The History of Hemp and Marijuana

The History of Hemp and Marijuana

Chapter 4

Marijuana’s history is a long, tangled and colorful one. Cannabis illuminates the story of mankind itself, as the plant is inextricably linked to our resourcefulness, invention, technology, spirituality, racism, fears and hopes.

The history of agriculture is not much older than hemp itself, as it is one of mankind’s oldest crops. Hemp is believed to be the first plant cultivated to make textile fiber 10,000 years ago. (Quick reminder: there are two types of cannabis plants, hemp, and marijuana. We will cover them both in this article.)

Earliest Uses

The cannabis or hemp plant originally evolved in Central Asia, sometimes referred to today as “the ’stans” of the former Soviet Union. The fiber from hemp was used for all sorts of everyday items such as clothing, paper, sails, and rope, and its seeds were used for food. A remnant of hemp cloth was uncovered in ancient Mesopotamia that dates back to 8,000 BC.

Cannabis first enters the written record in the era of a Chinese Emperor who reigned in 2727 B.C. It is known that both forms of the cannabis plant,

hemp and marijuana were used by the ancient Chinese, who employed marijuana medicinally as an anesthetic during surgery.

Archeologists have discovered charred cannabis seeds and mummified marijuana in the tombs of people buried in China and Siberia dating back to about 2500 BC, indicating it was used for its psychoactive properties at least that long ago.


Cannabis Spreads: The Ancient World

From China, marijuana spread to Korea and the Indian subcontinent starting in 2000 BC. The ancient Vedics used it for spiritual and medicinal healing. From there it caught on like wildfire. The Assyrians are believed to have learned of pot’s psychoactive properties from the Aryans. The Scythians, ancient nomadic warrior tribes who lived in what is now Siberia, were said to have had shamans who burned cannabis to induce a trancelike state both as a ritual and for fun (as reported by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus.)

From Asia, cannabis moved on to the Middle East and Europe. (Fascinating fact: the medieval Germans and the Vikings used cannabis to help ease the torturous pain of both childbirth and toothaches.)

The cannabis plant also made its way into the Islamic Empire and North Africa. Hashish, a drug made from plant’s resin that’s smoked in a pipe, was widely enjoyed in the Middle East. Interestingly, authorities in Cairo in 1253, fed up with all the Sufis hitting the hash pipes, burned all the cannabis plants in the land, which is believed to be the first official crackdown against the drug. 


Cannabis Spreads: The New World

The cannabis plant landed on the shores of the New World when the Spaniard colonists began cultivating industrial hemp in what is now current day Chile in the 1500s. And while American colonies grew industrial hemp, the weed that you smoke for fun did not become a thing in the US until the early 1900s. It arrived through the southwest border when Mexicans fleeing the upheaval of the Mexican Revolution brought it with them.

In bad news for cannabis, however, the drug became associated with anti-immigrant fervor and state-by-state began outlawing marijuana until it was banned by the federal government in 1937 under the Marijuana Tax Act. American law failed to make the distinction between hemp and cannabis, so industrial hemp took the fall for its reprobate sister with the bad reputation, marijuana.

In the 1960s, marijuana moved into the middle-class mainstream during the hippie counterculture movement. The War on Drugs in the 1980s and 1990s did little to stem the growing popularity of marijuana. And while cannabis remains illegal at the federal level, many states have decriminalized it for medical and recreational use. 

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