Medically Reviewed by
Jason Crawford

Article Last Updated on January 18, 2023

The cannabis plant has been used for hundreds of years. This oilseed crop has been used to make textiles for clothes, linen, shoes, and ropes for ships, among plenty of other things. Its cannabis seeds and oil are used as a food source due to containing essential vitamins and minerals as well as a treatment for some conditions, while the cannabis flower is used for the sedative and pain-relieving effects that the cannabinoid cannabidiol (CBD) provides, and the mind-altering and psychoactive properties which users experience due to the presence of the cannabinoid tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). 

This versatile plant can be consumed in a lot of ways, but smoking weed is definitely one of the most popular methods of consumption. Smoking weed has been popular since the times of the ancient civilizations, but have you ever wondered who was the civilization to smoke weed first, and why? This article will give you all the information about the first time that people smoked cannabis as well as how cannabis consumption has evolved through the years and how strains with higher THC content were cultivated.       

The History of Cannabis 

According to a study on cannabis fossil pollen, weed originated in the northeastern Tibetan Plateau. The hemp plants that grew there had low levels of THC, however, once people learned about the use of cannabis in medicine, they started cultivating cannabis with higher levels of THC in order to reap all of the benefits that the cannabinoids provide. 

Which Civilization Smoked Weed for the First Time?

A new study published in Science Advances focussed on the origins of early cannabis smoking and found proof that the Chinese were the first civilization to smoke cannabis. Authors Meng Ren, Xinhua Wu, Robert Spengler, Hongen Jiang, Yimin Yang, and Nicole Boivin discovered wooden braziers used for burning plants at the Jirzankal Cemetery located in the Pamir Plateau of western China. The residue on the hot stones found inside the bowls was analyzed using the identification technique gas chromatography-mass spectrometry, and the analysis proved that the bows contained traces of cannabinol (CBN) which indicates that cannabis plants were burnt there. 

According to the laboratory director at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany, Robert Spengler, and his fellow researchers, people in ancient China were smoking cannabis as early as 2500 BC. By comparing the results of the sample from the Jiayi Cemetery in Turpan which may also have originated from around the same time, researchers found out that the remains of the cannabis strains at the Jirzankal Cemetery likely had higher THC levels than the ones found in higher plants which means that the population may have hybridized the strains found locally with other strains to increase their potency. As the Pamir Plateau connects China, Southwest Asia, and Central Asia, this is probably how cannabis spread throughout these regions via the Silk Road exchange route.

Cannabis Use in Ancient India

Through the Silk Road exchange route, cannabis spread to India. For the ancient Indian civilizations, this plant was considered as one of the five sacred plants which were used as a herbal remedy as well as in ritual offerings to the god Shiva. According to records, a popular use for the cannabis plant was the drink Bhang which was made with milk, cannabis, and spices, and was used as an anesthetic, but also as a treatment for medical conditions.

Cannabis Use in Ancient Egypt

The cannabis plant was also popular among ancient Egyptians for its medical use. They referenced the use of cannabis for treating glaucoma, inflammation, hemorrhoids, and other conditions in a large number of papyri manuscripts. The hemp plant was also used as a resource for making clothes, linen, and ropes.

Cannabis Came to Europe with the Scythians

The use of cannabis was common in the ancient region of Southern Siberia. The ancient nomadic tribes of warriors, the Scythians, were also known for their recreational use of cannabis. According to the notes of Greek historian Herodotus, the Scythians used the combination of cannabis and opium for their mind-altering properties which may have given them an advantage on the battlefield. While conquering territories in the Middle East and Europe, they brought their weed-smoking habits with them.

Cannabis Use in the Middle East

In the Middle East, hashish became quite prevalent after 800 AD and the spread of Islam. Smoking pipes with hashish became quite common due to the fact that the Quran forbids the use of alcohol and intoxicating substances, but it doesn’t forbid the use of cannabis. From the Middle East cannabis was introduced to Eastern Africa, which is why hashish became very common in a lot of African tribes.

Cannabis in North America

At the beginning of the 20th century, cannabis was brought to North America and the United States. Weed first became popular for its medical use and its use for making textiles and ropes during the colonial period, but it became especially popular for recreational use during the Mexican revolution. As Mexicans fled to the US, they brought with them their habit of recreational marijuana use which soon spread throughout the country.

As weed became more popular, the federal government wanted to deter people from consuming cannabis so they started writing legislation intended to discourage the production and use of cannabis. Starting with the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937 which increased the tax for cannabis growers, and continuing with the classification of cannabis as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 as part of the campaign “War on Drugs,” the use of cannabis slowly became prohibited.

However, by then people had already figured out the medical benefits of using the cannabis plant, and in 1996, California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana, which ultimately led to more states legalizing cannabis. Today, recreational cannabis is legal in 18 US states, and medical cannabis is legal in 36 US states.

Final Thoughts

People have been using the hemp plant for over 10 000 years ever since they started cultivating it. They not only used it for its healing powers, but they also used it recreationally, as well as for making food, clothes, ropes, and other essentials. 

The first civilization that started smoking psychoactive cannabis was most likely the ancient Chinese. According to research, the first traces of smoking cannabis were found around 2500 AD in the Pamir Plateau. People smoked cannabis medicinally, they used it in religious practices, and also recreationally, and the use of cannabis only spread from there. Cannabis was brought to Europe, Africa, the Americas, and Australia, and became widespread before it was banned by international US treaties.

Nowadays, cannabis is the second most widely used substance around the world, right after alcohol. While in some countries it’s still illegal to smoke weed, others have completely legalized the use of cannabis. Cannabis is completely legal for recreational use in 18 US states, Canada, Jamaica, and Uruguay, and more countries will likely decriminalize and legalize smoking marijuana in the future, one of which is Turkey which is slowly easing the regulation on cannabis possession though it’s still not fully legal. In Europe, however, cannabis usage is at varying stages of legality and decriminalization in countries such as Portugal, Russia, Czech Republic, Spain, Croatia, Netherlands, Ukraine, Switzerland, though the list is changing by the day.

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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