A brief history of cannabis from the ancient to modern world

Cannabis has a long history of cultivation by humans for medicinal and utilitarian uses. Medically it has been a part of Chinese medicine for 1000's of years dating back to Emperor Shen Nung who was a pharmacologist and wrote a book in 2737 B.C. describing the medicinal benefits of cannabis. Cannabis was widely used by many cultures from ancient villages dating back to around 8000 B.C. to the Sumerians which served as stepping stones to our modern civilizations. Cannabis has always been an integral part of cultures. Modern science is just now showing us how beneficial cannabis truly is for the human body.

Recreational cannabis has been used for 1000's of years. Recreational use can also be seen an medicinal as it is typically serving a similar function. The psychoactive high itself is very therapeutic and spiritual.

Cannabis dates back to 1000's of years

Cannabis has been used for its fiber, medical benefits and psychoactive effects since the dawn of civilization. Hemp rope woven used in pottery was found in ancient villages dating back to before 8,000 BCE. Cannabis seeds and oil were used as food in ancient China and textiles woven from hemp as well. By 2737 B.C.E. cannabis was being used in Chinese medicine. A millennium later it was mentioned in the Hindu religious texts as Bhang, where it was used medicinally and religiously as an offering to Shiva. The Zoroastrian Zendavesta, an ancient Persian religious text (circa 700-600 B.C.E.) ,refers to bhang as the 'good narcotic.' Around 100 B.C.E. hemp paper was used in China for the first time. It was prescribed medically in ancient Greece and in the middle east around the same time. In 16th century France, medical marijuana is mentioned in Rabelais's gargantua and Pantagruel. Recreational cannabis has been used for 1000's of years. Recreational use can also be seen an medicinal as it is typically serving a similar function. The psychoactive high itself is very therapeutic and spiritual.

Cannabis in the U.S.

17th Century American Colonies

Hemp was widely farmed as a cash-crop in the American colonies during the 17th century. King James I, in 1619, decreed the American colonists in Jamestown would need to step up their efforts in the colonies to support England. Following orders, The Virginia Company instructed the colonists of Jamestown to grow 100 Hemp plants and export them to help support England's cause. After, the colonists continued to grow Hemp to help fuel their own expansion.

18th Century U.S.

The use of hemp for rope and fabric later became ubiquitous throughout the 18th and 19th centuries in the United States playing such a central role in the establishment of the United States, cannabis appeared on the ten dollar bill as late as 1900. By the late 18th century, early editions of American medical journals recommended hemp seeds and roots for the treatment of inflamed skin, incontinence and venereal disease.

19th Century U.S.

Medicinal preparations of cannabis became available in American pharmacies in the 1850s following an introduction to its use in Western medicine by William O'Shaughnessy a decade earlier in 1839. Cannabis became widely available to relieve a wide variety of ailments. During the mid-late 1800s, as the availability of cannabis products rose, so did state-by-state regulations which attempted to tackle the issues of mislabeling, additional unlabeled ingredients and improper sales in what are known as 'Poison Laws.' During the late 1800s and early 1900s, U.S. lawmakers began to pass laws regulating drug sales.

20th Century U.S.

The 20th century saw a reversal of public and federal opinion toward the plant. Hemp farming and cannabis use was limited by the Marihuana Tax Act and later outlawed in 1937. Internationally, the United Nations Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, signed in 1988, prohibits the U.S. from legalizing the plant.

21st Century U.S.

Currently there is debate about whether Cannabis should remain on the list of prohibited substances. Cannabis has had a modern resurgence in the 21st century due to its medical benefits and has been legalized in some form in more than 30 U.S. states with 8 states and the District of Columbia legalizing cannabis for recreational or adult use.

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Cannabis prohibition in the U.S.

Although cannabis was widely distributed throughout the U.S. in the 19th century, around 1860, several states began to implement regulations governing cannabis and importing became prohibited unless under the guise of medical or scientific research. A growing opioid epidemic was responsible for the marked change in attitude toward regulating food and drugs. While marijuana was not regulated, The Pure Food and Drug act of 1906 brought opium and morphine under doctor control. The Harrison Act of 1914 was the first time drug use was defined as a crime, albeit the crimes committed were often failure to pay the taxes associated with purchasing the drugs. In 1937, the Marihuana Tax Act made nonmedical possession and consumption of cannabis illegal within the U.S.. Demonized and associated with criminal activity, cannabis use declined and new stigmas were attached to cannabis such as ability to cause psychosis, anger, induce criminal activity such as rape as well as its new designation as a gateway drug. Under the Nixon administration, a new classification of drugs was introduced under the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970 placing all federal drug statutes under one single statue. Under this law, Cannabis was listed as a Schedule 1 drug which defines the drug as having no medicinal value and a high propensity for abuse such as Heroine. Under this categorization, no medical research was allowed unless strictly approved by the federal government.

Easing U.S. Cannabis Laws

In the US, California was the first state to take on the prohibition of cannabis with the passing of Proposition 215 in 1996, a statewide referendum giving qualified medical patients access to the plant. Alaska followed suit 2 years later followed by a string of otehr states. In 2012, Colorado, Washington and Oregon became the first states to legalize cannabis for recreational, or adult-use. The Obama administration eased retrictions on cannabis giving states room to decide. The 'Cole Memo', originally drafted by former US Attorney General James M. Cole in 2013 instructed prosecutors and law enforcement to focus on the following priorities related to state-legal cannabis operations:

  • Preventing the distribution of marijuana to minors
  • Preventing revenue from the sale of marijuana from going to criminal enterprises, gangs and cartels
  • Preventing the diversion of marijuana from states where it is legal under state law in some form to other states
  • Preventing state-authorized marijuana activity from being used as a cover or pretext for the trafficking of other illegal drugs or other illegal activity
  • Preventing violence and the use of firearms in the cultivation and distribution of marijuana
  • Preventing drugged driving and the exacerbation of other adverse public health consequences associated with marijuana use
  • Preventing the growing of marijuana on public lands and the attendant public safety and environmental dangers posed by marijuana production on public lands
  • Preventing marijuana possession or use on federal property

The Trump administration, although pledging to allow states to decide on cannabis legality, has challenged the system several times as Attorney General Jeff Sessions has attempted to re-introduce the failed war on drugs.

The Science of Cannabis

Federal prohibition and international drug laws have demonized cannabis in a way that stimmed research in the US and many other countries. CBD was first discovered and isolated in 1940 by 2 independent researchers. CBN followed shortly after but it wasn't until 1964 when THC was isolated by Israeli scientist Dr. Raphael Mechoulam that modern cannabis pharmacology began. Modern day medical cannabis is still in its infancy. Israel is currently the center of medical cannabis research. United States medical cannabis research is just beginning to open up for more robust testing and trials. Private and professional studies have been conducted opening the groundwork for more research to be done as cannabis laws relax in the U.S..