[All this week, GS will be covering stories on Marijuana - its traditional uses, basic biology, criminalization, neurological effects and more. Join us all this week for our in depth study of this fascinating, controversial plant!] Marijuana has a rich cultural history that spans thousand of years across the continents. This seductive little plant has been known by many names including, Ganja, Weed, Dai-Ma, Pot, Marijuana, Cannabis and many others. Cannabis, the plant Marijuana comes from, has been used in a variety of ways throughout ancient history.
As early as 6000 BCE Dai-Ma provided the Chinese with a source of food, consuming the seeds as a source of protein and fiber. In 4000 B.C. they began using it to make a textile called Pharmacotheon. This ancient use by the Chinese is the root from which the modern day hemp industry has stemmed.
The Scythians of Eurasia used cannabis fibers and seeds as a part of their burial and marriage rituals. The Scythians are also one of the most well known propagators of the cannabis textile industry, which dates back to around 5,000 BCE The use of Cannabis as a textile migrated from Asia, the Middle East and Eurasia to Europe and the Americas by 1271.
Near the turn of the century, Marijuana found itself deeply entangled in the social scene of Jewish and Muslim countries as a ritual intoxicant. Historically in the Middle East, Marijuana had only been used for medicinal, textile and ritualistic purposes. However, Hashish, another potent variety of Cannabis was widely used as a recreational drug in this region in 1221. The introduction of Hashish to the Middle East was a result of Sheik Haidar’s discovery of Cannabis and his subsequent promotion of the plant in Iraq, Bahrain, Egypt and Syria during the 13th century.
In 1271, Marco Polo, the Venetian explorer, traveled along the Silk Road recording his encounters with Hashish and Hasan ibn al-Sabbah. Polo wrote that he witnessed al-Sabbah give Hashish to his men before they would go on missions of ruthless murder. Because smoking Hashish inspired these bloodthirsty acts, the men were termed “Hashassins.” It is from this that the word assassins is derived. Hashish continued to rise in popularity in the Middle East from the 13th through the 16th century and was widely documented as one of the most popular intoxicants in the area, second only to wine. Upon his return, Marco Polo’s tales were told throughout Europe, and in turn, launched the beginning of Hashish and Cannabis use as an inebriant on the European mainland.
The introduction of Cannabis during the colonial period created a culture among sailors whereby marijuana became an integral part of daily life at sea. Cannabis was used by sailors to mitigate the effects of sea sickness. It was also ingested in stronger concentrations as an intoxicant to induce delirium and escape sailor’s loneliness. Industrially, Cannabis found its way onto ships through the production of canvases. In fact, the word canvas originates from the sails made of Cannabis during this time. Since then, the definition of canvas has been modified, but is still rooted in its original association with Cannabis and colonial sea life.
The 17th century was also a time in which the Europeans experienced a “Marijuana Honeymoon” of sorts. Prior to that, Marijuana usage was moderate, and only for medicinal relief from physical or psychological agony. However, widespread use among Europeans shortly followed.
In 1606 the French and the British began cultivating Cannabis for Hemp production. The Hemp was then shipped to Virginia, Port Royal and Plymouth in the American colonies and distributed across the New World. Hemp was quickly became an economic asset, and in 1619, the Virginia Assembly decreed that farmers should grow Hemp and it should be adopted as legal tender in Pennsylvania, Virginia and Maryland. By 1794 the British began collecting taxes on Hemp grown by Native Americans and much like other staple crops, the newly freed Americans began exploiting the Native American’s superior agricultural skills. Throughout the 18th century, both England’s and America’s dependence on Cannabis as an agricultural product grew at an exponential pace.
Meanwhile, on the European continent, Napoleon Bonaparte of France declared a complete prohibition of Hemp production and import. This ban was enacted because France was attempting to seize Egypt in order to gain access to trade interests in India, and the Egyptians habitually smoked Hashish. When France retreated from Egypt, the returning soldiers brought Hashish back with them and established a preference for Hashish smoking over alcohol consumption, for Hashish induces similar effects as alcohol without the nasty hangover in the morning.
By this time, the use of Cannabis across Europe and the Americas was rampant. The plant had established itself as an agricultural staple, an economic asset, and an incentive upon which wars and conquest were based. Cannabis was also becoming one of the most popular inebriants in the world, second only to alcohol.
From the 18th to 19th century, American popular cultural began to shift its preference of intoxicants beyond simply Cannabis and alcohol. At the turn of the 20th century, the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed, regulating all products containing alcohol, cocaine, opiates and Cannabis. This contained the eminent “Marijuana epidemic” until the Mexican Revolution of 1910, when American Culture truly took to the recreational use of Marijuana. In the early years of recreational weed use, the plant was associated with immigrants. As a result the propaganda against weed was riddled with racism. Cries of the “Marijuana menace” affected the public greatly. However, even as the Marijuana trend began to slow and, after a couple decades of mixed messages regarding the social implications of weed, the propaganda began to prevail, creating a prevalent racial stigma against Marijuana smokers.
Between 1915 and 1937 America experienced a sincere effort by business owners lawmakers to weed out Marijuana use from US culture. People like William Randolph Hearst and Harry J. Anslinger began lobbying for regulative acts and, in 1937, managed to enact the ban. [For more information about criminalization of Marijuana in the U.S. see the Tuesday April 21 story] This ban marks the beginning of the strong, reactionary counterculture of 20th century American Youth. During the 1920s, the drug of choice among young Americans was Marijuana. Because weed was immensely popular at this time, and the fact that alcohol had been prohibited in 1918, American Youth turned to their second favorite intoxicant, weed, and let loose. The Roaring 20s thrived off of Marijuana, and as the culture became more diverse throughout the 30s and 40s, many spiritual uses of Marijuana use were called back into practice.
The traditional use of Cannabis as a spiritual drug originated in India. According to the Hindu religion, Cannabis falls under one of the five sacred plants of India. It is commonly referred to as a “sacred grass” in the Atharvaveda, a Hindu religious text prescribing charms and ayurvedic remedies, and was ritually offered to the Hindu deity Shiva.
As the commoditization of Eastern Asian traditions became popular in the United States, these spiritual uses for Ganja were adopted into American culture. This custom was particularly prevalent in the 1960s with the generation of Hippies, and was proudly displayed during America’s second largest “pot party” in August of 1969 at the rock music festival Woodstock.
To this day, the battle between enacting regulations on the abuse of intoxicants in the United States, and centuries upon centuries of Cannabis’ prevalence across the world for recreational, medicinal, spiritual, and industrial product continues. What the world can hope for is, keeping the historical uses of Cannabis throughout the world in mind, we can find a way to limit its abuse as a recreational drug in current times without banning an positive effects Cannabis may have.
With the knowledge that Cannabis is a globally ubiquitous plant, how might the United States look to foreign countries as models of how to deal with Marijuana abuse?
The History Channel Documentary on Marijuana entitled: Hooked
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