History of Cannabis

The Amazing History of Cannabis

Cannabis and health go hand in hand. The plant can be uplifting, pain-relieving, or just downright relaxing. 

So maybe it’s not surprising that cannabis and humanity go way back — practically all the way back to the beginning, in fact. The deeper one looks into the historical record, the more impressive things get. Cannabis shows up in virtually every ancient civilization. Let’s take a closer look.

  • The Earliest Evidence of Cannabis Use?
  • Cannabis in Ancient Egypt
  • Cannabis in Ancient China
  • Cannabis and the Hebrews
  • Cannabis Comes to the West
  • Medical Cannabis Comes Full Circle

The Earliest Evidence of Cannabis Use?

Cannabis in Pre-History

Of all the plants that show up in the historical record, Cannabis is one of the most well-documented of them all. 

Humanity’s relationship with cannabis began early, right there alongside the beginning of agriculture. At that time language itself was a new and novel concept, evolving quickly enough to make ascertaining mentions of cannabis and hemp difficult. Yet many experts believe cannabis use may go back as far as 9,000 BC, based on remains of hemp fibres, used to make pottery, found near modern-day Taiwan. 

Astronomer and philosopher Carl Sagan introduced a theory that cannabis was actually the first intentionally-cultivated plant…ever. He might be onto something. 

Cannabis in Ancient Egypt

From fertile Mesopotamian regions, cannabis’s popularity spread outwards. In Egypt hints of cannabis use appear throughout spirituality, with the goddess Sheshat depicted wearing a crown of either palm or cannabis leaves, depending on who you ask. 

Egyptian physicians found a more practical role for cannabis. As early as 2,000 BC they used concentrated cannabis poultices to alleviate eye problems like glaucoma. Today science has confirmed the mechanism behind this practice: cannabis may reduce intraocular pressure.

Egypt was an early adopter of parchment papers and record-keepings, too, and their Papyri (that’s the plural form of papyrus!) leaves many mentions of cannabis behind. The Ramesseum Papyri describes a prescription for eye infections: “celery, cannabis is ground and left in the dew […] both eyes of the  patient are to be washed with it.” Sounds like a good delivery method for THCa to us!

Another scroll, the Berlin Papyri, describes cannabis’s fever-reducing qualities. Its 81st formula describes using “[cannabis] ointment to prepare for driving away fever.” Finally, the Ebers Papyri lists at least two cannabis-based preparations within its pages, one for painful fingers and toes. 

It’s clear that the Ancient Egyptians were pretty far ahead of their time. As even Homer exclaimed in his saga, The Oddysey: “everyone in Egypt is a skilled Physician.”

Cannabis in Ancient China

Cannabis in Ancient China

The Ancient Chinese were early adopters of cannabis, too. One of their first Emporers, the near-mythical, “divine-farmer” Shen Neng, is credited with bringing hemp to the people way back in 2700 BC. He advocated for the plant as a “treatment of gout, rheumatism, malaria and, poor memory.”

Another impressive fact? It was on an early form of hemp-based parchment that many Buddhist texts were written. Even the Buddha himself was an advocate — he’s said to have eaten only cannabis seeds on some of his fasts. And etymologists have speculated that the Chinese letter “ma” is patterned after cannabis plants hanging up to dry. 

Cannabis and the Hebrews

One more ancient example of cannabis use before we look at its presence in the modern era: its use among the Ancient Hebrews. 

“Yahweh said to Moses, ‘Take the following fine spices: 500 shekels of liquid myrrh, half as much (that is, 250 shekels) of fragrant cinnamon, 250 shekels of fragrant calamus, 500 shekels of cassia—all according to the sanctuary shekel—and a hin of olive oil. Make these into a sacred anointing oil, a fragrant blend, the work of a perfumer. It will be the sacred anointing oil.” 

– Exodus 30:22-25

There’s one potential problem with the above formulation…but if you didn’t catch it, don’t worry. Neither did early translators!  

The problem? Calamus is toxic in high doses. It contains a toxin called asarone that is actually dangerous to ingest. Is it possible that somewhere along the lines, translations like the Greek Septuagint got a little off course?

Maybe. In 1936 a Polish etymologist claimed that calamus was a mistranslation of the ancient Hebraic term kaneh bosem — aka. cannabis. The Levitical priests were quite possibly anointed with an oil loaded with cannabis and other bliss-inducing botanicals. Perhaps that’s part of why they were able to detect messages from God so easily! 

Cannabis Comes to the West

Long story short, it’s obvious the ancients knew what they were doing. Let’s now look at how cannabis made its entrance into the modern era. 

It all started with British physician William O’Shaughnessy. A polymath at heart, O’Shaughnessy was impressed at hemp’s utility during medical trips to India — impressed enough to take some product sample back to the West with him. He conducted early trials on epileptic patients, which went well enough for him to christen hemp “an anti-convulsive remedy of the greatest value.” 

Together with a few physicians and business partners, O’Shaughnessy helped get first-wave cannabis tinctures into pharmacies across England and the US. Still, however, nobody knew quite why cannabis worked so well…

But in the 1960s that all began to change. Cannabis had been banned in America largely due to conflicts of interests from the paper and oil industries, but in Israel, research continued full speed ahead. A young Israeli researcher named Raphael Mechoulam was the first to identify the chemical makeup of both THC and CBD, which he did with the help of a revolutionary new nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) technology. 

And with that, cannabis’s “active ingredients,” enjoyed for so long by so many different people groups and cultures, had finally been pinned down. 

Medical Cannabis Comes Full Circle

Some 30 years later, an equally important discovery was made: the discovery of the human endocannabinoid system! Amazingly enough, Dr. Mechoulam and his team were once again at the heart of it. 

This discovery marked a pivotal point forward for medical cannabis. No longer could the plant’s health benefits be politicized or ignored. People already had their anecdotal experiences with cannabis to stand on…and now they had science to back them up.