A Global History of Cannabis
Our treatment of the cannabis plant today stands in stark contrast with how the plant was used in the distant past. Most of us can’t remember a time when it was legal to cultivate the cannabis plant in North America, and the new push for cannabis legalization in Canada will violate international treaties condemning the use of cannabis, treaties meant to suppress the international drug trade.
It’s confusing to think about how our society made the transition from living off the land and making use of any resources and medicines available to us, to a point where we outlaw plants that we know to have medicinal properties. If we really think about who we are and where we came from, look at the history of cannabis use around the world, and see things for what they are, it’s obvious that our institutions have misled us.
This article investigates the global history of cannabis use, how cannabis was used in cultures around the world and what it was used for, and how we reached a point where cannabis became illegal around the world.
Cannabis Use in Ancient History
The first evidence of cannabis use anywhere was found in Taiwan, and dates to 8000+ BCE – over 10,000 years ago. Archaeologists were able to identify pottery fragments at an ancient village that were decorated by pressing strips of hemp cord into the wet clay before it hardened. Researchers also found rod-shaped tools that were probably used to loosen the cannabis fibers from their stems.
The presence of hemp plants in the human developmental environment probably contributed greatly to the proliferation of the arts of spinning and weaving. Early man discovered rightly that single strands of fiber could be twisted and weaved together to make a stronger rope. The technology of weaving fibers together probably ended man’s reliance on animal pelts for clothing and began the tradition of clothing production as we might recognize it today.
An ancient Chinese burial site discovered in 1972, which dates to between 1122-249 B.C., contains the oldest preserved specimen of hemp in existence – cloth fragments that were either decorative or part of a clothing item. Chinese manuscripts from as far back as 2350 B.C. encouraged settlers to plant hemp so they could make their own clothing. Hemp even factored into ancient warfare – Chinese archers used to fashion their bowstrings from bamboo until it was discovered that hemp fiber made stronger bowstrings, and that archers who used hemp could launch arrows further and with more power.
Cannabis spread to India and Greece across ancient trade routes, where it was used in religious and spiritual ceremonies, as offerings to the Gods of the day. In Herodotus’ “The Histories”, written in 430 B.C., he reports on recreational cannabis use by the Scythians
Cannabis Use in Modern History
The last 2000 years have been characterized by a growing understanding of cannabis as a medicine. Between 0-500 CE, the first textual references to marijuana’s analgesic effects can be found, the Thracians are using cannabis as a recreational intoxicant, Greek physicians start to prescribe medical cannabis, and pharmaceutical texts coming out of China start to reference cannabis as a medicinal option.
Cannabis also became more popular in Europe during this time – hemp rope arrived in England for the first time, and Italy began building naval ships with hemp rope.
Hashish and other cannabis derivatives also entered popular use in the Arab world and around the Mediterranean during this period. By the 1200s, traders had spread the use of cannabis as an intoxicant, especially in the hashish form, to the Southern portion of Africa. In Ethiopia, pipes containing marijuana were found that date back to the 1300s, indicating that cannabis use had spread throughout Africa at that time. In 1378, Ottoman Emir Soudoun Scheikhouni of Turkey issued one of the first edicts against the eating of hashish.
By the 1600s, Britain and France cultivated hemp and shipped it to their colonies in the new world. Folks already knew that marijuana could be used to treat depression and for pain relief, and hemp was a major trade item between Central and South Asia.
Cannabis Use in the New World
The history of cannabis in the new world is somewhat shocking. Plantations in the American South began to cultivate hemp in the 17- and 1800s. Medical marijuana was widely used and available in pharmacies, and plantations were successful in Mississippi, California, South Carolina, Kentucky, New York and Georgia. Cannabis was used throughout the United States as a medicine between 1850 and 1915, and could easily be purchased in general stores and pharmacies!
What happened by 1915 that ruined everything? It was a combination of factors.
Hashish smuggling in Europe affected attitudes towards the drug – bans were enacted in Greece and Turkey in the late 1800s.
An influx of Mexican immigrants in 1910, resulting from the Mexican Revolution, introduced the habit of recreational cannabis use into the poorer sectors of American society.
By 1914, United States lawmakers defined the use of cannabis as a crime under the Harrison Act.
Between 1915 and 1927, prohibition of cannabis was enacted at the state level, first in California, then in Texas, Louisiana, and New York. Lebanon banned hashish production in 1926, and recreational cannabis use was banned in Britain in 1928.
In 1936, the film Reefer Madness was made to scare Americans about cannabis, and in 1937, total cannabis prohibition was enacted across the United States. It had already been banned in Canada since 1923.
The invention of paper pulp in 1916 is also thought to be a contributor to cannabis prohibition – lobbyists for the pulp and paper industry wanted to end the production of hemp fibers so they could take over the paper business. Perhaps they lobbied lawmakers to ban the hemp plant, using propaganda like Reefer Madness to affect public opinion.
Correcting History – Legalization of Cannabis
Testifying on behalf of the American Medical Association, Dr. William C. Woodward stated in 1937 that “The AMA knows of no evidence that marijuana is a dangerous drug” and warning that prohibition “loses sight of the fact that future investigation may show that there are substantial medical uses for Cannabis”.
In today’s regulatory environment, we’re legalizing cannabis because our government is trying to enact a monopoly on drug dealing, but it should appear obvious that further investigation will yield further practical and medicinal benefits associate with the cannabis plant.
Our governments have wrongly withheld the benefits of legal cannabis from the population for far too long, and it’s time that we reclaim this pivotal part of our history as humans and learn as much as we can about how cannabis and the hemp plant can be used to enrich our lives.