Last updated on 24 May 2022
Cannabis Sativa has been cultivated since the beginning of human history. We have evidence that humans used it as early as 12,000 years ago. The plant’s fibre has been used to make clothes and rope for thousands of years. Before hemp hearts were available in grocery stores, the seeds were used as a nutritious food. It is one of the most commonly cultivated medicinal plants throughout human history. It is estimated that 200-300 million people consume cannabis at least once a year in some form.
True plant geeks might wonder where cannabis originated. According to archaeological records, the Tibetan plateau is central Asia’s origin. Hops is the closest plant cousin, which is used to make beer. However, it is likely that cannabis is a distinct species at least 38 millions years old. The cannabis plant was the first to evolve in human history. As the article “What Cannabis does to your Body” will show, the plant’s chemical defense system matches one of ours in many ways. This is how we evolved together.
Contrary to popular belief, there has been documented evidence of cannabis-related medical science for 200 years. More than 30 papers on the medical use of cannabis were published between 1880 and 1950. These papers covered everything from its use for treating menstrual pain and stomach ulcers, to its use in chronic severe pain and insomnia, and more. From the mid-twentieth to the present, cannabis prohibition halted the progress of scientific papers. But science is improving and there are more research papers.
Check out these highlights about the history of cannabis to impress your friends. It’s not only how the plant has been used medicinally but also how its reputation was manipulated for political purposes, particularly over the past century. It was a potent and respectable botanical medicine that became a gateway drug. This was due to the politically motivated and incorrectly scientifically arranged campaign against cannabis and hemp.
My first reaction to learning about the history of cannabis was disbelief. I had thought that I knew everything I needed to know about CBD and cannabis. Growing up in South Carolina, the United States, I still recall the Just Say No campaign at school as well as the War on Drugs. Both of these events instilled in me a deep-seated fear about cannabis. Medical school did not change this negative stereotype. Cannabis was only mentioned as a ‘gateway drug for abuse’, meaning it had no medicinal value and could cause psychosis. Both in the drug war as well as medical school, cannabis was grouped together without understanding the differences between THC (the chemical responsible to the high) and CBD (which has no chance of getting you high) or the various varieties. These details will be covered in the article “Meet the Plant”.
When I was first looking into cannabis for my own medical practice, I felt lied to, deceived, and most importantly confused about how we came to this unscientific, demonized view of cannabis as a useful medicinal herb. Even though the rhetoric is still very prevalent in medical schools today, it is changing thanks to recent research on CBD, cannabis and its medicinal benefits.
Because any form of cannabis use is so stigmatized, patients often tell me when they meet me for the first-time that they have been using it medicinally for many years to treat various conditions. It is possible that they started using cannabis as an alternative to the more addictive and dangerous drugs that their doctors prescribed. Many people feel relief and catharsis when they are able to share with a doctor what has worked for them over the years. They don’t feel judged, criticized or made to feel inferior. It is a very healing experience to have a real conversation with a doctor about the medicinal benefits of cannabis. This helps the patient to take back control of a medical system that often leaves them feeling powerless and without providing an alternative. Even those who use mainly CBD-rich products often feel extreme guilt as it comes from the plant. Because I believe that cannabis shouldn’t be viewed as morals, it is my mission to break the shame and guilt surrounding CBD and cannabis.
Historical highlights timeline
From the ancient times to today
Ten thousand years ago, long before the Great Pyramids were constructed, a human made what appears to have been a recognized cannabis leaf on the wall in a cave on Okinoshima, Japan. It is reasonable to suppose that even cave dwellers may have known about the benefits of cannabis.
Ancient Japan, China, Mesopotamia and India used cannabis as part of their spiritual traditions and medicine. Only two ancient civilizations did not use cannabis: the Aztecs and the Incas. Cannabis Sativa is not native to the Americas. It was brought there only by colonialism in the 1600s.
China is home to some of the most important ancient uses of cannabis. It was first cultivated in China around 6000 BC. It was used for medicinal purposes and spiritual purposes.
Ancient Sumerians, Akkadians, and Egyptians also got in on it. They used cannabis to treat a variety of ailments, including grief, seizures, eye conditions, and pain relief during labour.
India is the oldest culture that has the most association with cannabis. The Vedas, Hindu religious texts, mention cannabis, or bhang as one of five sacred plants that can relieve us from anxiety. The long-standing relationship between cannabis and its use as a medicine and spiritual tool is still evident today. I first experienced this when I went on a six month sabbatical in rural India to study yoga, meditation, and Ayurveda (Indian herbal medicines) with traditional teachers. The holy towns where I traveled to prohibited alcohol and meat, but there was a cannabis drink called bhang and charas which were both sticky resin forms. They were also part of the wandering ascetic culture that the sadhus practiced. People who are followers of Shiva often smoke cannabis and then share it with others. Some people consider refusing charas rude or unspiritual. This is why many people, from all walks of the spectrum, can be seen smoking cannabis alongside one of these holy men at random corners throughout India.
A study of such sadhus in Varanasi showed that cannabis was safe for moderate long-term use. It is considered a sacred plant that can be used to attain altered states of consciousness. No negative morals are attached to using it regularly for this purpose, although under current Indian and Nepalese law, cannabis use is illegal. 7, 8
Ayurveda is an Indian traditional herbal medical system that has used cannabis for thousands of years. It was an essential ingredient in many herbal concoctions to treat conditions such as anxiety, fever, digestion issues, seizures, and skin disorders. Ayurvedic practitioners adhere to the principle of “less is more” in order to avoid THC side effects and over-medication. They also understand that too much THC can cause imbalances, rather than helping them.
In medieval Europe, the Ottoman Empire, and Africa, cannabis was widely used for many purposes, including important medicine.
The cannabis plant isn’t native to America, but European explorers brought it to America in 1600s. It quickly became the largest cash crop in America. A law that required every American farmer to cultivate hemp was passed in 1619. It was also used in certain states as currency because of its high value.
Carl Linnaeus gave cannabis its name in the year 1753: Cannabis Sativa.
The Victorian Era
Although the Victorians are known for being strict in morality, they were open to medical cannabis use. There are numerous reports that mainstream doctors have used it to treat anxiety, insomnia, and labor pains. It was widely available in American and British pharmacies as a standard medicine. It could be used for everything, from headaches and coughs to seizures.
Many doctors claim that there are no Western medical publications that support the use of cannabis. However, Dr Fronmueller’s 1860 study used cannabis extract to improve sleep cycles for 1,000 patients. Multiple reports have been made about medical uses of cannabis for anxiety and depression in the 1800s. These include Polli (1870) and Strange (1883).
Because it’s full of conflicting information, non-scientifically motivated ideas, and history about cannabis, this is where the confusion begins. Things looked good for cannabis at the beginning of the 20th century. The Royal Commission in 1901 concluded that cannabis was ‘relatively harmless’ and not worth banning. The potency of the available cannabis tinctures was not standardised at the time and nobody knew what THC was. Due to their potential misuse and dangers, many states in the US began to restrict cannabis tinctures access. It was a scientifically valid reason to regulate cannabis products being used for medicine. So far, so good.
Around the time of Prohibition in the United States, things started to get unscientifc for the cannabis plant. The government supported media and public opinion campaign against cannabis could be traced to the competition between hemp growers on one side and cotton farmers and the timber industry on the other. It was believed that hemp would become a major source of fibre and paper and threaten other industries.
The story also included the fact that cannabis was used extensively in Mexican and African-American social cultures. The US government was anti-immigration and racist at the time. Major newspapers published stories about ‘coloured men’ using drugs to attack and corrupt white women. These stories portrayed the cannabis plant as a moral menace to society and linked it with other non-white ethnicities.16
After the repeal of Prohibition, the plot became more complicated. Harry J. Anslinger was appointed to create a new department in the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Anslinger saw a potential in cannabis to provide cash to the new department. He is known as the inventor of the War on Drugs in America and made cannabis his enemy number one.
Reefer madness is one of the FBN sponsored films.17 You can find it on YouTube. The film also shows non-whites using cannabis and corrupting young white youth with it. It was a huge success in creating fear and concern about cannabis among the public and funding for the FBN. The American Medical Association opposed the Marihuana Tax Act of 37. It made cannabis illegal at the federal (national) level, making it virtually impossible to prescribe as medicine. It is fascinating to see that alcohol was completely rehabilitated by American law and Western culture after the end Prohibition. Despite alcohol being associated with more social and health issues than cannabis, it was spared from the same fate.
1961 was the year of the next major blow to cannabis. It came from the United Nations.18 This decision went against all the scientific evidence and was contrary to the best available science. The decision to lump cannabis into the same danger category as heroin and other drugs was based more on politics and economics than on any health or scientific reason. This is quite remarkable considering Anslinger wasn’t a scientist or a doctor but was a lawyer and politician.
What did the UK do with all this? A few years later, the British government conducted its own research on cannabis and found that long-term cannabis use in moderation had no harmful effects. 21-22
After 1971, it was almost impossible to study cannabis for any medical purposes in the UK or US. This was true until recently.
Cannabis is making a comeback
In the mid- to late 1970s, attitudes changed towards cannabis. The Netherlands decriminalising it. The US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), in 1988, ruled that cannabis had medical benefits and should therefore be reclassified to a medical drug. However, this advice was ignored for a few more years. California made medical cannabis legal in 1996 for patients suffering from AIDS, cancer, and other severe painful conditions. It’s finally a win for cannabis!
This was the start of the cannabis revival. Between 1993 and 1996, the EU legalized hemp cultivation in most EU member states. This was very low-THC cannabis. The US followed this lead in 2009. Patients in Canada were granted legal access to medical marijuana in 2001. The UK legalized medical cannabis in November 2018.
As of the writing, recreational (i.e. non-medical) cannabis has been legalized in Canada and 11 US States and 33 states have legalized medical cannabis. More and more European countries are legalizing medical cannabis. The results have been positive so far!
It is quite remarkable to see this shift in attitudes. It is clear that patients and advocates are more interested in cannabis as a medicine than doctors. Now that you understand where cannabis has come from let’s take an inside look to see what the fuss is all about in the next article “Meet the Plant”.
Nicole Davis is a integrative medicine specialist who focuses on sleep and fatigue. She has extensively explored the therapeutic properties of cannabis, and provides specialized treatment plans according to personal symptoms. Dr. Davis is passionate about helping people feel their best, and believes that everyone deserves access to quality healthcare.