A new paper in the European Journal for Chemistry traces the history of cannabis through “thousands of years of contact with mankind,” noting the plant’s legacy as a source of fiber, nutrition, medicine, spirituality and pleasure.
At the same time, it notes that cannabis “is perhaps one of the greatest controversies in contemporary humanity” and a key driver of the modern war on drugs.
The paper, “From ancient Asian relics to contemporaneity: A review of historical and chemical aspects of Cannabis,” was written by Gabriel Vitor de Lima Marques and Renata Barbosa de Olivera, of the pharmacy department at the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Brazil.
The cannabis plant appears to have first been used for its fiber, as a material for ropes and other manufactured goods, the authors wrote. Use of hemp fiber dates back to approximately 10,000 years ago in ancient Mesopotamia and to roughly 6,000 and 5,000 years ago in China and Kazakhstan, respectively.
Ancient peoples considered cannabis one of the five main grains, along with rice, soy, barley and millet, the paper continues. And once stalks were processed into hemp fibers, they became durable materials for ropes, sails and boat rigging, clothing, paper, animal husbandry and more.
“Used as a stunner to facilitate the capture of fish,” it says, “Cannabis is possibly the first plant to be cultivated for non-food purposes.”
Consuming cannabis for its physiological effects, meanwhile, dates back to about 3,000 years ago, the study says:
“The first people to use Cannabis as both a therapeutic and a narcotic tool were from the Indian region, circa 1000 years BCE, mainly because of its religious connotations. The two purposes were often linked. Described in the Vedas as one of the five sacred plants, it was believed to have arisen from a drop of amrita (sacred nectar) that fell from heaven onto the earth and was able to bring joy and freedom to those who used it.”
Marijuana’s psychoactive effects were also recorded in the world’s oldest pharmacopoeia, the Pen Ts’ao Ching, the roots of which date back to 2,700 B.C.E.
In the Indian region, the paper continues, preparations were used at events ranging “from more casual occasions such as weddings and family gatherings, festivals celebrating the coming of the seasons such as the Holi festival, to ceremonies of important religious nature such as Durga Puja.”
“It is understood that marijuana is as significant and respected for these people as communion wine or sacred host is for Christians,” authors wrote. “For its other facets, ayurvedic medicine used Cannabis practically as a panacea: as an analgesic, anti-spasmodic, anticonvulsant, anti-inflammatory, aphrodisiac and anaphrodisiac, appetite stimulant, treatment of female tract diseases, abortifacient, inductor of childbirth, among several other applications.”
The paper’s findings challenge fundamental assertions by leading prohibitionists, such as Kevin Sabet of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), that outlawing cannabis while permitting alcohol is justified because alcohol has a longer history of use.
“The key difference between alcohol and drug prohibition,” Sabet wrote in a 2011 op-ed, “lies in the substance itself. Alcohol, unlike illegal drugs, has a long history of widespread, accepted use in society, dating back to before biblical times. Illegal drugs cannot claim such pervasive use by a large part of the planet’s population over such a long period of time.”
As the new paper explains, “Semitic people also knew about the psychoactive properties of Cannabis centuries before the Christian era,” using the plant formulations ranging “from ointments to external injuries to oral preparations for various ailments and ‘sicknesses of the spirit.’”
“It was common in the Mesopotamian/Persian region to use cannabis-based incense in certain social rituals, such as funerals,” it continues, “which is even mentioned in the Aramaic version of the Old Testament of the Bible for aromatic and narcotic purposes.”
While the paper does not take a political position on the legalization of cannabis, it notes that jurisdictions around the world in recent years have moved to legalize or decriminalize the plant, “such as South Africa, Canada, Georgia, and Uruguay, and some states in the United States,” while others—including Germany, the UK, Chile, New Zealand, and Brazil—have authorized marijuana products for medical use.
“Efforts to deconstruct the stigma, legalize the use of the plant, and explore potential therapeutics have been placed in focus over the last six decades, due to discoveries related to the active principles of Cannabis in the 1960s and its promising developments for contemporary medicine,” the authors wrote.
Humans are, of course, still unraveling the mysteries of the cannabis plant, as the recent explosion in CBD demonstrates. A recent study also shed light on the experience of cannabis when it found that consuming multiple cannabinoids produce a stronger, longer-lasting high than taking pure THC.
And while evolution and selective breeding have traditionally been responsible for changes in the cannabis plant over time, increasingly humans are charting its course. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently said that a genetically engineered hemp plant “may be safely grown and bred in the United States.”