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A brief historical overview in cannabis – Part I.


Although hemp is a plant that thrives on almost the entire planet, it is also one of the most controversial. Cannabis cultivations are found from antiquity with the first reports being made from the 30th century BC. The uses of cannabis vary, with its mainly ones to be religious, pharmaceutical, euphoric and industrial uses. In the 19th century AD cannabis began to be demonized culminating in its ban. Today, several countries have re-legitimized it, while the scientific community, by announcing the benefits of cannabis, is helping to dispel newly formed prejudices and to eradicate misinformation and semi-learnings on the subject. The historical background of this plant through a modern prism is an interesting path that justifies its use, its prohibition and its legalization.

The use of cannabis is found all around the ancient world. More specifically, the oldest cannabis roots and references are found in China in 2737 BC, when, according to the legend, Emperor Shennong defined tea as a cure for diseases such as malaria, rheumatism and gout. Through Chinese influence, cannabis spread to Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Although the first reports date back to 2800 BC, when the first hemp ropes and paper appeared, historians estimate that its cultivation began around 8000 BC due to the nutritional value of its seeds. As its cultivation was being modernized, hemp began to be used to make fibers for products such as paper, ropes, and clothing. In conclusion, the cultivation of cannabis in China began 10,000 years ago and chronologically coincided with the beginning of pottery making.

The cultivation and use of cannabis was common in ancient China to such an extent that China was known as the land of cannabis and mulberry, as mulberry was used primarily for the production of silk. Ancient Chinese texts emphasize cannabis, such as The Chronicles and The Book of Songs, which categorize it as one of China’s six most important cultivations, while the book Shennong Bencaojing of the mythical emperor Shennong, which lists more than 360 plants with their healing properties, includes cannabis, as well. In this way historians know that cannabis began to be used for its healing properties mainly for rheumatic pains, intestinal constipation and malaria. Cannabis, therefore, was widely used in China, from where it was spread to Asia, the Middle East and Africa, on the one hand for its nutritional value and fiber and on the other hand for its medicinal properties.

However, cannabis use is also found in India. Although it is thought that cannabis was brought to India from China, in fact this plant already existed naturally at the foot of various regions. The use of cannabis was different from that of China, and dates back to 2000 BC. This plant played an important role in Indian religious and spiritual culture. The book Atharvaveda, composed in the 11th to 15th century BC, includes the bhanga among the five sacred plants. Of course, scholars’ opinions differ and there is a literary controversy over whether bhanga, the Sanskrit word for cannabis, coincides with its modern meaning. The cannabis plant was used mixed with other ingredients. The bhang drink, for example, was a composition of the buds and leaves of the plant, along with milk, mistletoe and spices. In the Samundra Manthana, in fact, it is stated that bhanga was the favorite food of the god Shiva, and it is suggested to offer it to the god during the summer months, according to Shiva Purana. Other cannabis products were ganja (hemp flower), charas (a type of handmade hashish) and soma (spiritual drink). In conclusion, cannabis in India played an important religious and spiritual role in Indian culture.

The cannabis plant, however, was not used exclusively for religious and spiritual purposes. Sushruta Samhita, an ancient Sanskrit work that deals with medicine and surgery and dates to around 600 BC, is one of the few surviving works of this era and subject, and mentions the bhanga as a medicinal and medicinal plant, ideal for combating runny nose, phlegm and diarrhea. At the same time, cannabis is also mentioned in Ayurveda as an ingredient in small quantities in various painkillers and aphrodisiacs. Then, as cannabis became more widespread, it was used more for euphoric use. It has been supported that this plant has the potential to make people happier and improve their spiritual power. In addition, interactions between India and China led to the Indians get familiar with industrial cannabis and its uses. Through the trade in fibers and textiles, the agricultural and industrial uses of cannabis were introduced to India and embraced by the Indians. The Indian cannabis growers even helped break down the fibers for their preparation for water treatment, a practice that is still used today around the world for the production of hemp fabrics.

During the colonial era of India, the reactions of the Portuguese and the British differed. More specifically, it is found that the former came in contact with the customs and trade of cannabis in India after 1510. The botanist and physician Garcia de Orta in fact, in his work, Colloquies on the Simples and Drugs and Medicinal Matters of India and of a Few Fruits (1534), includes various uses for cannabis, noting that bhang was widely used to improve performance at work and as an appetite stimulant. Accordingly, Cristobal Acosta in 1549, in his work A Tract about the Drugs and Medicines of the East Indies, analyzes recipes for bhang. However, British settlers had a more moderate and conservative view of cannabis. In fact, in 1798, the British Parliament imposed a tax on bhang, charas and ganja to limit their consumption, considering that cannabis threatened the physical and mental health of the natives. However, the British Indian government investigated cannabis in India in 1894, concluding that cannabis overdose was not common, but even if one user exaggerated, the consequences were individual and did not pose a threat to society.

As for the cannabis legality in India today, although attempts were made to criminalize it in 1837, 1871 and 1877, they did not enter into force. However, in 1961 cannabis was banned after being classified as a heavy drug. Cannabis, of course, was defined as the flowers and not the leaves and seeds. The bhang was exempt from this law, although in some states it was also banned, but this rule is not actually in practice. Today the industrial uses of cannabis, such as the production and processing of leaves and seeds, are legal in India. The Indian government, in fact, urges to deal with cannabis of low THC levels, and from 2019 disputes the classification of cannabis in heavy drugs, as it now considers this classification arbitrary, unscientific and irrational. In conclusion, it was observed that cannabis in ancient India was used for religious, spiritual, healing, euphoric and industrial purposes, while it played an important role in transmitting its uses to the western world.