While the exact history of cannabis is incomplete, historians trace its use back thousands of years to cultural rituals. Some religious factions even used the plant as medicine. From treating female weakness, to ordaining priests and achieving higher levels of happiness, humans have used the ancient remedy to better their minds and bodies for centuries.
Ancient Chinese Cannabis — “Ma”
The first known discussion of cannabis was in 2,700 B.C. in the medical writings of an ancient emperor and “one of the fathers of Chinese medicine” — Shen Nung, according to Psychology Today, a resource for mental health and behavioral science. “According to legend, Shen-Nung tried poisons and their antidotes on himself and then compiled the medical encyclopedia called, Pen Ts’ao. The Pen Ts’ao list[s] hundreds of drugs derived from vegetable, animal and mineral sources. Among these drugs is the plant cannabis, “ma.””
Ma was especially unique in Chinese culture because it represented both yin and yang — an ancient philosophical concept of dualism, adds Psychology Today. Cannabis, which consists of both female and male plants, represents yin (the passive feminine influence) and yang (the strong male force).
However, as female plants produced more medicine over time, people used ma to treat “absences of yin,” or “female weaknesses,” such as menstruation, gout, rheumatism, malaria, constipation, and absentmindedness, according to the Brazilian Journal of Psychiatry.
By the second century, Hua T’o — a Chinese physician — used ma as anesthesia. T’o mixed the plant’s resin with wine to reduce pain during surgeries including chest incisions, according to an article published by SpringerLink, an database for peer-reviewed journals and books.
Many used ma’s medicinal effects in Chinese culture for centuries after its discovery. However, it took cannabis a couple of hundred years to reach Persian, Afghan and Arab cultures.
Did Jesus Christ use Cannabis?
The Greek historian Herodotus detailed the relaxing effects of inhaled cannabis in 450 B.C., according to the Cannabis Information Institute, an international cannabis research organization. But, before this, the Scythians — a group of horse-warrior nomads in Central Asia — were already well known for placing cannabis plants onto hot stones and breathing in the calming incense.
Historians now recognize the Scythian word for cannabis, kannabis, “kaneh bosem” in Hebrew. The term is usually translated in the bible as “fragrant cane,” or an aromatic grass. With this translation, Carl Ruck — a professor of Classical Mythology at Boston University — argues that “the use of cannabis in the bible is clear” as large amounts of “fragrant cane” were made into ointments and used to ordain priests.
At the time, only the High Priest was able to experience the psychoactive properties of cannabis. He absorbed the ointment through his skin and inhaled it as a perfume and incense. However, this same psychoactive practice was later used to coronate kings, according to Ruck, who authored The Effluents of Deity Alchemy and Psychoactive Sacraments in Medieval and Renaissance Art.
Likewise, Ruck speculates that Essenes — members of an ancient Jewish ascetic faction, which likely included Jesus — used cannabis oils.
“Jesus was probably trained as an Essene before the years of his proselytizing. The Essenes [were] healers and had extensive knowledge of drug plants. It is highly likely that Jesus experienced psychoactive sacraments,” says Ruck.
Archaeological evidence further indicates that Christians used these sacraments in meeting halls for “rituals of chemically-altered consciousness,” writes Ruck.
Cannabis After Christ
By 45 A.D., the Ethiopian Coptic Church officially classified cannabis as a sacrament. Followers consumed it in the church for generations, according to the Cannabis Information Institute.
Over the next hundred years, the healing properties of cannabis became well-known. For example, many Muslim and Hindu societies produced hash for religious and medicinal purposes, according to Cannabis Information Institute.
Specifically, Muslim texts mention cannabis use to “clean the brain, and to soothe pain of the ears,” reports the Brazilian Journal of Psychiatry.
Hindu texts, such as The Vedas, also classified cannabis as a sacred plant. They called it “a source of happiness, [a] joy-giver, [and a] liberator that was compassionately given to humans to help us attain delight and lose fear,” according to Psychology Today.
Likewise, Hindu and Muslim priests recommended the “wonderful qualities of the “magic” plant” to their disciples, according to research by Dr. Gabriel G. Nahas of the Department of Anesthesiology at Columbia University. They praised cannabis for its ability to relieve hunger and thirst while also bringing joy.
For example, Shaikh Haidar, a founder of the Sufi sect — a form of Islamic mysticism — raved about cannabis. Haider believed it, “dissipate[d] the shadows that cloud your souls and will brighten your spirits,” according to Nahas.
From there, hash consumption spread, particularly among the Sufis who used it in religious observances. They claimed the plant “expanded consciousness, brought insight, peace and repose, and closeness to God,” according to Nahas.
Sufis soon introduced cannabis to Syria and Egypt, where users knew it for inducing a “dream-like state,” according to Nahas. But some historians credit the westward spread of the plant to Mongol invasions in the 13th century. The invasions drove refugees, including Sufis, to relocate to Syria and Egypt.
Ancient to Modern History
Our ancient ancestors used cannabis to obtain happiness, health and spirituality. But, in more recent years, lawmakers have criminalized its users.
In the early 1900s, cannabis became increasingly present in social settings as Jazz musicians popularized the plant, according to the Cannabis Information Institute.
From the 1910s onward, cannabis continued to face an upward battle against cannabis prohibition. Officials vilified the plant, and intertwined its use with crime, violence and immigration.
By 1936, Reefer Madness, a film about cannabis’ ”devastating effects,” was released. The film furthered hysteria toward cannabis and its consumers. Shortly after, the U.S. government instituted more laws against cannabis in 1937 (Marijuana Tax Act).
From Rebellion to Legalization
By the 1960s, cannabis became a symbol of social and political rebellion. Eventually, President Richard Nixon declared the War on Drugs in 1971, according to the Drug Policy Alliance. This drastic increase of federal drug control agencies and law enforcement measures criminalized the plant and disrupted communities.
Then came zero tolerance policies under President Ronald Reagan. Those policies resulted in skyrocketing incarceration rates, according to the Drug Policy Alliance. Political hysteria about drugs continued into the 1980s and early 1990s.
Now, Americans are starting to recognize cannabis’ ancient history. While the plant remains federally illegal, nearly 40 states have legalized its use in one form or another.
Although cannabis’ history is complex, its substantial religious, medicinal and social ties do not compare to any other psychoactive substance in the world. No matter where it spread, the healing power of cannabis is prevalent in almost every culture, and it continues to leave significant social and scientific imprints on societies today.