The History of Cannabis, From Beneficial to Bad (and Back Again)

history of marijuna

Cannabis used to be taken for a range of medicinal, recreational, and religious reasons. Then, it was turned into an illegal menace to society, and now, it’s an effective pharmaceutical.

How did we get here?

The Long, Long History of the Cannabis Plant

Cannabis sativa likely originated in East Asia. There is evidence that it was grown for fibre and medicinal uses up to 12,000 years ago. However, it was only 7,500 years ago that it was being regularly grown as a crop, and used for fabric, medicine, and recreation.

In ancient Mesopotamia, the Assyrians used it as an aromatic. Cannabis residues have been found in Tel Arad (Israel) dating back to the 8th Century BC. In Pazyryk (now Russia), hemp seeds were found, dating the 2nd to 5th BC. China has mentions of Cannabis in texts dating back to the 3rd Century AD. 

In India, ‘ganja’ is believed to have been used by the god Shiva and has long been part of the Hindu culture. ‘Bhang’ is mentioned in writings from around 1000AD. This is a drink made of cannabis and milk and spices, and it’s typically consumed during Holi or Shivaratri. Even now, there are shops that sell bhang in Bihar and West Bengal, where it’s legal to produce.

The Hindus introduced it to Africa, with pipes used for smoking it discovered dating to about 1320AD. Then it’s likely the Spaniards took Cannabis to the Western world, with hemp being grown in 1613 around the Richmond, Virginia area. And wherever it went, Cannabis thrived; after all, it’s called ‘weed’ for a reason.

Colonialism and Cannabis

Medicinal Cannabis spread throughout the world and was accepted as a medical treatment, with Queen Victoria (allegedly) using cannabis to treat menstrual cramps. However, in the 19th Century, reports of Colonial-run insane asylums in India becoming filled with cannabis-inflicted insanity meant that acceptance began to wane.

Members of the British Empire noted this ‘madness’, and then migrated to other Commonwealth countries and instilled their rhetoric there. This was in an effort to control indigenous or non-white people.

In India, there was a large study commissioned in 1892 that found the reports of insanity were greatly exaggerated. It found that Indians of all religions and levels of society happily used Cannabis. Their study was ground-breaking and found that risk of insanity was increased with a family history of mental illness or early cannabis use. However, they found occasional use had medicinal benefits for some, and that excessive use is the exception, and most people used it moderately. 

The claims of cannabis causing madness were largely due to prejudiced police poorly guessing the habits of ‘dangerous and disruptive’ people. 

Imagine, more than 100 years ago, this report in India said exactly the same thing we are ‘finding out’ now.

Cannabis, Xenophobia, and Racism

Over in the US, Cannabis was accepted by many as medicine, and also grown for hemp. However, it was about to become a weapon used against migrant workers and labour unions. 

Migrant workers from Mexico were being accused of taking work from Americans, so in order to win approval from constituents, politicians started to ostracise and attack Mexicans. By demonising Cannabis and then linking it with Mexican migrant workers, they had a tool to harm the reputation of Mexicans and create a negative stereotype of them. California outlawed Cannabis in 1913, largely to allow people to ‘harass’ Mexicans. 

Harry J Anslinger, who was xenophobic and racist, introduced the term ‘marijuana’ to emphasise the foreignness of this ‘devil weed’. Anti cannabis propaganda depicted it as a deadly perversion, making Mexican and Black men lust after white women. Anslinger actually said that most marijuana smokers in the US were Hispanics, ‘Negroes’, Filipinos and entertainers. He claimed jazz and swing music were Satanic music that had resulted from marijuana use. Furthermore, marijuana caused white women to seek ‘sexual relations’ with entertainers and ‘Negroes’. 

Cannabis in NZ

Cannabis is not a native plant to NZ. In the mid 1800’s, it was brought to NZ by the early British settlers, who were at that time, using it medicinally as well as recreationally. It was marketed as being a cure for asthma and bronchitis, menstrual cramps, neuralgia, coughs, and even corns and chilblains. The first commercial grower in NZ was reportedly a Catholic nun called Mother Aubert.  

But then, the terror of cannabis spread throughout the Commonwealth following the reports of Cannabis madness in India. In 1927, The Dangerous Drugs Act made Cannabis a ‘dangerous drug’. Despite this, users could get a prescription from a doctor for medicinal use. But in the 1960’s, use as a recreational drug skyrocketed and it was made illegal in all forms in 1975 by the Misuse of Drugs Act.

Influenced by the War on Drugs in the US, Cannabis was labelled a gateway drug. The public was told that using it would put people on a path to hard drugs such as cocaine or meth. Religion was used as a weapon against the devil’s lettuce, claiming that Cannabis use led to violence, criminal acts, and sexual debauchery.

From Harmful to Healthy: A Full Circle

It seems a contradiction. We know of the social and physical costs of alcohol, yet anyone over 18 can buy it in a huge range of forms, consume as much as desired, and it’s considered legally and socially appropriate.

We know CBD and THC can have tremendous benefits to health, but it’s generally illegal in NZ (Medicinal CBD and THC, as prescribed by a doctor, is legal. This covers a range of forms and types of medication. However, possession of cannabis, growing it, and selling it, are all illegal and can result in fines or jail terms).

However, there is growing acceptance of Cannabis as a medicine, and a realisation that it’s not the evil drug it has been painted as. Maybe, in time, we can gain the wisdom and knowledge from the report in India in 1892. 

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