Where Did Cannabis Come From? A Spiritual, Medicinal, & Biological History
by Henrique Dias on Apr 21, 2021
This blog post is my final paper (worth 30%) from a course in my commercial cannabis production program. Final mark 96/100.
Cannabis is a plant that gets a lot of attention these days. From massive corporations trying to dominate the industry to multiple countries legalizing it, it is in the forefront of a lot of people’s minds. But modern cannabis isn’t anything new. It is among the earliest crops cultivated by mankind and therefore, has quite an extensive history.
History of Cannabis: Cannabis was ‘Made in China’
The first evidence that cannabis was ever used was found in China, indicating that the plant was cultivated 4,000 years Before Christ. According to archaeological evidence, burned cannabis seeds were found in Shamans' burial mounds as early as 500 BC. However, the Chinese weren’t too keen on getting high off a spliff, but instead used cannabis for a different purpose.
The Chinese liked the fibers obtained from the wild cannabis stems, and they manufactured strings, ropes, textiles, and even paper. Apparently, textiles and paper made from weed were found in the tomb of Emperor Wu (~100 B.C.) of the Han dynasty. Evidence even shows that during the Han dynasty, cannabis was also cultivated for its fruits and seeds. Yes - cannabis fruit. If you didn’t know, the cannabis “seed” that you are used to seeing is actually a mini-fruit called an achene - the seed itself lives inside the achene shell.
The fruits (achenes) were mainly used for their high nutritional value, and until today, cannabis seeds continue to be used as a laxative by Chinese physicians. The use of ancient cannabis in China was reported in the world's oldest pharmacopoeia, the pen-ts'ao ching, which was compiled around ~100 A.D., but was passed down through word-of-mouth since 2,700 B.C. (I am sure something got lost in translation, but let’s be thankful someone took the effort to actually write it down). Here are some reasons why cannabis was used then: rheumatic pain, intestinal constipation, female system disorders, malaria, and others.
Until today, cannabis seeds continue to be used as a laxative by Chinese physicians, but it is still highly controlled for medicinal and recreational purposes. And despite being used for reasons totally different from their neighbors in India, the Chinese were the first to use cannabis, and thus, we can officially conclude that cannabis was ‘Made in China’.
But the Indians perfected it
How it got there from China, I don’t know, but in India the use of cannabis was very different from their neighbors: it was used both as a medicine and as a religious plant. The reason for the latter may be due to the fact that weed was seen as one of five sacred plants, and is known to be a source of happiness, a provider of joy, and creator of freedom. Hence, cannabis smoke and extract use became part of numerous religious rituals.
The history of cannabis medicinal and religious use goes back to around 1,000 B.C in India. Medicinally, cannabis plant was mainly used for treating headaches, toothaches, epilepsy, tetanus, rabies, anxiety, hysteria, inflammatory diseases, skin infections, tuberculosis, worms, colic, diarrhea, bronchitis, asthma. In other words, you didn’t need a pharmacy in India - all you needed was a little bit of Indian hemp.
It’s not just medicinal. Cannabis was also known for its psychoactive properties, and it was (still is) classified in 3 distinct groups. The one that gets you the least high is called Bhang, and is made up of dry leaves with a little bit of trichomes on them. A stronger type, Ganja (Ta-da! Now you know where the name comes from), is prepared with the actual flowers - like you’d smoke in a good ol’ joint. The strongest of them all, however, is the Charas, made only of resin, or trichomes - just like your hash.
Food for thought: if us, humans, have used cannabis for psychoactive purposes like the Indians have since 1,000 BC, does it mean that the cannabis we consume today is the result of a symbiotic relationship that started thousands of years ago, where we made cannabis flowers bigger and more reproductive, and in exchange, cannabis gave us strains that have stronger medicinal and psychoactive effects?
Image from Project CBD LINK
And then exported it to Africa
Until about the 18th century, the medicinal use of cannabis remained very intense in India and was then, somehow, spread to the Middle East and Africa. This is most likely due to travelers carrying seeds and industrial hemp with them, but the reasons remain unknown. Muslim texts show cannabis was used as a diuretic, digestive, anti-farts (not kidding), 'to clean the brain', and to soothe ear pain. They also made paper from hemp fiber around the year of 1,150, both in Spain and Italy.
Cannabis is also known in Africa since at least the 15th century, and the plant was used to treat snake bites, to facilitate childbirth, treat malaria, fever, asthma, dysentery, and more. For Americans, the use of cannabis plant likely started in South America. Here is why: myth has it that when African slaves, especially those from Angola, were brought over to work in Brazil, cannabis seeds were concealed in cloth dolls tied to their clothing. In fact, most synonyms for cannabis in Brazil (maconha, liamba, and others) have their origin in the Angolan language.
During the sugarcane boom in Brazil’s Northeast, slave owners would smoke their cigars while their slaves would smoke cannabis. Slaves also used cannabis extracts during social events, religious rituals, and as reasons to gather around a fire at the end of a hard day’s work (where they didn’t get paid a dime). Apparently, even indigenous tribes in those areas started consuming it - showing how the plant really has a natural bond with humans that haven’t ever been exposed to it.
Until it reached Europe
The first citizens who used cannabis in Europe were actually doctors. There are reports about the use of medical marijuana and cannabis extracts by European physicians from the early 19th century, when they used seeds for homeopathic medications. However, the effective introduction of cannabis in Western medicine wasn’t until the early 19th century. In fact, during the second half of the 19th century, over 100 scientific articles were published in Europe and the United States about the therapeutic value of medical marijuana. Books were written about using cannabis preparations for rheumatism, convulsions, muscular spasms, and a way to better investigate and treat mental illnesses.
In Sajous's Analytic Cyclopedia of Practical Medicine (1924), cannabis’ effectiveness was mentioned in three areas:
1) Sedative or Hypnotic: in insomnia, senile insomnia, melancholia, mania, delirium tremens, chorea, tetanus, rabies, hay fever, bronchitis, pulmonary tuberculosis, coughs, paralysis agitans, exophtalmic goiter, spasm of the bladder, and gonorrhea.
2) Analgesic: in headaches, migraine, eye-strain, menopause, brain tumors, tic douloureux, neuralgia, gastric ulcer, gastralgia (indigestion), tabes, multiple neuritis, pain not due to lesions, uterine disturbances, dysmenorrhea, chronic inflammation, menorrhagia, impending abortion, postpartum hemorrhage, acute rheumatism, chronic illnesses, eczema, senile pruritus, tingling, formication and numbness of gout, and for relief of dental pain.
3) Other uses: cannabis extracts were used to improve appetite and digestion, for the 'pronounced anorexia following exhausting diseases', gastric neuroses, dyspepsia, diarrhea, dysentery, cholera, nephritis, hematuria, diabetes mellitus, cardiac palpitation, vertigo, sexual atony in the female, and impotence in the male.
But it all came crashing down
Despite all of its benefits and all of the proof available to show that cannabis was a good plant, the use of cannabis for medicinal purposes in the West only decreased. In fact, cannabis was made illegal in the United States in 1937 and removed from the American pharmacopoeia in 1941. The Marijuana Tax Act was the first federal law to illegalize marijuana nationwide. And this wasn’t just in the U.S.. Many countries around the world had already made cannabis illegal or controlled it in one manner or another. But why?
In the Arab world, for example, authorities regarded the use of hash to be a lazy habit, associated with an economically and socially disadvantaged sector of Muslim society. Two years following Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798, the Emperor prohibited his soldiers to smoke or drink the extracts of the plant out of fear that cannabis would provoke a loss of fighting spirit. They even imposed a three-month prison term, implementing what probably was the first “penal law” on cannabis. In a nutshell, early control measures were often implemented as means of social control of groups operating on the fringes of society.
Cannabis was first prohibited in Brazil in 1830 when the Rio de Janeiro municipal council prohibited anyone from selling or using cannabis, as well as possession in public. Cannabis use, identified with Afro-Brazilian culture and folk medicine, was frowned upon by the white elite, and users were seen with a very negative stigma. In 1932, the plant was finally classified as a narcotic, and in 1938, the sale and use of cannabis were definitively banned. Brazil is one of many examples of countries that took a stance against cannabis, not because they actually feared the plant, but more so because they feared the very human race that used it.
Image from Canna Connection LINK
A vehicle for racism in the U.S.
Between 1920 and 1933 the U.S. was having very little success implementing their alcohol prohibition, which didn’t look very nice for the country. Coincidentally, around the year 1925, sensationalist newspapers started campaigning about Mexican immigrants smoking marijuana (cannabis sativa) and becoming violent, and how they were the ones who should be controlled - not those making moonshine.
When pressed about the matter, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN), established in 1930 and headed by a not-so-nice gentleman named Harry J. Anslinger, at first responded by saying that cannabis control should be handled by individual states instead of the federal government. He considered heroin much more important to deal with instead of dealing with a plant that grew everywhere in the South. Good luck pulling all those weeds out, eh?!
However, pressure to do something about cannabis mounted: from local police forces in Southern states, all the way to Anslinger’s boss, the secretary of treasury. Something had to be done. So Anslinger and the treasury department went ahead preparing the bills for the prohibition of cannabis, and as with anything the government does, they also prepared a lot of propaganda.
For example, he assured a House of Representatives committee that under the influence of marijuana “some people will fly into a delirious rage and may commit violent crimes”. In a response to a follow-up question, he said that the drug was “dangerous to the mind and body and particularly dangerous to the criminal type, because it releases all of the inhibitions.”
All of this, of course, was strongly repeated across radios, public forums, magazines, and let’s not forget, Reefer Madness. And unfortunately, it is the reason why so many people today still stigmatize the plant. It’s not their fault, folks. They’ve just been taught wrong.
But people fought for what was right
Due to its growing popularity and increasingly widespread use, cannabis became the focus of drug law enforcement activities in many western countries in the 1960s. Arrests for drug offences were at an all time high (pun intended), and they were mainly driven by a large number of cannabis convictions, including those for simple possession. There was also a close association between these arrests and the emerging counter-cultural movements like, for example, the hippies of Afghanistan, who brought seeds from the Middle East into the West during their pilgrim trips.
Despite, and often due to, the U.S. federal government’s continued opposition to any change in the law, a number of U.S. states made their policies on possession less stringent, and decriminalized personal use in the 1970s. Cannabis was categorized as a "gateway drug" in an anti-drug program known as Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E). At the same time, however, the Nixon administration introduced the Controlled Substances Act and initiated the “war on drugs”. It had already been an up and down battle, and this time it was bad for cannabis. Until it took a turn.
Nixon appointed the Shafer Commission to study marijuana use in the country, and prove that cannabis was indeed bad and backed by science. The results however, were not to the president’s liking - the Commission proposed an end to cannabis prohibition and the adoption of a social control policy to discourage cannabis use. In 1973, Oregon became the first state to decriminalize cannabis, where possession of one or less ounces became punishable only by a $500 to $1,000 fine. California followed in 1975, making possession under one ounce for non-medical use punishable by a $100 fine.
Then in August 1979, President Jimmy Carter decided to take up the recommendations of the Shafer report that had been dismissed by Nixon: “Penalties against possession of a drug should not be more damaging to an individual than the use of the drug itself; and where they are, they should be changed. Nowhere is this more clear than in the laws against possession of marijuana in private for personal use. [...] States which have already removed criminal penalties for medical marijuana use, like Oregon and California, have not noted any significant increase in cannabis smoking”.
(SPENCER PLATT/GETTY IMAGES)
The efforts paid off
The path from prohibition to legalization can be best observed where I live: Canada. In 1923, it became illegal to possess cannabis in Canada for no apparent reason but a simple letter from one politician to the other, and the stroke of a pen that put it into effect. Cannabis advocates have long blamed women’s rights activist Emily Murphy - she was highly influential and claimed that marijuana users “become raving maniacs” and “are liable to kill or indulge in any sort of violence”. But she was highly racist too, and a lot of her personal reasons may have come from a stance against Chinese immigrants.
Fast forward about 80 years to the year 2000, when the Ontario Court of Appeal decided that cannabis prohibition was unconstitutional because it did not make an exemption for medical use. In 2001, Health Canada responded to this ruling by allowing access to cannabis for licensed patients. These patients were permitted to grow their own cannabis or buy it from licensed producers. Fast forward another 17 years to 2018, and Canada became the second country in the world, after Uruguay, to fully legalize cannabis.
The Canadian government’s reason was straightforward: cannabis prohibition did not work, and it did not stop young people from using it. This posed a health risk for the population, and flooded prisons with many unnecessary incarcerations. The government ruled out simply decriminalizing it, and instead went ahead with country-wide legalization. Fast forward to today, and we not only have Canada and Uruguay as fully legalized countries, but we also have 17 U.S. states that have legalized recreational cannabis, while 13 others have already decriminalized it.
Other trends that can be observed in industry, especially in the Canadian market, is that there is still a very large demand for illegal cannabis (~50% of people still buy illegal), and the large licensed producers have not been able to close the gap because of a lack of quality and exorbitant prices (might as well stick to your old dealer). However, this is creating a huge opportunity for craft cannabis cultivators to establish themselves, since growing cannabis on a small scale is cheaper and yields higher quality - thus higher profits.
We evolved, and so did cannabis
It’s worth mentioning that Cannabis, as a plant, has changed a lot from thousands of years ago to today. We didn’t have anything that tested at 30% THC and neither do we have a pure Sativa or Indica anymore. In fact, the very botany of cannabis is very controversial. Today, we have over 3,000 different man-made cultivars that are always fighting for a share of the market. In the end, I believe we did co-evolve with cannabis in a symbiotic relationship as I mentioned earlier: from the perspective of cannabis, it certainly succeeded in establishing itself all over the world as a species. All it did was give us a little something in exchange.
Cannabis Sativa vs Cannabis Indica
While Sativa and Indica are terms frequently used by cannabis aficionados and cultivators, they seem to have different meanings. While Cannabis sativa was coined in 1753 by a gentleman named Linnaeus, another gentleman Lamarck proposed it to be separated into two species in 1785, adding Cannabis indica to the mix. In fact, academically, indicas are used to designate narcotic cannabis and sativas are used to describe non-narcotic cannabis (hemp). However, the common user thinks that sativa means more THC while indica means more CBD. So much is still up for discussion, especially given that before legalization, nobody ever talked about THC concentrations or terpene profiles.
Male & Female
We have always tried to maximize the amount of flowers in cannabis plants because, well, that’s mostly what we consume. But when you are maximizing for flowers, you don’t necessarily want seeds in the mix (unless you are a breeder), meaning you only want female plants. This, in the 70s, is what sparked the creation of “seedless” plants in Mexico, or sinsemilla, meaning “without seeds” in Spanish, by removing all male plants from the field. The availability of seedless marihuana increased again after 1999, when selective breeding succeeded in The Netherlands, producing “all-female” cannabis seeds that generate 95 %+ female plants, and thus flower-producing.
Potency over time
Last but not least, cannabis potency has largely increased in the past decades as a result of selective breeding, indoor cultivation, and production of seedless cannabis. In the 90s, cannabis tested at 7.5% THC, and today it tests at over 30%. This can be attributed to many factors, including our knowledge of the plant and its cultivation, but more so it can be attributed to the technological advancements we were able to make during cannabis prohibition. Wherever there is electricity, cannabis can be grown - in fact, no outdoor cannabis can be as good as a fully optimized indoor hydroponic plant.
In conclusion, we can say a few things about cannabis. First, cannabis was officially Made in China, where people used it for its achenes (fruits) and seeds. Then the Indians picked it up and learned how to use it both medicinally and religiously (AKA psychoactive-ly). Somehow, cannabis ended up in Africa, then in the Americas through slave trading, and in Europe through pilgrimage. While most people in the West didn’t mind cannabis, they minded African, Mexican, and Chinese descendants. So in a racist attempt to incriminate and isolate as many people who lived on the fringes of society, many offensives were launched against cannabis around the world. However, the truth always comes out, and over time, science has proved that cannabis actually has many benefits. Even though cannabis went through a hell of a battle to get to where it is today, it has come out victorious and it is just a matter of time until the whole world stands behind it. Over 80 million people live somewhere where cannabis is legalized today. That’s over 10% of the world, and the trajectory only keeps on rising. I believe we are in the dot.com era of cannabis, and I am certainly excited to be a part of it.
- Li, H. (1974). An Archaeological and Historical Account of Cannabis in China. Economic Botany, 28(4), 437-448. Nov 26, 2020, from LINK
- Touwn M. (2012). The religious and medicinal uses of Cannabis in China, India and Tibet. J Psychoactive Drugs. 1981;13(1):23-34. Nov 26, 2020, from LINK
- Mikuriya T. H. (1969). Marijuana in medicine: past, present and future. California medicine, 110(1), 34–40. LINK
- Zuardi, Antonio Waldo. (2006). History of cannabis as a medicine: a review. Brazilian Journal of Psychiatry, 28(2), 153-157. LINK
- Bridgeman, M. B., & Abazia, D. T. (2017). Medicinal Cannabis: History, Pharmacology, And Implications for the Acute Care Setting. P & T : a peer-reviewed journal for formulary management, 42(3), 180–188.
- Du, T. B. M., & University of Florida. (1980). Cannabis in Africa. Rotterdam: Published for the African Studies Center, University of Florida by A.A. Balkema.
- Grinspoon, L. (1971). Marihuana reconsidered. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
- Bewley-Taylor D, Jelsma M, Blickman T (2014). The Rise and Decline of Cannabis Prohibition. LINK
- Carstairs, Catherine. “How Pot Smoking Became Illegal in Canada.” LawNow Magazine, Centre for Public Legal Education Alberta, 27 Nov. 2018, LINK.
- Chouvy P.-A., Macfarlane J., 2018. Agricultural Innovations in Morocco’s Cannabis Industry. International Journal of Drug Policy, vol. 58, p. 85-91. LINK
Want to take your cannabis training to the next level? Check out BudTrainer's unique selection of cannabis training equipment.