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A Short History of Cannabis

cannabis-history

Next week, Canada will celebrate 1 year since the nationwide legalization of recreational cannabis. Canada made history on October 17, 2018, when it became only the 2nd country in the world to do so. That’s surely an achievement to celebrate; but how did we get here? The history of cannabis in Canada – and the world – is long and complex. Let’s start from the beginning.

The Origins of Cannabis

Cannabis is believed to be one of the oldest plants ever cultivated, with archeological evidence suggesting that hemp was grown as early as 10,000 BC in China. Back then it was used primarily for making rope and textiles, as well as for medicinal and spiritual purposes.

A recent study discovered traces of compounds that match those found in cannabis inside a 2500-year old tomb in western China. This indicates that ancient civilizations burned cannabis as part of rituals to commemorate the dead. And not only were they burning it, they were likely getting high from it too – as the compounds discovered had higher levels of THC (the main psychoactive component of cannabis) than a typical wild cannabis plant, suggesting these primeval stoners may have been selectively breeding cannabis plants for high THC content.

Around 500 BC, there are records of people in the Caspian steppe (a region stretching from the northern shores of the Black Sea to southwestern Russia) consuming cannabis by gathering in a small tent and burning the plant in a bowl of hot stones. Ancient Greek historian Herodotus made reference to this in his book The Histories, one of the first examples of written history.

Cannabis history in India

Cannabis timeline

No cannabis timeline would be complete without discussing the rich history of cannabis in India. The earliest mention of cannabis in India comes from the Vedas, sacred Hindu texts written between 2,000 to 1,400 BC. According to the Vedas, cannabis was one of five sacred plants and was considered to be a source of joy and liberation.

Historically, the most common form of cannabis in India is called bhang – a mixture of cannabis buds and leaves that has been ground into a paste. The paste is typically added to food and drinks, or mixed with yogurt to make a milkshake-like beverage. Although cannabis is technically illegal in modern India, a legal loophole allows bhang to still be widely consumed across the country. It is commonly consumed as part of religious ceremonies such as Holi.

Arrival in the West

History of cannabis in the West

After being used for millennia in Asia, cannabis made its way to Africa and eventually Europe. The history of cannabis in Britain began around the 5th century, when it was brought there by Germanic tribes. Then, in the 16th century, cannabis was introduced to the western hemisphere by Spaniards who brought it to Chile where it was used for making textiles. Early settlers of North America quickly realized the advantages of using hemp for rope and fabrics, so much so that it became a legal requirement for farmers in Jamestown, Virginia to grow hemp in 1619. Even George Washington grew hemp!

Early Cannabis Restrictions

With so many potential uses, you might be wondering, why did cannabis ever become illegal? One of the earliest restrictions in cannabis history came from Soudoun Sheikouni, the Emir of Egypt, in 1378. He ordered the destruction of all cannabis plants and prohibited consumption – likely due to its use by Sufi Muslims, a group that was widely discriminated against.

In the US, restrictions against cannabis were passed by individual states as early as 1906. Then, in 1937, US Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act which effectively prohibited any non-medical use of cannabis. Medical use of cannabis was later also banned in 1970 with the passing of the Controlled Substances Act. The exact reasons for the criminalization of cannabis are numerous and often debated, with explanations ranging from political pressure from the timber industry to racial discrimination.

Cannabis in Canada

Cannabis in Canada

Canadian cannabis history began similarly to the United States, with early settlers growing cannabis as a cash crop. However, Canada was even quicker to criminalize cannabis on a national scale than its southern neighbour – with marijuana being added to the Schedule of Restricted Drugs in 1923 (although the first conviction for possession was not until 1937).

To put into perspective how usage and acceptance of cannabis has changed in Canada over the years: there were a total of 21 arrests for cannabis possession in 1960. By 1972, this number jumped to 50,000 arrests! In the same year, the Le Dain Commission released its groundbreaking report recommending the decriminalization of cannabis for personal use. The Prime Minister at the time, Pierre Trudeau, never implemented the report’s recommendations. Ironically, it was his son – Justin Trudeau – who championed the legalization of cannabis 46 years later.

Before cannabis became legal for recreational use in Canada, it was permitted for medical use for quite some time under various regulations. Legal access to medical cannabis was first granted in 1999 through an exception in the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. A 2000 court ruling found that individuals should have the right to possess marijuana for medical purposes, and the next year government passed the Marihuana Medical Access Regulations (MMAR), allowing individuals with the authorization of a healthcare practitioner to grow their own cannabis. Then, in 2013, the MMAR was replaced by the Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations (MMPR), which required patients to purchase their cannabis from a handful of commercial producers licensed by Health Canada. This was later replaced by the Access to Cannabis for Medical Purposes Regulations (ACMPR) in 2016, which granted patients the ability to grow their own cannabis or designate an individual to do so for them. Finally, on October 17, 2018, cannabis for recreational use became legal with the passing of the Cannabis Act.

This October 17, as we celebrate the 1-year anniversary of the legalization of cannabis in Canada, it’s important to take a moment and think about how we got here. Many cannabis advocates and activists have faced punishment for their roles in promoting acceptance of the plant, and we have them to thank for paving the road to legalization. We still have a long way to go in terms of completely destigmatizing the use of cannabis, but compared to the rest of the world, Canada is well ahead of the game.


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