To say that marijuana has a long history would be an understatement.
As far back as there are records, marijuana or ‘cannabis’ as it is traditionally known, was integral to human culture. To truly understand why people across millennia grew cannabis, we need to understand what makes cannabis better than other plants. Cannabis can feed, clothe, heal, fuel and build civilizations.
Why would farmers in every corner of the earth and in every period of human history cultivate this specific plant? There are a lot of answers to that question and most depend on perspective. Let me highlight some of the best examples throughout the ages of how cannabis helped shape the course of human history.
Farming generally depends on fertile soil, consistent water and plenty of light.
But different plants have different needs so farmers need to balance the way they plant crops to keep from making the land infertile. Cannabis has the special properties of not needing to be rotated like many other crops and is drought resistant. These properties make cultivating cannabis from areas like the equator to the arctic circle very easy.
But genetics also play a key role in plant development. Long ago, our ancestors saw mutated cannabis ruderalis that was larger and produced better fiber than her sisters. Another natural mutation produced more seed than wild versions. Ancient farmers recognized the benefits of cannabis cultivation and created new breeds called cannabis sativa and hemp.
Cannabis is resistant to most diseases.
Plants like beans, corn and wheat produce pollen and flowers in a single plant. Male cannabis plants produce pollen and one male can fertilize females for miles around. The females produce flowers that if pollinated will produce seed. If the female plant remains unpollinated, the flowers become coated in a thick layer of trichomes.
The Great Famine of 1840’s Ireland and the recent Panama Banana Plague are both examples of major disease risk to farmers. Many plants are susceptible to a wide range of fungus, pests and bacteria. It’s a waste of a farmer’s time to grow plants they can’t protect from pathogens and pests.
Sexual reproduction made cannabis immune to many diseases, harsh conditions and pests that plague other crops. Cannabis tends to survive conditions that annihilate other plants including drought, frost and many pests. While not invincible, cannabis is surprisingly hardy and provides a robust natural defense against conditions outside a farmers control.
Cannabis is very special in the plant world.
In addition to the natural resilience of the plant, it grows in soil that would strangle other crops. Cannabis also grows season after season in poor grade soil; a process that kills crops like corn, lettuce and tomatoes. It also revitalizes the soil for other plants by reintroducing nitrogen and breaks up compacted soil with its roots.
These properties make cannabis a great plant to grow but it has other traits that set it apart from the rest. Properties like producing the strongest, softest fiber for cloth and rope. Hemp seed also has more protein than beans and a near perfect ratio of omega vitamins. Few plants can claim to produce food and clothing but cannabis doesn’t stop there.
The medical properties of cannabis are incredible.
Roman doctors used cannabis leaves to make anti-fungal bandages, cannabis tinctures to treat pain and hemp thread to sew wounds. The tradition of using cannabis for medicine wasn’t exclusive to Rome. Ancient Chinese doctors prescribed the plant to ease headaches, menstrual cramps, and improve virility. Monarchs from Europe like Queen Victoria used cannabis tincture. And even the Vikings sailed with rigging of hemp.
Cannabis is from a land before time.
Thousands of years before the first clocks graced the palaces of China, and centuries before the great pyramids were erected, cannabis was grown for fiber and food. In ancient caves and forgotten settlements around the world, thousand year-old hemp fibers are found regularly.
The 20th century saw humanity try to destroy itself and criminalizing cannabis was part of that history. Yet even the most anti-pot countries in the world continue to import massive amounts of hemp fiber and oil. Humanity is tied to cannabis in an ancient symbiosis that goes back to the beginning.
The deep history of humanity is spotty and full of holes. But if modern theories like those proposed by Carl Sagan are correct, civilization may be the result of convergent evolution of humanity and cannabis. It is possible that cannabis was the first crop ever cultivated, leading to the foundations of civilization as we know it.
Canna-Culture is older than most Gods but still tied to them.
As one of the few animals in the world with an endo-cannabinoid system, we are uniquely positioned in the animal world to benefit from consuming it. This kind of biological interaction takes many generations to develop. Further implying that human ancestors regularly consumed cannabis before agriculture took root.
By the time Christianity, Hinduism and Islam rolled around, all used cannabis in their ceremonies. But they weren’t the first or only ones to use ganja as a holy sacrament. Hebrew rabbi’s included cannabis flower in their anointing oils. In fact, Jesus himself was anointed with cannabis infused oil.
Centuries before Jesus was healing the sick, the Hindu god Shiva was talking about weed. Known as Shiva’s nectar, ganja helps Hindu holy men (and women) receive and interpret the desires of Shiva. It also helps them avoid the temptations of the world and maintain their spirit-centric lifestyles. The tradition was ancient even before they erected the majestic temples slowly sinking into the topography of Nepal.
Canna-Culture remains strong today.
Despite decades of global criminalization, recreational cannabis use is more common today than 100 years ago. Hemp still provides a major role in the textile industry although synthetic fabrics dominate the market. And doctors from Israel to Ireland and the US still prescribe cannabis.
The special properties that made cannabis attractive to ancient farmers remain important today. We still need strong, soft and durable fiber, we still need food and we still need medicine. As humanity moves into the 21st century, marijuana looks to remain a staple of civilization.
There is so much more to the history of marijuana that I couldn’t hope to touch on it all in a single article. I couldn’t even get to the importance of cannabis in the development of writing! Let us know in the comments below what other important historical facts I missed.