History of Medical Marijuana
By Dean Christopher
Due to the relentless blare of pop culture, with its manic emphasis on recent U.S. history, one might be forgiven for thinking that marijuana was invented around the same time as Color TV, the Fender Guitar and Tie-Dye Bell Bottoms. But the versatile, user-friendly cannabis plant has been around far longer than the hippie ‘60s.
Indeed, since ancient times, marijuana has been one of the most universally grown, widely useful – and best loved – of all cultivated crops!
We know of no cave paintings of Neanderthals chewing leaves or rolling doobies. But anthropological evidence suggests that cannabis was planted and harvested during the Agricultural Age, as long as 12,000 years ago. This coincides with the end of the “Hunter-Gatherer” stage of Homo Sapiens, and marks the beginning of socialization – humans living in settled groups of extended families. At that moment in history, people developed skills like pottery making, metal working… and surely some primitive form of herbal medicine. From this it is reasonable to conclude that marijuana played a part in human society as far back as the dawn of civilization.
In these pages each issue, we will trace some high points in the long and intriguing history of cannabis. Let’s start now with a quick look at a few well known ancient societies.
Modern day hemp historian and activist Jack Herer, in his influential book, The Emperor Wears No Clothes, writes that:
“…from at least the 27th to 7th century B.C. up until this century, cannabis was incorporated into virtually all the cultures of the Middle East, Asia Minor, India, China, Japan, Europe, and Africa for its superior fiber, medicines, oils, food, and for its meditative, euphoric, and relaxational uses. Hemp was one of our ancestors’ most important overall industries, along with tool making, animal husbandry and farming.”
Archaeologists and cultural anthropologists note that the most ancient Egyptian papyri, Mesopotamian clay tablets and Chinese scrolls refer to the medicinal properties of cannabis only in the past tense! This suggests that the plant’s properties were had already been long known before the development of written history. Some Sumerian materials date as far back as 3,000 B.C. And significantly, none of them refers to any contemporary (i.e., from that time) discovery of its medicinal benefits. Clearly, the value of cannabis was already a given.
At about that same time, the Mesopotamians (modern day Iraq) had recently developed the writing system we call Cuneiform. Over the past two centuries, the language has been well enough deciphered for archaeologists to agree on much ancient Sumerian vocabulary.
Most experts believe that, although not specifically named, it is highly probable that cannabis is alluded to by one word that refers both to a medicine, and to a plant fiber used for “spinning rope.” How many plants fit that description?
The Ancient Chinese seem to have used cannabis not only for its fibrous benefits, but also as a food grain along with rice, soybeans and barley. To make an ancient ancestor of “hash brownies,” they ground hemp seeds into meal, then baked the batter into cakes. In their tombs, archaeologists have found ceramic vessels still filled with cannabis seed, rice and other grains for the afterlife.
Around 2,000 B.C. the earliest known pharmacopeia, the Pent-Sao Ching, warns of the flowery tops of the hemp plant that “to take too much makes people see demons and throw themselves about like maniacs. But if one takes it over a long period of time one can communicate with the spirits and one’s own body becomes light.”
The most prominent emperor of the day, Shen-Nung, prescribes this vision-inducing plant as a remedy for “malaria, beriberi, constipation, rheumatic pains, absentmindedness, and female disorders.”*
The practical, inventive Chinese – like the Plains Indians of the American West, who never wasted any part of the buffalo – used every part of the hemp plant. Stems were woven into textiles or rope; roots were boiled into herbal remedies; husks were processed for papyrus; leaves and flowers were turned into relaxing intoxicants; while seeds were used for food and oil.
Yet, despite its presence and its many accepted benefits, cannabis never became as important an element in Chinese civilization as it was in the Aryan and Indian cultures.
* Schultes, R. E. 1967. Man and Marijuana. Nat. Hist. 82: 59-63, 80, 82.