Take a trip along the roads of Nebraska, Kansas, and Iowa, in particular, and you will see miles of cannabis growing naturally. In the likely event that you find some, your first thought is probably to fill up your car with the stuff! Think about it; you could easily bring thousands of dollars’ worth of it home.
Anti-marijuana campaigners will wince when they hear how widely weed grows around the world. It is illegal in the mountain nation of Bhutan, yet thrives on rooftops! In countries such as Jamaica and Mexico, the heat and humidity mean fields of cannabis are in an enormous number of places. You can find feral marijuana in dozens of countries around the world.
What About Wild Marijuana in America?
Some claim that people get hemp mixed up with ditch weed. It is an easy mistake to make; even the police find it hard to differentiate. These individuals assert that you will get high if you smoke enough feral cannabis. The amount you need depends entirely on your tolerance level.
As it is untended, the buds aren’t sticky, even though it will probably smell good! It is also important to note the location. There’s a possibility that pesticide or toxin run-off will negatively impact the quality of the bud. Is it worth risking your health (and liberty) for a minor high that could damage your health?
What Have I Found? Is It Cannabis?
The Administration created a Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program in 1979. Federal funds were provided to get rid of marijuana across the United States. Within 12 years, the program claimed it removed well over 100 million wild weed plants. Most of them were in Nebraska and Indiana for the record. In contrast, only six million plants were cultivated in the same timeframe. In 2003, a report claimed that cultivated cannabis accounted for only 1% of marijuana destroyed under the program. The rest was feral.
But other researchers wonder if this research might lead to individuals and companies looking for wild cannabis in East Asia anyway. “I wonder if there are plant explorer types who will go hunting for a Valley of Shangri-La for wild cannabis,” ponders Page. “East Asia is a big place, it may exist.”
“These additional genomic data are a phenomenal resource that adds a huge amount to our existing knowledge,” says Nolan Kane, a plant geneticist at the University of Colorado who wasn’t involved in the paper. “There really hadn’t been much in the way of publicly available sequences from many of the countries they sampled—I’ll certainly be downloading their data and reanalyzing it.”
For the researchers behind the paper, the results came as a surprise. “We thought we would find two main lineages, one with plants for fiber use and then plants developed for cannabinoid production,” says Fumagalli. “We didn’t expect to find this third independent and basal lineage among the samples from East Asia.”
Whether you think it’s the devil’s lettuce, nature’s medicine or a conduit to the divine, cannabis and humans have a relationship stretching back thousands of years that has now spawned hundreds of varieties. But millennia of cultivation, breeding and the plant’s relatively recent status as a cultural taboo have obscured where exactly cannabis went from being a wild weed to being picked up by humans and put on a path toward becoming the multi-billion-dollar crop it is today.
These roadside plants, sometimes referred to as “ditch weed” in the United States, may look wild but they’re more accurately classified as feral. Despite propagating without direct human assistance, DNA analysis shows these upstarts are descended from escaped domesticated plants. Because the species is wind pollinated, these escapees can readily mix with any other nearby cannabis plants. In some locations this would have set up a scenario in which domestic escapees likely swapped genes with their undomesticated ancestors, potentially diluting or even, in a slightly Oedipal turn, eliminating truly wild cannabis. This, on top of continuous artificial selection and intentional hybridization by farmers and breeders as well as the plant’s still-checkered legal status, which hamstrung research for decades, has made the tale of cannabis’ origins a tangled one.
The two main lineages Fumagalli mentions are commonly referred to as hemp, which is grown for its fibrous stems, and marijuana, which has mostly been bred to produce psychoactive compounds called cannabinoids that include THC and CBD. This sometimes-fuzzy linguistic distinction has become an official legal designation in places like the European Union and the U.S., where marijuana is still illegal at the federal level. Any plant with more than 0.3 percent THC content per dry weight is officially considered by the authorities to be the drug marijuana, while plants below this threshold skate through the dragnet as hemp.
The findings, published today in the journal Science Advances, could spark the development of new varieties using the Chinese cannabis strains shown to be more genetically similar to the crop’s wild progenitors. This could provide plant breeders with a new genetic toolset to boost cannabis’ disease resistance, production of certain compounds or growing efficiency.
Researchers say that wild plants that gave rise to today’s three lineages of cannabis grew in present-day China.
Prior to this paper, the predominant notion was that Central Asia was where cannabis was first domesticated.
In a viral 2016 YouTube post, travel blogger Gabriel Morris revealed a hillside covered with marijuana plants in the Nepalese Himalayas.
Feral cannabis is even rampant in North America. Although the plant is not native to the Western hemisphere, wild cannabis has either escaped from early 20th century industrial hemp farms or has been intentionally sowed by marijuana activists. Ironically, it seems to thrive best in conservative states like Iowa, Nebraska or Kansas, where marijuana prohibitions are some of the strongest in the United States.
A 1972 map showing known locations of wild cannabis in Canada. Photo by National Research Council Press