Short History of Cannabis


For over thousands of years, people have used cannabis for industrial, recreational and medicinal uses. In Egypt, hemp was grown along the banks of the Nile and used to produce fibers for building materials. Additionally, some of the earliest recorded medical uses of cannabis come from ancient China. In China, cannabis resin was used along with wine as an anesthetic during major surgery. Similarly, the earliest reports of recreational use come from China.

The ancient Indian writings of the Vedas tells a story about the god Shiva finding refuge under a cannabis plant after having a devastating argument. As Shiva calmed down, he ate the leaves of the plant. Soon cannabis became his favorite food, and he was known as the lord of Bhang. In India Bhang is a drink served at ceremonies and celebrations containing cannabis.

By the end of the 19th century, the Indian Hemp and Drug Commission investigated the use of cannabis in India. The commission concluded that cannabis is essential to the culture and religion of India. Moreover, the commission reasoned that along with religious and cultural uses, cannabis also has medical benefits. The commission found that the plant helped to relieve symptoms of dysentery, sunstroke, clears phlegm, stimulates digestion, and sharpens the mind.

A doctor named William Brooke O’Shaughnessy first introduced cannabis to western medicine in 1839. Shortly after O’Shaughnessy started working for the British East Indian Company in Calcutta, he began to investigate the indigenous plants of the region. The therapeutic effects of cannabis became known to O’Shaughnessy soon after interviewing native people. Through experiments, the doctor soon found cannabis relieves pain, calms nerves; has anti-inflammatory, anti-spastic, and anti-convulsive properties. In 1856 O’Shaughnessy was knighted by Queen Victoria for his work on Cannabis.

Sadly, in America Cannabis was/is used as a political weapon for control and fear. In the early 20th century Harry Anslinger, the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (today’s DEA), used fear-based race propaganda to frighten American’s into the prohibition of cannabis. Harry Anslinger is quoted to say:

“Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.”

“There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz, and swing result from marijuana usage. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.”

“The primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races.”

In 1937 after years of misleading stories in local newspapers reporting about “killer weed,” along with Anslinger’s fear-based race propaganda, Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act. The Marijuana Tax Act not only banned the use of cannabis for recreation but also banned cannabis for medical research. The Act crippled the ability of scientists to study cannabis for the following 70+ years worldwide. Only recently are people rediscovering the therapeutic and enrichment properties of cannabis.


Abel, E. L. (1980). Marihuana: The first twelve thousand years. New York: Springer.

Brecher, E. M. (1973). Licit and illicit drugs: The consumers union report on narcotics, stimulants, depressants, inhalants, hallucinogens, and marijuana

O’Shaughnessy, W. B. (1839). On the preparations of the indian hemp, or gunjah: Cannabis indica their effects on the animal system in health, and their utility in the treatment of tetanus and other convulsive diseases”. Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, 8(839)

The science of marijuana, 2nd edn. (2008). British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, 67(2), 268-268.