Marijuana has a rich history. California’s legalization of medical marijuana through Proposition 215, and the public debate surrounding it, has brought a renewed interest in the cannabis sativa plant from which marijuana is harvested. The growing public acceptance of medicinal marijuana is helping to dispel myths about cannabis.
Only recently has marijuana been treated like a dangerous drug. Ancient cultures appreciated the many practical and medicinal uses of cannabis. As a food, as a fiber, and as a medicinal preparation, cannabis has a fascinating history.
The history of marijuana use goes back more than ten thousand years to where it appears to have originated: in China. Hemp rope imprints on broken pottery dated at about 10,000 B.C. show one of the earliest known uses of the plant. Cannabis was widely grown and cultivated in ancient China.
The oldest knows Neolithic culture in China made clothing, fishing nets, and ropes from the hemp fibers separated from the stems of Cannabis plants. The fibers could be spun into yarn or woven into cloth. Hemp fibers were used beginning in the second or first century B.C. to make the first paper, which was very sturdy and durable.
Cannabis seeds were counted as one of the “five grains” of ancient China, along with barley, rice, wheat, and soybeans. Marijuana seeds were roasted or used to make meal. Cannabis seeds could also be cooked in porridge. These marijuana seeds remained an important part of the Chinese diet until they were replaced with higher quality grains in the 10th Century.
The ancient Chinese people learned to press marijuana seeds to obtain the oil, which could be used for cooking, lamps, or lubrication. The leftover cannabis residue provided feed for domestic animals.
Medicinal marijuana was also used in ancient China. China’s oldest known pharmacological work described marijuana preparations to treat conditions from constipation to malaria. Marijuana treatments included grinding the roots into a paste for treating pain. Chinese surgeon Hua To even used the cannabis plant for surgical anesthesia during the second century.
The earliest records of the psychoactive effects of marijuana are also found in China, dating back to around 2000 B.C. This document, Materia Medica Sutra, notes that the cannabis seed “if taken in excess” will allow the user to see spirits. “If taken over a long-term, it makes one communicate with spirits and lightens one’s body.” Later writers, such as 5th Century Chinese physician T’ao Hung Ching, believed that the hallucinatory effects of cannabis, combined with ginseng, would allow users to see into the future.
California marijuana laws are helping to restore cannabis to its rightful place as a useful and medicinally valuable plant.