A Short History of Cannabis - Marijuana History Overview - Sweedsy A Short History of Cannabis - Marijuana History Overview - Sweedsy
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A Short History of Cannabis

Old cannabis history drawing

Cannabis is old. History shows that people have known the marijuana plant for ages. Cannabis use for recreational and medical purposes may trace back thousands of years. Some facts point out that cannabis was used even before Christ era. The Vikings, medieval Germans, and Franks knew about hemp and gladly used it in their everyday lives.

Throughout history, botanists identified three different species of cannabis:

Cannabis Types

Types of Cannabis

Cannabis sativa L., known as hemp, doesn’t have any psychoactive effects and is widely used in manufacturing.

Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, a prominent French scientist and botanist, described indica. Sativa L. bears a name of Carl Linnaeus, who included it in his works on species. Later, in 1924, a Russian botanist Dmitry Janischevsky depicted a rare psychoactive species Cannabis ruderalis.

The first known kind of cannabis, sativa, takes us to steppes of Mongolia and Siberia. Prehistoric hunters and gatherers seemingly knew about its magical and useful features. Professor Barney Warf from the University of Kansas points out that these footprints are one of the humanity’s oldest crops, dating more than 12,000 years ago.

Chinese traces

The most ancient traces of cannabis use lead us to ancient China, around 4000BC. Later, in 2737BC, at the time of the Emperor Shen Nung, doctors allegedly used cannabis for anesthetics for the first time.

A chinese emperor Shennong sitting near plants

Under Wikipedia Commons

Researchers are more confident regarding burned cannabis seeds found in Kurgan burial sites in Siberia. They may date back to 3000BC. The ancient Chinese hid psychoactive marijuana in tombs of their noblemen. Recent findings of mummified cannabis in Xinjiang province go back to 2500BC.

According to the 1993 book The Archeology of KoreaKorean farmers brought cannabis seeds from ancient China around 2000 BC. Then the plant’s use went farther to Southern Asia. Early references to the cannabis use in India come from Atharvaveda and can be found in the Royal Library of Ashurbanipal, an Assyrian King from 650 BC.

Warf also noted that in 2000 BC the Scythians, a nomadic Indo-European group, brought the drug to modern territories of Middle East, Europe, Ukraine and southeast Russia.

European and African traces

Homer mentioned a drug, which Helen brought to Troy from Egyptian Thebes. That drug could allegedly be cannabis. Herodotus referred to it when he wrote in 5 BC about Scythians that cultivated a plant that grew like flax. They put its flowers on red-hot stones in a closed room. Herodotus noted ‘that no Grecian vapour-bath can surpass. The Scythians, transported by the vapor, shout aloud’.

Cannabis spread from the Middle East to Africa around 700AD. It happened many years before Europeans came to the continent. Suto women in South Africa smoked cannabis so it was easier to give birth. Some Congo tribes cultivated cannabis considering it a venerated plant. Whenever that tribe traveled, it took the Riamba – or a huge calabash pipe.

When Europe first discovered cannabis remains unknown. Some guessing implies that it was pretty early, at least around 500BC. Findings of an urn containing cannabis leaves and seeds near Berlin allow us to think that the German tribes brought cannabis to modern Europe. Later, the Anglo-Saxons took it to Britain.

From the Middle Age to Our Days

In the 13th century cloth made from hemp was popular in central and southern Europe. The Europeans also knew of the recreational potential of cannabis. For example, Francois Rabelais (1490-1553) described it in his writing as ‘the herb Pantagruelion’.

Cannabis reached the shores of South America and the Caribbean around 1800 AD. Warf also believes that cannabis finally reached North America from Mexico around 1910 during the Mexican Revolution. New York discovered cannabis around 1920.

Warf said: ‘Many early prejudices against marijuana were thinly veiled racist fears of its smokers, often promulgated by conservative newspapers. Mexicans were frequently blamed for smoking marijuana, property crimes, seducing children and engaging in murderous sprees.’

Map of marijuana distribution in the world

This map shows how marijuana spread throughout the world, from its origins on the steppes of Central Asia.
Credit: Barney Warf, University of Kansas

Utah was the first state to ban cannabis in 1915. By 1937, all the states banned marijuana. Since then, despite efforts of legalization activists, the government has been closely supervising cannabis use. Recent changes in the legislation regarding medical marijuana give hope to all cannabis users in the US. In 2015, the official position of the President and his administration was to decriminalize marijuana. Legalization on the federal level remains questionable. In august 2016, DEA again decided to keep cannabis as a Schedule I drug but allowed using for research in universities around the country.

Despite a rich history of cannabis use, countries throughout the world are still far, far away from legalization, and harsh policies regarding marijuana may still lead to severe punishment and fines.

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