Cannabis is a versatile plant that’s rich in agricultural, recreational, and medical history. But where did it come from, and how has it impacted our way of life? I’ll preface by saying a little-known fact about cannabis, just to get things started. Here’s the deal: cannabis was the first human agriculture crop. That’s right, you may have been thinking it was something like corn or wheat, but even 10,000 years ago we knew how useful cannabis was, and it’s retained that value today.
Cannabis in Antiquity
Cannabis kicks off in 8,000 BCE when it was first farmed in modern-day Taiwan, spreading quickly to Mesopotamia. Back then cannabis was grown primarily for hemp cord for use in pottery, with the medicinal and recreational benefits being unknown. Over the next two millennia, the Chinese began consuming hemp oil for food. Like wildfire, hemp textiles like blankets and clothing entered the scene of Turkestan. For the first 4,000 years, it was first harvested, cannabis gained prevalence in every part of Asia for use as rope, clothing, and food, until 2,737 BCE, when Emperor Shen Nung of China discovered its medicinal properties.
For the next two thousand years, the need for cannabis rapidly grew and spread southward to India. There, its recreational use was first discovered, and bhang was so popular it was even mentioned in the ancient Hindu text, Atharvaveda, becoming the ‘sacred plant of India.’ Hemp was also used medicinally and as an offering to the Hindu god, Shiva. It was during this time that hemp moved toward the Korean peninsula and Japan. In 1,200 BCE hemp had travelled all the way to Egypt and gained favor with the pharaoh Akhenaten, who chose to be buried in hemp cloth. Just 400 years later the Scythians, a Eurasian nomadic tribe brought cannabis to modern-day Germany.
In 600 BCE cannabis was on the move once again and found its place in the Zoroastrian religion, in Persia. The Zoroastrian religious texts, Avesta, refers to bhang as the ‘good narcotic’ and became widely used in Persia. The famous Greek historian, Herodotus, notes that the Scythians use cannabis both for rituals and recreation less than two centuries later. A trend of viewing cannabis as divine or holy becomes cemented in nearly every region from here onward. Following Herodotus’ reports, the Greeks import hemp, where it’s used in rope and textiles. By 100 BCE China makes the first hemp paper, completely revolutionizing their system of writing by increasing the availability of writing materials.
Cannabis in Post-Classical History
In the first century CE, a Samaritan gold and glass box is crafted for storing hashish and is later discovered in a Siberian tomb, revealing cannabis was highly valued by the Samaritans. The Greek-Roman historian, Plutarch, mentions that the Thracians used cannabis for its intoxicating effects. By the start of the century, cannabis has spread across Europe for its use as food, in textiles, and for recreation, with China continuing its medical use of marijuana. In 800 CE the Vikings first get ahold of hemp rope and take cannabis seeds back with them to Iceland. Just one century later the Arabs learn how to make hemp paper, following behind China and adapting a superior system of writing.
In the 11th century CE the Arab physician, Ibn Wahshiyya, warns of marijuana’s potential dangers as a recreational substance. Ethiopian pipes containing marijuana reveal that cannabis has spread from Egypt to the rest of Africa by 1,300 CE. In the same time, the first-known law prohibiting hashish use is enacted by Emir Soudoun Scheikhouni of the Ottoman empire. Just two centuries later, King Henry VIII fines farmers who don’t grow hemp, which was considered extremely valuable.
Cannabis in Modern History
In the early 1800s, hemp becomes so essential to American life that it’s sanctioned as a form of legal tender. By the 1850s over 8,400 hemp plantations are listed under the U.S. census, each producing at least 2,000 acres. It wasn’t until 1937 when the U.S. passed the marijuana tax act that cannabis production significantly slowed down. By the second world war, hemp farming becomes stronger than ever and the U.S. gov’t requests over 400,000 acres of hemp to aid in the war effort. But this trend was short-lived since in 1970 marijuana was listed as a controlled substance with its possession and use becoming criminalized.
Today, marijuana is legal (or decriminalized) for medical or recreational use in 26 countries, such as Argentina, Canada, Colombia, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, and the United States.