Medically Reviewed by
Jason Crawford

Article Last Updated on December 31, 2022

The history of marijuana is older than agriculture itself. In fact, this plant isn’t only popular in modern human history, but it was also popular back in the days of the ancient civilizations. Marijuana is native to the Asian continent where wild cannabis grew on its own long before people discovered its medicinal properties. After that, marijuana became widely used by different civilizations who used it to make clothes, linens, ropes, sails, and used the cannabis seeds as food. They also used it medicinally for its pain-relieving properties, recreationally because of its psychoactive properties, and in religious rituals. 

As the plant evolved throughout the years, three main species that thrived in different climates were identified: cannabis Sativa, cannabis Indica, and cannabis Ruderalis. Each had a different appearance and also different amounts of cannabinoids (THC, CBD, and others) and terpenes.

But have you ever wondered which civilization first discovered the cannabis plant and started to reap its benefits throughout this evolutionary process? This article will give you the answer to that exact question. 

Who Discovered Marijuana?

According to research, marijuana was likely discovered by the Ancient Chinese people who lived on the territory of the Tibetan Plateau. Once they figured out that the marijuana plant had psychoactive properties, they saw its potential and eventually started cultivating the plant themselves and even started cross breeding different strains.

Keep in mind that the levels of THC of ancient cannabis plants weren’t as high as the levels of THC in cannabis today. Regardless, cannabis still had benefits when treating certain medical conditions in ancient China such as malaria, gout, poor memory, rheumatism, and others.

There are numerous archeological sources that prove ancient Chinese people smoked the cannabis plant by placing it in braziers and lighting the weed with hot stones. They used this method of consumption for recreational use of cannabis, medicinal use, as well as for religious rituals.

According to archeological evidence, early cannabis smoking was common in ancient China.

Robert Spengler and other authors of the study researched the Jirzankal Cemetery located in the Pamir Plateau in western China and found wooden braziers which were used to burn weed plants. The hot stones which were found next to the braziers contained a significant amount of residue from cannabinoids which were burnt in the braziers and inhaled by the Ancient Chinese. By using the identification technique gas chromatography-mass spectrometry, the researchers found that the residue on the stones had high tetrahydrocannabinol levels. 

The Pamir Plateau is the place where China, Southwest Asia, and Central Asia connect, and also the place where the Silk Road exchange route went through. It’s very likely that from this territory, weed spread all over the world through this specific exchange route.

The History of Cannabis: How Ancient Civilizations Used It

When it comes to the use of cannabis, each civilization used it to treat different medical conditions. Below, we’ll discuss how cannabis was used in ancient civilizations for treating medical conditions, as well as how it eventually spread around Asia and Europe.

The Indians

Cannabis has been used as a food and drink source by Hindus in ancient India as early as 1000 BCE. The plant was thought to be one of the five sacred plants which were used in rituals for the Hindu god Shiva. The use of cannabis in India is well known because of their famous drink Bhang which was used as a treatment for several medical conditions and as an anesthetic. Bhang is traditionally made with cannabis, milk, and spices.

The Egyptians

The medical use of cannabis was also popular in ancient Egypt where it was used to treat inflammation, hemorrhoids, glaucoma, and other medical conditions. Ancient Egyptians also used the hemp plant to make food, clothes, linen, ropes, and other household items.

The Scythians

Nomadic tribes of warriors from the region of Southern Siberia called the Scythians were popular for their recreational use of cannabis and allegedly introduced the cannabis plant to Russia and Ukraine. According to the Greek historian Herodotus, these fierce warriors inhaled the psychoactive cannabis smoke which gave them an advantage in battle. They mixed weed with opium and smoked the weed by lighting it in braziers.

How Did Cannabis Come to the Middle East?

The use of cannabis, hashish specifically, was also common in the Middle East around 800 AD. People in these territories smoked hashish because the Quran prohibits the use of alcohol and other drugs, though there’s no mention of cannabis anywhere in the book. People from the Middle East were the ones who brought weed to Africa which is why hashish is also popular there.

How Did Cannabis Come to North America?

Weed’s spread to the US was very important because the Americans really utilized this versatile plant firstly to make textiles, linen, and food in the first colonies, and later popularized the use of medical and recreational cannabis. But let’s start at the beginning.

Cannabis first came to the US at the beginning of the 20th century when the Spanish colonists brought it with them. Cannabis cultivation was stimulated during this period, and even President George Washington cultivated this versatile plant on his own farm for over 30 years. The hemp plant was a key resource in World War II to make rope, uniforms, canvas, and other essentials.

The recreational use of cannabis was especially prominent in the US after the Mexican revolution. As the Mexicans fled from their country, they brought their marijuana use habits along with them. The increased drug use became a problem for the federal government, so new laws were passed that aimed to restrict cannabis consumption.

Regulating the cannabis market in the US first started with the passing of the Marijuana Tax Act back in 1937 which increased the tax for cannabis growers. As Nixon’s campaign called “War on Drugs” spread all over the US, another act was passed that would further limit marijuana use. With the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, the use of cannabis became prohibited and weed was classified as a Schedule I drug together with LSD and heroin.

Recreational and Medical Marijuana in the US Today

The medicinal use of marijuana and its benefits became very popular in the US in the past 30 years. After doing extensive research, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) legalized the first drug containing synthetic THC for medical use called Marinol which was intended to be used to treat nausea and vomiting caused by cancer chemotherapy and loss of appetite in AIDs patients. One year after the legalization of the drug, California became the first state to legalize cannabis for medicinal purposes, and a total of 36 states have legalized it since then. After the legalization of medical marijuana in these states, patients with a valid medical marijuana card can purchase weed at local dispensaries.

While the 1900s were a period when people just started consuming cannabis for recreational purposes, that is not the case today. People in the US have gotten quite used to consuming cannabis recreationally, especially in states where weed is legal. A total of 18 US states have legalized recreational cannabis and more are expected to decriminalize and legalize weed in the near future.

Final Thoughts

It’s a fact that right after alcohol, cannabis has become the most widely used substance in the world. The cannabis market has increased exponentially since the Chinese first discovered it, and it’s only expected to expand in the future. New research is done each year to find ways to tap into more of the benefits from the cannabinoids and terpenes in the cannabis plant and treat or maintain certain medical conditions. And the legalization of recreational marijuana also doesn’t fall behind. Apart from the 18 US states, both Canada and Uruguay have completely legalized the use of cannabis, and we only need to wait and see what new regulation will be passed in the near future with regards to marijuana.

A passionate advocate for the benefits of cannabis. Fraser Horton, who has a background in botany and a strong love of nature, has spent years researching how cannabis affects the body and mind. He established Leaf Nation in 2020, where he has devoted himself to educating people about the legalisation of marijuana and its safe and responsible use. Fraser is committed to highlighting cannabis’ potential for improving wellness and working to dispel the stigma associated with its use.


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