The discovery of cannabinoids such as CBD and THC has led to the recent growth of interest in the cannabis plant. However, the cannabis plant has been well known for millennia, with a history dating back more than 6000 years. In fact, cannabis was one of the first plants to be grown for herbal medicine, recreational use, and religious purposes.
Cannabis is believed to have originated in Central Asia. Hemp fiber was used for many purposes such as the manufacturing of paper, making clothes and textiles, and producing sails and ropes. The seeds of the plant were also used as food. The cannabis plant was then introduced to Europe, Africa, and the Americas by visitors. Because of how easy it was to cultivate, its ability to grow fast, and several practical uses, the cultivation of the cannabis plant became popular in Spanish missions in the Southwest and colonial America. As early as the 1600s, farmers were required to grow hemp in some colonies such as Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Virginia. The hemp species of the cannabis plant had low levels of THC and could not, therefore, produce mind-altering effects on users.
Historical evidence shows that ancient societies understood the psychoactive properties of the cannabis plant. Some cultures even cultivated varieties of the cannabis plant which could produce levels of THC. These varieties were mainly used for healing practices and religious ceremonies.
History of Cannabis
The cannabis plant has a colorful history across the world traceable to communities that existed even before ancient China and Viking ships. These communities used the plant mainly for spiritual and medicinal purposes. In medieval Germany, cannabis was used as an anesthetic to relieve pain from toothaches and during childbirth. Not until the 20th century was cannabis declared illegal and its use criminalized.
Here is a timeline of the early history of the cannabis plant:
- 4000 BC: Cannabis was cultivated as a major food crop in the Pan-p’o village in China.
- 2737 BC: The Pen Ts’ao Ching recorded the cannabis plant as having medicinal value. Chinese Emperor Shen-Nung used the plant in an effort to treat ailments such as malaria, gout, and rheumatism, among others.
- Between 2000 and 1000 BC: Nomadic Indo-European people used the plant in steam baths and burned cannabis seeds as a burial ritual.
Hindu religious texts (the Atharva Vedas) described the cannabis plant as a bringer of freedom and a source of happiness. The plant was smoked during religious rituals and daily devotional services. It was also considered an Ayurvedic medicine and used as a potential treatment of ailments such as rabies, bronchitis, anxiety, and epilepsy.
- 1550 BC: The Egyptian medical papyrus, the Ebers Papyrus, containing knowledge on herbal medicine noted that the cannabis plant could be used in the treatment of inflammation.
- 1213 BC: After the death and mummification of Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II, cannabis pollen was recovered from his mummy.
- 900 BC: People of the Assyrian empire in the Mesopotamia kingdom used the cannabis plant for medicinal and recreational purposes.
- Between 450 and 200 BC: The first Greco-Roman use of the cannabis plant was documented. It was prescribed for earaches and toothaches by the physician Dioscorides. Claudius Galen, a Greek doctor, noted that the consumption of cannabis was widespread throughout the Greek empire. Elite Roman women also used cannabis as a way of alleviating labor pains.
- 207 AD: Chinese physician Hua T’o became the first physician to claim that cannabis could be used as an analgesic. Before conducting surgery on his patients, he would give them a mixture of cannabis and wine to anesthetize them.
The timeline of the most recent 1000-year history of cannabis is as follows:
- 1000 AD: Arabic scholars al-Badri and al-Mayusi claimed that cannabis could be effectively used in the treatment of epilepsy.
- 1025 AD: Avicenna, a medieval Persian medical writer, published a study titled Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine. The study stated that cannabis could be an effective treatment for severe headaches, gout, infectious wounds, and edema. His publication became a major focus of studies between the 13th and 19th centuries and had a lasting impact on Western medicine.
- 1300 AD: Arab traders introduce cannabis to Eastern Africa where it is mainly used for the treatment of fever, malaria, asthma, and dysentery.
- 1500 AD: The Spanish conquest saw the introduction of cannabis in the Americas. Initially, the plant was used to make clothes and ropes. It wasn’t until later that they started using it for recreational and medicinal purposes.
- 1798: Napoleon brought cannabis from Egypt to France for the purpose of investigating its sedative and pain-relieving capabilities. Cannabis was used in the treatment of coughs, jaundice, and tumors.
- 1839: An Irish doctor, William O’Shaughnessy, started researching the therapeutic benefits of cannabis. O’Shaughnessy pioneered research on the use of cannabis in Western medicine.
- 1900: The growth of medical cannabis started. It was available over the counter and used in the treatment of labor pains, rheumatism, and nausea.
- 1914: The US federal government passed the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act, proposed by New York Representative Francis Burton Harrison, which sought to regulate and tax the importation, production, and distribution of coca products and opiates. The Act placed restrictions on the availability and consumption of psychoactive drugs such as opium.
- 1937: The Marijuana Tax Act, which sought to regulate and tax the distribution and use of cannabis in the United States, was passed. The Act was drafted by Harry Anslinger, the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN). The use of cannabis was criminalized, and Moses Baca together with Samuel Caldwell became the first known persons with marijuana convictions.
- 1940–1942: Various researchers discovered individual compounds present in the cannabis plant. Cannabinol (CBN) was the first to be discovered, followed by cannabidiol (CBD), and finally tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Years of research would later reveal the presence of several other compounds.
- 1964: Israeli chemist Dr. Raphael Mechoulam discovered the molecular structure of THC, one of the active compounds in the cannabis plant. His groundbreaking discovery opened up research on the plant.
- 1970: The US federal government categorized cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug alongside cocaine, LSD, and heroin. This meant that it was regarded as having no medicinal value, a high potential for abuse, and posed severe safety concerns. The declaration of cannabis as illegal limited research into the plant as researchers found it difficult to obtain.
- 1988: The discovery that the human body had cannabinoid receptors was made. The focus shifted to how the CB1 and CB2 receptors in the body interacted with the compounds from the cannabis plant.
- 2000–2018: As research on individual compounds in the cannabis plant such as CBD started showing promising results concerning potential benefits to the well-being of humans, authorities started relaxing their stand on cannabis. Hemp was legalized across most states. A few governments and states also legalized the use of medical marijuana. Canada is one of the countries that has legalized licensed producers to distribute medical marijuana.
Today, more authorities are relaxing their restrictions on the plant as research uncovers more mysteries about the cannabis plant and its potential contribution to the health and well-being of human beings. While cannabis remains illegal under federal law, several states are legalizing marijuana even for recreational use and you don’t require a doctor’s prescription for it. 11 states, including Washington D.C., had already legalized the recreational use of marijuana as of June 2019. These states include California, Alaska, Maine, Illinois, Michigan, Massachusetts, Colorado, Nevada, Oregon, and Vermont. Colorado and Washington D.C. were the first to legalize it in 2012.
It is hoped that as research unearths more potential benefits of cannabis to human beings, regulatory authorities will be able to relax the stance on the use of cannabis products.
It is also important to note that while cannabis was primarily used for medicinal purposes in historical times, there is little conclusive evidence to confirm the potential health benefits of cannabis. So far, the only authorized use of cannabis in modern healthcare is through Epidiolex, a CBD-infused oral drug used for the treatment of epilepsy. Health researchers are still investigating how cannabis could contribute positively to healthcare. If you are considering using cannabis products for medical reasons, it is important to first consult your doctor about it.
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