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Demystifying Cannabis (Part I)

This is part 1 of a 4 part series where we try to break down cannabis and explain each part in detail. In part 1 we will go through the history of cannabis. Learn its origins and see how it spread across the world and it’s history with India.

Part I – History of Cannabis

From prehistoric times, to ancient china, to the rest of the world, cannabis has been used and its use has been well documented. It was, for the most part used in medicinal and spiritual purposes. Only in recent history did the idea that cannabis is an evil plant and the prohibition of the same came into picture. For most of history cannabis was revered. Just look at the relationship of cannabis and India. In India, during the festival of Holi, you can find bhang almost everywhere, which is an edible that dates back to 1000 BC. The Hindu god Shiva, who is one of most revered gods in Hindu mythology, also consumed cannabis to feel good and help calm himself. Yet somehow, even after being so deeply intertwined with Indian culture, cannabis is still banned. This one plant has a long and fascinating history that can be traced all around the world.

But how did this one plant travel all over the world?

Image from researchgate.net

According to Barney Warf, author of “High Points: An Historical Geography of Cannabis”, the plant is believed to have evolved on the steppes of Central Asia, specifically in the regions that is now Mongolia and southern Siberia although others have also suggested the Huang He River valley, the Hindu Kush mountains, South Asia, or Afghanistan as possible source areas. From Neolithic China, cannabis found its way to Korea and Japan around approximately 2000 BC and was cultivated by Chulmun coastal farmers in Korea an in japan used in rope imprinted pottery.

Cannabis was carried into the South Asian subcontinent between 2000 and 1000 BC, most likely from the Aryan invasions. It’s speculated that cannabis may have been used to prepare soma, a drink widely used in the Aryan world described in the Rig Veda. While in China cannabis was mostly used in war, writing, food and medicine. It wasn’t until India came upon cannabis that it became a widespread religious and medicinal intoxicant.

Cannabis was found in an ancient Chinese cemetery

Cannabis came to the Middle East between 2000 B.C. and 1400 B.C., and was probably used by a nomadic Indo European group called the Scythians. The Scythians also likely carried the drug into southeast Russia and Ukraine, as they occupied both territories for years.

Aryan merchants, warriors, and traders introduced cannabis into Eastern Europe perhaps as early as 3000 BC. From the Slavic world, Germanic tribes brought the drug into Germany, and marijuana went from there to Britain during the 5th century with the Anglo-Saxon invasions. hemp was widely grown during the late Saxon and Norman periods, and cannabis seeds have been found in many areas. Cannabis seeds have also been found in the remains of Viking ships dating to the mid 9th century.

Cannabis has been mentioned in the Vedas as on of 5 essential plants in the world

Around 700 AD cannabis entered Eastern Africa via Egypt and Ethiopia, most likely carried by Arab merchants. Over the years, the Arab traders went down the coast of Eastern Africa spreading cannabis. From there, it spread to central Africa via the Bantu speakers and likely spread to the west by Swahili speaking traders. In southern Africa, psychoactive cannabis, known as dagga has been consumed for five centuries at least.

Cannabis soon crossed the ocean and made it to Latin America where it was introduced multiple times. From Angola, slaves brought cannabis to Brazil in the 16th century as an intoxicant where it spread rapidly and was soon called the opium of the poor. The Spanish repeatedly introduced the crop in Colombia in 1607, 1610, 1632 and 1789 to provide rigging for the imperial fleet. Cannabis eventually moved north to the mexico where it was used for religious ceremonies. It eventually reached north America where it was extensively cultivated to supply the needs of Europe.

Seshat the Egyptian god of knowledge was decipted with a cannabis leaf on top

By this time hemp was used extensively for fibres to textile to food across the world. But it’s somewhere around this time in history that the war against hemp started to build up steam. Hemp had too many uses and with the rise of the industrial revolution, machines had made the production of cotton and paper manufacturing significantly easier. lobbying from multiple industries along with the “reefer madness” narrative soon led to the global classification of cannabis as a class A narcotic substance which was on par with drugs like heroin and cocaine. And just like that, cannabis, a plant that was extensively used by multiple cultures throughout history, was removed from regular life.

History of cannabis in India

For the most part of history, cannabis has always been legal in india and was widely used for medicinal and religious uses. The earliest mention of cannabis in India can be found in the vedas which were compiled somewhere between 2000 BC to 1400 BC. According to the vedas, cannabis is one of 5 sacred plants given to us by the gods. Shiva, one of the three main gods in hindu mythology is known to use cannabis regularly. The use of cannabis in india was so extensive throughout history that when the british ruled india they commissioned a large scale study in the 1890s. After years of detailed work, in 1894, The Indian Hemp Drugs Commission Report produced six volumes of data and conclusions. They concluded that its use is very ancient, has religious importance among Hindus, and is harmless in moderation. In fact, more harm was done by alcohol. The british though of prohibition but decided not to as they believed the religious sentiments of the people would be hurt leading to protests and that it would lead to more dangerous drugs.

Pandits and Sages in India regularly consume cannabis to achieve meditative states.

How did cannabis get banned in India?

In 1961, the United Nations, backed by the United States, signed the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs where cannabis was categorised as a synthetic drug like Heroine & Cocaine even though it is a plant. India refused to sign the convention, as cannabis was important for religious purposes and for ayurvedic medicine.

Then in November 1985, under American pressure, the Parliament passed the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act banning the use and selling of cannabis by Rajiv Gandhi. Cultivation, possession, trade, transport and consumption of cannabis (except bhang) a criminal offence under the NDPS Act of 1985. If found doing so it can lead to:

  • Imprisonment up to 10 years and a fine of up to one lakh rupees, in case of cultivation.
  • A penalty of 10,000 rupees or a jail term of 6 months to 1 year, in case of possession (small quantities).
  • If someone is caught with commercial quantities, imprisonment for up to 20 years and a fine of two lakh rupees by the Court.
  • A regular offender can be penalised for 30-years imprisonment.

And that, is the history of cannabis. Globally cannabis has been made to look like a villain but today it’s slowly making a comeback. The most ironic thing about all this is that the United States which had pushed for world governments to ban cannabis is the one who now legalized cannabis in some form or the other in most states.

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