Podcast transcript: Quit your giggling: the straight dope on cannabis

This is Fiat Vox, a podcast that brings you news from, for and about UC Berkeley from the Office of Communications and Public Affairs. I’m Anne Brice.

Most of us know by now that recreational cannabis became legal in California on January 1st. But that doesn’t mean the stigma of using cannabis just goes away — and, in fact, the federal government is still fighting to keep it criminalized. Here’s Eric Siegel. He’s the director of the UC Botanical Garden on campus.

Siegel: “Right now, it’s still very giggle-worthy. People still laugh. They say, ‘Oh, it’s Berkeley, cannabis, fine.’ But we’re trying to shed some of the sense of it being a kind of a silly, hippyish, irrelevant thing and say that this is a real phenomenon and it’s going to change the face of California.”

Music: “Anders” by Blue Dot Sessions

Siegel says there’s still a lot we don’t know about cannabis, despite its long history of human use.

So the garden is hosting a lecture series called the Science of Cannabis. Each week, an expert — usually a Berkeley professor or lecturer — will explore a different side of cannabis, from the environmental impacts of large-scale cannabis cultivation to the neurological effect of cannabis in our brains.

Siegel: “I think this is a compelling way to explore how plants and people connect to each other.”

For Americans, Siegel says our relationship with cannabis has been… pretty rocky.

Music: “Marijuana, the Devil’s Flower,” by Mr. Sunshine, 1951:

Here’s a word of warning to both old and young. They heed to me before it is too late. There’s a vicious plant that looks so innocent. But it stems from the depths of hell. Marijuana, the devil’s flower

After Mexico’s revolution in 1910, hundreds of thousands of Mexican immigrants came to the U.S. to escape violence in their country. They brought with them smokeable cannabis that they called “mariguana.”

I should note that there were accounts of cannabis use of all kinds in U.S. before this, but when it started being associated with Mexican immigrants, it got all mixed up in xenophobic fears and resentments, especially during the Great Depression.

Music: “Anders” by Blue Dot Sessions

One by one, states passed legislation outlawing the drug. And 1937, the Marijuana Stamp Act was passed, which essentially made cannabis illegal in the U.S.

But it didn’t stop there. In the early 1970s, President Nixon declared that drug abuse was “America’s public enemy number one” and put marijuana on the list of the drugs considered most dangerous, along with heroin.

As a teenager in New York, Siegel remembers when the Rockefeller drug laws — “absolutely draconian drug laws” — were enacted in his home state in 1973. Possessing four ounces of marijuana could land a person in prison for life. But the laws weren’t enforced equally.

Siegel: “I was very aware of the fact that for a certain group of people (white, middle-class teenagers, like him), getting high was fine. For other groups of people (people of color, who occupied a lower socioeconomic class), it could lead to real trouble. So there was a real inequity in how they were treated and what the attitudes were towards marijuana use depending on your race and social environment. And that remains true.”

Now, as a way to shed the associations with the word “marijuana,” many people are calling it by its plant genus “cannabis.”

Music: “When in the West” by Blue Dot Sessions

Siegel says part of the reason we still don’t know much about cannabis is that federal laws have prevented independent research on it that would allow us to understand it better, especially research into the medicinal effects of the plant.

He says he hopes the February symposium will act as a kind of jumping-off point that could promote more cannabis research in the future.

Siegel: “I’d like to see there be the ability to understand this plant a little bit better and to be able to see what its effects are and to see what kinds of ameliorative effects it has on various diseases. It’s really unclear right now.”

Anne: “It sounds like a mysterious plant.”

Siegel: “It’s a mysterious plant, yeah.”

And he says, perhaps the most mysterious part about it is how it affects different people so differently.

Siegel: “Some people, it makes anxious. Some people, it makes them calm. Some people, it makes them energetic. Some people, it makes them passive. There’s just nothing uniform about it.”

Siegel says that with cannabis becoming more mainstream and regulated, he hopes the stigma around the plant will continue to dissipate. He thinks cannabis will probably become more like wine and coffee, with big corporations producing and selling it in mass quantities and local operations selling homegrown, specialty cannabis at boutiques.

The UC Botanical Garden’s Science of Cannabis lecture series starts Feb. 1 and runs through March 1. For Berkeley News, I’m Anne Brice.