Diving into the history of this prohibited substance, there seems to be a lot of grey area on the subject of marijuana and its history.
However, this plant has made impressions on cultures and in mythologies across the globe. The plant is referenced in medicine, ceremony, spirituality and recreation.
One of the oldest references of the plant can be seen in the Chinese Ben Cao or Materia Medica, a text including the body of remedial substances used in the Chinese practice of medicine, and the plant has been referenced in Chinese medical texts for over 2000 years.
The use of hemp in the creation of pottery, clothing and rope was already abundant in Chinese history. But their use of the plant as a psychoactive substance during the second century focused on the seeds rather than the altered consciousness after consumption. Its substance use is believed to come from one of the three celestial emperors that ruled China before written time.
By the sixth century, it is mentioned that the Chinese medical community concocted a compound to fight pain which was infused with cannabis, however the exact ingredients and how it was used have since been lost. The plant is also referenced in the works of Confucius in alignment with spiritual aspects and Taoist monks would burn the plant in incense burners.
The most interesting thing to note is the unearthing of a 2,700 year old grave in the Gobi dessert. The grave held what is believed to be the body of a royal shaman surrounded by two pounds of marijuana, which indicates the use of marijuana during burial ceremonies.
As trade routes opened throughout the continent, marijuana is referenced in Indian texts including in the sacred Hindu texts of the Vedas.
The Vedas itself calls cannabis one of the five sacred plants and traditional preparation of the plant includes bhang, ganja and charas. The plant is associated with the deity Shiva, who is believed to have gifted humans with the plant and yoga. Following Hinduism walks in parallel with the use of cannabis as a religious item.
But it is suggested that ancient Egyptians had knowledge of marijuana 1500 years before.
The oldest known medical text, the hybris papyrus, references marijuana as a creation of the sun god Ra. This gave the plant entrance into ceremonial use as it is believed to have been used to honour the dead.
It was also used topically as an anti-inflammatory by Egyptian medical practitioners. And taking a look at certain hieroglyphs, the use of pipes to smoke from are depicted. The depictions at one point were believed to be pipes full burning blue lotus, but blue lotus was steeped in wine, not smoked. This leads to the belief that the cannabis may have been smoked during ceremony.
But across the continent, the first mention of cannabis in Western literature came from Herodotus, a Greek historian in the fifth century.
His writing extensively covered the Scynthian people and how they utilized the plant in the making of their clothes and during burial rituals. He also described a process by which the Synthians would create a fire pit in a shelter and toss lumps of cannabis onto the hot coals to envelope themselves in the smoke. This would incite a dance.
The possibly similar psychoactive ceremonies or rituals performed by the Greek philosophers themselves however, were highly secretive and if the use of cannabis in those particular rituals was done, it wasn’t recorded. However, the use of cannabis after its introduction to the Greeks was documented as being used topically.
But one of the most interesting findings comes from the Old Testament, which was uncovered by a female Polish researcher. She noted the term kaneh bosm (can-neh boss-um), which she believes predates the word cannabis, is the same plant. It is written into the Old Testament as an herb “from distant lands” and was used in the making of the holy anointing oil, the same oil used to anoint Jesus.
Fast forward to today and in just a few days time, the once illegal substance will be fully legal in Canada — making Canada the second country in the world to legalize marijuana nationwide after Uruguay did in 2013, with legal sales set to begin on October 17.
But how did this plant go from being a religious, ceremonial, and spiritual item of ancient cultures to being an illegal substance?
Well, in 1929, Harry Anslinger was put in charge of the Department of Prohibition in Washington D.C.. This was just after alcohol prohibition had been a disaster and Anslinger found himself in charge of a huge governmental department with nothing to do.
You can only imagine that his previously held view of marijuana changed with zeal, as he then began to fight for the banning of marijuana after noting that it was harmless.
Shortly after writing to thirty doctors asking for evidence of cannabis being dangerous and whether it should be banned, twenty nine responded back with “no.”
But with the one doctor that said yes, Anslinger presented him to the world attached to to a young boys case. The young boy named Victor Licata murdered his family with an axe, and Anslinger told the country that this is what would happen if you smoked “the demon weed.”
The country’s public was terrified as the press was quick to support Anslinger and marijuana was subsequently banned. However, looking back into Licata’s files proved that there was no evidence that the young boy had ever used cannabis.
Meanwhile the war Nixon declared on drugs as “public enemy number one” in the 70’s didn’t help either, as to quote Nixon, who’s war on illegal substances was brought on by his hate of addicts and racism, “reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.”
Thus, making the substance illegal in the first place was done out of contempt, rather than a process done under the factual consideration of medical practitioners who believed it to be harmful.