Cannabis: a Brief History

We all know that cannabis has been around for a while. But how long?

Researchers have actually been studying this and published a fascinating study in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology in 2018. The purpose was to “provide a critical and comprehensive evaluation, from the ancient times to our days, of the ethnological, botanical, chemical and pharmacological aspects of [cannabis], with a vision for promoting further pharmaceutical research to explore its complete potential as a therapeutic agent.”

So what did it find?

According to research, it’s believed that cannabis and hemp were first used and grown domestically in Central and Southeast Asia. Before any medicinal qualities were discovered, the fibers from plants were used in fabrics and sophisticated baskets discovered at paleolithic sites. It’s now understood to be the oldest known cultivated plant specifically for its fibers.

How it began to be used other than for fibers is a little less understood but researchers felt one plausible explanation was the discovery of its “psychotropic properties” when it was accidentally burned. But as early as 1800 BCE, we have evidence that it was used in incenses and oils in religious ceremonies to medicinal remedies for seizures.

Cannabis has been referenced in many religious texts from the Old Testament “sacred oil” to Hinduism and Buddhism to facilitate communication with spirits and meditation.

Medicinal use of marijuana is also somewhat murky. The researchers established a timeline from nearly five millennia ago in China, where Chinese agriculture made use of the plant pharmacologically. The texts referred to it as a medicinal solution for such things as “fatigue, rheumatism and malaria.”

Although used medicinally for centuries throughout the world, marijuana/hemp first appeared here in the Americas with the colonists who brought it over primarily for its fiber strength. In fact, at one point, Massachusetts law required every household to plant hemp. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew it on their farms.

So what happened?

Despite all the evidence of medicinal qualities and use over the millennia, the first known prohibition was issued by a decree in 1484 by Pope Innocent VIII denouncing both the use of marijuana right up there with witchcraft. But the main bulk of prohibition came from right here in the United States in our modern 20th century with a shift from natural medicine to dangerous drug.

Congress first mandated that it be shown on product labels as an addictive and dangerous ingredient which was then followed up with the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937, followed later by Parliament in the UK in 1971.

Fortunately, we are coming full circle with 11 states now with legalized recreational use and 33 states with legalized medicinal use. Although it still remains illegal at the federal level, overturning prohibition is now a topic with increasingly widespread support. According to a Pew poll taken at the end of last year, 67 percent of Americans think that marijuana should be legal with opposition falling.
There is hope.

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