The cannabis plant originally emerged in Central Asia, before it found its way into Africa, Europe and the United States of America. The first known evidence of cannabis in the UK was excavated in York, where seeds were found in a well associated with a Viking settlement dating back to the 10th century. Due to its fast-growing nature and relatively easy cultivation, hemp was soon grown throughout Europe for an abundance of uses. In fact, by 1533 King Henry VIII had entirely mandated the cultivation of hemp.

The hemp of the time was low in THC and primarily cultivated for its fibers, which were used to make textiles, paper, rope and much more. But the history of recreational cannabis is far more entertaining, with hashish dating all the way back to the 12th century. At the turn of the millennium, hashish began to make its way from Persia to Arabia, and was then introduced to Egypt by “mystic Islamic travelers.”

Smoking however, did not gain popularity until tobacco was introduced, and prior to this hashish was consumed as an edible. In 1596 Jan Huyghen van Linschoten, described the Egyptian use of hashish as follows “they would eat five pieces, (each) as big as a Chestnut (or larger); This is used by the common people, because it is of a small price, and it is no wonder, that such virtue proceedeth from the Hempe, for that according to Galens opinion, Hempe excessively filleth the head.”

Recreational Marijuana and Old School Icons

The first mention of cannabis to have been documented in Western literature, is attributed to the Greek historian Herodotus (425 BC), who wrote: “The Scythians put the seeds of this hemp under the bags, upon the burning stones; and immediately a more agreeable vapor is emitted than from the incense burnt in Greece. The company extremely transported with the scent, howl aloud.”

While there is scant evidence pointing towards the very first usage of Hashish or marijuana, it is known that Christopher Columbus took cannabis seeds with him on his expeditions in the 1400s. His reasoning was that if they were to be shipwrecked at some point, they would still be able to plant the seeds and cultivate the intoxicating plant.

When Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt in 1798, alcohol was nowhere to be found due to the Islamic beliefs of the country. However, hashish was available in abundance and his troops were soon smoking it up in hand-rolled tobacco joints. According to reports, the troops found the intoxicating plant “to their liking,” and eventually Napoleon had to ban the soldiers from getting high.

Around the same time, George Washington (the first American president and “founding father of weed”) was cultivating massive weed fields on his farm. According to the Washington Post, in the president’s private journal he dotingly referred to the plantation as his “Muddy Hole,” and complained about it taking too long to separate the female and male plants.

But George Washington was not the only US president to have had a disposition for the finer things in life. Abraham Lincoln confessed his habit in a letter written to the head of the Hohner Harmonica company in the following extract “Two of my favorite things are sitting on my front porch smoking a pipe of sweet hemp, and playing my Hohner harmonica!”

Across the globe, Queen Elizabeth of the United Kingdom was also a fan of MJ, to the extent that she would fine landowners who didn’t grow the intoxicating plant. It was reported that if a property exceeded 60 acres, the owners were (by law of the Queen) required to grow cannabis. She is known to have kept a large personal stash for both medicinal and recreational purposes.

Queen Victoria too was pro-cannabis, and is known to have ingested cannabis tinctures as a means of relieving her menstrual cramps. In a note written by her private doctor, Sir J. Russel Reynolds, it is recorded “When pure and administered carefully, [cannabis] is one of the most valuable medicines we possess.” He prescribed it to her as a painkiller as well, following her laborious childbirth.

Medical History of Marijuana

In light of the fact that cannabis is not indigenous to Europe, there is not much evidence regarding its use in the West. It was only in the 17th century, when international trading took off, that the first documentation mentioning cannabis emerged. In 1621, Robert Burton (an English clergyman) wrote a book titled “The Anatomy of Melancholy,” in which he recommended marijuana as a treatment for depression.

By the 1800s, cannabis had emerged in Western Medicine and was used for a wide range of therapeutic treatments. Irish doctor, Sir William Brooke O’ Shaughnessy, was among the first medical practitioners to have studied cannabis, which he did whilst practicing medicine in Bengal as an officer for the East India Company. His comments on cannabis date back all the way to the 1830s when he experimented with Hindu Kush, indigenous to India.

After some pretty questionable experiments on animals and even children, O’Shaughnessy concluded that cannabis was an amazing drug. He wrote that cannabis extracts can assist in reducing vomiting and stomach pains in patients suffering from cholera. He also found it beneficial in the treatment of rabies, rheumatism and in cases of delirium tremens. The doctor was the first known person to have discovered the properties of THC (although he didn’t know what it was at the time).

He discovered that different strains and dosages, produced varying effects. Back in the day, weed was mixed with wine before being administered in medicine. It was O’Shaughnessy who first brought medical cannabis to England on his return from Bengal in 1842, and so he takes full credit for the relieving of Queen Victoria’s PMS! By the late 1800s, The Provincial Medical and Surgical Journal (now the British Medical Journal) had published a front page article on the plant, and with that cannabis entered the world of mainstream medicine.

In fact, cannabis extracts were sold widely in pharmacies throughout the United States and Europe. The drug gained popularity as a wonder cure for conditions including stomach issues, menstrual pain, headaches, tetanus, cholera, joint pain and a host of other conditions. Perhaps most relevant, is a 1943 medical article documenting the effective treatment of seizures in a 40-day-old baby. It was recorded that the infant required around 130 drops of cannabis oil each day, which reduced the seizures considerably.

In the same article, it was also reported that a med school student had volunteered as a guinea pig for testing. The paper reported that the student consumed a mere 10 drops of the oil before having delusions that he was a king, and ordering his peers around! It was only much later that scientists that THC was the compound responsible for marijuana’s medicinal magic. As the psychoactive compound is behind weed’s mind-altering effects, THC also interacts with regions of the mind that reduce nausea and promote a healthy appetite.

The British Empire and Cannabis

In the 1800s, Britain had expanded its territories to include Southern Africa – where the recreational use of marijuana was wildly popular. By the 1840s the use of cannabis for intoxication had slowly spread throughout the various countries associated with the British Empire. In the 1850s the plant made its debut in Jamaica, introduced by Indian servants during the rule of both nations. As a result, much of the cannabis culture found in Jamaica today is based on Indian terms such as “ganja.”

British officials raised concerns about the impact of marijuana that lead to attempted condemnation in colonies, and especially in British India. The cannabis plant became associated with insanity and in 1891, Mark Steward MP declared that “the lunatic asylums of India are filled with ganja smokers.” This comment influenced the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission report of 1894, which found that marijuana could be dangerous when used to excess, but was still beneficial as a treatment for malaria.

Regardless of the health benefits associated with the plant medicine, a stigma developed as the drug came to be associated with psychotic behavior. This lead to medical practitioners losing interest in cannabis as a medicine, even more so once the syringe was invented. Drugs such as morphine were easier to administer as a liquid, while cannabis was (at the time) insoluble and unable to dissolve in water.

However, there were far more damaging comments made in regards to cannabis in the 1900s, when Henry Anslinger (an American prohibition officer) made racist remarks that demonized both cannabis and a number of races. He is reported to have said “There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their satanic music jazz and swing results from marijuana use.”

Over time, his personal vendetta against cannabis and people became a political smoking gun, sparking the beginning of prohibition that ultimately led to the ban in 1928…

To be continued


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