Historical Uses of Marijuana

The idea that [marijuana] is an evil drug is a very recent construction… and the fact that it is illegal is a historical anomaly… Marijuana has been legal in many regions of the world for most of its history.

– Professor Barney Warf, University of Kansas Warf 1

While today, cannabis has become synonymous with recreational drug use, this has not always been its place. From its beginnings as one of the world’s oldest cultivated crops to its usages across cultures and history of everything from paper and clothes to religious enlightenment and sex, Marijuana has enjoyed a variety of roles and our perception of it today scratches the surface of its role in history.

Types of Cannabis

There are two major subspecies of cannabis:

Cannabis sativa (cannabis indica)
What most of us think of when we hear cannabis, cannabis sativa has psychoactive properties (aka it will get you high). Indica plants are shorter but a lot denser than sativas.

Cannabis sativa L (sativa)
This subspecies is known as hemp; it is a non-psychoactive form of cannabis, and is used in manufacturing products such as oil, cloth and fuel. Cannabis sativa L.plants are taller and less dense than indica. 2

What Cannabis Was Used For

cannabis uses
Cannabis Uses 3


Throughout history, one of cannabis’ most popular and practical uses was for its fiber, a source of strong and durable material used for a variety of purposes.

hemp stalk

Hemp Stalk 4


The Chinese used hemp fibers for fabric and ropes in their fishing nets as far back as 1000 BC. The Romans and Vikings used it for ropes to secure their sails as they explored, colonized, and traded.


In Italy, for centuries, they made beautiful fabrics made of hemp that rivaled silk in popularity. 5


Since the ancient Chinese invented paper made of hemp, hemp has been one of the most popular and durable materials used in paper’s construction. The world’s oldest piece of paper dates back to around 500 BC and was made of hemp fibers. 6 Hemp made paper so durable that some was recently found in graves in the Shensi province that predates 100 B.C. 7 In the US, all school books were made from hemp or flax paper until the 1880s. 8 Today, hemp paper is still known for its longevity and tear-resistance and used for many purposes from money to fine Bibles. 9

hemp paper

Hemp Paper 10


Hemp seed is high in nutritional value. It contains many essential amino acid, essential fatty acids and over 30% proteins in digestible forms. 11 In ancient history, there are frequent records of hemp seed as a food. For early Chinese, Cannabis seeds were one of the staple grains along with rice, barley, millet, and soybeans. 12 In the early 1800s, Australia was twice saved from famine by eating virtually nothing but hemp seed for protein and hemp leaves for roughage. 13


Hemp as Food 14


Cannabis oil is obtained through solvent extraction and is the most concentrated form of the three main cannabis products. It has a variety of uses in cooking, as fuel for lamps, for lubrication, and as a base in paint, varnish, and soap. Applications that use petroleum for skin and hair products can also use hemp oil as an herbal alternative. 15


Cannabis’ use as an aphrodisiac has the unique trait of being used both to increase and decrease sexual desire. Ancient India is often associated with sexual marijuana use, with dozens of formulations designed to improve sex such as to produce long-lasting erections, delay ejaculation, facilitate lubrication and loosen inhibitions. 16 In Indian tantric sex practices, liquid pot, called bhang, is mixed with milk, water, and spices to enhance sexual pleasure. 17 Historical Middle Eastern and Northern African cultures also used cannabis for sexual in a particularly potent form called kif, which was renowned for decreasing sexual inhibitions 18


18th Century Painting, Rajput Era, Cannabis Culture Magazine 19

On the other hand, in India yogis, to prove mastery over their senses utilize cannabis as a way to help channel their life force (shakti) upwards towards the Crown Chakra instead of into a sexual act.20


Since its first recorded uses, Cannabis has been strongly associated with medicine. Before the Christian era, Cannabis as a medicine was used in Asia, especially in India and China. Introduction in Western medicine occurred in the midst of the 19th century with usage decreasing in the first few decades of the 20th century due to difficulty proving medicinal effects and various political/social movements.


The spread of medical cannabis 21

During Childbirth

Though no longer encouraged, marijuana has often been connected with childbirth. In ancient Egypt, a honey-like marijuana mixture was applied to the vagina to induce contractions. As recently as the 1850s, the Monthly Journal of Medical Science of Edinburgh claimed cannabis had a “remarkable power of increasing the force of uterine contraction during labour” and medical marijuana during childbirth to aid with contractions was even noted in the Dispensatory of the United States.22

Swollen Breasts

In the eleventh century, women used cannabis to treat swollen breasts. The Old English Herbarium described the process “Rub [the herb] with fat, lay it to the breast, it will disperse the swelling.”23
The same method was used in Germany and Austria, where cannabis was “laid on the painful breasts of women who have given birth.”24

Treat STDs

Marijuana’s association with sex also extended to managing some of its unfortunate consequences. In the seventeenth century, a German physician declared cannabis a cure for gonorrhea. In 1860, an Ohio State Commission echoed this claim, stating that cannabis mixed with milk and sugar, taken every three to four hours for a week, was a sure-fire cure for the STD. Even nineteenth-century Persian prostitutes got in on the action and used cannabis to manage urethritis—a bacterial infection that causes inflammation of the urethra—which was prevalent among sex workers at the time.25

Treat Migraines

Women have used cannabis to treat migraines related to menstruation. In ninth-century Persia, the juice from cannabis seeds was mixed with herbs to treat migraines and other pain-related ailments. In 1942, Morris Fishbein, then-editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, recommended cannabis drops specifically for migraines, especially for women about to get their period.26

Scientific Study

In an interesting historical case, cannabis has also been used as a conduit through which to investigate the causes of mental illness. Jacques-Joseph Moreau, a French psychiatrist in the 1800s observed that the use of hashish (cannabis resin) was common among Arabs and was fascinated with its effects. He decided to experiment first on himself and later on his students. In 1845 he published the book ‘Du Hachisch et de l’Alienation Mentale: Etudes Psychologiques’, which contained comprehensive descriptions of the effects of cannabis.27
Moreau writes: ‘…I saw in hashish, more specifically in its effects on mental abilities, a powerful and unique method to investigate the genesis of mental illness’.28

Other Interesting Uses

Above are listed just a few of the numerous uses of cannabis throughout history. A few others:

Drive worms out of ears
In the beginning of the Christian Era there are references to usage of the seed’s juice for earache and to drive worms and insects out of the ears.29

Treat Convulsions
In the mid-19th century, Willian B. O’Shaughnessy, an Irish physician and one of the people credited with popularizing medicinal cannabis in the West, describes various successful human experiments using cannabis for rheumatism, convulsions, and muscular spasms of tetanus and rabies30

Agricultural war crop
Artifacts recovered from sites in China show hemp fibers being used for bowstrings.31 The ancient Greeks used cannabis to dress wounds and sores on their horses.

Nourish the Yin
Pen Tsao, a Chinese medical book is written by Emperor Chen Nung, classifies hemp as one of the “Superior Elixirs of Immortality”. Even today, Chinese herbalists prescribe hemp seeds to nourish the yin (feminine energy)32

Vapour Baths
In 500 B.C. that Scythians, a group of ancient Iranian nomads, took vapor baths using marijuana.

Drying Semen
Ancient Greek writers mentioned cannabis as a prescription to “dry up semen” of teenage boys, possibly to reduce nocturnal emissions.33

Origins in Asia and Beyond

Most theorists believe that cannabis use originated in Central Asia during the Stone Age and spread from China to India and then to N Africa and Europe by around A.D. 500. From there it made its way to South America and finally North America.34

How cannabis sativa traveled the world 35

Origins in Asia

The long and glorious history of cannabis originated in Asia sometime around 12,000 BC.

According to University of Kansas geology professor Barney Warf, “Cannabis plants are believed to have evolved on the steppes of Central Asia, specifically in the regions that are now Mongolia and southern Siberia.”36 In Taiwan, archaeologists have unearthed an ancient village site dating back over 10,000 years to the Stone Age.”37 Burned cannabis seeds have found in Siberian burial mounds dating 3,000 B.C., and tombs of noble people in the Xinjiang region of China and Siberia around 2500 B.C. have contained mummified psychoactive marijuana.38

The oldest known written record on cannabis use is attributed to Chinese Emperor Shen Nung (a figure whose realism vs mythical nature is unsure) in 2727.39 The ancient Chinese used it for a variety of medical purposes from anesthesia to rheumatism, gout, malaria, and ironically, absent-mindedness. While its intoxicating properties were mentioned, its medicinal value was much more prevalent.40

From China, cannabis spread to East and South Asia, reaching Korea through coastal farmers around 2000 B.C. according sources.41 It came to the South Asian subcontinent between 2000 and 1000 B.C. through the invasion of the Aryans (Indo-Persians) and trade from the wandering tribes of Aryans, Mongols, and Scythians who bordered China. At the time, hemp as a fiber became of natural trade interest between the Chinese and the cotton cultures of India and linen cultures of the Mediterranean. It was the Aryans that brought Cannabis culture to India where it gained popularity and was celebrated as one of “five kingdoms of herbs … which release us from anxiety” according to the ancient Vedic poems42 43

Middle East

Cannabis came to the Middle East between 2000 B.C. and 1400 B.C., probably through the Scythians, an Indo-European group credited for much of the early spread of cannabis through their nomadic wandering through Asia, Europe and the Middle East. The Scythians also likely carried the drug into southeast Russia and Ukraine, as they occupied both territories for years.44 Cannabis moved westward through Persia, Assyria and Arabia by 500 A.D. With the rising influence of Islam in the region, marijuana flourished in a popular form as hashish, which spread quickly throughout 12th century Persia (Iran) and North Africa.”44 46 47


Again, it was the Scythians brought Cannabis to Europe via a northern route. Remnants of their campsites, from the Altai Mountains to Germany, date back 2,800 years. Europe never smoked marijuana extensively, but hemp fiber became a major crop in the history of many European countries.48 Germanic tribes brought it into Germany, and marijuana is believed to have gone from there to Britain during the 5th century with the Anglo-Saxon invasions.49 Pollen analysis dates the cultivation of Cannabis to 400 B.C. in Norway; 150 A.D. in Sweden, and 400 A.D. in Germany and England.50


Though the exact introduction of cannabis into Africa is not known, it is believed that it has been in Africa since at least since the 15th century, possibly introduced by Arab traders, and connected to India. There is great similarity of the terms used for preparing the plant in Africa and India. 51 The earliest evidence for cannabis in Africa outside of the Middle East comes from fourteenth-century Ethiopia. T two ceramic smoking-pipe bowls containing traces of cannabis were discovered during an archaeological excavation. From Ethiopia, cannabis seeds were carried to the south by Bantu-speaking natives who originally lived in North Africa.52


In the Americas, the use of cannabis probably began in South America when, in 1545, it was imported by the Spaniards into Chile for its use as fiber. In North America, the English introduced cannabis in Jamestown in 1611; it became a major commercial crop alongside tobacco and was grown as a source of fiber on many plantations for use in rope, clothing and paper.”53

Cannabis sativa (the smokeable kind) likely came to the Americans through Brazil; brought by African slaves from Angola. Its use was considerably common among slaves in the Northeastern rural area and was encouraged by slave-owners as a way to pacify slaves. Most synonyms for cannabis in Brazil (e.g. maconha, diamba, liamba) originate from Angolan language. 54   55 Cannabis sativa then seems to have made its way to the United States at the beginning of the 20th century from Mexico, through immigrants fleeing during the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1911.56

Cultural Influences

Everywhere that cannabis spread, its users have discovered similar medical, recreational, and material properties. However, cannabis culture has differed greatly over time from place to place.


China – In the beginning

Much of early cannabis history involves the ancient Chinese, who discovered many of its practical uses. The Chinese learned to use almost every part of the Cannabis plant – the root for medicine; the stem for textiles, rope and paper making; the leaves and flowers for intoxication and medicine; and the seeds for food and oil.57 The use of cannabis as a medicine by ancient Chinese was reported in the world’s oldest pharmacopoeia, the pen-ts’ao ching in the first century. The first reference to the use of cannabis, as a psychoactive drug, is also in the pen-ts’ao ching, “ma-fen (the fruit of cannabis)… if taken in excess will produce visions of devils … over a long term, it makes one communicate with spirits and lightens one’s body.58 In spite of this reference, there are few citations of cannabis as a hallucinogen in ancient Chinese texts. The Chinese placed more emphasis on the use of cannabis seeds for medical purposes; uses included: rheumatic pain, intestinal constipation, disorders of the female reproductive system, malaria, and others.59 Hua T’o, the founder of Chinese surgery (A.D. 110 – 207), used a compound of the plant, taken with wine, to anesthetize patients during surgical operations.60


Chinese surgeon Hua Tuo (c. 140-208) credited as 1st recorded person to use cannabis as an anesthetic61

Japan – Purity

In Japan, the earliest traces of cannabis in Japan are seeds and woven fibers discovered in the west of the country dating back to the Jomon Period (10,000 BC – 300 BC).62 Similarly to other cultures, the Japanese used cannabis fibers for clothes as well as for bow strings and fishing lines. Cannabis was a major crop and the primary source of clothing fiber until the 17th century, when cotton was introduced.63


Ancient pot graffiti: Korean traders bringing cannabis to Japan.64

Beyond its common use, hemp took on a special significance in Japan as a symbol of purity. It was used in ancient Japan in ceremonial rights and to drive away evil spirits. Shinto priests used a gohei, a short stick with undyed hemp fibers, to create sacred space and purity. According to Shinto beliefs, evil and purity cannot exist alongside one another, and so by waving the gohei the evil spirit inside a person or place would be driven away. Hemp clothes were also worn during formal and religious ceremonies to symbolize purity.65


In India, the use of cannabis has spread widely due to its religious and medical association. The Atharva Veda (a collection of sacred texts) cites cannabis as one of five sacred plants – a source of happiness, donator of joy and bringer of freedom. 66 Considered, a gift from the gods, according to Indian mythology, the magical Cannabis “lowered fevers, fostered sleep, relieved dysentery, and cured sundry other ills; it also stimulated appetite, prolonged life, quickened the mind, and improved judgment.”67 68 69

Middle East

In the Middle East, cannabis took on a variety of roles from medicine to religion; it is also here that hashish originated. In Arabia, well-known physicians mentioned cannabis in their medical compendiums, as Avicena; in 1000 A.D. Muslim texts mention the use of cannabis as a diuretic, digestive, anti-flatulent, ‘to clean the brain’, and to soothe pain of the ears.70 The 2nd century Fayyum Medical Papyrus (also known as Vienna papyrus), an ancient Egyptian text, contains the earliest known record of cannabis as an ingredient in cancer medicine.71

Ancient Scythia and Assyria used cannabis incense for religious ceremonies to ward off evil spirits. It was burned during funerary rituals and to cast out wicked spirits from children’s rooms.72 The Sufis (Muslim mystics) in 8th century Persia used hashish to stimulate mystical consciousness and appreciation of the nature of Allah. They stated that hashish gave them tremendous interiority and self-reflective insight as well as happiness, reduced anxiety, and increased music appreciation.73


Across the continent cannabis has historically had a wide variety of medical uses – snake bite, to facilitate childbirth, malaria, fever, blood poisoning, anthrax, asthma, and dysentery.74 It has been used to restore appetite relieve pain of hemorrhoids, and as an antiseptic. In a number of countries, it was used to treat tetanus, hydrophobia, delirium tremens, infantile convulsions, neuralgia and other nervous disorders, cholera, menorrhagia, rheumatism, hay fever, asthma, skin diseases, and protracted labor during childbirth.75

Perhaps most interesting is cannabis’ role at the center of a cult. According to Alfred Dunhill (1924), in 1884 the King of the Baluka tribe of Congo established a “riamba” or hemp-smoking cult in which enormous gourd pipes were used to smoke.76 They called themselves Bena Riamba, ” sons of hemp”, and their land Lubuku, meaning friendship. The villagers greeted each other with “moio”, meaning both “hemp” and “life.” They attributed magical powers to hemp, which was thought to combat evil and took it with them to war and on long travels. The hemp pipe assumed a symbolic meaning – no holiday, no trade agreement, no peace treaty was transacted without it (Wissman et al. 1888). 77


Much of the use of cannabis in Europe centered on its medical properties. In the 1830s, an Irish physician named William Brooke O’Shaughnessy observed the use of medical marijuana during a trip to India. Inspired, he went on to become one of the leading figures in popularizing medical marijuana in England. He introduced it for a wide range of conditions including muscle spasms, rheumatism, epilepsy and pain. As reports of its effectiveness surfaced, cannabis-based medicines quickly spread across Europe and North America.78


William Brooke O’Shaughnessy – The father of cannabis in western medicine 79



Cannabis in the US has had many ups and downs, ranging from being promoted as a major crop of national importance to symbolizing xenophobia and being vilified as an evil drug.

From early colonial times, hemp was grown as a source of fiber for use in paper, rope, and clothes. In 1619 England ordered the colonists at Jamestown to grow hemp to meet England’s incessant demand for maritime ropes, Wayne State University professor Ernest Abel wrote in “Marihuana: The First Twelve Thousand Years.”80 It was used extensively in everything from revolutionary war clothes to text books. Even the American Declaration of Independence was signed on Hemp paper.81 Hemp took on national importance during World War II, when Japanese troops cut off Asian sources of hemp.82 Despite an official ban on marijuana as a drug, during the war, the US promoted farmers to grow hemp, extolling its use in parachutes and rope for the war effort.83 The government even produced the propaganda film “Hemp for Victory,” released in 1942, explaining the uses of hemp and encouraging farmers to grow as much as possible to aid the war effort.


“Hemp for Victory” – A 16 minute film produced by U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1942 84

While hemp has been extolled for its benefits to the nation, it has also been often a taboo in the country as a drug associated with illicit behavior. According to Professor Barney Warf, “Many early prejudices against marijuana were thinly veiled racist fears of its smokers, often promulgated by reactionary newspapers… Mexicans were frequently blamed for smoking marijuana, property crimes, seducing children and engaging in murderous sprees.”85 In the 1890s, through English-language newspaper and wire service, stories of marijuana-induced violence common in Mexican papers began to appear in the US, “shaping public perceptions that would later form the basis of pot prohibition” according to Isaac Campos, a Latin American history professor at the University of Cincinnati. By 1910, when the Mexican Revolution sent immigrants across the border, articles in the New York Sun, Boston Daily Globe and other papers extolled the “evils of ganjah smoking” and suggested that some even used it “to key themselves up to the point of killing.”86


Anti-Marijuana article in Popular Mechanix magazine 1937 87


Jamaica is often associated with one of the most well-known cannabis cultures, the Rastafari movement. An Abrahamic religion developed in Jamaica in the 1930s following the coronation of Haile Selassie I as Emperor of Ethiopia, it emphasizes the spiritual use of cannabis and the rejection of materialism and oppression.88 It rose to popularity in the 1970s in large part due to its association with reggae music, especially that of Bob Marley.89

Famous People and Figures


Legend has it that in 500 BC, Gautama Buddha survived by eating only cannabis seeds.90 According to one Mahayana Buddhist tradition, the Buddha, in his last six years of ascetism before enlightenment, subsisted on one Cannabis seed a day.91


Interest in Shakespeare as a cannabis user originated when researchers spotted a mention of “noted weed” in Sonnet 76 and the “journey in my head” from Sonnet 27.92 A study published in “South African Journal of Science” showed that “pipes dug up from the garden of Shakespeare’s home in Stratford-upon-Avon contain traces of cannabis.”93

Queen Victoria

Queen Victoria took monthly doses of cannabis from her personal physician, Sir John Russell Reynolds, to relieve her menstrual pain.94

George Washington and Thomas Jefferson

George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both grew hemp for its fiber and processed it for clothing and rope. “We have manufactured within our families the most necessary articles of clothing…those of wool, flax and hemp are very coarse, unsightly, and unpleasant” Jefferson said in “Notes on the State of Virginia.” Jefferson invented a device for processing hemp in 1815.95

Sultan of Turkey

During the 1876 World’s Fair, the Sultan of Turkey, gifted the United States with a large quantity of marijuana as part of the Turkish pavilion. The ways of smoking a hookah were demonstrated to a captivated American public. Americans were so fascinated that over Turkish Smoking Parlors sprang up all across the US. 96


Popular Documentaries

Magic Weed – The history of marijuana

Hemp for Victory

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