Thought by many to be one of the first plants ever cultivated by humans, hemp has a long and alluring past. Archaeological records suggest that hemp cultivation coincides with the birth of agriculture itself. Evidence to corroborate this was discovered in an ancient Taiwanese village which dates back more than 12,000 years. Considering its strong, fibrous properties it is widely accepted that the plant was one of the first to be used in early textiles and fabrication. However, some scientists including astrophysicist and Pulitzer Prize winning author Carl Sagan, have gone as far as to theorise that hemp may have been the first ever agricultural crop, a precursor to human civilisation in its own right.
“It would be really interesting if in human history the cultivation of marijuana led generally to the invention of agriculture, and thereby to civilization.” - Carl Sagan, 1977
The first recorded medicinal use of hemp or cannabis was in 2737 BC, in Ancient China. Emperor Shen Nung, who is considered by many to be the father of Chinese medicine asserted that the plant had medicinal properties which could be employed to treat a wide variety of ailments and regularly drank hemp infused tea. In the famous Pen-Tsao-Ching, an ancient book on agriculture and medicinal plants that is attributed to Shen Nung we have one of the first literary references to the therapeutic powers of the hemp plant.
Two and a half millennia after Shen Nung, a Greek physician by the name of Pedanius Dioscorides who accompanied the Romans on many of their campaigns during the first century AD, collected and studied various foreign plants for their potentially curative properties, eventually compiling his findings in a book which became known as De Materia Medica. The book covers hundreds of different plants including cannabis which is noted as having vast medicinal potential.
In the 1500s under the rule of Henry VIII, industrial hemp cultivation was deemed mandatory for all farmers in England. Refusal would result in a hefty fine, of which there exist several documented examples circa 1530. Subsequently, this legally enforced model for hemp growth was adopted during the colonisation of the Americas following the 1619 Virginia Assembly. During the early colonial period hemp was used in cloth and rope making and after 1700 it was again used to treat medical conditions.
In 1753 the Swedish botanist and physician Carl Linnaeus gave the hemp plant its scientific name, Cannabis Sativa. Following a period of research and efforts to understand the qualities and benefits of the plant in greater depth, Cannabis Sativa was used as an active ingredient in contemporary patent medicine to treat gastrointestinal maladies. The prominence of cannabis in medicine grew to become common throughout much of the nineteenth century.
It wasn’t until the early part of the twentieth century that propaganda surrounding cannabis began to circulate across the United States and consequently the Western World as a whole. On the back of the Mexican Revolution in 1910, the practice of recreational cannabis smoking was introduced by immigrants. Racial prejudice towards Mexican immigrants and other minorities along with pervasive mass unemployment during the Great Depression quickly led to the demonisation of the plant and by 1931, 29 states had officially outlawed ‘marijuana’.
However, the more substantial campaign to demonise and criminalise the plant can be attributed to the work of the prolific racist and hate mongering Harry J. Anslinger. Following the end of Prohibition, Anslinger founded the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1930, after years of working with various government agencies to tackle international drug trafficking. A staunch critic of the plant, he began an exhaustive anti-cannabis campaign in which he systematically discounted medical evidence and opinion and even resorted to falsifying accounts of the negative use and effects of cannabis in order to misrepresent and propagate his own ideals. His goal was to effect legislative change which would ultimately ban the plant and make it illegal in all circumstances, despite his own personal acknowledgment that hemp contained no psychoactive properties.
Anslinger was aware that through popularising the Mexican-Spanish word for the plant, marijuana, he could play to the xenophobic sentiment of the time. In doing so, he was able to propagate the notion that this dangerous, ‘foreign’ plant was ‘invading’ the United States and needed to be eradicated, rather than accurately portraying Cannabis as something that had been used domestically for centuries. In spite of the fact that smoking the plant at this time was generally uncommon, Anslinger with the help of early propaganda film pieces such as the infamous Reefer Madness (1936), was successfully able to manipulate and solidify negative public opinion.
The anti-cannabis smear campaign reached new heights when notorious, billionaire businessman and owner of the country’s largest newspaper chain William Randolph Hearst, began to publish this kind of propaganda on a mass scale. As it turns out, Hearst was also a major stakeholder in the US timber industry. Ever-the-capitalist, Hearst recognised that hemp was a potential threat to his timber business for paper production and began encouraging the publication of articles and advertisements that depicted cannabis as an extremely dangerous substance. Some of these very same articles were later used by Congress in their decision to ban hemp. The 1937 ruling became known as the Marijuana Tax Act, which declared the sale of hemp and marijuana illegal in the United States.
In 1940, the compound Cannabidiol (CBD) was discovered in cannabis by Dr. Roger Adams’ team at the University of Illinois. However, the Israeli researcher Raphael Mechoulam who is often recognised as the Godfather of Cannabis Science was the first person to successfully isolate CBD and map out its molecular structure. He began to study its properties in 1963, and his work resulted in the discovery and isolation of THC one year later.
Mechoulam was the first scientist to begin clinical studies, testing isolated cannabinoids on primates and humans and in 1980, conducted the first test examining the effects of cannabis on patients with epilepsy. These groundbreaking trials along with the hard work and research of several of Mechoulam’s accompanying scientists, laid the foundations for much of the medicinal cannabis that followed.
In 1988, the discovery of the first cannabinoid receptor gave rise to our modern understanding of the naturally occurring endocannabinoid system within all mammals. Through the 1990s more research was done on the endocannabinoid system which resulted in the successful cloning of CB1 and CB2 receptors by scientist Lisa Matsuda, which enabled us to expand our understanding further and begin to fully explore the endocannabinoid system and the crucial role it plays in regulating certain physiological systems and human health in general. To learn more about this, see our blog post about the endocannabinoid system.
Today, an enormous amount of research continues to be carried out on CBD, THC and other cannabinoids in pursuit of new discoveries that may have the potential to radically alter the way we view modern medicine and wellness in general. While government regulations surrounding medical cannabis research are relaxing significantly; so too is that harsh perception of this incredible plant, with many nations already having legalised its recreational use.
Whilst for generations this natural resource has been repudiated and criminalised it seems today that on the whole, there is a much wider acceptance and acknowledgement of the health benefits this plant is able to provide. Ironically through years of tireless scientific research and campaigning it seems we are back where we started - taking from the Earth that which she intends.
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