Cannabis History

Cannabis History
Cannabis most likely originates from Central Asia, as archaeological evidence indicates it was cultivated in China for food and fiber already 10.000 years ago. Also in ancient Egyptian mummies clues have been found for the use of cannabis as food or medicine. In fact, cannabis is one of the oldest known medicinal plants and is described in almost every ancient handbook on plant medicine, most commonly in the form of a tincture or a tea. Some religions were closely related with the properties of the cannabis plant. For example, in Hindu legend cannabis is believed to be the favorite food of the god Shiva, because of its energizing properties. 

As cannabis spread from Asia towards the West, almost every culture came into contact with this versatile plant.
Nowadays, cannabis can be found in all temperate and tropical zones, except in humid, tropical rain forests. As a fiber plant cannabis is also known as Hemp. It produces some of the best and most durable fibers of natural origin. For a long time in history these fibers were used to produce sails for sea-ships, paper, banknotes and even the first Levi’s jeans. The oil that can be pressed form the hemp seed is very nutritious and is considered as a good alternative to fish oil as a source of the healthy kind of fatty acids.

Despite the fact that cannabis has been grown for centuries on a large scale in most countries, the recreational use as a narcotic remained uncommon in Europe or the United States until relatively recently. People were largely unaware of the psychoactive properties of cannabis and it is unlikely that early cultivars, selected mainly for their fiber qualities, contained significant amounts of the psychoactive compound THC. 

Old Cannabis Medication bottle
The medicinal use of cannabis was only introduced in Europe around 
1840 by a young Irish doctor called William O’Shaughnessy. He served for the East India Trading Company in India, where the medicinal use of cannabis was widespread. Unlike the European fiber cannabis, these Indian varieties did contain a reasonable amount of THC. In the following decades cannabis knew a short period of popularity both in Europe and the United States. At the top of its popularity, dozens of different medicinal preparations were available with cannabis as active ingredient, which were recommended for indications as various as menstrual cramps, asthma, cough, insomnia, support of birth labor, migraine, throat infection and withdrawal from opium use. 

See left for some examples of old cannabis medicine.

Unfortunately, difficulties with the supply from overseas and varying quality of the plant material made it difficult to prepare a reliable formulation of cannabis. Because, at that time, no tools existed for quality control it was impossible to prepare a standardized medicine, so patients often received a dose that was either too low, having no effect, or too high, resulting in serious side effects. Moreover, cannabis extract was not water-soluble and therefore could not be injected, while oral administration was found to be unreliable because of its slow and erratic absorption. Because of such drawbacks the medicinal use of cannabis increasingly disappeared in the beginning of the twentieth century. Its place was largely taken over by opium based drugs such as morphine and codeine. When finally a
high tax was imposed on all cannabis-based products (seeds and fibers excluded) and increasingly restrictive legislation was introduced for cannabis abuse, the medicinal use of cannabis gradually disappeared from all Western pharmacopoeias in the period from 1937.

Only since the flower-power-time of the 1960s, the smoking of cannabis as a recreational drug has become a widely known phenomenon in the Western world. From then on, import of stronger varieties from the tropics, combined with a growing interest in breeding, initially most notably among American Vietnam war veterans, led to a steady increase in psychoactive potency. Contemporary recreational cannabis has increasingly become a high-tech crop, grown indoors under completely artificial conditions.