Cannabis: A Lost History
- Cannabis, better known as marijuana, has been used for its medicinal properties for thousands of years. Historical remnants from all around the world reveal the importance of cannabis in medicine and spirituality
- The earliest written references to cannabis are found in the Chinese Materia Medica, written by Shen Nung around 2800 B.C. Nung documented 100 conditions that responded well to cannabis, including gout and rheumatism
- For thousands of years, cannabis remained one of the 50 essential plants used in Traditional Chinese Medicine. The Vedas, the sacred text of India, also lists cannabis as one of five sacred plants
- The ancient Egyptians, Persians, and Greeks also used cannabis in a variety of ways, including medicinally and for spiritual upliftment
- The marijuana plant contains more than 60 different cannabinoids. Two primary ones are CBD and THC. Cannabinoids interact with your body by way of naturally occurring cannabinoid receptors embedded in cell membranes throughout your body
Cannabis, better known as marijuana, has been used for its medicinal properties for thousands of years. It’s been heralded as a “cure-all,” revered for its healing properties, particularly for pain but also as a potential anticancer treatment. Marijuana was a popular botanical medicine in the 19th and 20th centuries, common in U.S. pharmacies of the time.
It wasn’t until 1970 that the herb was declared a Schedule 1 controlled substance in the U.S., a classification reserved for drugs with “high potential for abuse” and “no accepted medical use.” Three years later the Drug Enforcement Agency was formed to enforce the newly created drug schedules, and the fight against marijuana use began. In light of its history as a global panacea for all sorts of ills, it’s classification as a controlled substance is particularly unjustified.
As noted in the documentary “Cannabis: A Lost History,” written, directed and narrated by Chris Rice, marijuana has been “an integral part of human civilization,” featuring in ancient Japanese cave paintings, as well as Chinese and Siberian burial rites dating back to 3000 B.C. Based on the evidence — especially the discovery that the human body is equipped with a cannabinoid system — it appears our relationship with cannabis goes back to the very dawn of the human species.
Historical remnants from all around the world also reveal the importance of cannabis in medicine and spirituality. For example, Taoist monks in ancient China burned cannabis as incense, and consumed it with ginseng — a combination thought to open your psychic centers, allowing you to see the future. Cannabis was also revered as sacred in Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, and Buddhism.
Cannabinoids and the Cannabinoid Receptor System
The marijuana plant contains more than 60 different cannabinoids; chemical compounds the human body is uniquely equipped to respond to. The two primary ones are cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the latter of which is the psychoactive component. Cannabinoids interact with your body by way of naturally occurring cannabinoid receptors embedded in cell membranes throughout your body.
There are cannabinoid receptors in your brain, lungs, liver, kidneys, immune system and more; the therapeutic (and psychoactive) properties of marijuana occur when a cannabinoid activates a cannabinoid receptor. Your body also has naturally occurring endocannabinoids similar to THC that stimulate your cannabinoid receptors and produce a variety of important physiologic processes.
So, your body is actually hard-wired to respond to cannabinoids through this unique cannabinoid receptor system. We still don’t know exactly how far its impact on your health reaches, but to date, it’s known that cannabinoid receptors play an important role in many body processes, including metabolic regulation, pain, anxiety, bone growth, and immune function.
The Earliest History of Cannabis
According to the featured video, the earliest written references to cannabis are found in the Chinese Materia Medica, said to be written by Shen Nung around 2800 B.C. The oldest known copy of this book dates back to 50 B.C. Nung is one of three “celestial emperors” revered in the Chinese culture. “Half emperor, half deity, he is said to have ruled over China long before written history,” Rice says.
Nung is credited with inventing agriculture — including the hoe, plow and irrigation — as well as acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Often depicted draped in leaves and chewing on various plants, Nung was the first pharmacologist, experimenting with and recording the health effects of plants. Nung documented around 100 different conditions that responded well to cannabis, including gout, rheumatism, malaria, and absentmindedness.
Before Nung declared its medicinal attributes, the cannabis plant, called “ma” in Chinese, had been used for centuries in the production of textiles, paper, rope, and pottery. Around 200 A.D., a Chinese physician named Hua Tuo performed the first surgery using an anesthetic — a formula called Ma Fei San, which translates to “cannabis boiling powder.”
For thousands of years, cannabis remained one of the 50 essential plants used in TCM. It was only removed from widespread use in recent times due to its controversial legal status. The film also reviews the history of cannabis in Indian culture. In the Vedas, the sacred text of India, cannabis (bhang) is listed as one of five sacred plants, and the Hindu god Shiva is referred to as “Lord of the bhang,” meaning the Lord of cannabis.
According to the Mahanirvana, “bhang is consumed in order to liberate oneself,” and liberation is the path to immortality. The ancient Egyptians, Persians, and Greeks also used cannabis in a variety of ways, including medicinally and for spiritual upliftment. References to cannabis are even found in Islamic, Judaic and Christian texts, although an error in translation appears to have crept into the Bible along the way. The original Hebrew term “kaneh bosm,” or cannabis, is found several times in the Old Testament.
In Exodus, chapter 30, God instructs Moses on how to make a holy anointing oil: “Take for yourself choice spices: 500 shekels of pure myrrh, half as much fragrant cinnamon, 250 shekels of kaneh bosm and 500 shekels of cassia and mix these with olive oil.” In more modern Bibles, kaneh bosm has been translated as sweet calamus. The problem is this plant does not have the properties that the Bible ascribes to kaneh bosm.
According to the film, a 12th-century painting found in a Sicilian basilica also “appears to show Jesus near a pot leaf.” The painting is titled “Jesus healing the blind.” Interestingly enough, “modern scientific studies have since proven that cannabis delays retinal degeneration,” Rice says.
The American History of Cannabis
In the U.S., the prohibition of marijuana began to turn in 1996 when California became the first state to legalize medical cannabis. Since then, many others have followed. In 2012, Colorado and Washington’s state became the first states to legalize its recreational use. Today, the majority of Americans support cannabis either as a medicine, for recreational use, or both. Surveys show at least 4 in 10 Americans have tried marijuana, while nearly 60 percent support full legalization.
A 2013 survey found a majority of physicians — 76 percent — also approve of the use of medical marijuana. CNN’s chief medical correspondent and neurosurgeon Sanjay Gupta also made a highly publicized reversal on his marijuana stance after the production of his two-part series “Weed,” which aired in 2014.
The American history of cannabis goes back to our Founding Fathers, who cultivated the plant for industrial purposes. George Washington, for example, is said to have grown more than 100 hemp plants at his home in Mount Vernon, Virginia. Cannabis is called hemp when being used for its fibers, which are extracted from the stem and constructed into rope, clothing, and paper.
Hemp plants are low in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) levels and therefore do not get you high. During the 17th century, hemp was viewed as an important cash crop. It was used for rope by navies around the world, and as a thick durable linen ideal for clothing and packaging heavy materials. Hemp seed oil was used in soaps, paints, and varnishes.
The battle that has raged over marijuana is a long and arduous one. You can read a brief history of marijuana prohibition in the Huffington Post.5 Still, movements to legalize marijuana have persisted throughout, starting as early as 1973, when Oregon became the first state to decriminalize cannabis. The most successful movement to date and the one that produced the first legal marijuana market in decades is the medical marijuana movement.
Medical cannabis is now legal in 30 U.S. states, the majority of which allow limited use of medical marijuana under certain medical circumstances, although some limit medical cannabis to oils or pills only. Eight states have legalized it for recreational use.
A number of municipalities have also created their own marijuana rules, either decriminalizing it, legalizing it, enacting rules that direct city law enforcement to cease arresting individuals for marijuana possession, or making cannabis offenses the lowest priority for law enforcement.