Marijuana Species……..What’s in a name?

The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 defines marijuana, in part, as “All parts of the plant Cannabis Sativa L…….”. Many of us learned that biological classification of living things follow a sequence in order of specificity:

Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species, Variety

Skipping over the obvious. Marijuana is a plant, not an animal. It essentially falls into the genus Cannabis, Species Sativa. The capital letter “L” probably stands for Linneaus, the botanist who published the classification a long time ago. Sometime early in the last century, the definition became part of the Marijuana Tax Act, and was lifted word for word into the 1970 statute, the one used today.

Like most plants, there are numerous agronomic varieties in existence, some of which enter the legal lexicon without too much attention to detail, an example being Cannabis Indica, having something to do with regulation of hemp, a variety of the Cannabis plant having considerable tensile strength (good for making rope), but not good for getting high. This ambiguity led in the 1980’s toward some legal mischief.

I was working at DEA headquarters at the time. A major case (probably involving tons of pot) was argued in federal court for the Eastern District of New York, before Judge John R. Bartels, Sr. The defense had hired Professor Richard E. Shultes as an expert witness. Shultes was a Harvard professor (Ever wondered about the plethora of

o Harvard professors

o Kentucky colonels

o New York Times best-selling authors

out there? I have. But I digress).

Anyway, Shultes advanced an opinion that the law proscribes C. Sativa, but not species such as C indica or C. ruderalis. Further, the correct species can only be determined on intact plants (which never happens in a forensic setting).

Shultes did not advance any theories about any of the other “species” not containing psychoactive substances.

To better understand the far-reaching implications of this interpretation, here is a short description of forensic identification of marijuana plant material. After measurement of exhibit weight, a few simple chemical tests are run, to confirm the presence of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which gets one high. The stuff is then examined under a low powered microscope to examine morphology of the plant material. The examiner typically looks for cystolithic hairs and other such features, and based on their appearance, identifies the stuff as marijuana. All of this can be done within an hour or less by an experienced analyst.

Shultes’ take was challenged by an expert retained by the prosecution, one Dr. Ernest Small, who, basically, stated that the taxonomic world agreed with the current classification of the marijuana plant. What was Judge Bartels to do?

The judge retained the services of Dr. Arthur Cronquist of the New York Botannical Gardens, who agreed with Dr. Small. Case closed.

Although probably coincidental, Judge John R. Bartels, Sr. was the father of John R. Bartels, Jr., the first Administrator of DEA. Bartels was no longer in that post when these events unfolded.

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