The history of cannabis is a globetrotting journey from East to West touching multiple tribes and evolving its utility along the way.
This plant has given and continues to give so much to the world.
The following is a general and brief account of its epic journey, touching on points we think are interesting enough to fully capture the rich and fascinating history of cannabis.
History of Cannabis in Asia and India
Cannabis’ First Sighting
The story of humans and cannabis starts in 8000 BC Ancient Asia, in a small township called YuanShan — what we now call modern-day Taiwan.
Indentations on a piece of pottery reveal that the community of YuanShan has been using cannabis in the form of hemp in the form of cords to line some of their wares — along with this, stone beaters used to transform the cannabis plant’s fibers are found.
Throughout 8000 BC-4000 BC, along with hemp cords are found nets, rope, clothes, and paper. Additionally, cannabis seeds and oils are discovered to be used for food.
Early 2000 BC
Still in China, 2900 BC is when we discover the earliest signs of cannabis for medicinal use. It’s a Chinese Emperor Fu Hsi who makes reference to “Ma,” the Chinese word for cannabis, that we get a window into the multi-purpose plant in Ancient Chinese medicine.
Elixirs, tinctures, pastes, roots, teas, and powders are all part of this Ancient Chinese pharmacopeia that Fu Hsi says “possesses both yin and yang.”
In 2700 BC, another Chinese Emperor--Shen Nung, considered to be the father of Chinese medicine, discovers the healing properties of cannabis. His focus was on its powers as a medication for rheumatism, menstrual problems, gout, malaria, and absent-mindedness.
For the next 2000 years, the Chinese are using cannabis for hemp and for more than 100 medical agents. But this long and comprehensive history of medical cannabis is not limited to China.
Simultaneously, cannabis begins making its way into India.
Late 2000BC, Early 1000BC
It’s now late 2000 BC leading into early 1000 BC, and iconized in legends and religion, cannabis is found in The Vedas — the oldest religious texts of Hinduism.
A mix of milk and cannabis as an anesthetic and anti-phlegmatic creates an elixir that holds a very special place in Indian history. They call it “Bhang.” It’s so special in fact that one of their gods, Shiva, they designate as, “The Lord Of Bhang” and consequently use cannabis as a ritual offering to it.
History of Cannabis Use in Africa, and Europe
Cannabis Moves West
Early 2000 BC
While cannabis is weaving through China and India, around 2000 BC in Africa, the Ancient Egyptians are using cannabis to treat glaucoma, inflammation, uterus maladies, and hemorrhoids.
In 400 BC, one of the most important players in the history of cannabis is revealed.
A barbaric group of nomadic tribes believed to be of Persian origin traverse the Middle East and Northern Europe. It’s said of the Scythians by Herodotus — a Greek historian — that the Scythians would throw cannabis seeds on red-hot stones and bathe in the vapour. It’s speculated they used cannabis baths to overcome sorrow and depression associated with the death of their tribesmen, in a ritual for the dead.
Cannabis has now crossed into Europe.
Toward the end of the 1st century AD, Roman medical texts list cannabis as a cure for earache and as a way to suppress sexual desire, marking a continuation of the history of medical cannabis. The Romans also boil the roots of the plant and use them as a treatment for gout, arthritis, and generalized pain.
Fast forward to the 15th century and Europe enters a period of unprecedented colonialism. Sails, rope and cordage made from hemp begin to appear on Italian shipping vessels.
History of Cannabis Use in Britain and The West
The King, The Queen, and The Gambit
In the 16th century, Britain joins commerce and colonialism in the seas.
And to satisfy the increased demand for rope and sailcloth for his new navy, King Henry VIII decrees that all landholders set aside one-quarter acre for the cultivation of flax or hemp for every sixty acres of land.
Britain’s Navy knows no limits. Thirty years later, Queen Elizabeth I reintroduces the law to expand her navy and imposes a £5 fine for any eligible landlord who fails to comply.
In 1545, we get a glimpse into cannabis’ beginnings in North America. Explorers find "wilde hempe".
A brief stop in the 17th century, discovered in pipe bowls and stems from a garden in Stratford, England: cannabis in some, nicotine in others, and Peruvian cocaine in a few. Apparently, William Shakespeare preferred cannabis as a stimulant for its “mind-stimulating properties.”
In 1616 Jamestown, Virginia, cannabis use first shows up on the American radar. Jamestown settlers begin growing hemp to make rope, sails, and clothing.
In the 18th century, very important events in the history of cannabis happen:
Carl Linnaeus — a Swedish botanist — identifies a species of cannabis, Cannabis Sativa.
The Declaration of Independence in the United States is drafted on hemp paper.
Marijuana finally gets classified into two main species — Sativa and Indica — by a French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck.
The 20th century in America and Canada is a tumultuous time in the history of cannabis.
Mexican immigrants to the U.S. introduce smoking marijuana as a recreational drug to American culture.
In 1923, “Cannabis Indica (Indian Hemp) or hasheesh” is added to the Canadian Prime Minister’s Act to Prohibit the Improper Use of Opium and other Drugs. Cannabis joins opium, heroin and cocaine on the list of prohibited drugs.
A combination of Prohibition, unemployment and social unrest in America paint Mexican immigrants as the enemy and as a result 29 states outlaw cannabis by 1931.
The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 formally criminalizes marijuana federally in America. Excise taxes are placed on the sale, possession and transfer of all cannabis products except for specific industrial and medical uses.
In 1970, the United States Congress passes the Controlled Substances Act, which classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, along with LSD and heroin. According to the act, marijuana has no medicinal value and a high potential for abuse, giving it harsher criminal penalties.
Into the 21st century, cannabis makes great gains in legalization.
In 2001, Canada becomes the first country to legalize medical marijuana.
In 2012, Washington and Colorado become the first states in America to legalize cannabis for recreational use.
In 2013, Uruguay becomes the first country to legalize cannabis.
In 2018, Canada legalizes recreational marijuana, thus ending the history of cannabis prohibition in Canada.
These are just some of the ways cannabis has changed cultures around the world. From its start in China to its journey to The West, cannabis continues to be a healthy addition to our lives.
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