Ever find yourself high as a kite and wondering about the cannabis origin story or who discovered marijuana? You take another hit of some of the strongest weed strains and wonder “when was marijuana discovered?” because there should definitely be a worldwide holiday in their honor!
The history of marijuana dates back thousands and thousands of years; though its usage hasn’t always been the same. Today, marijuana is most commonly smoked and is used for medical and recreational purposes. Instead of growing marijuana to get high, many ancient civilizations used it medicinally or spiritually. So if you thought weed made its glorious appearance in the 20th century, think again!
Before we break into the cannabis origin story and who discovered marijuana, how much do you really know about Mary Jane?
What Is Marijuana?
Marijuana is the byproduct of the dried tops, leaves, stems, and seeds of the cannabis plant. The cannabis plant, Cannabis sativa, is one of the oldest crops known to man making the history of marijuana lengthy.
When smoked, as is common today, marijuana gets users high. The kind of high can vary depending on the levels of CBD and THC in any particular strain. Though recreational use is popular, medicinal purposes are also a large percentage of marijuana use. There is evidence that CBD, or cannabidiol, is helpful in pain relief, reduced inflammation, nausea, and treatment of chronic conditions. CBD itself does not get you high.
THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is a psychoactive compound in marijuana that produces a mind-altering effect. This can be useful for those suffering from anxiety, insomnia, etc. and is the part of marijuana that produces a high.
A marijuana myth: raw marijuana can get you high. Ingesting raw marijuana won’t get you high, however. It has to be heated and transformed into Delta-9 THC before producing the high-inducing effects. The exception to this is hash. Hash is usually decarboxylated and will give a strong high if ingested.
Who Discovered Marijuana and Where Did It Come From?
The cannabis origin story is mostly inferred by historians as many uses of marijuana predate modern recorded history. So who discovered marijuana? When was marijuana discovered?
Though first labeled Cannabis sativa in 1753 by Carl Linnaeus, there isn’t a definitive answer to who discovered marijuana originally. Historians have learned that there is a long history of marijuana usage. Believed to have originated in Central Asia, cannabis usage goes back 12,000 years. This makes marijuana one of the oldest cultivated crops in the history of mankind. Quite an answer to “when was marijuana discovered?”!
In a study written by Barney Warf, he writes, “It likely flourished in the nutrient-rich dump sites of prehistoric hunters and gatherers.” Burned cannabis seeds and mummified marijuana have been found in Siberia and the Xinjiang region dating back to between 3000 B.C. and 2500 B.C. Warf writes about cannabis origin that it moved from Asia to the Middle East and Africa, to Europe, and eventually the New World. Though unknown as to who discovered marijuana first, it’s clear it spread everywhere!
As a medicinal drug, the first recorded use in the history of marijuana is in 4000 B.C. It was used for its pain-relieving qualities even then. It is said that Emperor Shen Nung of China used is in 2737 B.C. By 100 A.D. China had come up with over 100 uses for marijuana in medicine. There may be no individual recorded who discovered marijuana but the Chinese certainly explored its uses!
Marijuana’s Movement to India
From China, the history of marijuana shows it moved to the Korean peninsula, and then so the South Asian subcontinent. India saw its cannabis origin between 2000 B.C. and 1000 B.C. developing widespread usage for both medicinal and spiritual means, India is an explosion of use in the history of marijuana.
The earliest mentions of marijuana have been found in The Vedas. These are sacred Hindu texts and may have been put together between 2000 B.C. and 1400 B.C. In The Vedas, marijuana is classified as one of five sacred plants. It is also said that the Hindu god Shiva rested under a cannabis plant. Cannabis, known as bhang in India, is said to have rejuvenated Shiva as he tasted the leaves upon waking. It became his favorite plant and he became known as the Lord of Bhang. This name is given to a drink created by ancient Indian peoples around 1000 B.C. The drink, also called bhang, is a mixture of milk, marijuana, and other ingredients and is still popular in India today. Perhaps in a cultural sense, Shiva is who discovered marijuana for the Hindu faith!
It is believed that the ancient people of India may have also used cannabis as a treatment for leprosy, fever, etc.
Cannabis in Other Cultures
Ancient China and India were not the only cultures who discovered marijuana uses. Ancient Egyptians are said to have used it to treat glaucoma and inflammation amongst other ailments. Trace amounts of marijuana have also been found in mummies as well as depicted in ancient paintings of gods. The ancient Egyptian goddess Seshat, goddess of wisdom, is frequently painted with a marijuana leaf above her head. This has lead historians to believe marijuana use was likely a regular part of Egyptian life and also used in religious rituals.
Ancient Greeks were also more interested in using marijuana than asking when marijuana was discovered! In writings by the ancient Greek Herodotus, he wrote of the Scythians and their usage of hemp seeds. He describes their usage of the seeds for both ritual and recreational purposes. A famous passage states, “The Scythians, as I said, take some of this hemp-seed, and, creeping under the felt coverings, throw it upon the red-hot stones; immediately it smokes, and gives out such a vapour as no Grecian vapour-bath can exceed; the Scyths, delighted, shout for joy, and this vapour serves them instead of a water bath…”
Known for traveling far and wide on horses, the Scythians are often credited with the spread of marijuana in the ancient world. This may not answer “when was marijuana discovered” but does narrow the timeframe of its major spread to between the 8th century B.C. and the 4th-century C.E.
Making our way to Europe, ancient Roman medical books from 70 C.E. label marijuana as a cure for earaches and used to suppress sexual desire. Not just using the flower, Romans were known to have boiled the roots of the cannabis plant to use in the treatment of pain and chronic conditions.
Cannabis and the Middle East
The Middle East has a complicated relationship with marijuana. It appears to be less concerned about who discovered marijuana and is tough on anyone caught using it. Though undeniably part of their culture for many thousands of years, it is forbidden by Islam (though not directly mentioned). Turkey, having been occupied by various civilizations throughout history, is particularly interesting in this regard. Hemp cultivation there has been dated to 1000 B.C. and historical medical texts by Greek and Islamic physicians have mentions of its applications. Cannabis and hashish, another product commonly sourced from the Middle East (though illegal), was commonly used during the Ottoman Empire. In a turn of events, however, Turkey became a vocal proponent of global bans on marijuana in 1925.
Marijuana in the New World
This brings us to the new world. Perhaps the largest fluctuation over the centuries, marijuana in North America, specifically the US, has gone from mandatory to illegal and partially back again.
Though Native Americans had mind-altering plants and hemp of a different species, the cannabis plant was brought here. In the 1600s, growing hemp was highly encouraged in the colonies. In fact, in 1619 the Virginia Assembly passed legislation requiring all farmers to grow it! Hemp was even traded as legal tender in Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. It continued to be a highly-cultivated crop, even fascinating George Washington, the first President of the United States. He wrote of his interest in medicinal uses of marijuana in his private journals in 1765.
Into the late 19th century, marijuana was finding itself an ingredient in medications aimed at pain relief, opioid withdrawal, etc. It was found in many over-the-counter substances. As time progressed into the 1900s, racism and ignorance led to the prohibition of marijuana in the United States. The 1910s arrival of Mexican immigrants smoking marijuana recreationally resulted in many unfounded prejudices of it being linked to crime. The so-called “Mexican Menace” and racism stemming from it preceded 25 states outlawing marijuana between 1914 and 1925. By 1936, all states had marijuana regulation laws passed.
In 1936, cult film Reefer Madness came out. This propaganda film was released just in time to lead to the 1937 passing of the Marijuana Tax Act, effectively criminalizing marijuana. Following a string of legal changes and new laws for marijuana violations, a counterculture grew. This counterculture would become the 1960s culture of college students, hippies, and free-spirits who saw marijuana for the harmless high it is.
Marijuana was classified as a Schedule I drug in 1970 by the Controlled Substances Act. In following decades, marijuana was given equal punishment to heroin and subjected to the “war on drugs.” It wasn’t until 1996 that California passed Prop 215, legalizing medical marijuana on the state level.
Since then, society has evolved and we are seeing an international relaxation on marijuana laws little by little. As of 2018, 9 states allow legal recreational weed use by adults 21 and older while 30 states allow medicinal marijuana. Most recently, Canada has joined the ranks of countries to fully legalize recreational use of marijuana. As the tides continue to turn, more and more are sure to join!
Evidently, the cannabis origin story is ancient and diverse. Though we don’t have specific answers to “who discovered marijuana?” or “when was marijuana discovered?” countless cultures embrace it. In one way or another, cannabis has been intertwined with human history for ages. Its medicinal purposes were utilized as long ago at 4000 B.C.
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