With so much hype about marijuana legalization and the “drug war,” it’s easy to think that marijuana is just a modern phenomenon (or invented by the hippies). But the cannabis (or hemp) plant has had a long—really long!—history. And while the plant, and the way it is used, has changed a lot over the centuries, it’s interesting to take the long view of marijuana and look back at its history. For this three-part series, we’ll be your tour guide of cannabis through the ages.
Starting in Asia…
The cannabis or hemp plant (which only came to be called marijuana in the 20th century) has a long history, going back several thousand years—first in Central Asia, then spreading east to China, south to India, and westward to Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.
In most ancient cultures, though, “getting high” was not the main use for the plant. Hemp fiber was valued for making clothes and other textiles, and its seeds were used for food and oil. The types of plant used for these purposes had very low amounts of THC, the chemical that causes intoxication.
The ancients did know, however, about the plant’s mind-altering properties and may have bred varieties for this purpose as well. The oldest evidence of this is the remains of burned cannabis seeds that have been found in graves of shamans—religious leaders and healers—in China and Siberia from around 500 BC.
Ancient “Medical Marijuana”
Shamans enlisted the aid of spirits to help their community and try to cure sickness. Sometimes this was done with the help of intoxicating substances, and it is likely that cannabis was used this way. It probably wasn’t “recreational” but was believed to be a serious religious and healing tool to be respected.
We now know that THC can be used medically to treat nausea—in fact, two FDA-approved drugs with THC are prescribed in pill form to people who feel sick or have no appetite as a result of chemotherapy or AIDS. The ancients seem to have used cannabis to treat similar ailments. It appears in ancient medical texts from ancient Egypt, and ancient Greek physicians described using it for stomach problems.
Cannabis as a Recreational Drug
The oldest evidence of marijuana being used recreationally comes from an ancient Greek historian named Herodotus (484–425 BC). He described how people of a Eurasian society called the Scythians inhaled the vapor of cannabis seeds and flowers thrown on heated rocks. It might have not sounded that appealing to his Greek readers, though, who much preferred to get “high” on wine, as did the Romans later.
The first drug to rival alcohol for popularity in Europe was tobacco, imported from America in the late 1500s. Coffee followed about a century later, imported from Africa. And although Europeans cultivated hemp and occasionally smoked cannabis, its popularity didn’t match that of alcohol, tobacco, and coffee.
Unlike in Europe, however, cannabis (in the concentrated form called hashish) did become widely used in the Middle East and South Asia after about 800 AD. The reason has to do with the spread of Islam. The Koran strictly forbade Muslims from drinking alcohol or partaking in other intoxicating substances, but it did not specifically mention cannabis. Cannabis is prohibited in most Islamic countries today, though, as it is throughout much of the world.
Part 2 of this series gives a brief history of cannabis in America and answers the question: Did the Founding Fathers really smoke it, as rumors have claimed?