The History Of Cannabis
Cannabis has been used for longer than it’s been legal. Since the end of cannabis prohibition in Canada in 2018, the market continues to find its footing. This hasn’t been without challenges, but it nonetheless represents a huge step forward. Humans have used the cannabis plant for millenia for fiber and rope, as food and medicine, and for its psychoactive properties for religious and recreational purposes.
We are in the midst of a cannabis revolution in Canada. By revolution, I mean a profound and rapid change in the relationship between our society and cannabis. To be perfectly honest, if you’d asked me ten years ago if weed would ever be legal in this country within my lifetime, I would have said no. Fear is such a cheap and easy political tool, and weed (and other drugs) are too convenient as a way to inspire fear. I never thought our political system could take us beyond prohibition. We were too few to speak of the power of cannabis to heal, to inspire, to create transcendent moments with friends, with nature, with art and music -- we would always be tarred as degenerates and hedonists, used as an instrument to tell a story of “us vs them” to the uninitiated.
But there is always room for small miracles. Legalization isn’t without its problems, but it nonetheless represents a huge step forward. Standing where we are today, it’s easy to forget that the relationship between humanity and cannabis goes back to our very earliest days. And guess what? It’s always been complicated.
Before we dive too deep into the past, let’s make sure we’re clear in our language. We use so many words to describe cannabis and its many derivatives - hemp, bud, hash, oil, the list is long indeed. But understand that we are, ultimately, talking about one plant - Cannabis sativa. It is no different from our many other crops.
Corn, for instance, has been shaped and selected by human hands into many varieties, some to feed ourselves, some to feed our livestock, some to provide pretty thanksgiving decorations, and some even to make fuel for our vehicles.
In the same manner, cannabis has been bred to provide us with food, fiber, oil, medicine, and intoxicants. But at the end of the day we are discussing one living organism, a very ancient one at that, and I will use the term “cannabis” to describe all of the above.
It is ironic that those who would vilify cannabis often decry its influence as heralding the decline of civilization. From ancient times, it has held our hand and underpinned the most fundamental technologies of civilization - the first clothes we wove out of fiber to ward off the cold were made of cannabis, as were the sails and rigging of the very first seafaring vessels. The very first documents printed on Gutenberg’s press were laid on paper made from cannabis. It has served us as medicine from the very earliest days it was farmed. It’s ability to transform our consciousness is merely one more of its many gifts, and one which was discovered very late indeed by European society.
In the weeks ahead, we’ll start from the very beginning - how cannabis first evolved on the high Eurasian steppes, spreading outwards with the first flourishing of civilization in ancient China, north with the tribal societies of Siberia, and finally west and south towards the Middle East, Africa, and ultimately Europe. We will see where the first glimmers of awareness appear regarding its power to alter consciousness, in some places becoming established and in others fading away. Early Greek historians heard rumours of its use in ritual in faraway lands. It was widely employed by the Roman Empire for fiber, but one notable physician treating injured gladiators learned of its healing and intoxicating powers.
Cannabis was considered a medicine and a sacrament in ancient Vedic texts, and has probably been used for its psychoactive effects on the Indian subcontinent for millenia. But the best records we have of the social and recreational use of cannabis date back to early Islam, when hashish became an integral part of the culture in the Middle East and North Africa. But even here, its place in society was always controversial.
It was through Islamic society that Europeans likely first became aware of the intoxicating power of cannabis, as their crusades during the middle ages brought many of them in contact with the Assassins and their association with hashish. Here, too, many details remain shrouded in myth and mystery, but the seeds had been sown for cannabis use to make its way to Europe and its colonies in the Americas.
The story of cannabis and humanity is an extraordinary one, and we are now writing only its most recent chapter. I hope that together we will come to better understand how we came to this moment in history, and better imagine what the future may hold.