Cannabis feels like a brand-new plant — discovered and banned in the 20th century only to be rediscovered and revered in the 21st. Yet, that understanding of cannabis could not be further from the truth. In actual fact, cannabis was one of the first plants domesticated by the human race; it has played a vital role in civilization, and it was America’s first cash crop. Humans owe a lot more to cannabis than many suppose, and understanding the history of weed might help many accept and rejoice in the ongoing cannabis revolution.
Cannabis first grew in the wild on the Central Eurasian Steppe, or the cold, dry, high altitudes that are today governed by Mongolia and southeast Siberia. Likely prized by prehistoric peoples for their useful fiber and nutritious seeds, cannabis plants soon began growing in human trash heaps and eventually in small tended gardens.
Cannabis stalks are incredibly fibrous, and the natural water-resistance and durability of the fiber have long made hemp cloth practical for clothing, bedding, shelter and more. Evidence of cannabis cultivation for this purpose dates back more than 12,000 years, making it among humanity’s oldest crops. What’s more, it didn’t take long for cannabis to travel. As early as 8,000 BCE, early Japanese people on the Oki islands were cultivating cannabis crops, and it is likely that similar groups across the Far East were doing the same.
In 4,000 BCE, the ancient Chinese made note of the plant’s benefits for medicine; stories say that marijuana was used as an anesthetic during surgery, perhaps even that performed on Chiniese Emperor Shen Nung in 2737 BCE.
Around 2,000 BCE, cannabis found its way into the Indian Subcontinent. Almost immediately, the drug took hold and was widely celebrated, even venerated as one of the five kingdoms of sacred herbs according to the spiritual text Atharva Veda. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/cannabis-one-sacred-plant-atharva-veda-sindhu-karpakal
An Indo-Iranian group of peoples called the Aryans likely conveyed the psychoactive and spiritual use of the drug around the Middle East, to the ancient Assyrians (who called the drug qunubu, the likely origin of cannabis), Thracians, Scythians and more.
It is likely that the Scytians brought cannabis into Europe, and the Germanic tribes spread the drug around. Though the damp, cool, dark European climate isn’t ideal for cannabis growth, the seeds have been found in burials around the continent, including Ango-Saxon invaders of Britain in the 5th century CE and the Vikings in the 9th century.
Meanwhile, the Aryans and others took cannabis to Africa, where the native tribes incorporated the drug into their culture in various ways. For example, the Bashilenge tribe, who once lived in modern-day Angola, called themselves the Bena-Riamba, or the sons of hemp, because their religion positioned marijuana as a God and the pipe as a symbol of peace. Other tribes used the drug as medicine, particularly for psychological disorders resulting from trauma, like depression and anxiety. https://www.civilized.life/articles/5-facts-about-how-cannabis-was-used-in-ancient-africa/
As European civilization advanced, most nations left the psychoactive functions of marijuana behind — but continued to accept hemp. During the Age of Exploration, ships’ sails were made exclusively of hemp cloth (the word “canvas” derives from “cannabis”) and over 90 percent of clothing was hemp.
Thus, when the first colonies in the New World were being established, most colonists opted to grow hemp, which was hardy, fast-growing and guaranteed to be sold. In fact, hemp was so valuable that many colonies, to include Virginia, Massachusetts Bay, Connecticut and Chesapeake, mandated that landowners devote a minimum portion of their property to hemp cultivation. As European traders shipped in slaves — largely from African regions on the Atlantic coast, like Angola — the African peoples brought their cannabis culture to the New World.
White Europeans largely ignored the African use of cannabis for psychoactive recreation or ritual. Though some cannabis tinctures were available as patent medicines in the 19th century, marijuana was largely unimportant to American culture — until the early 20th century.
The Indigenous peoples of the Americas adopted the African practice of using marijuana, and as Latin immigrants flooded into the U.S. at the turn of the century in pursuit of jobs and stability, White Americans pushed back. In an effort to limit and control immigrants, many states passed laws restricting where they could live and how they could behave. Propaganda appeared demonizing cannabis use, claiming the drug caused violence, crime and other issues within communities. As a result, several states and ultimately the Federal Government made the cultivation, sale and use of all cannabis products illegal and punishable by severe fines and years upon years in prison.
A New Day for Bud
Fortunately, in the scheme of things, criminal penalties for cannabis have not lasted long. As early as the 1940s, research determined that cannabis did not, in fact, lead to increased crime rates or cause violent, dangerous outbursts in users. Further study throughout the 20th century determined that marijuana is quite safe and even beneficial to many suffering from debilitating health conditions, like epilepsy and cancer.
States began decriminalizing the drug as early as the 1970s. Starting in the 1990s and through the ‘00s, states passed medical marijuana measures, allowing certain patients to legally obtain marijuana treatment. As of this writing, 11 states permit adult-use marijuana and boast licensed dispensaries, like these: https://weedmaps.com/dispensaries/in/united-states/california/berkeley.
Many more states are considering similar adult-use measures, and even the Federal Government is predicted to permit medical and perhaps recreational cannabis in the coming years. Already, a bill passed in 2018 allows farmers to cultivate non-psychoactive hemp.
The history of cannabis is far from over; in fact, given the rash of new research funding aimed at the plant, it is likely that cannabis’s impact on human civilization is just beginning.