Is Weed a Weed?


Let’s start at the beginning. In cultural shorthand, a weed is a pest. In more specific, but decidedly not scientific terms, a weed is a wild plant that is growing itself all up in some other situation in which cultivated—i.e. desired—plants are trying to be all beautiful and manicured and sway in the sunshine unsullied by their lesser-than brethren. 

According to the Weed Science Study of America—yup, that’s a real nonprofit founded in 1956—weeds are marked by a few attributes that render them much-maligned among horticulturalists. Weeds produce a shit-ton of seeds per plant; these seeds can survive for a long-ass time, growing dormant until just the right conditions present themselves, and then they go buck wild in yer rose-bed. Weeds are typically able to establish themselves rapidly and often possess mechanisms that enable them to spread their nasty bits all over town, sometimes even without seeds (i.e. asexual reproduction). And lastly, weeds can often thrive in locations where more “desirable”—i.e. fragile—plants can’t get their shit together to survive. 

In its most positive light, a weed is considered a “plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered” (apparently Ralph Waldo Emerson said that); less favorably, it’s considered a pernicious bastard that negatively impacts human lives. 

But ultimately, it seems, a weed is a plant whose “bad” attributes far outweigh the “good.” 

The growing marijuana industry doesn’t seem to know if weed is a weed; the boundaries of botany are nebulous here. We’ve meticulously cultivated this renegade plant to a status that makes it one of the most sought after on the planet. State-regulated marijuana sales are hovering around $5.7 billion, and the marijuana market is estimated to grow to $22 billion in sales by 2020. It seems pretty obvious that its traits are decidedly “in demand.”

And yet, the ACLU estimates the total national expenditure of enforcing marijuana possession laws to be approximately $3.613 billion. The market to make weed grow is booming—and so is the market to destroy it. 

So do we want weed to grow? Is weed a weed? Depends who you ask.

Cannabis is a genus of a flowering plant indigenous to Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent. (Some historians place the first documented use of cannabis in China circa 2727 B.C.) Cannabis is dioecious—it has male and female reproductive organs on different plants, it’s wind-pollinated, and it’s an annual plant,meaning it completes its life cycle, from germination to seed production, within one year and then dies. 

Cannabis plants are typically bred to produce the maximum amount of THC (cannabinoids!), which is derived from curing the flowers that grow on the female plants. Just what is a cannabinoid? It’s a chemical compound (one of 480 in the cannabis plant, actually) that interacts with receptors in our central nervous system, making us “stoned.” (Also, but not always, inducing paranoia, distraction, snorts and giggles, delightfully decreased motor skills, and a palpable desire for Cheetos.)

Two kinds of these cannabinoid receptors have been found in our brains—CB1 and CB2—and are called the “endogenous cannabinoid system.” Basically it means our brains are hard-wired to interact with this chemical compound.

Cannabis is considered “rapidly growing”; seeds germinate within a week (dang!), plants can reach heights of 20 feet, and they can grow two inches per day. 

Suspiciously weed-like, eh?

If you’re still confused about how to classify and define weed, you may find it vindicating to know that our forefathers were, too.

In New York City, there was 41,000 pounds of weed plants growing wild—some as “tall as Christmas trees”—in all five boroughs until 1951. While most of the “marijuana jungle” was in Queens, Brooklyn is said to have boasted “million of dollars” worth of plants as well. This impudent plant of sin and ill-repute would not stand, however!

The Sanitation Department General Inspector—John E. Gleason—decided to take his “White Wing Squad” (the gentlemen typically tasked with horse-poo and trash removal) and systematically ripped up and burned every damn plant in sight. 

More interestingly still is that this same year, the State Supreme Court Justice John Murtagh not only openly rejected “punitive solutions to drug problems” in a WNYC Campus Press Conference, but also said that “science supports the notion that marijuana is non-addictive and potentially safer than cigarettes.”

It seems that when the smoke clears, marijuana holds the dubious honor of being the best-loved and most-hated plant on the planet.

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