A Brief History of Cannabis

The history of marijuana spans thousands of years, dating back to its original cultivation in the ancient world. In fact, burned cannabis seeds have been found in tombs dating back to 3000 B.C.

History of Marijuana

Cannabis comes from Central Asia. It acquired one of its more common names from a region called the Hindu Kush in the mountains of Northern India. To this day, many strains claim an “Afghani” lineage, referring to the timeless style of growing marijuana perfected in Afghanistan’s highlands.

The very first cannabis plants are thought to have originated near Mongolia, in the vast plains of Siberia. As nomads migrated through these lands, cannabis slowly dispersed into the greater world.

Marijuana had many uses to its first cultivators. Out of this period, our understanding of the plant developed to include the manufacture of hemp. These civilizations were the first to use hemp to make rope, clothing, linens, and a variety of other products.

Many cultures throughout history have appreciated the marijuana plant. Traces of cannabis have been found in civilizations throughout time and across the planet, including cultures you wouldn’t expect to have appreciated cannabis. For example, there is evidence that cannabis was smoked by certain Emperors of China, as well as Scandinavian Vikings and Islamic Sultans.

Cannabis in the Americas

The cannabis plant did not always have the same negative stigma attached to it as it does today. In colonial America, for example, farmers in Virginia and Massachusetts were required to grow hemp as a cash crop due to its plethora of uses. However, it was not until later that use of cannabis for its psychoactive and healing effects became widespread in America.

The history of marijuana in America is complicated. For a long time, there were no restrictions on the sale, use, or consumption of cannabis. Before 1910, there simply weren’t enough people using cannabis for it to attract the attention of federal authorities.

During the beginning of the 20th century, however, cannabis consumption began to grow as trade opened up with the rest of the world at an unprecedented rate. Along with opium, the public began to consider marijuana as a “poison”, and it was eventually regulated for the first time under a series of laws known as the “poison laws”.

In 1937, the “Marihuana Tax Act” was passed, which prohibited the possession and sale of cannabis for anything other than medical or industrial use. At the same time, anti-marijuana sentiment and general misinformation about the plant was extremely pervasive, even though the popularity of cannabis continued to grow through illicit means. Regulation of cannabis by the Congress of the United States has only continued since then. This increase in government interference defines the worldwide history of marijuana during this period.

In the 1970s, the legal status of cannabis was reexamined as the old laws were said to be outdated. Unfortunately, this process only resulted in stricter controls being placed on the sale of marijuana. However, redefining the relationship between the government and marijuana has enabled states to pursue their own destiny with regards to the plant, and many states have recently opted for recreational legalization.

Political winds in the United States seem to be moving in the direction of legalization, though history proves that progress is not a straight line. As more states and countries begin to legalize cannabis, the economic benefits will likely change people’s preconceptions about an otherwise remarkable industry.

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Is It Time to Retire the Term ‘Marijuana'?

Way back in the 1990s, around the time of that first, groundbreaking legalization of medical cannabis—thanks, California!—it was common to hear the warning “This isn’t your parents’ marijuana!” This was a bit of caution aimed at smokers returning to the fold: Newer, more carefully cultivated cannabis flower were exponentially more potent than the “street weed” many children of the ‘60s had grown up with, and imbibing an entire joint—as many remembered doing with ease—could have unintended consequences.

Now, some 20 years into this grand experiment, cannabis advocates are wondering whether the word “marijuana” still has any relevance. Maybe it’s time once and for all to discard the old labels—and old concepts—and rediscover the role this fascinating plant has to play in our lives today. Let’s start by looking at the definition of marijuana and what marijuana used to be.  

“Marihuana:” An Unwelcome Guest from the South

Although cannabis and hemp (essentially a very low-potency commercial crop) have a long history in this country, its medicinal (and, one assumes, recreational) role was limited. Cannabis tinctures and hashish were available over the counter—as were more powerful “remedies” as cocaine and opium—where they were recommended for anxiety, muscular pain, and upset stomach. Sound familiar?

But beginning in the early 20th century, migrant laborers from Mexico brought cannabis flower—“marihuana”—and the practice of purely recreational smoking with them. Race and class-based unease about immigrants tainted cannabis, as did the rising tide of the temperance movement, culminating in Prohibition in 1919 and the passage of the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. Cannabis was officially flora non grata in the United States, and for most Americans, the word “marijuana” would take on a dark and sinister cast.   

Marijuana vs. Cannabis: New Terms for a New Era

While marijuana has shed many of its negative associations—recent polls suggest a clear majority of Americans now support both medical and recreational cannabis—this is as good a time as any to reconsider what we call the plant.

For one thing, “marijuana,” as noted above, is not a botanical term; it’s a culturally specific one. We don’t call cheese “spoiled milk,” as do many Chinese, who grow up in a largely dairyless culture.

Additionally, cannabis has a different role to play in today’s society than it did a century ago. Research is uncovering deep and potentially game-changing synergies between the cannabis plant and our bodies—largely through its interaction with the Endocannabinoid System—but many physicians remain skeptical of the plant’s usefulness as medicine (thanks, Jeff Sessions).

The words we choose to describe our world send powerful messages; a rebranding of the old “marijuana” may not change everyone’s minds, but switching to the term “cannabis” can have a subtle effect, signalling that old assumption may no longer be valid, or that it’s time for a reassessment of outdated—and often negative—perceptions of this controversial plant-based medicine.

Of course, at the end of the day, we’re fine with whatever you want to call cannabis, so long as you’re deriving value—recreational, medical, spiritual—from it. But consider the potential of a subtle rebranding, the power of turning over a new leaf and seeing something you thought you knew from a different perspective. Now that’s powerful medicine.   

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