Cannabis and hemp have a long history of use across the planet, and the attitudes toward them have changed vastly over time.
From East Asia to Ancient Egypt, evidence of hemp use can be found as a medicine, a supplement, and as a raw material for ropes and pottery.
In this article, we’ll provide a brief summary of the history of cannabis and the roles it has played in various civilisations throughout human history.
Early History Of Cannabis Use
Though there are reports of hemp rope found in 1997, possibly dating back to 26,900 BC, the oldest verified records of hemp usage are in the form of woven hemp fabrics found in China dating back to 7000 BC.
Interestingly, respected etymologists, linguists, anthropologists, and botanists believe that evidence of cannabis use can be found in the Book of Exodus (30:22-23).
Referred to as “fragrant cane”, it was used as an ingredient in Holy anointing oil, described in the Hebrew version of the recipe for Kaneh-Bosem (sound familiar?).
The oldest evidence of medicinal cannabis use was found in a tomb in Beit Shemesh, near Jerusalem.
Scientists examined 6.97g of a grey, carbonized material found in the abdomen of a young girl’s skeleton. Who was believed to have died whilst pregnant or during childbirth. Bronze coins dating back to roughly 315-392 AD were found alongside the girl’s remains in the same tomb.
Microscopic analysis by the Israel Police Forensic Laboratory revealed the possible presence of Cannabis Sativa, believed to have been used as an inhalant to help with childbirth.
Further East, the oldest records of cannabis as a pharmacologically active agent were found in Turpan, in the Xinjiang-Uighur autonomous region of China. A large cache of cannabis was found in the tomb of a Shaman, dating back to around 700 BC.
Evidence of cannabis use was also found in Ancient Egypt. Remnants of a Cannabis plant were discovered on the mummified remains of Ramesses II, who reigned over Egypt between 1279–1213 BC.
So, there’s plenty of evidence that humans have been using, crafting with, or cultivating cannabis and hemp for at least 9000 years.
Cannabis In Ancient Greece & Scythia
Cannabis use was not evident in Greece until the classical era. Interestingly, it did not seem to enjoy the popularity that it did in nearby empires like Egypt and Scythia.
Nonetheless, there are some records of its use as a medicinal herb (Examples of Ancient Greek Medical Knowledge, Lahanas, 2006) used to treat inflammation and to melt ‘corns’.
In Scythia, evidence of cannabis use was found during an excavation of one of the many burial grounds (known as kurgans) left behind by the ancient civilisation.
Three gold cups were found under a layer of clay inside the kurgan. Criminologists in Stavropol, Russia, analysed a black residue found inside the vessels, which found traces of cannabis as well as opium.
This correlates with accounts from the Greek historian Herodotus, who had written that the Scythians used a plant to produce smoke "that no Grecian vapor-bath can surpass."
Hemp In The Pre-Industrial Era
Hemp played an essential role in the rise of the English Empire. As England's navy grew hugely in size in the 16th century, King Henry VIII made hemp cultivation a requirement under law.
Used in sails, nets, and ropes, the rise of England as a naval superpower meant hemp was in huge demand. His daughter and successor to the throne, Elizabeth I, forced English farmers to further increase the production of hemp.
This turned out to be an important decision as the Royal Navy, whose ships were fitted with hemp, destroyed the invading Spanish Armada under her command in 1588.
The English then brought hemp to its first long-lasting settlement in Jamestown, North America. The Spanish also brought hemp to the New World as they settled across Central America in the 16th Century.
Hemp was incredibly prevalent in early US history and up until the early 20th century. Being commonly used for pain relief, fabrics, and lamp oil. It was so popular, in fact, that in 1619 a law was introduced to force all farmers to grow hemp as part of their crops - following in the footsteps of England across the Atlantic.
Even George Washington himself grew hemp on his plantation, and it was one of the most popular crops in the country behind tobacco and lumber.
By 1850, cannabis was listed in the United States Pharmacopeia as a patent medicine.
The Beginning Of Cannabis Prohibition In The USA
Hemp was primarily used as a source of fiber in the US until cotton replaced it as the main fiber crop at the beginning of the 20th century Around this time, cannabis started to grow in popularity across the States.
Primarily being reintroduced by Mexican immigrants after the Mexican Revolution. This is when attitudes towards the plant, and unfortunately - the Mexicans that brought it with them, turned sour.
An infamous smear campaign on cannabis by then-Texas Senator Harry Aslinger quickly changed the public opinion of the plant. Aslinger popularised the Spanish name for the plant, 'Marijuana', and along with racist smears against the Mexicans themselves, associated the plant with Mexican immigrants.
On the floor of the US Senate, he stated "All Mexicans are crazy and this stuff is what makes them crazy". Meanwhile, cannabis use continued to grow in popularity across the States, particularly among minority groups. Furthermore, hemp was a competitor crop to lumber for making paper, which, according to some, led to increased pressure to prohibit its cultivation by powerful corporate interests.
The Ford Motor Company also discovered a way of extracting ethanol from hemp, further piling pressure on governments to restrict its use. This is because ethanol can be used to create alcohol, which was banned at the time due to pressure from oil and gas companies as it could be used as a cheaper source of motor fuel.
By 1936, 48 states had passed regulations on 'marijuana'. Soon after in 1937, The Marihuana Tax Act was introduced which was designed to limit the use of the plant.
Aslinger himself proposed the law, stating that "Marijuana is the most violent drug in the history of mankind." He was later appointed as the Head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.
In 1942, cannabis was removed from the American Pharmacopeia as a listed medicine. Legal penalties for possession of cannabis increased in 1951 (the Boggs Act) and further in 1956 (the Narcotics Control Act).
These laws introduced minimum jail sentences for possession of the plant. With the latter introducing fines of up to $20,000 and jail time of up to 10 years. Despite the rise in popularity of cannabis across the States, particularly during the 'Hippie' movements of the '60s and '70s, cannabis and hemp remained illegal.
In 1970, further federal regulations were put in place, known as the Controlled Substances Act. The law classed cannabis as a Schedule I narcotic, meaning the plant had "no medical value and a high potential for abuse".
However, laws around the use of cannabis varied between states, despite the federal restrictions in place.
Decades of prohibition did not succeed in eliminating cannabis use. It remained popular with artists and musicians across the US. Particularly with Hip Hop artists in the 80's and 90's such as Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre.
Decriminalisation Of Cannabis In The 21st Century
Attitudes towards cannabis prohibition have changed a lot since the turn of the 21st century in the US.
In 2012, Washington and Colorado were the first states to legalise the recreational use of cannabis in 2012, with the passing of Amendment 64. Fast forward to 2022, cannabis is currently legal to smoke recreationally in 18 states, with 13 more states having decriminalised its use. It can also be prescribed medicinally in 37 US states.
As US attitudes towards cannabis continue to evolve and scientific evidence grows, it is likely more and more states will proceed to decriminalise and legalise the plant.
It's impressive to think how far US cannabis laws have come in just 100 years. Perhaps due to public pressure and the rise of social media, the 21st century has seen cannabis and hemp become as much of a political talking point as they are useful crops for making fiber and oils.
Modern Cannabis, Hemp & CBD Laws Around the World
In the majority of countries around the world, cannabis for recreational and medicinal use remains illegal. Though many countries don't strictly enforce the rules or simply turn a blind eye to personal use.
In many cases, laws and attitudes differ between hemp, used for fiber and materials, and cannabis used for smoking recreationally.
Then there are often exceptions for isolated cannabinoids like CBD, and low-THC full-spectrum hemp extracts.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) conducted a critical review into whether or not CBD should not be placed under international drug control as it “was not found to have psychoactive properties, and presents no potential for abuse or dependence.”
In some countries, however, cannabis is legal for recreational and medicinal purposes. Canada, for example, became the first G7 nation to legalise in 2018. It is also decriminalised in Australia, Brazil, Colombia, Jamaica, and Uruguay.
Cannabis & Hemp In Europe
Modern attitudes towards cannabis vary from country to country in Europe.
Some countries such as Malta have legalised the use of cannabis and in other countries such as the Netherlands, it is decriminalised.
Spain decriminalised the consumption of cannabis in private spaces in 2015. In Italy, the possession of cannabis is not a criminal offense. Possession is decriminalised in Luxembourg, too.
Portugal has also liberalised its policies on cannabis, with medicinal use being legal since 2018. Drug use is treated as a medical, and not a criminal issue. Though possession of cannabis is still technically illegal. Punishment can vary from just having your cannabis seized to being referred to the Commission for Dissuasion of Drug Addicts.
However, other European nations are not so liberal with their policies on cannabis. France, for example, punishes possession with up to a one-year jail term and up to a €4,000 fine.
In Sweden, cannabis possession can also be punished by imprisonment. Possession is also illegal in Germany, though often not strictly enforced when small amounts are used for personal use.
However, recent reports indicate that Germany is set to legalise cannabis imminently.
Cannabis Laws In Asia
Across Asia, the consequences for possession of cannabis tend to be more severe.
Even in countries of the infamous Golden Triangle, "one of the world's busiest drug-trafficking regions", cannabis is illegal both recreationally and medicinally. With the notable exception of Thailand which legalised cannabis in 2021.
From Saudi Arabia in the West to Malaysia in the East, people can be sentenced to death if they are found to use or sell cannabis. However, while the majority of Asian countries prohibit the use of cannabis, attitudes towards cannabis are starting to change.
Modern Cannabis Laws In The UK In 2023
As of 2023 in the UK, cannabis is still considered to be a Class B substance. Having been upgraded from the less severe Class C in 2008 by then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
Possession of a Class B substance risks up to five years imprisonment, an unlimited fine, or both. Supplying cannabis risks up to 14 years imprisonment, an unlimited fine, or both.
This law change disregarded advice from Brown's own expert advisors on drugs policy. Nonetheless, policing of these laws varies across the UK, with some police forces (Durham) no longer penalising small-scale possession.
Ironically, however, this has not stopped the UK from making and exporting industrial quantities of cannabis products. In fact, in 2016, the UK was the main producer and exporter of cannabis-based medicines on the planet. According to the UN's International Narcotics Control Board (INCB).
Recently, attitudes towards cannabis regulation in the UK have changed, particularly in regard to medicinal cannabis and CBD.
Cannabis has been licensed for medicinal uses in specific situations since 2018. Also in 2018, then Home Secretary Sajid Javid responded to a letter from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs saying "it is critical that we do not hinder the use of cannabis-based products for medicinal use for the relief of pain and suffering".
The Recent Boom Of The UK CBD Market
In the UK, THC is considered a controlled substance. However, CBD and many other hemp cannabinoids are not.
According to the NHS England, cannabidiol is not classified as a cannabis-based product for medicinal use and is not considered a controlled drug.
This regulatory atmosphere accommodated a boom in UK CBD and legal cannabinoid businesses. With the industry estimated to have generated £690m in annual sales during 2021, despite the pandemic.
Whether it's CBD Oil UK, vape liquids, bath bombs, skin creams, or patches... In 2023 CBD products can be found on shelves throughout the country.
With so much change in such little time, it is certainly possible that we may soon see a push for full legalisation, or at least decriminalisation, of cannabis in the UK.
Currently, the sale of CBD food products is under review following the Novel Foods laws introduced in 2020.
And despite their prevalence, there are technically no authorised CBD extracts or isolates on the market. However, many products have been granted 'pre-authorisation' and can remain on the market until full authorisation is granted.
The long-awaited 'CBD list' consisting of authorised products permitted to remain on sale was recently published and can viewed online. Which can serve as a useful reference for consumers looking to buy CBD oil that is compliant with the FSA rules.
The Future Of Cannabis Legislation
As an increasing number of countries start to reduce restrictions around cannabis use, especially for medicinal purposes, a chain reaction of other countries following suit is likely.
Aspects such as financial taxation incentives, proven medicinal benefits, and CBD supplement innovations are forcing governments to reassess their policies regarding cannabis.
Hopefully, hemp and cannabis will become increasingly prevalent in society in the coming years. And with that will come a boost in well-being, the economy, and the environment.