Cannabis has been used within world cultures since ancient times. Originally native to regions in Asia including China and India, marijuana ranges in use from pottery to medicine.  Although it is not known what culture is responsible for first using hemp for supplies or for its therapeutic effects, archeologists know of the plant’s use in Asian cultures as early as the Stone Age.  Historical records indicate that sporadic laws regulating the use of marijuana as a mind-altering drug began surfacing during the Middle Ages; however, it was not until the 1900s that the global battle against all forms of marijuana in the United States took flight.

pottery made with hemp

In 1972, a Taiwanese village dating back to ten thousand years ago was discovered, although the village and its inhabitants still remain unnamed. Archaeologists at the site uncovered pottery fortified with hemp, a soft yet extremely strong fiber cultivated from the cannabis plant. The discovery of the hemp-fortified pottery marks the earliest known use of marijuana, dating its importance to civilizations to as early as the Stone Age.

Ramses II – Ramses the Great

The cultural use of marijuana is not limited to the usefulness of hemp.  In 1976, the corpse of Ramses II, known primarily as Ramses the Great, was transferred to Paris for anthropological studies. Considered to be the “Great Ancestor,” Ramses II is Egypt’s most powerful and most acclaimed pharaoh. Following the arrival of his remains in Paris, forensic toxicologist Dr. Svelta Balabanova discovered the presence of cannabis in the intestinal tissue of Ramses II, indicating the presence and ingestion of cannabis in Egyptian ancient culture, although there is no early documentation about its use or purpose in Egyptian culture.

hemp rope

While the plant can be used for supplies such as rope or cord as is indicated in the excavations in Taiwan, it has been praised as a medicinal plant for thousands of years.  China remains the earliest known culture to explore the medical value of marijuana. China’s first documented use of medical marijuana dates back to 2800 BC, in which the plant was described as having therapeutic qualities and considered a fundamental treatment option for a variety of nervous disorders, including depression and anxiety.

While early civilizations in China relied on the therapeutic qualities of the plant,  the Western world valued the usefulness of the plant. Early colonists at Jamestown were encouraged to cultivate marijuana; however, by 1619, the colonists were no longer being encouraged to plant hemp seed but were instead required to grow cannabis for supplies and trade with Native Americans.  By 1850, there were over 8,300 marijuana plantations spread across the United States.

It was not until the 1900s that the United States began implemented laws to restrict and control the production and possession of marijuana.  Marijuana laws and use in the U.S. has changed drastically over the past century. Prior to the start of the United States’ war on drugs in 1906, marijuana was an important part of medicine in the Western world.  Medical journals dating from the early 17th century indicate that physicians praised the medicinal use of marijuana for a variety of ailments, including chronic pain, nausea, and psychiatric disorders.

Laws regulating the use and possession of marijuana vary across the world.  Marijuana is currently legal without a prescription in Bangladesh, the Czech Republic (under five plants), Portugal (under 2.5 grams), Spain (in the privacy of your own home), and Uruguay. Turkey maintains strict control over the farming of cannabis for hemp seeds used in food spices, however the possession and use of marijuana is highly illegal.  While marijuana is considered illegal in the majority of the world, it has been decriminalized or is tolerated in several countries, including Belgium, Canada, Costa Rica, Denmark, Germany, India, Italy, Mexico, Nepal, and the Netherlands.

Reefer Madness (1936) – Original version

The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 did not make the use of marijuana illegal, however the law required that any medicine or food containing cannabis be labeled as such.  It was not until the 1930s that concern over the plant as being a mind-altering, addictive drug emerged as films such as Reefer Madness circulated across the United States, instilling fear in both consumers and critics with its portrayal of the effects of marijuana on society’s youth.  One year following the release of Reefer Madness, U.S. Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, ultimately outlawing the possession and use of marijuana with the exception of authorized users who were willing to pay an excise tax. Nearly sixty years later, in 1996, California became the first state to reauthorize the medical use of marijuana for certain diseases, such as AIDS and cancer. Since 1996, fourteen additional states and Washington D.C. have passed similar laws allowing for the use of medical marijuana, while legislation is pending in another twelve states.

Used throughout history for therapeutic value and the ultimate sense of well-being that results from its use, marijuana is beginning to resurface as an integral part of modern day medicine.  The use of cannabis is not limited to medicinal purposes, but, as illustrated throughout culture, it has the potential to be used in international trade in products ranging from rope to spices.  The global war on drugs is shifting from the heavy prohibition of cannabis and its derivatives to a more lax and welcoming reception of the drug. While marijuana remains highly illegal on a worldwide level, governments are once again beginning to consider the positive effects that conditional legalization could bring.