Did you know that Marijuana is the most widely used drug in the world, with some global estimates at upwards of 200 million users per year? Did you ever wonder where marijuana originated, and how long it has been in use? Read on and find the answers; they may surprise you!
It is only within the last 200 years, worldwide, that marijuana has been considered a substance that should be restricted or forbidden. In the United States, the criminalization of marijuana is less than 100 years old.
For the lion’s share of history, for thousands of years, hemp has been considered a useful and valuable plant by many cultures. In fact, many experts consider hemp to be one of the first cultivated plants in history!
For thousands of years, the hemp plant has been a versatile and popular crop, cultivated for use in creating fabrics and rope, an early form of paper, and of course, as a medicine and ritual substance favored for its healing and mind-expanding properties. So, what happened?
How did marijuana go from being an incredible versatile, useful, and valued plant, to being criminalized in much of the modern world?
The origins of marijuana are in Central and South Asia. Early evidence of hemp cultivation and smoking of marijuana has been found in the islands near Japan, and dates to 8000 BCE! Early evidence, in the form of hemp fibers in pottery have been discovered by archaeologists working in China, date back to 5000 BCE.
Hemp was used in Ancient China to make an early kind of paper, as well as ropes, clothing, and shoes. In Ancient Korea, hemp was an important source of material to make fabrics, and the earliest direct mention of cannabis in writing is found in Chinese texts from 2727 BCE.
The modern use of the word Ganja, which became popular through the worldwide fascination with Rastafarian culture in the form of Reggae music, comes from the Sanskrit.
Indentured servants shipped to Jamaica used the term, as well as bringing the plant, which eventually became an important part of the Rastafarian practices. (ganja (Sanskrit: गञ्जा, IAST: gañjā)
Ancient Assyrians were aware of the psychoactive properties of Cannabis, utilizing the substance in religious ceremonies. The shamans of other ancient cultures used cannabis as well, both for ritual and recreational purposes.
The Little Plant That Spread
About 1000 years ago, Persian culture collided with the spread of Islam, resulting in the shift from an Ancient Zoroastrian tradition, to the conversation of most of Persia’s population to Islam. But the influence of these cultures was not one sided.
One interesting result of this process was the spread of hashish across the middle east, from Persia. One group credited with the use and spread of hashish in the regions is Muslim Mystics, or Sufis, and there is evidence that they used it ritually.
Smoking did not become common in the Old World until about the 1500’s, when tobacco was introduced, so until that time hashish was eaten. One of the reasons for the popularity of hashish in the Middle Eastern Region has to do with Islamic restrictions on alcohol consumption. Hashish provided an alternative to the sanctioned Muslim law, with additional benefits in mystical and spiritual pursuits.
From the Middle East, cannabis made its way to Africa, where traces of cannabis have been found in pipes and dated to the 1320’s, and cannabis was popular in use in South Africa, predating European settlement of the area.
The next spread of the hemp plant was to Europe, in the form of cultivated crops, and then on to America, where it was cultivated by both Native peoples, and settlers, with reports from Virginia and along the Potomac river. Would you believe that there was actually a law requiring all Virginia farmers to grow hemp on their plantations in the 1600’s?!
By the 1800’s, the colonial powers that be became threatened use of cannabis by indigenous populations, and began to restrict its use. Around the same time, some Middle Eastern countries also began to outlaw the use of cannabis.
In the 20 th century, Jamaica, the United States, and other countries followed suit, beginning the criminalization period of this ancient healing herb. Hemp was prohibited in the 1930’s in the United States, to destroy the industry, but was brought back by necessity during World War II, and there was even a pro hemp propaganda film created by the US Government.
By the mid-20 th century, the use of cannabis came to be associated with people of color; sailors,musicians, and performers. Racism has been a factor in marijuana laws since the colonial age, until this day. With the rise of the Beatniks in the 1950’s, and hippie culture in the 60’s and 70’s, cannabis use became increasingly mainstream, and the myths that supported the racially polarizing attitude towards its use became impossible to maintain.
In the 1970’s, the Netherlands became the first country to decriminalize marijuana possession, based on research and official reports which showed that much of the hype around “Refer Madness” was not evidence based.
The benefits of cannabis as a medicine became recognized during the AIDs crisis, as an effective treatment for the wasting that is associated with the AIDS, as well as cancer and chemotherapy.
By 1996, California became the first state to legalize Medical Marijuana, despite a Federal Ban. Yay California! In recent years, more states have followed suit, legalizing cannabis for medical purposes, and many states have also legalized recreational use.
In the vast scope of human history, the period of criminalization will ultimately be recognized as the exception; a brief period characterized by misinformation, racism, and negative propaganda. A new era has begun; one that recognizes the healing properties and functional uses of one of the oldest cultivated plants on the planet.