A Complete Guide to the History of Cannabis
The history of cannabis stretched back several centuries B.C.E. Long before cannabis prohibition swept America, the herb was cultivated by ancient societies, used in religious rituals, and drunk in battle. Throughout cannabis history, religious leaders understood and documented the herb's benefits, while occasionally more secular authorities attempted to ban or restrict it.
Explore these critical moments in the history of cannabis to better understand the culture behind the world's oldest crop.
A Brief Overview of the History of Cannabis
- Weed is the oldest known cultivated plant because it has myriad applications and grows easily in a variety of climates.
- It’s thought to have first grown in the steppes of Mongolia and Siberia.
- 2000–1400 B.C.E.: Sacred Hindu texts The Vedas mentions cannabis (called bhang) as a way to relieve anxiety and promote happiness.
- 1000 B.C.E.: Earliest evidence of cannabis for religious ceremonies was found in the Middle East (Persia, Iraq).
- 500 B.C.E: Early example of cannabis cultivation in East Asia for use during religious rituals. At around the same time, a Greek historian reported that the Scythians smoked the plant at funerals.
- 1000 C.E.: Sufis and other religious groups in Persia use cannabis in religious ceremonies and spread it throughout the empire.
- There is evidence that ancient cultures used cannabis for rope, fabric, and food around the same time period. Today, we associate these uses with hemp.
Pictured: Statue of lord Shiva and Nandi in Namchi sikkim, India.
History of Cannabis in India
The earliest accounts of cannabis use date back to The Vedas, a sacred Hindu text compiled between the years of 2000 and 1400 B.C.E. In it, the herb is described as a sacred plant used to promote happiness, decrease anxiety, and lose fear.
The text also associates the herb with Shiva, a god, who discovered the plant when he fell asleep under its leaves. Shiva is also known as the Long of Bhang for that reason.
The history of cannabis in India is also secular: During medieval battles, warriors would drink bhang before fighting.
In the 1890s, the British began an extensive study on the use of cannabis in India. They were concerned that the plant produced psychosis among Indian people, and appointed a commission, called the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission, to review the study’s findings. The commission found that the history of cannabis is ancient in India and less harmful than alcohol.
4 Terms for Weed
- Hashish : The Middle Eastern term for cannabis. Specifically, it’s compressed, potent herb (also known as hash).
- Bhang: The Indian term for Hashish that dates back to 2000 B.C.E. Bhang is either a drink infused with cannabis or small balls. In both cases, it may contain other herbs, milk or yogurt.
- Ganja: Another Hindu term for weed, ganja is made from the flower of the plant — and much stronger than Bhang.
- Chara: Another Hindu form of weed that closely resembles hashish in its strength and consistency.
Pictured: Bhang, or cannabis rolled into small balls with dairy and other spices.
Evidence of Cannabis Cultivation Dates Back to 500 B.C.E. in Asia
The earliest instances of cannabis cultivation trace back to Central Asia in 500 B.C.E. In fact, it’s one of the oldest cultivated plants in Asia, according to a botany study published in Science Advances. They may have used it in rituals and other celebrations — especially of a religious nature.
The history of cannabis stretches through ancient Russian and Scythian society. According to Herodotus, a Greek scholar from 500 BCE, the Scythians smoked weed as part of burial ceremonies.
Note: The History of Cannabis vs. Hemp
Today, we have a legal distinction between cannabis and hemp: Hemp is cannabis that contains a maximum of 0.3% THC — the psychoactive compound in cannabis that makes the smoker high.
In ancient times, they didn’t have such laws, but they did distinguish between cannabis for psychoactive purposes and cannabis for food or fabric. This is because hemp and cannabis are the same plant — the scientific name for which is Cannabis Sativa — but have slightly different cannabinoid and terpene makeups.
Pictured: Mausoleum for Sufi mystic Shah Nematollah Vali in Mahan, Kerman Iran
Middle Eastern Cannabis History
Cannabis was especially prevalent in Middle Eastern societies because it wasn’t forbidden by the Quran or laws. In the year 1000, Fatima Kind al-Hakim banned the sale of alcohol in Egypt and Syria — hashish was exempt.
The first instances of consuming weed occurred in Iraqi and Persian societies. Initially, it was mostly used in religious ceremonies in the communities closer to its origin: speculated to be the steppes near what is now Mongolia.
PUT IN MAP OF ANCIENT PERSI
It’s important to note the scope and influence of Ancient Persia before the Mongol invasion in 1219. At the time of Malik Shah I (1055–1092) during the Seljuk Empire, the Persian empire was at its largest — stretching from the Hindu Kush mountains in India to the Persia Gulf to the Mediterranean.
Persian Cannabis History Stretches Back to 1000 B.C.E.
Humans have been ingesting the cannabis plant for over a millennium. But research stipulates that ancient people didn’t just smoke weed for its psychoactive effects (though they did that too): They also considered the plant to be a medicine and useful material for making essentials like rope and fabric.
The earliest instance of cannabis use — called hashish — dates back to India and Iran around 1000 BCE. It spread throughout the region through Iraq, Syria, North Africa, Asia Minor, and Spain. In the 900s, an Arab doctor named Ibn Wahshiyah wrote a book entitled, On Poisons. In it, he detailed the potential dangers of mixing hashish with other compounds.
Cannabis Was Used for Religious and Mystical Ceremonies
There are two well-known instance of cannabis use in groups in Ancient Persia.
- An account from Marco Polo details how religious leader Hasan-I-Saban even gave a drug to his followers. Hasan-I-Saban started his controversial order shortly after the year 1000 AD. As his followers were named the Hashiahiyans, historians can all but confirm that the substance was hashish.
- The Sufis — practitioners of Sufism, which is considered ‘mystical Islam’ — were known for using hashish in religious ceremonies. They introduced it as far as Egypt and Syria. The Sufis believed that the herb would bring you closer to God and inspire peace (some smokers today would agree).
The History of Mainstream Cannabis Use in Egypt
Cannabis became even more common in the 13th century when the Mameluks overthrew the rules in Egypt and Syria. In the year 1571, the Ottoman Empire came to power.
The period from the 13th to the 19th century mark a critical moment in the history of cannabis: While rulers indulged in the herb, the oppressed agrarian laborers took it to get through their challenging lives.
At various points in history, rules attempted to stem hashish’s popularity by banning it.