Back to the Future: The Origins of Cannabis
From its early origins in the steppes of Central Asia to ubiquitous usage and vilified status, cannabis has gone hand-in-hand with human civilization. David Owen Rama takes us on a journey back to the beginning.
Aside from the development of tools, there are two things in human history that have been instrumental factors in our ability to not only survive, but thrive. First is the domestication of animals, which includes man’s best friend, the dog.
Second is agriculture, a huge development that is credited with the creation of human civilization. When it comes to the hybridization of specific flora for use in agriculture, cannabis is the canine of the plant world.
With its myriad uses, and those yet to be discovered, this highly vilified plant could very well turn its dark reputation around and bounce back to take claim to the title “man’s best friend” from our furry comrade.
Cannabis has its origins “on the steppes of Central Asia, specifically Mongolia and southern Siberia,” writes University of Kansas science Professor Barney Warf in his journal article “High Points: An Historical Geography of Cannabis.”
While pointing out that others have suggested its origins to be in China’s Huang He River valley, the Hindu Kush Mountains, or Afghanistan, Warf believes that “biogeography ﬂuctuated over time, largely in response to the waxing and waning of Pleistocene glaciers from which it took refuge.”
According to Ernest L. Abel, author of Marijuana: The First Twelve Thousand Years, cannabis likely flourished in the dump sites of prehistoric hunter gatherers. There is much archaeobotanical evidence from the upper-Paleolithic period of the use of cannabis hemp, and the plant’s geographical distribution can be attributed to its value as a food source, for fiber, and for its use in shamanic rituals.
Just like dogs, cannabis came to hold great importance due to its versatility. This one plant could cover many crucial needs, including use as a high protein food source, a medicine, oil for fuel, and fiber for cordage, nets, clothes, and paper.
Indeed, cannabis became one of the first known agricultural crops. Considering the history of humans is widely regarded to have begun 250,000 years ago, with the development of agriculture coming only 10,000 years ago, the cannabis plant could be considered one of the catalysts of modern human civilization.
There is much evidence of cannabis use in ancient China. It is also believed the first writings on the medicinal use of cannabis appeared in The Great Herbal. Dating back to 2737 BCE and credited to Shen Nung, this reference book is still used by many practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine, although the validity of this text and its author remain puzzling to historians.
“A large amount of cannabis radio-carbon dated to 2,500 years ago was found in the tomb of a Caucasoid male, dressed as a shaman.”
Also, The Book of Odes or Shijing, a book of Chinese poetry from 2350 BCE, contains numerous references to the use of industrial hemp. Modern researcher Ethan B. Russo adds in his article History of Cannabis and Its Preparations in Saga, Science, and Sobriquet that “physical evidence of ancient cannabis usage has been reported from the Yanghai Tombs in the Turpan District of the Xinghian-Uighur Autonomous Region in China. A large amount of cannabis radio-carbon dated to 2,500 years ago was found in the tomb of a Caucasoid male, dressed as a shaman,” resembling other such findings throughout the Tarim Basin.
Traveling with Chinese farmers into Korea, cannabis eventually spread to India between 2000 BCE and 1000 BCE. Promoted in the Hindu sacred text Atharvaveda (Science of Charms), cannabis as one of the five sacred plants of India used as medicine and burned ritualistically as an offering to Lord Shiva.
It was used for its psychotropic qualities and became fully integrated in the Hindu culture as a religious sacrament. As in other cultures, the plant also became a common crop used to make flour, fabric, and cordage.
Over time, cannabis arrived in the Middle East between 2000 BCE and 1400 BCE. From here, cannabis spread throughout Africa. The Scythians carried it into southeast Russia and Ukraine. The plant was then picked up by Germanic and Scandinavian tribes and brought into Western Europe.
The importance of cannabis hemp was not lost on the Europeans, but its usage did change. In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII declared cannabis use satanic and sacrilegious, thus disconnected the European consciousness from the medicinal and psychotropic uses of cannabis for several centuries to come.
Cannabis hemp also became of great importance for rulers seeking to build empires and maintain massive standing armies. Rome maintained huge hemp arsenals throughout the Roman Empire and hemp production assumed a place of great importance to European superpowers like France and Britain. The French developed a strong hemp growing culture over centuries, while the British relied almost entirely on colonies in India to provide for their substantial needs.
“It was considered a patriotic duty to grow hemp.”
It was hemp sails, nets, and rope that propelled the great European fleets and armadas, enlivening trade routes and eventually bringing the cannabis plant to the Americas. The first cargo of cannabis seed arrived with the Puritans in the early 17th century and in the colonies, British law required settlers to grow cannabis hemp.
By the 18th century, hemp farming was well-established. It was considered a patriotic duty to grow hemp. George Washington heavily promoted it, while Thomas Jefferson bred different varieties of hemp and began developing early technology to process hemp fiber.
In the 19th century, the medicinal use of cannabis was inspired by noted German, French, and British medical scientists who came to obtain substantial quantities of the plant from colonies in India and North Africa.
By the latter part of the Victorian era, and only decades prior to the onset of the American prohibitionist mindset, cannabis medical products were as common as today’s toothpaste and cold remedies.
Pharmaceutical companies such as American Druggist Syndicate, Wm. S. Merrell Company, and Lloyd Brothers were mass producing cannabis products such as corn plasters, cough syrup, and elixirs for pain relief and numerous other ailments. The Victor Remedies company even marketed a soothing “infant relief” tincture that was one part cannabis indica, one part “sweet spirits”, and one part chloroform.
Meanwhile, recreational use of the plant had made its way to the art communities of Western Europe through their colonial connections to Africa and Asia, and in the case of the US, by way of immigration via poor migrant workers south of the border.
In the first two decades of the 20th century, numerous hemp processing machines were produced for farmers. By 1919, G.W. Schlichten was awarded a patent for a fiber-processing machine called a decorticator, a machine that would finally mechanize what had been up until then a slow process based on human labor.
For unknown reasons, though, the machine was never marketed. Hemp farmers and state agricultural departments eventually put pressure on farm machinery companies like International Harvester to invest their energy into fully mechanizing the hemp fiber harvesting process.
Advancements in the industrial processing of hemp would signal the return of a lucrative hemp fiber industry in the mid 1930s that could now compete head-to-head with the cotton gin. But this initiative to industrialize the hemp fiber industry would soon clash with a whole new set of industrial competitors: the new chemical and petroleum giants.
The powerful DuPont chemical company was in the early stages of developing synthetic fibers, including nylon. Industrialists such as William Randolph Hearst began to view hemp as a threat to their business interests in fiber and paper manufacturing.
Alternately, Henry Ford saw hemp as an escape from the tightening control of oil magnates; he built a car that not only ran on hemp-based biofuel, but was also made from plastic compounds derived from hemp.
Then Harry J. Anslinger entered the picture. Originally working for the United States Bureau of Prohibition, in 1930, Anslinger was appointed commissioner of the newly founded Bureau of Narcotics under the jurisdiction of the United States Treasury Department. Combining the financial might of government and industry in collusion with Randolph Hearst’s media, Anslinger eventually had every state sign on to the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937.
This required anyone interested in growing hemp to apply for a tax stamp, a stamp that the Treasury Department wasn’t handing out. This sleight of hand took the farmers by surprise.
“Anslinger used racism and fear as a powerful tool in his attempt to wipe cannabis and hemp out of the public consciousness.”
Although this new war on marijuana was designed to vilify a resource that stood in direct competition with logging interests and newly founded industrial commodities such as synthetic fibers and pharmaceuticals, the plan was implemented through racism. Anslinger’s use of the Mexican slang “marijuana” in his propaganda, for example, was designed to fool American farmers who did not know that this was a word referring to the hemp plant.
In much the same way that Nixon would later energize the war on drugs to target hippies and African Americans, Anslinger used racism and fear as a powerful tool in his attempt to wipe cannabis and hemp out of the public consciousness.
Even though high-ranking figures like Mayor LaGuardia of New York City conducted their own studies proving that the recreational use of cannabis contributed to none of the anti-social concerns Anslinger used as justification for prohibition, Anslinger worked aggressively to have the report discredited.
Future governmental studies funded by the Nixon administration in the U. and the Pierre Trudeau government in Canada reached the same conclusions as the LaGuardia Commission, yet Anslinger, who ruled in his drug czar role from 1930 to 1975, made certain that very few would be allowed the opportunity to study cannabis under legitimate scientific conditions.
To this day, in the United States, cannabis remains listed by the federal government as a Schedule 1 narcotic, which means the cultivation and the study of the plant is almost completely prohibited.
Nevertheless, where you find tyrants, you will always find rebels. Since the 60s, anti-prohibition mavericks and historians such as Ed Rosenthal, Terrence McKenna, Marc Emery, and Jack Herer have tirelessly led a conscious reclamation of cannabis history.
Today, industrial cannabis applications have again entered public consciousness, and Canada is currently the world leader in hemp production with over 80,000 acres devoted to the crop.
There is also great interest in the future of cannabis medicine, especially since the discovery of the endocannabinoid system. Dr. Prakash Nagarkatti, researcher at the University of South Carolina, believes that “these cannabinoids give us an opportunity to study the functions and see how we can exploit and manipulate these cannabinoids and their receptors to find cures for a large number of diseases for which there are currently no cures.”
“There is little doubt that the cannabis plant deserves to take its place next to the dog as a contender for the title of ‘man’s best friend.’”
In recent years, pharmaceutical corporations have also applied for patents on an array of synthetic drugs to target the endocannabinoid system.
It was recently reported in economic trade journals that the pharmaceutical market for cannabinoid medications could be worth US$20 billion by the year 2020.
These advancements have helped blow open the gates into the realm of experimentation and investment into new cannabis strains, as well as the development of numerous cannabis products including edibles, oils, and safer smoking technologies.
What’s more, the University of British Columbia has embarked on the first large-scale study to properly map the genetic makeup of the cannabis plant (due to its status as a controlled narcotic, the actual genetic history of the cannabis plant has been muddled).
Today, there is great pressure on governments to end the war on drugs. Though some are concerned that drug prohibition in the US could rise to new sinister heights under the Trump regime, Canada appears poised to usher in an era of legal cannabis and society as a whole appears to be on the cusp of a new era where cannabis may return to the position of reverence and service it once occupied.
There is little doubt that the cannabis plant deserves to take its place next to the dog as a contender for the title of “man’s best friend.”
Written by David Owen Rama
David Owen Rama is a writer, broadcaster, journalist, artist, DJ, curator, cinephile, and musicologist. He is a regular reviewer for B.C. Musician Magazine and has hosted the popular Lovecast radio show on CHLY 101.7 FM for more than 10 years. Dave is passionate about art, culture, music, film, media, travel, food, festivals, social justice, community, stewardship, and the health of this incredible planet we call Earth.