Cannabis’ expansion throughout Africa closely followed Muslim migration throughout the continent, gradually making its way to the Bantu speakers. It then moved into the Zambezi River valley, where it was already in use in 1531 when the Portuguese arrived in the region. Southern Africans have been consuming cannabis, called “dagga,” for at least 500 years.
The first case of cannabis consumption is attributed to the Chinese herbalist, Emperor Shen Nung. Around 2700 BC he categorized more than 365 medicinal herbs, many of which are still used in Eastern medicine today. His documents on cannabis show the plant as a remedy for rheumatism, malaria, gout, and more. Around 2000 BC cannabis emerged in Korea and Japan by way of China.
Spaniards brought cannabis to the Americas in the mid-1500s, where it was grown on North American plantations for rope, paper, and other fiber-based products. Jamestown settlers even imposed fines on those who didn’t produce hemp in the early 1600s. Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew hemp.
Scythians, nomadic Indo-Europeans known to have cultivated cannabis for rituals and burial customs, introduced the plant to Iran and Anatolia between 2000 and 1400 BC as they roamed the Altai Mountains. These mountains later became part of the Silk Road, a vast, ancient network of trade routes that connected the eastern and western parts of civilization from the Korean Peninsula to the Mediterranean Sea. The Scythians used cannabis in numerous social rituals that were documented by the Greek historian, Herodotus. As the Silk Road began to formally take shape, cannabis was quickly introduced to Greece, Egypt, and Africa. The tomb of Ramses II contained cannabis pollen, and numerous mummies have been found to have trace amounts of cannabinoids, indicating the plant has been around since at least Egypt’s 19th dynasty, or around 1292 BC.
Cannabis seeds were discovered in the ruins of Pompeii, the city frozen by volcanic ash in 79 AD. Photo by: Gina Coleman/Weedmaps
By the 13th century hashish had become widely used for recreational and religious purposes in the Middle East as well, leading to an eventual crackdown by the governor of Cairo at the time. Also around the 13th century cannabis was introduced to Eastern Africa through Egypt, and to Ethiopia by way of trade merchants.
Prior to domestication, the presence of cannabis in Mongolia, southern Siberia, the Huang He River valley, the Hindu Kush Mountains, South Asia, and Afghanistan fluctuated based on the movement of Pleistocene glaciers. Cannabis is a sun-loving plant and the cold conditions combined with the towering icy shadows cast by these glaciers prevented cannabis from thriving.
Both hemp and psychoactive marijuana were used widely in ancient China, Warf wrote. The first record of the drug’s medicinal use dates to 4000 B.C. The herb was used, for instance, as an anesthetic during surgery, and stories say it was even used by the Chinese Emperor Shen Nung in 2737 B.C. (However, whether Shen Nung was a real or a mythical figure has been debated, as the first emperor of a unified China was born much later than the supposed Shen Nung.)
Over the next centuries, cannabis migrated to various regions of the world, traveling through Africa, reaching South America in the 19th century and being carried north afterwards, eventually reaching North America.
After this really long “trip” throughout the pre-modern and modern worlds, cannabis finally came to the United States at the beginning of the 20th century. It arrived in the southwest United States from Mexico, with immigrants fleeing that country during the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1911.
In the report, author Barney Warf describes how cannabis use originated thousands of years ago in Asia, and has since found its way to many regions of the world, eventually spreading to the Americas and the United States.
“It likely flourished in the nutrient-rich dump sites of prehistoric hunters and gatherers,” Warf wrote in his study.
In the 1830s, Sir William Brooke O’Shaughnessy, an Irish doctor studying in India, found that cannabis extracts could help lessen stomach pain and vomiting in people suffering from cholera.
Massive unemployment and social unrest during the Great Depression stoked resentment of Mexican immigrants and public fear of the “evil weed.” As a result—and consistent with the Prohibition era’s view of all intoxicants—29 states had outlawed cannabis by 1931.
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Because it’s a fast-growing plant that’s easy to cultivate and has many uses, hemp was widely grown throughout colonial America and at Spanish missions in the Southwest. In the early 1600s, the Virginia, Massachusetts and Connecticut colonies required farmers to grow hemp.
An ancient Greek historian named Herodotus described the Scythians—a large group of Iranian nomads in Central Asia—inhaling the smoke from smoldering cannabis seeds and flowers to get high.
In fact, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved two drugs with THC that are prescribed in pill form, Marinol and Syndros, to treat nausea caused by cancer chemotherapy and loss of appetite in AIDs patients.