While many have reacted with joy or apprehension to the recent progress (or lack thereof) in marijuana legislation, cannabis has been around for thousands of years. Dating back as early as 2,737 B.C.E., cannabis was primarily used as a medicine but also served as a source of food and clothing. Originating in China before finding its way around the world, cannabis has a fascinating history.
Get to know cannabis a little better by reading these facts about the plant’s storied past.
A hemp rope dating nearly 30,000 years was found in Czechoslovakia in 1997, making it the oldest known object associated with cannabis.
But let’s fast forward and look at the history of cannabis beginning around 5,000–3,000 B.C.E in China, where the economy of Yangshao, the country’s oldest Neolithic culture, was based entirely upon cannabis. The Yangshao people wove hemp, wore hemp clothing, and produced hemp pottery.
Cannabis is first used as a medicine by Emperor Shen Neng of China.
Shortly after, bhang (a brew made with dried cannabis leaves, seeds, and stems) is mentioned in the Atharvaveda, a Hindu sacred text. Bhang is considered one of the five sacred plants of India, where it is used medicinally and in rituals.
The Zoroastrian Zend-avesta, an ancient Persian religious text, refers to cannabis as “the good narcotic.”
Later, fifth-century Greek historian Herodotus reports on the ritualistic and the recreational use of cannabis by the Scythians around 430 B.C.E. Meanwhile, Egyptians were heating weeds and oils on hot stones to vape. The first real vaporizer was invented by Irfan Sheikh, the physician of the Mughal emperor Akbar I.
The first recorded usage of hemp paper, produced in China, appears.
The Pen-ts’ao Ching, a newly-compiled medical journal, first mentions the psychotropic effects of marijuana at about 100–0 B.C.E.
Greek biographer and essayist Plutarch mentions the Thracians using cannabis as an intoxicant, and Greek physician Galen begins prescribing medical marijuana between 130–200 C.E.
Chinese physician and surgeon Hua Tuo first prescribes marijuana as an anesthetic.
The first woman to use medical marijuana in childbirth lived in Jerusalem around 300 C.E., but it takes until 500–600 C.E. for the Talmud, a central text of Rabbinic Judaism, to mention the euphoric properties of the plant. It is also around this time that German tribes are thought to have brought the plant to Europe during the Anglo-Saxon invasion.
Vikings take hemp rope and seeds back to Iceland.
Between 900–1,000 C.E., scholars begin debating the pros and cons of eating hashish, while in 1,200 C.E., the Middle Eastern folk-tale collection One Thousand and One Nights extols the euphoric and the aphrodisiac properties of hashish.
As cannabis proliferates further into Europe, Henry VIII, the king of England, fines farmers who don’t grow hemp as a crop. However, England began to import hemp from Russia around 1,600 C.E.
Noting its strong fibers, American colonists at Jamestown begin growing hemp to make rope, sails, and clothing.
In 1621, Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy first identifies cannabis as a treatment for depression. It takes more than 100 years, though, for the plant to appear as a medicine in The New England Dispensatory in 1764. In 1794, medical marijuana is mentioned yet again in The Edinburgh New Dispensary.
Blame Napoleon: He institutes what may be the first prohibition on cannabis after French soldiers return from Egypt with a hashish habit.
By 1840, medical preparations containing cannabis are available in America. Hashish is available in pharmacies in Persia. Just ten years later in 1850, the drug is added to the U.S. Pharmacopeia.
The Greek Department of the Interior prohibits the importation of hashish. At the same time, Sir J.R. Reynolds, chief physician to Queen Victoria of England, prescribes her medical marijuana.
Twenty years later, in 1910, the Mexican Revolution sends immigrants from Mexico to America, where they introduce the recreational use of marijuana.
Four years after the introduction of recreational marijuana, the Harrison Narcotic Tax Act declares that marijuana use is a criminal offense.
Between 1915 and 1927, officials begin prohibiting cannabis use in the U.S., particularly non-medical use. California is the first state to prohibit marijuana in 1915.
Britain follows the United States in prohibiting the recreational use of cannabis.
The propaganda film Reefer Madness, showing the alleged dangers of marijuana use, is released in 1936.
The U.S. Congress passes the Marihuana Tax Act, which officially criminalizes the drug.
Four years later, after a nearly 100-year history of being recognized as a medicine in the U.S., cannabis is removed from the U.S. Pharmacopeia and its medical use is no longer recognized.
The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) forms in the U.S.
More than a decade later, in 1986, President Ronald Reagan reinstates previously-repealed national mandatory minimum sentences and raises federal penalties for the possession and distribution of cannabis through the Anti-Drug Abuse Act. This officially marks the beginning of the “War on Drugs.”
In a move laced with irony, California, the first state to enact prohibition against marijuana, re-legalizes medical marijuana for patients suffering from AIDS, cancer, and other serious illnesses. Several states, among them Arizona, Colorado, Maine, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, and Washington, D.C., follow suit in subsequent years.
Colorado and Washington legalize cannabis for recreational use. In the wake of their financial success, Alaska, Oregon, Massachusetts, Nevada, Washington, D.C., California, and Maine also legalize recreational use of the plant.
Judging solely from these snapshots in history, cannabis has a fascinating and international history as a fiber, a medicine, and a recreational drug—but there’s much more to the plant’s background than what’s listed above. And while its past is up in smoke, only time will tell how the sparks will fly as cannabis’ future unfolds.
Michael is a marketing and creative content specialist at GotVape.com with primary focus on customer satisfaction. Technology and fitness combined with a healthy lifestyle obsession are his main talking points.