A Brief History of Cannabis

Cannabis leaf

A brief history of Cannabis: One of the most famous plants of all times  

By Dr Julie Moltke

Cannabis, hemp, marijuana, CBD, ganja. With its many names it might be one of the hottest topics in the medical and political landscape today, but the truth is that the history of the human relationship with the plant can be traced back more than 5000 years.

Where did humans first use cannabis?

The cannabis plant is indigenous to Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent, and it might have been one of the earliest plants to be cultivated. The cannabis plant followed the early nomads around as a “camp flower” for centuries while unfolding its potential to supply both fibre, food and medical relief. In China, hemp was used for pottery, robes, shoes and the early paper versions. The Asian civilisations discovered the psychoactive properties of the plant and used it for religious rites and ceremonies which then spread to the middle eastern and old European cultures.

Cannabis spread through Central Asia to Europe and later the Spaniards brought hemp with them to the western hemisphere when they set out to discover the new world.

What has cannabis been used for historically?

The list of historical appliances is long and take up more than six whole pages of publications in the impressive Handbook of Cannabis by Pertwee et al. Among the usages listed are epilepsy, grief, neuralgia (pain due to damage or disease of nerves), anxiety, earaches, chronic pain, surgical anaesthesia, tumours, migraine, as a muscle relaxant, headaches, rheumatic joint pain, morphine withdrawal, convulsion, plaque, bipolar disease, and the list continues(1).

Why did humans stop using cannabis as medicine?

The use of cannabis as a medicine peaked by the end of the nineteenth century and then gradually declined along with the rising of the newer synthetic pharmaceuticals. The international drug control system that arose in the attempt to control the opium trade swept with it cannabis and further limited its medical use. During this and the past decade, the research into the endocannabinoid system and the therapeutic use of cannabinoids have been on the rise. In the future, we will without a doubt be seeing many more of these studies published as the medical world gather the evidence needed to guide the health applications of cannabis.

Did you know that cannabis was one of the oldest human medicines?


1.     Pertwee Roger G. Handbook of cannabis. 747 p.