The human history with the cannabis plant is a fascinating one indeed. The planet’s most notorious herb has held a special place for people for many thousands of years. There’s a growing bank of evidence documenting its integration with humanity across almost every facet of early life. Historians document the importance of hemp products in the early textiles industry, as well as it’s medicinal, spiritual and recreational benefits with increasing frequency.
While the first written proof of the importance of medicinal cannabis to early peoples was seen in 2737BCE under the rule of Emperor Shennong, the true history of the plant seems to extend much further back. The earliest examples of humanity’s relationship with the plant come from what is now called Taiwan in around 8000 BCE. The fossilized remains of items made of hemp found point to our ancestors utilizing the fibrous qualities of cannabis for the manufacture of tools and clothes.
Along with its medicinal properties and its usefulness in the production of textiles, traces of hemp oils and seed have been discovered in the fossilized remains of food in China. The earliest examples of which can be found as far back as 6000 BCE. Karl Sagan goes as far as to allude to the plant’s importance in the ‘Great Awakening’ of mankind and the development of consciousness itself. One thing is certain, early people embraced the plant, rather than prohibiting it.
Some of archaeology’s earliest agricultural discoveries are actually hemp farms. This supports Sagan’s thesis and further highlights the importance of the crop in humanity’s development. It’s widely cited that the advent of farming led mankind to adopt a lifestyle more akin to that which we know today, and the plant clearly played a part in that too.
Cannabis has also found use in the spiritual practices of many early people. The Saddhu’s of the Indian subcontinent use the plant in ceremony in their praise of Shiva, a deity who himself embraces the herb in the Hindu holy book Atharvaveda. The ancient text declares cannabis one of the five sacred plants and refers to it as the ‘Sacred Grass’.
Owing to its usefulness in almost every facet of living, from medicinal, to structural, to spiritual, cannabis was widely exported across the globe. Many civilizations in turn embraced the benefits of the wonder-crop. It’s not difficult to see why. By the mid sixteenth century, the Spanish had introduced cannabis to the New World, completing its global conquest.
As already stated, the hemp plant aided humanity unabated for centuries before the idea of prohibition was ever considered. The first advocate of such a policy was France’s ruler, Napoleon Bonaparte. Bonaparte noticed the recreational usage of the plant among the Egyptian lower classes and after seeing his troops returning home with the habit, declared it illegal in 1798. This was, however, an anomaly in terms of the day, and cannabis and hemp products were in continual use right up until the early part of the twentieth century.
During the Mexican revolution, cannabis was smeared for its association with the increasing migrant population in the Southern States. This would not be the first time that the plant would be used to further a political agenda, however. In the 1920s and 30s, cannabis use began to be used as a scapegoat for the rising levels of criminality that living under economic depression inevitably caused. Anti-cannabis propaganda was rife with absurd accusations of what smoking the ‘devil weed’ would do to a person. Owing to the casual racism of the day, the fact that some black Jazz musicians liked to get high was used as justification to demonize the plant.
Around this time, large timber companies began to get a little worried about some of the other properties of the wonder-crop. Popular Mechanics magazine had written an appraisal of hemp for industrial uses, documenting many uses – most importantly, it’s efficiency in paper manufacture. ‘Big Timber’ obviously didn’t like this too much and, as such, helped lobby the federal government into action.
The Marijuana Tax Act was passed in 1937. This effectively criminalized possession of the plant. Of course it did little to stop the plant’s use both industrially and recreationally. There was, after all, a war on. So, the US continued to produce military supplies, including clothing and parachute equipment. Meanwhile, millions continued to enjoy its psychoactive effects, despite its prohibited state. The beats, the hippies and the counter-culture more generally brought smoking the drug to the masses and recreational use soared in the 60s and 70s. The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 (classifying marijuana as a Schedule 1 Drug, with the highest potential for abuse and no medicinal value) and George Bush’s subsequent ‘War on Drugs’ in the 80s have done little to stop its widespread use.
More recently still, campaigners have had several victories across the globe in restoring the plant’s legality. While very few jurisdictions globally have legalized the full recreational use of cannabis, many have decriminalized the plant and many more now allow safe access for the treatment of adults for a growing list of ailments. The slackening of legislation has meant that scientific research can finally be done to back up the claims that have been made for literally thousands of years. The future’s definitely looking bright for the plant of a thousand uses.
It can be rather baffling to consider the hypocrisies of the recent prohibition of cannabis in a historical context. A commodity that was truly instrumental in the formation of life as we know it. One that our ancestors cherished for its nutritional, industrial and spiritual uses. A plant that was so powerful that it had to be banned. What a bizarre world we live in where it can be illegal to possess one of the most useful resources known to humanity. Luckily, that’s finally starting to change.