Perhaps one of the most controversial questions that can be asked of cannabis law reform campaigns is a very simple one: “Is cannabis a drug?” If you dare to ask this incendiary question you will get two widely differing answers: Yes and No.

So, at the risk of starting world war three let’s have a go at answering this question once and for all, but it’s not as easy as you might think and the first reason for that is we are not not consistent in these things.

First of all of course cannabis is the name of a plant and the plant produces active chemicals – the things we call we call “drugs”. Now tobacco isn’t generally thought of as a drug, yet as we know it contains the drug nicotine, but khat is generally perceived as a drug (in this country at least) because it contains the stimulant cathinone. Now it gets muddy because to the people who traditionally use Khat it’s just a plant they chew to help them get through the day, the “drug” connotation is something we (our governments) in the west have put on it in recent years and of course the same is true for cannabis. So why hasn’t that happened with tobacco? Probably the opposite is true, tobacco was familiar to the people who wrote the drug laws. What we’re seeing here is the use of a word which has its roots in cultural norms imposed by laws, which is not a very good start.

So the “no” camp have round one on balance; cannabis, like khat or tobacco is a plant and had it not been for the drugs laws it would possibly never have had the “drug” label attached to it. But that isn’t quite true.

Cannabis is popular with the people who use it for one simple reason – it gets them stoned when they smoke or eat it. So the very people who are often the most vocal in refusing to accept the drug label for cannabis are the most appreciative of its drug effects. Tobacco of course doesn’t get you stoned and indeed doesn’t seem to “do” anything, although as we now know it releases a drug – nicotine – which does produce significant effects on the brain.

So now might be a good time to find a definition of what makes a drug: The Oxford Dictionary defines a drug as:

A medicine or other substance which has a physiological effect when ingested or otherwise introduced into the body:

* a substance taken for its narcotic or stimulant effects, often illegally:

Which is a useless definition because that obviously includes food. The free dictionary defines a drug as

a. A substance used in the diagnosis, treatment, or prevention of a disease or as a component of a medication.
b. Such a substance as recognized or defined by the U.S. Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.
2. A chemical substance, such as a narcotic or hallucinogen, that affects the central nervous system, causing changes in behavior and often addiction.

Free dictionary is American, but even so defining a substance as a drug because the US government says it is will not win a debate such as we’re having. A chemical that affects the CNS is also very vague and includes many things which we don’t think of as drugs, some of which lead to much more than just changes.

The UN Office Of Drug Control the UNODC doesn’t help much either, while accepting the medicial definition of drug as being a substance with the potential to prevent or cure disease or enhance physical or mental welfare it also tries a definition close to the Oxford version above

any chemical agent that alters the biochemical or physiological processes of tissues or organisms.

which again of course includes foods. Worse it also creates its own definition:

In the context of international drug control, “drug” means any of the substances listed in Schedule I and II of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, whether natural or synthetic.

Wikipedia has a better go at a definition

A drug is a substance which may have medicinal, intoxicating, performance enhancing or other effects when taken or put into a human body or the body of another animal and is not considered a food or exclusively a food.

“performance enhancing or other effects” is rather vague, but it’s no worse than the other definitions and does try to exclude food, but presumably would include vitamins…

This isn’t as easy as it should be, considering we have such draconian laws aimed at drugs and such entrenched ideas about them.

About.com chemistry offers perhaps the best definition, if a little strangled by bad proof reading:

A drug is a chemical that has medicinal, performance-enhancing or intoxicating effects when introduced into the body of a human or other animal. Substances which are foods are not considered to be drugs, although active ingredients from foods make be purified (sic) for use as drugs. Also, some chemicals used as drugs are identical to substances made in the body (e.g., insulin, testosterone). The chemical is considered a drug only if it is introduced into the body from the outside, such as by ingestion, injection or topical application.

So that seems the best definition to go by, but as we’ve seen it’s not universally understood and it’s distorted by the definition imposed by the UN and governments which has arbitrarily created it’s own list based on, well, no more than opinion. So:

Under the law, cannabis is a drug, but only because politicians have decided it is.

Law reform campaigners and many cannabis evangelists point out that it is an effective medicine, so on that definition it is also a drug. Here it’s important to mention a big complication which we’ll come back to, which is that cannabis, rather than the individual components within it – is a medicine. Refined extracts also have great medical potential, but so does the whole plant.

But what about the chemical introduced to the body which affects the CNS definition?

About now someone will suggest a solution: Cannabis isn’t a drug, it’s a plant that contains a drug (THC) and this makes sense. Tobacco isn’t a drug but nicotine is, it sounds like the obvious answer. Sadly though, that’s not good enough either.

The cannabis experience isn’t the product of the one THC drug. If you were to take a dose of pure THC the effect is, by all accounts, not nice at all.

BBC 3 shows the effects of pure THC compared with THC and CBD

Cannabis is pretty unique in that it produces two active chemicals, THC and CBD which are almost direct opposites in many respects. THC is the psychoactive chemical long associated with cannabis, CBD is far more subtle and only recently understood to have an important effect on the user. CBD can be thought of as a “balance” to THC and is a very important constituent. This is the rub: The cannabis drug effect is the combined effect of all the active chemicals the plant produces – THC and CBD are the most important but there are a number of other, minor compounds at work to produce the overall cannabis experience. In short, the “cannabis drug” is not THC, it’s everything all at once. This is why different strains of cannabis have such different effects on the user, indeed it may well be true that some strains are harmful for people at risk of mental illness, while others may be beneficial to the very same people.

So where does this leave us? Cannabis is a drug because:

1: The government says so for no good reason
2: Because it’s a medicine in its whole plant form
3: Because the effect of taking everything the plant produces into the body is what gives the overall cannabis experience.

Cannabis is not a drug because

1: The government says so for no good reason
1: Because it’s a medicine in its whole plant form
2: Because the effect of taking everything the plant produces into the body is what gives the overall cannabis experience.

That’s clear then.

So the conclusion to all this is really that cannabis is simply not like other drugs, it is a thing in its own right. It is a drug in the general use of the word and is understood as such even by many of those who refuse to call it a drug but enjoy getting stoned, but it isn’t a (singular) drug. The cannabis experience is something only this particular plant can give, a balance of chemicals specific to individual strains of the plant. The “cannabis drug effect” is many and varied, although specific to particular strains and therefore predictable.

It is correct then to talk of cannabis as a drug because it is taken for its drug effect but that drug effect is the effect of cannabis not the individual drugs it contains. So on balance cannabis is a drug but it’s also important to understand why it is a totally unique substance and for cannabis law reform campaigners understanding this issue is perhaps one of the most important things we need to do.

Cannabis as we all know, is quite unique.