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Marijuana’s History: How One Plant Spread Through the World

From the sites where prehistoric hunters and gatherers lived, to ancient China and Viking ships, cannabis has been used across the world for ages, and a new report presents the drug’s colorful history.

In the report, author Barney Warf describes how cannabis use originated thousands of years ago in Asia, and has since found its way to many regions of the world, eventually spreading to the Americas and the United States.

“For the most part, it was widely used for medicine and spiritual purposes,” during pre-modern times, said Warf, a professor of geography at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. For example, the Vikings and medieval Germans used cannabis for relieving pain during childbirth and for toothaches, he said.

“The idea that this is an evil drug is a very recent construction,” and the fact that it is illegal is a “historical anomaly,” Warf said. Marijuana has been legal in many regions of the world for most of its history.

Where did pot come from?

It is important to distinguish between the two familiar subspecies of the cannabis plant, Warf said. Cannabis sativa, known as marijuana, has psychoactive properties. The other plant is Cannabis sativa L. (The L was included in the name in honor of the botanist Carl Linnaeus.) This subspecies is known as hemp; it is a nonpsychoactive form of cannabis, and is used in manufacturing products such as oil, cloth and fuel. [11 Odd Facts About Marijuana]

A second psychoactive species of the plant, Cannabis indica, was identified by the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, and a third, uncommon one, Cannabis ruderalis, was named in 1924 by Russian botanist D.E. Janischevisky.

Cannabis plants are believed to have evolved on the steppes of Central Asia, specifically in the regions that are now Mongolia and southern Siberia, according to Warf. The history of cannabis use goes back as far as 12,000 years, which places the plant among humanity’s oldest cultivated crops, according to information in the book “Marihuana: The First Twelve Thousand Years” (Springer, 1980).

“It likely flourished in the nutrient-rich dump sites of prehistoric hunters and gatherers,” Warf wrote in his study.

Burned cannabis seeds have also been found in kurgan burial mounds in Siberia dating back to 3,000 B.C., and some of the tombs of noble people buried in Xinjiang region of China and Siberia around 2500 B.C. have included large quantities of mummified psychoactive marijuana.

Both hemp and psychoactive marijuana were used widely in ancient China, Warf wrote. The first record of the drug’s medicinal use dates to 4000 B.C. The herb was used, for instance, as an anesthetic during surgery, and stories say it was even used by the Chinese Emperor Shen Nung in 2737 B.C. (However, whether Shen Nung was a real or a mythical figure has been debated, as the first emperor of a unified China was born much later than the supposed Shen Nung.)

From China, coastal farmers brought pot to Korea about 2000 B.C. or earlier, according to the book “The Archeology of Korea” (Cambridge University Press, 1993). Cannabis came to the South Asian subcontinent between 2000 B.C. and 1000 B.C., when the region was invaded by the Aryans — a group that spoke an archaic Indo-European language. The drug became widely used in India, where it was celebrated as one of “five kingdoms of herbs . which release us from anxiety” in one of the ancient Sanskrit Vedic poems whose name translate into “Science of Charms.”

From Asia to Europe

Cannabis came to the Middle East between 2000 B.C. and 1400 B.C., and it was probably used there by the Scythians, a nomadic Indo-European group. The Scythians also likely carried the drug into southeast Russia and Ukraine, as they occupied both territories for years, according to Warf’s report. Germanic tribes brought the drug into Germany, and marijuana went from there to Britain during the 5th century with the Anglo-Saxon invasions. [See map of marijuana’s spread throughout the world.]

“Cannabis seeds have also been found in the remains of Viking ships dating to the mid-ninth century,” Warf wrote in the study.

Over the next centuries, cannabis migrated to various regions of the world, traveling through Africa, reaching South America in the 19th century and being carried north afterwards, eventually reaching North America.

How did marijuana get to the United States?

After this really long “trip” throughout the pre-modern and modern worlds, cannabis finally came to the United States at the beginning of the 20th century. It arrived in the southwest United States from Mexico, with immigrants fleeing that country during the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1911.

“Many early prejudices against marijuana were thinly veiled racist fears of its smokers, often promulgated by reactionary newspapers,” Warf wrote in his report. “Mexicans were frequently blamed for smoking marijuana, property crimes, seducing children and engaging in murderous sprees.”

Americans laws never recognized the difference between Cannabis sativa L. and Cannabis sativa. The plant was first outlawed in Utah in 1915, and by 1931 it was illegal in 29 states, according to the report.

In 1930, Harry Aslinger became the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) and undertook multiple efforts to make marijuana illegal in all states. In 1937, the Marijuana Tax Act put cannabis under the regulation of the Drug Enforcement Agency, criminalizing possession of the plant throughout the country.

“Today, the federal government still classifies marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance, along with heroin and LSD, indicating it has high potential for abuse and addiction, no accepted medical uses and no safe level of use,” Warf wrote.

From the Asian steppes where Cannabis sativa plants first evolved, to prehistoric hunters and gatherers, ancient China, Viking ships and finally the Americas, a new report outlines marijuana’s history.

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Did You Know Cannabis Grows Naturally in the Wild?

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Marijuana is a hardy plant. Able to survive in a wide range of climates, cannabis could theoretically be grown almost anywhere, as long as the temperature doesn’t get too hot or too cold. With fertile soil, and above-freezing temperatures, marijuana thrives. And nowadays, cannabis can be found growing wild and free in the great outdoors in nearly every country. But the truth is, cannabis wasn’t always found here in the United States. Like many other crops, marijuana has traveled the globe, following in the footsteps of humans, and growing naturally wherever it has been planted.

The buds you may find at your local dispensary were most likely grown locally by people devoted to the cultivation of high-quality cannabis. Indeed, most marijuana strains sold commercially are grown indoors in order to optimize quality by controlling temperature and lighting conditions. Cannabis grown wild, on the other hand, is referred to within the pro-marijuana community as feral cannabis. Planted outside, with the right weather conditions and just a little bit of luck, marijuana will grow like a weed, no pun intended. With that in mind, where does cannabis actually grow naturally? The answer can be found by taking a close look at where the cannabis plant originally came from and how the notorious marijuana plant came to be found all over the world.

Marijuana’s Origins

The history of the cannabis plant traces back tens of thousands of years to India and China. Historical records indicate that humans have long used cannabis for a variety of purposes. Some cultures have employed cannabis for its potent medicinal and psychoactive properties, while others have focused on the production of industrial hemp. Hemp can be used for making ropes, fishing nets, paper, oil, cloth, fuel, and many other items. Over time, two major strains of marijuana have emerged, indica and sativa, with the individual characteristics largely depending on climate, nutrients, and geographical location.

Most sources agree that the marijuana plant was originally from the Himalayan mountains, located in Tibet, with historical roots along the border of India and Afghanistan. Preferring a cool and dry climate, the ancestor of the modern cannabis indica strain flourished over the centuries and spread throughout Asia and the Middle East.

Sacred Hindu texts called The Vedas mention cannabis repeatedly. “The Fourth Book of the Vedas refers to it sometimes under the name of Vijahia (source of happiness) and sometimes under that of Ananda (laughter-provoker). It was not, therefore, for its textile properties that hemp was used in India to start with; at the beginning of the Christian era the use of its fiber was still unknown there…It is solely to its inebriating properties that hemp owes the signal honor of being sung in the Vedas(Bouquet, 1950).

According to Ancient Chinese legend, the Chinese were the first to discover the medicinal properties of the cannabis plant. Emperor Fu His referenced the healing properties of cannabis (‘ma’ in Chinese) as early as 2900 BCE. Emperor Sheng Nung allegedly used cannabis to treat a range of medical issues around 2700 BCE, including absent-mindedness, gout, malaria, menstrual issues, rheumatism, and others.

An article published in Science Magazine in 2019 highlighted recent research that unearthed the oldest known evidence of cannabis use: wooden braziers used for smoking marijuana, dating back 2500 years to a cemetery in Western China. Co-author of the actual paper, Robert Spengler, told Science, “It is quite likely that people came across cannabis plants at higher elevations that were naturally producing higher THC levels.” Interestingly, based on chemical analysis of pollen samples, researchers have been able to determine that the CBD-heavy cannabis sativa strain likely originated in Europe (McPartland et al. 2018). In 2007, researchers discovered cannabis seeds in the hull of a Norwegian Viking burial ship dating back as far as 820 A.D.

Wild Cannabis in The Current Day and Age

Cannabis has been known to grow wild in parts of Central and Western Asia. Despite marijuana’s illegality in India, to this day, farmers continue to grow cannabis and make hashish, called ‘charas’ by the locals, carrying on in the tradition of their ancestors. The area was a popular traveling destination during the 1970s, in fact, so many visitors traveled there that tourists officially became known as “hippies.” One farmer who called himself Sunaj spoke to Narratively, saying, “Children up in the Himalayan villages still refer to tourists as ‘hippies.’ It is the only word they know for stranger.” Photos taken by National Geographic in 2016 show cannabis farms hidden high up in the mountains. Under the current law, farmers risk going to prison when police show up to raid the cannabis fields.

Wild marijuana can certainly be found growing in North America, however, based on what researchers have discovered about the genetic origins of cannabis, it’s likely that any roadside weed found in America or Canada was actually brought here from somewhere else. In fact, according to an article by Leaf Science, cannabis that is found growing naturally on this continent is likely “ditch weed.” A report by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) found that 99% of cannabis eradicated in 2003 was feral hemp, i.e. wild marijuana. Evidently, lawmakers have had a hard time controlling the unintentional spread of wild cannabis. In 2018, a spokesman for the Indiana State Police told Leaf Science, “You can eradicate ditch weed as well as you can eradicate dandelion.”

As a plant, cannabis knows no borders, so even though THC still remains illegal in many places, marijuana is often still found growing naturally. If you get a chance to travel to Tibet and hike through the Himalayas, you might even be able to see cannabis in its natural state for yourself. For the price of $499.00 per person, the Himalayan Cannabis Tour available on the My Nepal Trek website offers tourists “a guided Himalayan cannabis tour…[that] combines the natural beauty of the Himalayan mountains, the rich cultural heritage of Nepal, and all the cannabis you set your eyes on.”

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Marijuana is a hardy plant. Able to survive in a wide range of climates, cannabis could theoretically be grown almost anywhere, as long as the temperature doesn’…