The Rich History of Cannabis
THC in BCE: Nature's miracle plant has probably been around longer than you think.
Domestication of the Cannabis Crop
Though we can biologically trace the cannabis plant back millions of years, it’s thought that original human intervention in its growth (or, domestication) started around 12,000 years ago in Central and Southeast Asia.
Our ancestors discovered and developed many useful crops for a wide variety of agricultural purposes. Some of the first domesticated crops were chickpeas, wheat, barley, peas, and flax. Amongst these crops was our beloved cannabis plant.
According to our research, cannabis was originally farmed as hemp. Traditionally speaking, hemp is the descriptor for the cannabis plant when it produces less than 0.3% of Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). When it produces more than .3% of THC, that cannabis plant is categorized as the “weed,” "ganja," or "Mary Jane" we now know and medicate with.
Ancient cultures probably used hemp, primarily a textile crop, in a variety of ways before honing in on its psychoactive properties. Hemp is excellent for making clothing, rope, paper, and other everyday items. As innovation and industry expanded over time, it’s likely that our ancestors started by using cannabis strictly for these purposes, before discovering that the heated rosin from the female plants could produce a giddy, euphoric sensation. What an enjoyable accident, right?!
Ancient Use of Cannabis for Psychoactive Effects
Before and after discovering the psychoactive properties of cannabis, we can thank nomadic peoples for spreading this multi-purpose crop throughout the rest of the world. They would travel west to Europe, up to northern Asia, southwest to Africa, and finally, all the way to the Americas in the 15th and 16th centuries. The Scythians were a group of Indo-European nomads who likely were responsible for the initial spread of the cannabis plant, as it moved from Asia to the Middle East and Russia.
Once the psychoactive properties of the cannabis plant were discovered, nomadic groups likely took the seeds with them along the Silk Road between China and Iran. It’s probably around this time that strain-specific cannabis farming became popular. Much like we do today, people likely tested the psychoactive effects of different cannabis plant types and focused on those strains accordingly.
A lot of these cultures didn’t use the psychoactive effects of cannabis just to “get high,” though. The Hindu religious peoples would incorporate cannabis as a kind of incense during religious ceremonies. They considered it a way to appease the gods (as well as the participants!).
The earliest documented use of cannabis for its psychoactive properties was around 500 B.C.E. in the mountains of western China. Researchers are able to determine the levels of THC that existed in remains from some of the grave sites in this area. It’s believed that mourners would gather around these graves, inhaling the cannabis vapors and experiencing the euphoric sensations collectively. The chemical compounds that were present in these ritual remains can be identified through mass spectrometry. It was around this time in this region that the levels of THC were noted to be higher than of previous cannabis remains, indicating the strategic farming of more psychoactive strains.
History of Medicinal Cannabis
In conjunction with cannabis’s psychoactive properties are its medicinal properties. The earliest documented use of cannabis for medicine is noted in Central/Western China as far back as 2700 B.C.E. We can thank Emperor Shen Nung for this, whose name actually meant “Divine Farmer,” and who is credited with being the “Father of Chinese Medicine.”
Shen Nung is reported to have used cannabis to treat a variety of ailments, and he wasn’t alone in that. The ancient Indian Hindus, Assyrians, Greeks, and even Romans also have texts that suggest the medicinal use of the cannabis plant. Even the ancient Egyptians left behind a piece of papyrus (dated around 1500 B.C.E.) that notes cannabis was used as a topical medical treatment. Cannabis as medicine offered a variety of treatments that aided in our bodies’ biological processes.
While cannabis has been grown in almost every culture for medicine, tool-making, and more, its existence has also been politicized. “Intoxicating” substances have been restricted, prohibited, and used as a means of control over the masses. It’s also been used to promote racial prejudice and fears about unstable economic phases in American history.
Modernization of Medicinal Cannabis
The Americas didn’t get to enjoy the benefits of the cannabis plant until the mid-1500s when the Spanish brought seeds across the Atlantic. Again, the plant was originally used as hemp for tool-making and industrial purposes.
We have medical pioneers such as J. Russel Reynolds (the direct physician to Queen Victoria in 1878) to thank for experimenting with cannabis and its health effects in the modern scientific era. His discoveries helped solidify the potential medicinal benefits for future generations. By the late 1800s, cannabis could be found in pharmacies throughout all of Europe and the United States. The plant was even included in the official United States Pharmacopeia for its various health benefits and treatment options.
As mentioned above, though, politics and restrictions stunted the growth of the cannabis industry throughout the United States by the 1900s. The Prohibition Era resulted in 29 states outlawing cannabis altogether by the year 1931, and the “War on Drugs” only made things even more difficult for the natural health benefits of cannabis to be studied.
We’ll get into more detail about the politics behind the cannabis industry in another article. For now, we encourage you to check out the rest of our cannabis blog to stay educated on the industry, cannabis health benefits, and how we can live naturally side-by-side with the planet and the stars.