In this new series, we will regularly acquaint you with the therapeutic effects of what is probably the most controversial herb of our time – cannabis. Today, we are going to introduce the plant, talk about its origins and mention the most important moments in the history of its therapeutic use.
Cannabis is a plant with a rich and long history of interactions with humans. Researchers assume that it spread around the world from Central and South Asia – hillsides of the Himalayas and the Altai Mountains (today’s territories of Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and China). It is supposed to have grown there first more than 30 million years ago, while the oldest known evidence of its use by man dates back to 12 000-10 000 BC – that is the estimated age of the pieces of pottery found in Taiwan the sides of which had been decorated by pressing strips of hemp cord (“hemp” is another name for cannabis; nowadays the term means mostly industrially grown strains with no psychoactive compounds, thus legal).
As a nutritious source of food, cannabis was already grown and processed, according to archaeological findings, in ancient China at least 8 000 years ago. The Chinese consumed seeds and oil made out of them; however, the findings do not confirm smoking of flowers in order to “get high” – this was first done by Scythian tribes about 5 000 BC in today’s Romania, where burnt remains of cannabis flowers were found in burial mounds of the so-called Kurgan culture (nomadic tribes of the first Indo-Europeans).
First Evidences of Medical Use
The first written evidence of the use of cannabis for medical purposes dates back about 5 000 years ago to the reign of legendary Chinese emperor Shennong, who recommended cannabis in his pharmacopoeia for the treatment of malaria, beriberi, constipation, rheumatic pain, and women’s issues.
From China, knowledge spread gradually to Korea, Japan, and India, where cannabis became an essential part of not only diet and medicine, but also religious and spiritual traditions and practices. The Vedas contain information about the ritual drinking of a sacred beverage called “bhang,” which “reduces fever, improves sleep, helps against diarrhea, stimulates appetite, and prolongs life.” And the main ingredient of this drink, of course, was cannabis, the “gift from the Gods,” as Ayurveda describes it.
Apart from medical and spiritual use there were other advantages of cannabis as well, thanks to which it spread practically all around the world in the next centuries. Its growing did not require any particular treatment of soil nor complicated irrigation, and the plant offered more than flowers and seeds; it also had a universally exploitable stalk. People began to produce cloths and clothes, ropes, cords, and later even whole sails (also called canvas – a derivative of cannabis) from hemp fibre. Columbus discovered the New World with ships equipped with around 80 tons of material made from cannabis fiber.
Cannabis as Medicine in 19th Century
Back to the medical uses of cannabis. Chinese and Indian knowledge about cannabis survived the dark Middle Ages in most of Europe thanks to the advanced Arab culture. People in Europe were growing it throughout Middle Ages however, they did not use it much as medicine but predominantly to produce cloths and oil.
It was Napoleon who indirectly introduced the psychoactive and mind-altering effects to Europe at the end of the 18th century, when his soldiers came back from Egypt with full pockets of pressed cannabis resin called hashish. Paris soon became a smoking capital of Europe, with hashish especially popular among high society and artists (like the famous poet Charles Baudelaire).
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