History Of Cannabis
In this 4 part series we’ll explore the early history of cannabis.
How long have we been involved with cannabis? How and where did our relationship with cannabis begin? Most importantly, why were so many cultures independently drawn to a simple, unassuming weed?
They seemed like simple questions at first. But, over time, you come to brace yourself for the futility of asking “simple” historical questions – there being, almost inevitably, a thousand not so simple tagalongs soon to follow. Nowhere is this more confounding than in the patchwork of early human history, where these questions become not only complex, but downright existential: Why were these often inexplicable structures built? What leads to societal collapse, and what allows civilizations to thrive? And, well, how did we get here? To the chagrin of most involved, the answers rarely come forthright; most times we’re left clutching old rocks in one hand and best guesses in the other.
We can (at the very least) conclusively identify that the cannabis plant has accompanied the growth of organized human society since at least Early Neolithic times (ca. 9,850 BCE), and likely earlier. Whether as “Ma,” “Dae Ma,” “AZ.ZAL.LU,” “QU.NU.BU,” “Kana,” “Kaneh Bosm,” “smsm-t,” “Bhanga,” “Charas,” “Marijuana,” “Cannabis,” “Hash,” or just plain “Pot,” it’s hard to find a human society – even one that predates written language – that didn’t have at least some knowledge of, use for, proximity to, or relationship with Cannabis Sativa. From our roots in the Indus, Yellow, and Mesopotamian river valleys, through Greco-Roman civilizations, the Golden Age of the Islamic World, the Enlightenment, and on to the present day, hemp threads are deeply woven through our ethnobotanical tapestry.
Unfortunately, throughout the prohibitionist era (1937-Present), this near-universal history has been eclipsed by misinformation campaigns, sanctions on research, and a righteously upheld cultural taboo. There was a very real danger that in studying cannabis academics may diminish their credibility and risk losing support for future research, especially in the United States and its close allies. Researchers active at this time have reported being denied funding for the clinical research of cannabis, especially in a comparative lens with other more acceptable drugs like caffeine or alcohol, on the grounds that the findings may contradict important societal and political mores – i.e. the profitability of prohibition and the scapegoating of cannabis. Between 1937 and the late 1980s, Israel dominated cannabis research, and it’s primarily on the work of Raphael Mechoulam (a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem) that our contemporary understanding of cannabis is founded.
First Isolation of CBD
CBD and CBN were first isolated from what was then known as “Indian Hemp” in 1940; it would take until 1964 for Dr. Mechoulam to elucidate the structure of THC; 1990 for the discovery of dedicated cannabinoid receptors; 2001 for the first country in the modern world to legalize medical cannabis; and on to the present day and beyond for cannabis to gain legitimacy as a crop and medicine. In that time, academic thought and literature has been populated with half-truths, willful omissions, and biased studies. Cannabis’ civic, medicinal and entheogenic history was largely erased, and more often than not replaced by a constructed narrative suitable to whatever major player had stakes in maintaining cannabis prohibition.
Despite restrictions on research, cannabis drew the attention of curious minds the world over.
In Understanding Marijuana, author Mitch Earleywine reflects that “any attempt to explain [this] research may say more about the explainer than the explained.” As an impassioned defender of the right to access medical and recreational cannabis, I must acknowledge my personal biases. However, these ideological convictions are offset by an abiding passion for understanding our story in full colour, and an ardor for honest discussion. With this in mind, I felt compelled to compile a comprehensive, chronological, and most importantly, holistic history of cannabis.
Our first journey will follow cannabis’ earliest appearances in southeastern Asia, and trace how a feral plant became the most important fibre crop for a whole continent. This will be split between four sections of roughly equal length, beginning next post with “The Early Years,” stretching from the earliest paleolithic civilizations – approximately 40,000 BCE – to the neolithic transition beginning in 8,000 BCE.
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BCE: Before Common Era, aka “BC” (Before Christ). BCE designates any year prior to 0 CE (AD), the turn of the millennium.
CE: Common Era, aka “AD” (Anno Domini – the Year of the Lord). The Common Era begins at 0 CE and continues to the present year, 2018 CE.
Ca: Ca. is shorthand for circa, which in the study of history is used to identify any approximal dates.
Cannabis Sativa: The species name for cannabis. Indica, Afghanica, and Ruderalis are subspecies. Hemp refers to minimally psychoactive male cannabis plants grown for food and/or fibre.
Paleolithic: Informally known as the “Stone Age,” the paleolithic period designates the vast amount of time between the earliest examples of stone tools, c. 3.3 Million BCE, and the advent of agriculture in the neolithic period, ca. 10,200 BCE.
Mesolithic: The transitional period succeeding the paleolithic and preceding the neolithic. The dates of the mesolithic period vary from region to region, and the mesolithic designator is not typically applied outside of Northern Europe and areas of the Levant.
Neolithic: The beginnings of organized and sedentary human societies. This period of time commenced with the advent of agriculture, and featured widespread and independent domestication of crops and animals. Eventually, the neolithic period would give way to the Copper and Bronze Ages.
Sedentary: A society inhabiting permanent or semi-permanent settlements.
Nomadic: A roaming society without permanent settlements.
About the author
Lana Tong is an aspiring Endocannabinoid Psychopharmacologist and Squirrel Behavioral Therapist based in Victoria, British Columbia. She’s passionate about cannabis as a medicine, entheogen, food, fiber crop, and so much more. Lana hopes to one day swim in a pool filled with organic CBD-infused coconut oil – we all have dreams, right?