Cannabis - A History

Cannabis has been a highly useful resource for humans since the times of antiquity. The first archaeological traces of the plant date back to around 8000 BC, in the Oki islands of Japan. The first written records we have of cannabis can be found in the Pen Ts’ao - or ‘The Herbal’ – a medical compendium written by the Emperor Shen Nung around 2800 BC, which is still used today by practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Cannabis’s therapeutic benefits, specifically for gout, rheumatism, constipation, and senility, were first described in this ancient text.

As the uses of cannabis were discovered, word of it spread to various communities, carried by merchants and pilgrims to the far reaches of the known world. Cannabis played an especially large part in developing many spiritual sects across the globe. The word ‘cannabis’ probably derives from the Assyrians, who used what they called ‘qunubu’ – translating to "way to produce smoke" – in both medical and religious instances certainly as early as 650 BC. By the time the plant reached the Greeks, they were calling it Kannabis, and the word has not really changed since.

The further cannabis was carried, the more people were introduced to the plant, and the more it became ingrained in certain communities. Its seeds could provide oil for lamps, giving farmers in remote communities a way to see in the dark. The hemp from its fibres could be turned into remarkably strong and resistant cloth, clothing entire villages. It could be used to dull the pain of childbirth and make a rope to hang a thief with. A field of cannabis allowed one to feed a village and keep it entertained all at once.

By the middle ages, a new era of cannabis had begun, in which it became more popularized and more vilified simultaneously. Much of the cloth on the ship that carried Christopher Columbus across the Atlantic for example – from the sails to the ropes keeping up the rig - were derived from hemp, which had been found to be more resistant to salt-water. However, the use of cannabis derivatives by minority communities also led many majority communities to look upon recreational cannabis use with distrust, and this was the beginning of the end for many cannabis-centred communities.

Before 1800, there are only two recorded instances of cannabis being illegal; one in the 1300s where Soudoun Sheikouni, the Emir of the Joneima in Arabia, created the first-attested cannabis ban; and two, in 1787, when the king of Madagascar decided its use merited the death penalty. Then, in 1800, Napoleon became concerned with the use of hashish amongst his troops – who had picked it up in their campaigns in Egypt – and decided to ban it. The 170 years that followed saw nearly every country in the world make some law restricting the use of cannabis, to the point were those who would make use of this resource faced incarceration or worse wherever they went. A global assault on the cannabis culture was mounted by puritan conservatives and competing business interests, gaslighted on their part by sensationalized yellow-paper journalism.

However, despite the damage caused during this time, prohibition was not to last. In the last 50 years, advocates from all over the world began to make noticeable gains in their lobbying efforts, and the cannabis-focused global war on drugs began to lose public support. It is clear that the current global trend leans toward the re-liberalization of the cannabis plant. Today, 49 countries have either decriminalized cannabis or have legalized its use for either medicinal or recreational use. That’s 37 more than just 10 years ago, an increase of 308%. If this trend continues, cannabis will not be illegal anywhere on earth in a decade’s time.

The good news is that, thanks to modern science, we will not only be able to draw on the benefits our ancestors discovered in the cannabis plant but go further than they ever dreamed possible. With all the exciting political and scientific developments around cannabis, it seems undeniable that we are in a new age for cannabis. And now, it’s here to stay!



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