The history of cannabis in the hands of humankind may be as old as human civilization itself. As a resource, its versatility made it indispensable for many people. From practical to spiritual purposes, cannabis has a rich history as both a raw material and a drug. Its application as medicine for body, mind, and spirit has been practiced for thousands of years.
Evidence of humans using cannabis as a fiber can be traced as far back as 10,000 BCE in China. Cannabis sativa (hemp) which can grow over 18 feet, was used for its tough fibrous material. They crafted rope, fabric, archery bowstrings, and later in combination with mulberry tree bark, made paper with it. Many cultures caught on to this invaluable resource and planted plenty of it.
Serving as a raw material was not cannabis’s only role in ancient times. For at least 4,700 years marijuana has been employed to cure a myriad of illness and injury. What leads us to this specific time frame is a Chinese herbal called Pen Ts’ao. This book includes “ma” or marijuana within its pages and is a text which is still in use today within Traditional Chinese Medicine. We know it’s old, but just how old is uncertain. The earliest copy we have was written in 50AD, but its contents are attributed to the Red Emperor Shen-nung, the Father of Chinese Medicine, who lived from 2838 – 2698 BCE.
According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Marijuana has long been considered valuable as an analgesic, an anesthetic, an antidepressant, an antibiotic, and a sedative.”
Meanwhile in India, where cannabis indica is native, the herb was an important aspect of both their culture and their spirituality. Prevalent in Hindu religious texts (the Vedas), marijuana is considered one of five sacred herbs. It is associated with Shiva who is said to have brought it down from the mountains.
When the Vedas were written is difficult to determine, but scholars can agree that it was sometime between 1200-200 BCE. The spiritual use of the herb seems to closely resemble the recreational use we see today, but with a religious focus and meaning assigned to it. Applications of the herb medicinally can be confirmed in India’s Ayurveda system by 700AD; although, it was probably used for health purposes well before its established status.
When and how did cannabis come to the United States? Hemp was utilized as an essential fiber in America by the colonists and even acted as proper currency in Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania in the 1600s. But it wasn’t looked at as a food or medicine, only a material.
Once cotton farms were popularized, hemp’s scratchy feeling wasn’t as desirable, and people didn’t plant it as much.
It wasn’t until the 1800’s that marijuana was recognized as medicine in the Western world. An Irish doctor named Sir William O’Shaughnessy traveled to India and brought the knowledge of Ayurveda medicine to Europe and America. Information about cannabis and its remedies spread and it became commonly used in tincture form for multiple maladies.
By the turn of the 20th century, cannabis was seen as magic, medicine, money, and a material. So when did it become a recreational drug?
Spain brought hemp to Mexico as a material, but it also became a spiritual drug there. By the late 1800s it caught on for pain management and as a pleasure trip by ordinary folks. In 1910, the Mexican Revolution caused refugees to flee to the states with their stashes in tow. People talk, and marijuana gained traction as a way to get high in America. By the 1930s, weed became exceedingly popular among teens as a mind altering drug.
The government swiftly attacked, and by 1937 the U.S. had passed laws left and right to make the herb illegal. Since then, the fight against marijuana has raged on, and it looks as though the weed is finally winning. After nearly 90 years of legal struggles, medical marijuana can be used in all but six states in America. Twelve states have fully legalized it, including its recreational use.
Where the story goes from here is unclear. The ancient Chinese claimed that sorcerers used marijuana to see visions of the future. Why don’t you get on that, and let us know what you find out!
Abel, E.L. (1980). Marijuana, The First Twelve Thousand Years. New York: Plenum Press.
History.com Editors. “Marijuana.” HISTORY, 2 Nov. 2018, www.history.com/topics/crime/history-of-marijuana.
Macgillivray, Neil. (2015). Sir William Brooke O’Shaughnessy (1808-1889), MD, FRS, LRCS Ed: Chemical pathologist, pharmacologist and pioneer in electric telegraphy. Journal of medical biography. 25. 10.1177/0967772015596276.
McNearney, Allison. “The Complicated History of Cannabis in the US.” HISTORY, 23 Aug. 2018, www.history.com/news/marijuana-criminalization-reefer-madness-history-flashback.
The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. “Marijuana | History, Effects, THC, & Legality.” Encyclopædia Britannica, 14 Feb. 2019, www.britannica.com/science/marijuana.