Historians believe that cannabis has been a cultivated crop since humans first took to agriculture.
The agricultural revolution took place around 10,000 years ago, and rope made out of cannabis plant fibers has been found with pottery dated to 8,000 BC.
Astrophysicist and author Carl Sagan, in his book The Dragons of Eden, Speculations on the Origin of Human Intelligence, even posits that cannabis was the very first human-cultivated plant, and therefore intimately linked to the rise of human civilization.
Learn about the history of recreational cannabis use.
A plant that was once identified with textiles and medicinal uses is now principally identified with recreational drug use. The intoxicating properties of cannabis have been known for thousands of years, but it is only in the last several hundred years that recreational cannabis use has become a worldwide phenomenon. Partly as a result of this growing use, cannabis has become a controlled substance in most countries, a sharp contrast to the centuries during which it was a prized medicinal herb and profitable cash crop.
Ancient History of Recreational Marijuana
The cannabis plant is native to the Middle East and Asia. The first recorded report of recreational cannabis use comes from the Greek historian Herodotus. In his Histories, written in 430 BC, Herodotus reported that the Scythian tribe of horsemen who inhabited modern day Kazakhstan used cannabis for recreational as well as ceremonial purposes. Several hundred years later, the Chinese herbal encyclopedia Pen Ts’ao Ching also mentions the intoxicating properties of cannabis.
The first cannabis preparation to be used widely for recreational intoxication was hashish. Hashish is compressed or purified resin from the buds of cannabis plants and can be either cooked in foods and eaten, or smoked. The first recorded evidence of hashish use came during the first century AD, but it’s believed the preparation methods were used for several thousand years prior.
The use of hashish became widespread throughout the Middle East by the 12th century BC. The use of hashish contributed to the legends surrounding the soldiers of the Persian missionary Hassan-I Sabbah. These soldiers were said to have used a great deal of hashish, and as a result they were nicknamed “the Hashishin.” They gained such a fierce reputation that a corruption of their nickname eventually became a word meaning professional killer-assassin.
The 12th century also saw the introduction of hashish to Egypt; from here it eventually spread throughout Northern Africa. Many historians believe that in the Middle East, Northern Africa, and parts of Asia, the presence of Islam helped to increase the popularity of cannabis. The reason for this is that the holy book of Islam, the Koran, does not prohibit the use of cannabis as explicitly as it prohibits the consumption of alcohol.
Recreational or Spiritual?
Frequently throughout history, the lines have been greatly blurred between recreational, ceremonial, and medicinal use of cannabis. In Hinduism and many other ancient world religions, the psychotropic properties of cannabis were thought to have spiritual uses. These properties were often considered particularly valuable for holy persons in their attempts to commune with deities or other spiritual forces.
The same is true when looking at the use of cannabis for medicinal purposes. Frequently, the mind-altering properties of cannabis were considered to be valuable tools in easing pain and discomfort. Other times, the psychotropic effects were considered to be relatively harmless side effects of the medicinal benefits.
Attempts to Control Hashish
The growing popularity of hashish in the Arab world eventually led to attempts to curb its use. Emir Soudoun Scheikhouni of the Ottoman Empire forbade the use of hashish in the 13th century AD: the first recorded incident of a government official making the use of cannabis illegal.
The first widespread use of cannabis as a recreational drug in Europe came in the aftermath of Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in the late 1700s. Napoleon found that the use of hashish was extremely popular in that country, and many of his soldiers picked up the habit and brought it back with them to France. The drug became so popular that Napoleon issued a law forbidding all recreational use of cannabis.
Rise of Recreational Cannabis in the United States
Hashish smoking gained limited popularity in the United States in the 1800s, largely as a result of the drug’s widespread use in France. However, the recreational use of marijuana did not become a truly common occurrence until the 1900s. Many historians postulate that the combined effects of the Mexican Revolution and the institution of Prohibition led to a boom in the popularity of recreational cannabis.
The Mexican Revolution in 1910 led to the influx of a large number of Mexican immigrants into the United States. Recreational cannabis use had become popular in Mexico, and the immigrants brought the habit with them. The drug quickly gained in popularity, and only five years later, California became the first state to criminalize the use of marijuana.
Prohibition may have contributed to the rise of recreational cannabis by presenting a legal alternative to alcohol. Use of the drug continued to rise throughout the country despite anti-cannabis laws passing in Texas, Louisiana, and New York. Not even the countrywide Marijuana Tax Act in 1937 was able to slow the spread of the drug.
We’re now entering a new phase, as Washington and Colorado States vote to legalize recreational use in late 2012.
Please note: This is simply a historical piece and not intended to advocate marijuana use.