50% of the population will have tried cannabis at least once. The 2006 UNODC 'World Drug Report' says that many large scale users, who might be considered dependant on cannabis, regulate their use so that it does not interfere with their working lives which they would not be able to do if cannabis were addictive.

The difficulty in reaching a considered view of the effects of cannabis is that growing conditions, extraction methods, and the ways in which it is consumed will all have a bearing on the effects on the individual user. In spite of the many claims to the contrary, it is not possible to state that cannabis causes mental health problems rather than exacerbating a pre-existing, and probably undiagnosed, condition.

But, even if the assumption that cannabis is harmful to some people is accepted, it seems reasonable to ask whether it is responsible for any government to leave a harmful substance, which is regularly used by over one tenth of the population and has been tried by around half, in the hands of criminal gangs when it comes to its manufacture and distribution.

As an illegal substance, there is no control over the production of cannabis and no regulation of what may be added to it. Even that most harmful of substances, tobacco, is of a known composition and produced under hygienic conditions.

There is such a lot of information on cannabis that a single web page cannot hope to do it justice. More information can be found in the 'Phantastica' section of The Poison Garden website.