The history of the world’s oldest drug is a long and occasionally colourful one. We at Cannabis Report have made a small video about it which you can find here
From the first time someone discovered that smoking the buds of that fast-growing, lurid-green weed outside offered a new and interesting perspective on the world to today, Cannabis sativa and its few close relatives have played an under-reported role in world affairs. Over the past 50 years Cannabis has enabled a total of $17.4 TRILLION in profits to be made illegally (Source: CannabisReport.Net)
The plants and their psychoactive buds have expanded consciousness, powered ships, scared whole societies, made the Grateful Dead sound great, helped some people feel better and helped other people lose a whole lot of days and weekends and, sometimes, years.
Here are five things to know.
1. It’s as old as the hills It was grown on The first written record of cannabis — native to central Asia and India — for medicinal purposes dates back to 2572BC to the mythical Chinese emperor Shennong — or “Divine Farmer” who, according to legend, was fond of experimenting on himself with various potions made from plants, with an antidote close by.
The use of hemp for its fibres and as food starts thousands of years before that, with imprints from hemp fibres noted on pottery dating back to the Yangshao era — about 5000BC.
The first reference to its narcotic properties is in the Zoroastrian Zend-Avesta, an ancient Persian religious text in which “bhang” — the term for a health drink made in India from cannabis paste and milk — is called the “good narcotic”.
The Scythians — enthusiastic early adopters — apparently used cannabis in steam baths and burned the seeds in burial rituals between 2000 and 1400BC. The Greek travelling philosopher Herodotus wrote of the Scythians in 450BC that they “howl in their joy at the vapour bath”.
2. It powered the age of discovery. If hemp didn’t quite make the world go round, it helped ships go round the world. Hemp was used to make a ship’s sails — the word “canvas” is a corruption of the Latin word “cannapaceus” or “made of hemp” — and its fibres were spun into ropes and used to caulk seams on hulls and decks to make ships watertight, according to hashmuseum.com.
Long before hemp shirts became eye-wateringly expensive, hipster boutique items, sailors often wore clothes made of hemp, their lamps used hemp oil and even the ship’s documentation was on hemp paper.
In this sense, hemp helped spread itself — the Spanish invaders brought hemp to the New World on their ships in the 16th century, and began growing it in Chile in about 1545. There is no small irony in the fact that Mexico and Colombia would, centuries later, be at the epicentre of a vast marijuana growing-and-smuggling business which — no matter how high it’s built — US President Donald Trump’s much-promised, multibillion-dollar border wall will never stop.
Anyway, there is a large dose of hypocrisy in the wall — the pilgrims arrived in America on the canvas-powered, hemp-roped Mayflower in 1620 and quickly got down to growing hemp plantations of their own.
Later growers included George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, says truthabouthemp.org. Since cannabis hemp was legal tender in most of the Americas from 1631 until the early 1800s, was theirs an effort to prove that money did, in fact, grow on trees, or merely just a freer time in the history of hemp cultivation?
3. America’s war on drugs was driven by racism. By the turn of the 20th century all sorts of cannabis extracts — used to treat stomach and other ailments — were sold across the counter in pharmacies from Europe to America. Clearly a lot of people were getting high from straight-out smoking. The authorities were alarmed — was it because people were just too chilled?
The first ban on recreational use in the US came in 1914 when the Harrison Act declared drug use a crime.
Officials began pushing a meme — fake, as it turned out — of dangerous pot-smoking Mexicans pouring across the border and threatening American security. But it took a man named Harry Jacob Anslinger, America’s first “drugs czar” — to turn marijuana into a national emergency.
Anslinger, who was commissioner of the US Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics for 32 years, was the key mover in America’s prohibition of drugs. Like any good old fear-stoking, hate-mongering alarmist, Anslinger used racism to achieve his aims.
“There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers,” he said in one speech. “Their Satanic music, jazz and swing result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.”
That’s one of his milder quotes. That Anslinger was widely regarded as racist by many Americans did nothing to stop the criminalisation of marijuana and other drugs and kick off the so-called War on Drugs that continues to this day and which continues to disproportionately target African-Americans.
4. Marijuana is a gateway drug — but not the way you think Without a “war on drugs” there would probably be no smugglers. And without smugglers there would probably be no drug cartels chopping people’s heads off in Mexico, laying siege to their own people in Colombia and generally spattering more blood and gore across the earth than in a Roman gladiatorial arena.
As a direct result of Anslinger’s efforts — which hardened under presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan — prices of marijuana and drugs such as cocaine rocketed.
This attracted entrepreneurs eager to make a quick buck (and in the early days, it really was so). One was Allen Long, a “marijuana evangelist” who wanted to spread the weed, er, word and so bought a light aircraft and went into business with some Mexican dope growers.
When the Mexican connection proved unreliable, Robert Sabbag writes in Smokescreen, the swashbuckling smuggler bought an even bigger plane — a Douglas Dakota C-47 transport — and hooked up with some Colombian growers.
He was soon flying three tons of grade A weed at a time direct from plantation to the US, untroubled by borders, customs officials or police. But, in the way of that world, Long was soon flying cocaine instead of weed, the stakes were higher and the people much nastier. He went to jail.
Small-time pot smuggler George Jung — played by Johnny Depp in the movie Blow, started the same way — smuggling pot from California to New York. A chance meeting with Carlos Lehder in a jail cell led Jung from mellow old dagga to one of the greatest criminal enterprises of all time, involving cocaine, Pablo Escobar and an army of thoroughly violent people.
So, yeah, weed is a gateway drug.
5. The war on drugs has cost America $1-trillion to dateThe US spends $78bn a year on its “drugs war”, according to Forbes, and still it goes on. The most recent epidemic is the opioid crisis — a homegrown painkiller catastrophe in which one person dies every 16 minutes from an overdose.
Some states — seeing the writing on the wall — have legalised marijuana. At least it can now be taxed and the money spent on useful things, such as educating people about drugs.
It may yet happen throughout America and all around the world. But don’t hold your breath.
Circa 1980: A plane carrying marijuana on an airfield near Santa Marta, Colombia, where it crashed. Picture: Timothy Ross/Getty Images