The history of marijuana starts in the East, not in the West. An early mention of the plant and drug was in a Chinese medical reference book from over four thousand years ago. From China it moved west to India, south to North Africa, then north and west again to Europe by AD 500 AD. In that time, marijuana went through several different forms.
The History of Marijuana in East and South Asia
Chinese farmers brought cannabis (the plant from which marijuana is made) down the coast into Korea. From Korea the plant crawled into India by land, through an old Indo-European civilization. An old Sanksrit Vedic poem in India called the “Science of Charms” mentions cannabis as one of the relaxing herbs.
The History of Marijuana in the Middle East
Another one of the earliest forms of marijuana was found in the Middle East. The cannabis plant coats itself itself with resin, which lets it survive in the scorching sun. Around AD 10, Ibn Wahshiyah, a Arab medical practitioner, listed cannabis among different types of poisons. No one knew of its medicinal properties.
However, a certain group of Arabs were already using the drug regularly, in the more popular form called hashish. Hashish was smoked in concentrated form and undried, giving it a powerful hold over the users’ minds. Since it was often associated with religious states of mind, no ban was made against the drug.
The History of Marijuana in Africa
The earliest known mention of cannabis in Africa is in Ethiopia (North Africa) in the 1300s. Since Ethiopia is land-locked, historians assume that cannabis came down from the Middle East, from Arabs trading with Ethiopians. Chewing was their first form of using the drug, but soon they learned how to smoke it, developing a pipe-culture.
The evidence that cannabis was planted and cultivated all across Africa is the status of cannabis in Africa today. In South Africa and in Malawi, this root plant of marijuana is considered a cash crop. North Africa, the first part of the continent exposed to the plant, is still one of its biggest exporters.
The History of Marijuana in Europe
While hemp (cannabis fibers used for clothing) found its way early into Europe, the continent only discovered its other uses in the 1800s when Napoleon’s men brought it with them from the east. Civilized Europe discovered that taking cannabis or marijuana could act as a painkiller. Women began to use it, taking it for childbirth or menstruation.
As a result, doctors began to prescribe the drug as a medical painkiller from the 1800s to the 1900s. However, in the 1920s, after World War I, marijuana was banned in the United Kingdom and from many other nations in Europe for its psychoactive properties. Later, after World War II, it played a large part in the “hippie” drug culture of the 1960s and 70s.
The History of Marijuana in the Americas
The Americas received cannabis through the Vikings first, then through the Spanish (and other Europeans) later. This was not for recreation; hemp was what the boat sails were made of, and the great ships needed to carry it. In fact, in the 1600s, British colonies were ordered to grow cannabis so that the hemp could be harvested. As a matter of fact, “canvas” comes from “cannabis.”
With the entrance of cotton and morphine, the cloth and medicinal properties of cannabis fell out of use. Hemp came back briefly in World War II for rope and other uses, but in the end marijuana became known as a psychoactive drug. Until today, it is marked as a Schedule I drug, with “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”