A Brief History of Humans and Cannabis

May 1, 2021

Cannabis has been around for a very long time. Like many plants, it’s been part of many cultures and periods. For most of history, people not only thought cannabis was harmless but also that it was medication. 

That’s why the modern attitude towards cannabis is so striking. Its current status as being federally banned is surprisingly new. Cannabis was legal on a federal level as recently as a hundred years ago. 

Understanding the history of the cannabis plant puts this ban into perspective. People have been using cannabis safely for thousands of years, and the past hundred years pale in comparison. Below is an overview of how cannabis has been intertwined with human history since ancient times.

 

Ancient China and Cannabis

The first recorded mention of cannabis comes from ancient China. Nearly 5000 years ago, around 2900 BC, the Chinese emperor Fu Hsi mentioned cannabis in his writing. He described it as a popular medicine among his people.

1400 years later, in 1500 BC, medical marijuana is mentioned in the Chinese pharmacopeia as a treatment for specific conditions. This is a sign that it had probably been in use for centuries prior, which confirms that the cannabis plant is one of humanity’s older medicines. 

 

Cannabis in the Bible

Ancient China wasn’t the only place where cannabis was found, of course. Cannabis is native to Asia and the Middle East. People around the Mediterranean Sea likely had access to it, as well. 

In fact, there is a strong argument for cannabis being mentioned in the Old Testament of the Bible. In the book of Exodus, there’s a reference to “holy anointing oil,” which was an oil containing “kaneh-bosem.” Some researchers suspect that kaneh-bosem was cannabis since the substance was described as a sweet-smelling grass or cane plant. 

While that particular reference is still up for debate, archaeologists have determined that cannabis was used in early Jewish religious ceremonies. Ashes of the plant dating back to 1000 BC have been found in temples subject to archeological digs outside of Jerusalem.

 

Greece, Rome, and Cannabis

There are also Western traces of ancient cannabis. Both the Greeks and Romans used cannabis medicinally and recreationally. Greek physician Pliny the Elder mentions cannabis as a treatment for many problems in his writings from around 100 CE. He even describes the harvesting process they used, which included using cannabis stalks as hemp and saving the flowers for medicine and play. 

Some people would specifically use cannabis to encourage dreams with its psychoactive effects. There’s also evidence that cannabis was frequently mixed into wine to produce a particularly potent drink for feasts.

 

Cannabis in the Middle East

As people continued to experiment with the cannabis plant, refinement methods got better. Hashish is one of the oldest forms of refined cannabis, and it was first mentioned in a pamphlet from Cairo in 1123 CE. Hashish was popular throughout the Middle East, especially with Muslim people who were barred by their religion from drinking alcohol. 

 

Shakespeare and Cannabis

As trade between Europe and Asia increased, cannabis quickly spread throughout the continent. By the early 17th century, it’s clear that people in England were smoking tobacco from the New World and cannabis from the Old World at similar rates. 

One of those people may have been Shakespeare. A study done on clay pipes unearthed from Shakespeare’s former garden found traces of cannabis in their bowls. This residue has been dated to approximately when Shakespeare was in residence. 

Combined with a quote from his Sonnet 76 that references finding “invention in a noted weed,” scholars argue that Shakespeare used cannabis as a creative aid. While there is no way to definitely state whether Shakespeare smoked cannabis, it seems likely. That means some of the finest literature in the English Language may have been influenced by the plant.

 

George Washington and Cannabis

When people emigrated to the Americas, they took cannabis with them. Many early American colonies prioritized hemp crops because the fiber was valuable and plants grew well. There was much less difference between fiber hemp and cannabis plants at the time, and both were usually called hemp.

Cannabis was so widely grown that even George Washington had fields full of it. He was interested in hemp’s medical qualities, too. He specifically talks about separating the flowers from the fiber and separating male and female plants, both of which are critical steps to produce smokable weed.

 

Cannabis in the US Pharmacopoeia 

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, medical cannabis was heavily studied as a treatment for different conditions. It was so common that in 1850, marijuana was added to the US Pharmacopeia, an official set of standards for prescribing medications. 

Many patent medicines included cannabis at the time, and they were very popular. While these medications often exaggerated their effects, they also made cannabis tinctures readily available throughout the US. 

 

The Cannabis Ban

There was a major change of opinion regarding marijuana and other intoxicants in the early 20th century. A rising trend of opium addiction made many people wary of any intoxicants. This led to Prohibition banning alcohol and a deep suspicion of cannabis. 

Many cannabis scholars point to the association between Mexican immigrants and cannabis as the reason why Prohibition was repealed and cannabis was banned. Most Americans at the time associated cannabis with these immigrants since Mexico was a major cannabis producer. 

Racist and xenophobic attitudes toward these immigrants led to state bans and eventually the federal Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which essentially banned cannabis except for use as hemp. This was reinforced by the 1970 Controlled Substances Act that classified marijuana as having “no medical use.”

Cannabis Is Part of the Future

The history of cannabis is full of stories about how the plant made people’s lives better. From medical applications from thousands of years ago to more recent uses in medicine and recreation, the plant has been an important part of human history. 

The tide is turning, too. Modern federal illegalization seems to be nearing its end as state after state legalizes cannabis. You can take part in this triumphant return by checking out any of the great delivery dispensaries Michigan offers. Whether you use medical cannabis or recreational marijuana, you’re continuing a tradition that’s thousands of years old and bringing it into the future.