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I was enjoying the funny, intelligent and highly-aware comments in HuffingtonPost's front-page article "'Just Say Now': Left-Right Coalition Launches Campaign to Legalize Pot." The page has exploded with comments, many seemingly from new HuffPo users. Which leads me to believe there is a real from-the-roots interest in legalizing pot. Many other commenters -- supportive -- were known Republicans, libertarians, or tea partiers. With this kind of strange coalition, who knows what we could do?

So, I began posting snippets on HP from a paper I had written on the history of marijuana. Got some nice responses and decided to bring it to you guys!

Humans have had a very long engagement with the plant. Those theories that keep popping up against legalization -- addiction, crime, even blatant racism -- are nothing new. Follow me below for the paper in full, as well as sourcing. History has a lesson for us.

Cannabis: A Short History of Hemp and Humans

Cannabis is a genus of angiosperms. Cannabis is indigenous to Asia, most likely originating in the riverine valleys of Central Asia or in the foothills of the Himalayas (ElSohly 8). The three species of Cannabis are sativa, indica, and ruderalis (ElSohly 9). Only Cannabis sativa has served a major function in human lives. It has transmuted over many centuries: from being a raw food source and a useful fiber crop, it became more consistently a psychoactive or medicinal drug. Today, continuing research has broadened its medical usefulness, while other areas of experimentation have led the biomass industry to eye hemp for possible fuel production (“Biodiesel Blend”).

Cannabis sativa, commonly called “hemp” until recent centuries, was a durable and low-cost crop, first heavily-cultivated nears its origins in China. Cannabis was first widely cultivated for its hemp fibers (ElSohly). Rowan Robinson writes that hemp and mulberry, at one time being the most important crops for China, became synonymous with the empire (103). Archaeologists excavated what appears to be the first use of any fabric (hemp fiber), appearing at least 10,000 years ago, as strands of string-like material wrapped around pottery (Li 438). By soaking, drying the plant, and separating the fibers from the hemp stem, a strong and durable bast could be woven to produce items. This Cannabis fiber could create long-lasting products like sacks; but its most important use was for rope and canvas (Robinson 24). It was also used for fish nets, varied fabrics, and even for making paper (Li 437).  The process for extracting fiber, however, remained cumbersome, up to the Middle Ages (Edwards 66).

As time and technology advanced, later evidence of the fiber shows its versatility: by 4000 B.C. textile articles were being made in China of silk and hemp. In an early history of China called Shu Jing, dated to the 3rd century, the Shatung province is referenced as a land full of “silk, hemp, lead, [and] pine trees,” indicating hemp's prominence as a cultural product next to the all-important silk. By 1400 B.C. entire industries had sprung up around the production of hemp articles. An excavation in China revealed a full roll of hemp fabric existed during the Shang dynasty (Robinson 103).

Though playing a minor role in history, a discussion of hemp's dietary function is important. Hui-Lin Li writes that hempseed was a major grain of ancient China (437). Hempseed became an important commodity during the agricultural revolution (Robinson 103). Though the earliest archaeological evidence exists in textile-like forms, cannabis seeds were used for food in China by at least 6000 B.C. (“Timeline”). The dietary properties of the seed made it valuable: hempseed is very high in protein and contains a more necessary amino acids than most common proteins like meat, eggs, or even soy. It's also high in essential fatty acids, minerals, vitamins, and fiber (Callaway 65). This fast-growing, nutritional plant obviously important before Cannabis became more widely known for its fibers.

Despite its domestic production uses, its medicinal and psychoactive properties were increasingly popular, often becoming entwined with religious or cult movements. The earliest evidence Cannabis was used for (non-dietary) ingestion dates to 2,700 years ago (Viejas). Researchers found almost two pounds of still-green Cannabis in a leather sack, buried with a dead man in Mongolia. Researchers concluded  the burial of the marijuana was meticulous. The Cannabis was from a cultivated strain and contained only female parts (the most potent of the plant), while the male parts were removed. Scientists believed the plant may have been ingested orally or fumigated, as was done in subsequent history (Viejas). This marks the plant's next major change, from a largely functional agricultural product to a ritualistic, medicinal plant.

In Asia, people's long familiarity with the plant helped multiply it uses. In these conditions, the first pharmacological uses of Cannabis began to play out. The sacred Hindu text Atharvaveda, which dates to around 1400 B.C., makes what may be first written mention of the plant for medicinal and religious use. Called bhang, the text named Cannabis as one of five holy plants that cause “freedom from distress.” It also advocated tossing hemp into fires to ward off spirits or enemies (Mathre 36). Cannabis' use as a medicinal product continued to narrow in areas while broaden in others, indicating the lack of standard usage. Hua Tao (141-208 C.E.), a Chinese surgeon, had created Cannabis products for his medical use, including “hemp wine” and “hemp boiling powder” (Robinson 106). It was possible for one area in Asia to advocate Cannabis as a food or fiber source while other areas valued its medicinal effects.

Over time, the plant took on decidedly more ritualistic or religious connotations with the Scythians, who eventually introduced Cannabis to Europe. Situated between Asia and Europe, the Scythians were in a trading hotspot, where exchange between Europe and Asia benefited them. The first Greek mention of “Kannabis” comes from Herodontus' story of the funeral rites of the Scythians: he describes how they threw hemp into a fire kept in a small tent, then “howled for joy” as they inhaled the vapor it created. Archaeologists were able to confirm the story to some degree when they found charred hempseeds in Scythian tombs in Germany (Mathre 39). By now a ritualistic use of Cannabis was being practiced across at least two continents. People in Asia and Europe believed that simply burning the plant (and possibly inhaling) could make their lives safer or more enjoyable.

Perhaps inevitably, divisions were being drawn about the use of the plant. When Cannabis first reached the Middle East, probably by way of the Scythians, it was generally used as a medicinal treatment. An excavation of a tomb near Jerusalem revealed a girl who had died giving birth around the 4th century. Archaeologists found that Cannabis had been burned and given to her during labor (Mathre 38). The Middle East eventually became the site of the first legal debate over the plant. A story told by Ibn al-Badri from the 15th century recalls a poet's visit to an epileptic man. By giving the man hashish (the compressed, psychoactive resin of the plant), the poet cured his epilepsy – “but he became an addict” (Mathre 41). Medieval theologians standardized Islamic uses, eventually doling out up to 80 lashes in what appears to be the first written punishment for Cannabis' “recreational use” (Mathre 40). Cannabis was still legal for medicinal use, as a 14th century Islamic text refers to its permissibility in “dissolving flatulence” and “cleaning up dandruff” (Mathre 40). Around the same time, in the 10th century A.D., a Chinese medicinal text, the Cheng-lei pen-t'sao, seemed to contradict its usefulness, saying “[Cannabis] has a spicy taste; it is toxic; it is used for waste diseases and injuries; it clears blood and cools temperature; it relieves fluxes; it undoes rheumatism; it discharges pus” (Mahrer 36). Clearly an objective definition of the plant's medical use was far from near.

From the 12th to the 13th century, Cannabis use spread the globe as people used it for local reasons. It was spread by Arab traders to Africa, by way of Egypt. In the late 1400s, slaves from Angola brought their Cannabis plants with them to colonial lands, planting them between sugar canes. They were allowed to smoke the plants between harvesting (“Timeline”). There is evidence that Shakespeare's neighbors may have smoked the herb. Excavations unearthed 24 pipes with Cannabis sativa resins in Stratford (“Drugs”). By the 18th century, European demand for Cannabis had increased for different reasons. Mary Mathre writes that growing West European navies required hemp for rope and sails. This included the planting of Cannabis crops in colonial possessions for the home countries. Later, the U.S. attempted its own hemp farming to prevent any reliance on Europe (Mathre 43;44).

Underlying official needs for hemp was the growing curiosities of Western people. When Napoleon trekked North Africa, his troops became enthralled by Egyptian hashish (Mathre 44). Napoleon outlawed its use in Egypt, while his troops brought the practice back to France (“Timeline”). Between 1840–1900, medical publications in the U.S. on Cannabis thrived, with more than 100 articles describing the “therapeutics” of Cannabis (Mathre 45). During the Civil War, the U.S. Dispensatory noted Cannabis' ability to “cause sleep” and “reduce pain” (Mathre 46). But by 1915, opinions on Cannabis had dramatically shifted in the U.S.

Following the Mexican Revolution of 1910, Mexican immigrants flooded the U.S. Long accustomed to recreational use of “marihuana,” they introduced it to Americans (BBC). Cannabis as a medicine had begun to decline with the oncoming 20th century, as new synthetic medicines were introduced (Mathre 49). Now anti-drug activists, including police in major cities, began a campaign against marijuana and eventually succeeded in criminalizing the drug in the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 (Mathre 49). Though scientific evidence of the day pointed more to benefits than problems, and though accusations of death, insanity or crimes extending from the drug were more racism than fact, the drug was outlawed federally (Mathre 49). In 1970, following the cultural revolution of the 1960s, U.S. drug policy was made more stringent under the Controlled Substances Act (Mathre 50).

Some locales have decriminalized Cannabis use in recent years. The Netherlands has long been a model for legalization campaigners who reference the lower rates of drug use between Dutch and U.S. citizens. Though its legal in Netherlands, the U.S. has higher rates of drug abuse (“The Netherlands”). Recently Mexico decriminalized small amounts of Cannabis in an effort to curb drug violence and addiction rates (“Mexico Enacts”).  The U.N. estimates Cannabis to be the most prevalent recreational drug in the world, with 141 million people using it (United Nations). In 1996, California became the first U.S. state to decriminalize “medical cannabis” (Compassionate Use Act). Federal agents of the DEA continued to target medical marijuana dispensaries there until the Obama administration formally rescinded the policy in 2009 (Johnston). Today whole industries exist around recreational use. Universities, churches, pharmacies, and souvenir shops have grown around Californian Cannabis . The $2 billion industry has been taxed in some localities, with growing calls for legalization and taxation state-wide (McKinley).

Cannabis came from humble beginnings. Asian farmers grew and used the plant for various purposes. Its uses were localized except for as a fiber, which was valuable and more widespread. Medical uses were ascribed to the plant in Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and the Americas. Cannabis inhalation became associated with religious or ritualistic traditions in some areas, then became associated with the psychoactive properties in still others. Today its myriad of usages continues: underground drug trade is ever-present in countries where the herb is illegal, while mainstream medical communities continue to advocate its usefulness. U.S. state and federal drug laws remain contradictory and are enforced unfairly and inconsistently. Industries continue to embrace hemp fiber, perhaps even more today given its sustainability.


“Biodiesel Blend Mandated in Manitoba.” CBC. CBC News Online, 2 Nov. 2009. Web. 09 Nov. 2009.

Callaway, J.C. “Hempseed as Nutritional Resource: An Overview.” Euphytica 140 (2004): 65 – 72.

Compassionate Use Act of 1996. Pub L. 11362.5 of California Health and Safety Code. 5 Nov. 1996. Web. 12 Nov. 2009.

“Drugs Clue to Shakespeare's Genius.” CNN. CNN Online, 1 Mar. 2001. Web. 13 Nov. 2009.

Edwards, Kevin J., and Graeme Whittington. “Palynological Evidence for the Growing of Cannabis Sativa L. (Hemp) in Medieval and Historical Scotland.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 15.1 (1990): 60 – 69.

ElSohly, Mahmoud A. Marijuana and the Cannaboids. Totawana, New Jersey: Humana, 2007. Print.

Johnston, David, and Neil A. Lewis. “Obama Administration to Stop Raids on Medical Marijuana Dispensers.” New York Times 19 Mar. 2009: A20. Print.

Li, Hui-Lin. “An Archaeological and Historical Account of Cannabis in China.” Economic Botany 28.4 (1974): 437 – 448. JSTOR. Web. 10 Nov. 2009.

Mathre, Mary L. Cannabis in Medical Practice: A Legal, Historical, and Pharmacological Overview of the Therapeutic Use of Marijuana. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 1997. Web. 12 Nov. 2009.

McKinley, Jesse. “Push to Legalize Marijuana Gains Ground in California.” New York Times. New York Times, 27 Oct. 2009. Web. 13 Nov. 2009.

“Mexico Enacts 'Personal Use' Drug Law.” Associated Press. USA Today, 21 Aug. 2009. Web. 11 Nov. 2009.

Robinson, Rowan. The Great Book of Hemp: The Complete Guide to the Environmental, Commercial, and Medicinal Uses of the World's Most Extraordinary Plant. Rochester, Vermont: Park Street, 1996. Web. 9 Nov. 2009.

“The Netherlands Compared with the United States.” Common Sense for Drug Policy, 2008. Web. 12 Nov. 2009.

“Timeline: The Use of Cannabis.” BBC News. BBC Online, 2005. Web. 11 Nov. 2009.

United Nations, Cyber Schoolbus. “Briefing Papers.” UN Online. Web. 10 Nov. 2009.

Viegas, Jennifer. “World's Oldest Marijuana Stash Totally Busted.” MSNBC, 3 Dec. 2008. Web. 10 Nov. 2009.

The one lesson you can take from this short history? Marijuana ain't going away.

Call your Congress-critters. Let's legalize, regulate, and tax the sale, use, and production of marijuana. No more deficit. No more unnecessary jailings, shake-downs, convictions, families torn apart, cramped courts, and busied police pursuing ridiculous "crimes." Less border violence. Marijuana legalization = good foreign and domestic policy. There are so many reasons it's good -- and I know you know them!

Thanks for reading.

Update: I'm not a huge fan of firedoglake, but I gotta give them props for getting organized. They are behind the recent push for nation-wide legalization. Help out here: Sign the petition to end the war on marijuana.

Originally posted to fivefouranonymous on Tue Aug 03, 2010 at 03:21 PM PDT.


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