• Suzanna Thallman

History of Cannabis Use: The Origins

Updated: Nov 20, 2019


The History of Cannabis Use: A Series

According to Michael Backes, author of the Cannabis Pharmacy, "humans may have cultivated cannabis for longer than any other plant." That is incredible, especially considering modern history has not been nearly as welcoming to the cannabis plant being integrated into society. While the reason for this transition in public opinion is a topic of discussion for another day, it is important to put into context the extended history of cannabis in human civilization.


Let's start at the beginning...


It is believed that cannabis has been cultivated for fiber, and perhaps medicine and inebriation, for at least 12,000 years. The first evidence for cannabis usage are 10,200-year-old dried cannabis seed specimens found in a clay jar in Japan. According to researcher Dave Olson:

"A Neolithic cave painting from coastal Kyushu...depicts tall stalks with hemp-shaped leaves...perhaps depicting the Korean traders bringing hemp to Japan."

It is believed that cannabis may have really begun to spread across Eurasia beginning about 5,000 years ago; residues of charred cannabis seed found in Romania and the North Caucasus provides evidence that cannabis was used in the Bronze Age (about 4,000 years ago) for funeral rituals.

Chinese Emperor Shen Nung believed so strongly in medical cannabis that it was included in the first Chinese pharmacopeia.

Cannabis Becomes Recognized as a Medicine

The earliest recorded written accounts of medical cannabis occurred in ancient China dating back roughly 4,700 years to the legendary Emperor Shen Nung. Shen-Nung cited cannabis as an important herbal remedy, and by the first century (CE), Chinese traditions regarding medical cannabis had expanded to cover over 100 medical conditions. The knowledge as a result of this tradition was included in the first Chinese pharmacopeia: Pen-ts'ao Ching.


Moving our perspective further to the West, from about 1500 to 2000 (BCE) cannabis was used in the Mediterranean region, including Egypt, Greece, and India, as a medicine. The religious text of Zoroastrianism of ancient Persia even ranked cannabis among the most important of all known medicinal plants. Furthermore, the great Persian physician, Mohammad-e Zakariã-ye Rãzi, cited a wide range of uses for cannabis as a medicine, considering it widely useful.


Cannabis Comes to the West


William O'Shaughnessy is credited with reintroducing cannabis indica in Western medicine

There is very little written evidence that exists in the Western world on cannabis use prior to the 17th century.

  1. English scholar Robert Burton included "hemp-seed" in a laundry list of plant remedies for depression in The Anatomy of Melancholy.

  2. Herbalist Nicholas Culpeper included hemp as an anti-inflammatory in The English Physitian.

It is important to note that most references during this time refer to the hemp plant rather than the cannabis plant specifically. It would not be until 1838 until cannabis indica was reintroduced in Western medicine by William O'Shaughnessy, an Irish physician working and teaching in India.


Be sure to check back next week when we continue this series, taking a look at cannabis in the 19th and 20th centuries in the Western world!


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