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Is Cannabis Evolving?

06/05/2022

The use of cannabis by humans can be traced back to 2800 BC – first mentioned in Emperor Shen Nung’s pharmacopoeia. Cannabis is also among the first cultivated crops known to early humans. 

The cannabis plant has been known to man for thousands of years as a source of stem fibre, which is referred to as hemp while the drug preparations from the plant are called marijuana. 

Several evolutionary interpretations identify the different species of the cannabis Sativa. In addition, relationships between domesticated and the C. Sativa plant that grows in the wild have resulted in contradictory classifications. 

Nevertheless, no other plant in human history is as controversial as the cannabis plant. In this post, we try to understand whether the C. Sativa is evolving or it is still the ancient ones used by our ancestors. 

Cannabis Plant – A Brief History

The ancestral cannabis plant seems to have come from central Asia as the Indian subcontinent hit the Asian tectonic plate. The environment there had less oxygen, and the level of UV radiation is high. 

According to one medical geographer, the ancient cannabis plant developed hardiness to survive in harsh conditions. In response to the ever-changing environment, the cannabis Sativa gradually began to produce cannabinoids and terpenes, similar to the chemical composition of cannabinoids found in most vertebrate species. 

Cannabinoids are known for their anti-inflammatory properties on a cellular level, so it makes sense that the cannabis plant makes this chemical a survival response. 

Additionally, this unique plant also produces high levels of THCA and a host of other compounds as a protective measure against predators, including insects and diseases. Conversely, the drug component of the cannabis plant and its resilience attracted humans, which helped in its widespread cultivation.  

Splitting of the Cannabis Plant 

Until 4,000 years ago, ancient cannabis Sativa was used for its multipurpose abilities. The plant was used for food, fibre, medicinal and recreational. 

However, some years after humans started actively cultivating the cannabis plant, it started to undergo artificial selection and diverged into two distinct plants – hemp with increased amount of fibre and marijuana with increased cannabinoid concentration. 

According to one research, modern cannabis Sativa is of four distinctly different groups. The researchers studied 110 genomes of the C. Sativa plant using next-generation DNA sequencing and molecular analysis. 

The four groups of sativa are:

Basal cannabis 

Basal cannabis includes all human-grown, wild, and traditional hybrids of cannabis, and it also includes psychoactive cannabis and cultivated hemp around the world. 

Hemp

The hemp group of cannabis includes all hemp varieties around the world and is very easily distinguished by the low levels of THC in it. The hemp group of cannabis plants is not used for synthesizing drugs per se, and their primary use is for fibre production to make clothing. 

Drug cannabis group 1

Under group 1 of drug cannabis, cultivated varieties of cannabis from India and wild cannabis from China, India, and Pakistan are included. The cannabis under this group is distinct from other groups because of its drug-like properties, which are very similar to marijuana. 

Drug cannabis group 2

Cannabis Sativa plant with drug-like properties around the world other than the places mentioned in group 1 makes up the group 2 of drug cannabis. 

In this study, splitting the cannabis plant into fibrous hemp and THC-laden cannabis occurred roughly 4,000 years ago. The psychoactive variant of the cannabis plant spread from Asia to Latin America and Africa about 3,000 years ago. 

Hemp is different from the cannabis plant due to its lower THC content; however, the gene code between CBD and THC is also remarkably different. For the uninitiated, CBD typically comes from hemp and THC from the Cannabis Sativa plant. 

But the strong genetic difference between hemp and the psychoactive cannabis plant is a strong indication that selective breeding caused the split in the cannabis plant several thousand years ago. 

Selective breeding of cannabis by humans also resulted in the loss of gene function in the synthesis of more than one biochemically competing cannabinoid in the hemp plant. On the other hand, the cannabis plant developed the gene function for increased cannabinoid synthesis, which we know as the weed or pot plant today.

Interestingly, this artificial/selective breeding of the cannabis plant has also resulted in the extinction of the wild Cannabis Sativa plant with pure ancient strains of psychoactive cannabis. This is a direct effect of the genetic evolution of the cannabis plant due to selective breeding. 

Regardless of the findings in the cannabis research mentioned above, there is also the consideration of continued selective breeding in many parts of the world. Although some parts of the world have legalized the use of recreational and medicinal cannabis, the sale and production of cannabis are still heavily regulated. 

Therefore, many people continue to experiment with cannabis breeding, making it impossible to decide whether or not domesticated cannabis is the same everywhere. In addition, the potency and quality of the cannabis plant are highly dependent on its environment, including soil, moisture, and air quality. This is why cannabis plants grown in some parts of the world produce better products than others. 

Final Thoughts

There is no other plant that courts controversy like the Cannabis Sativa plant and the laws surrounding it are complex. The UN classifies cannabis as a Schedule IV drug, right alongside heroin. In addition, cannabis is also a Schedule 1 drug in the US, making it hard to research the genetic evolution and history of the cannabis plant without courting some legal action. 

The cannabis plant has clearly retained some of the best features from its ancestral plant – hardiness, resilience, and retaining the psychoactive component.

Nevertheless, that the cannabis plant has evolutionary differences from other plants, including hemp, is evident. Furthermore, the cannabis plant has also evolved over thousands of years with the help of selective breeding from humans. 

So yes, the cannabis plant has evolved through millions of years and is likely to continue evolving as plant breeders experiment with it along with changes in the environment.   There are still lots of different strains to explore. It’s just the beginning of us understanding more about sativa and cannabis in general.

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