Cannabis under the microscope

Ever wondered how Cannabis and its effects first came to be discovered? Understanding the history may help you make decisions about your future.

Cannabis is one of man’s oldest crops. In Siberia, seeds from burial mounds date back to 3,000 BC. The Chinese were using cannabis as a medicine thousands of years ago. Some of the Founding fathers of the United States grew hemp.

From the prehistoric hunters and gatherers to ancient China and Viking ships, author Barney Warf describes how cannabis use originated thousands of years ago in Asia, eventually spreading to Europe and the Americas.

“For the most part, it was widely used for medicine and spiritual purposes,” during pre-modern times, said Warf, a professor of geography at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.

“The idea that this is an evil drug is a very recent construction,” and the fact that it is illegal is a “historical anomaly,” Warf said. Marijuana has been legal in many regions of the world for most of its history.

He distinguishes between Cannabis sativa, known as marijuana, which has psychoactive properties. The other plant, Cannabis sativa L, known as hemp, is a nonpsychoactive form of cannabis used in manufacturing products such as oil, cloth and fuel.

A second psychoactive species of the plant, Cannabis indica, was identified by the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, and a third, uncommon one, Cannabis ruderalis, was named in 1924 by Russian botanist D.E. Janischevisky.

Cannabis plants are believed to have evolved on the steppes of Central Asia. Cannabis use goes back as far as 12,000 years, which places the plant among humanity’s oldest cultivated crops.

Burned cannabis seeds have been found in burial mounds in Siberia dating back to 3,000 B.C. Cannabis came to the South Asian subcontinent between 2000 B.C. and 1000 B.C. and was widely used in India.

Cannabis came to the Middle East around 1500 B.C. and then into Russia and the Ukraine. Germanic tribes brought the drug into Germany, and marijuana went from there to Britain during the 5th century with the Anglo-Saxon invasions.

Over the centuries, cannabis traveled through Africa, reaching South America in the 19th century, eventually reaching North America.

Besides its appeal as a recreational substance, cannabis has long been part of traditional medicines and has been studied for decades by scientists exploring potential medical benefits. Compounds in the plant may help the body regulate vital functions and boost the immune system.

But what are the compounds that provide these potential benefits – and when were they discovered? 

It wasn’t until 1963 that a young organic chemist named Raphael Mechoulam and his colleagues at the Wiseman Institute of Science in Israel isolated and, in some cases, also synthesized an array of substances.

They discovered tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the mind-altering substance that produces the “high”. They also elucidated the chemical structure of cannabidiol (CBD), a key ingredient that has many potential medical uses.

In 1992 he and several colleagues made another key discovery: they isolated the chemical used by the human body that binds to the same receptor in the brain that THC does. He named it anandamide, from the Sanskrit for “supreme joy.”

Since then other “endocannabinoids” and their receptors have been discovered. Endocannabinoids interact with a specific neurological network in much the same way as endorphins, serotonin and dopamine. 

While these compounds are being studied for their potential benefits, he cautions that they may work better in concert with other compounds found in marijuana, what he calls “the entourage effect.”

SOURCES: National Geographic,

Cannabis: a brief chronology

4000 BC: Pan-p’o village

Cannabis was regarded among “five grains” in China, and was farmed as a major food crop.

2000-1400 BC: Scythians

Nomadic Indo-European peoples used cannabis in steam baths, and also burned cannabis seeds in burial rituals.

2000-1000 BC: Atharva Vedas

Cannabis was described as a “source of happiness”, “joy-giver”, and “bringer of freedom” in these Hindu religious texts. At this time, cannabis was smoked at daily devotional services and religious rituals.

1213 BC: Ramesses II

Cannabis pollen has been recovered from the mummy of Ramesses II, the Egyptian pharaoh who was mummified after his death in 1213 BC.

900 BC: Assyrians

Employed the psychotropic effects of cannabis for recreational and medical purposes.

450-200 BC: Greco-Roman use

Physician Dioscorides prescribed cannabis for toothaches and earaches. Greek doctor Claudius Galen noted it was widely consumed throughout the empire. Women of the Roman elite also used cannabis to alleviate labor pains.

1025 AD: Avicenna

The medieval Persian medical writer publishes “Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine. His work was widely studied from the 13th to 19th centuries, having a lasting impact on Western medicine.

1300 AD: Arab traders

Arab traders bring cannabis from India to Eastern Africa, where it spreads inland. It is used to treat malaria, asthma, fever, and dysentery.

1500 AD: Spanish Conquest

The Spanish brought cannabis to the Americas, where it was used for more practical purposes like rope or clothes. However, years later, it would be used as a psychoactive and medicinal drug.

1798: Napoleon

Napoleon brought cannabis back to France from Egypt, and it was investigated for its pain relieving and sedative qualities.

1839: William O’Shaughnessy

Irish doctor William O’Shaughnessy introduced the therapeutic uses of cannabis to Western medicine. He concluded it had no negative medicinal effects, and the plant’s use in a pharmaceutical context would rapidly rise thereafter.

1914: Harrison Act

Drug use was declared a crime in the U.S., under the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act in 1914.

1964: Discovery of THC

The molecular structure of THC, an active component of cannabis, was discovered and synthesized by Israeli chemist Dr. Raphael Mechoulam.

1970: Classified as Schedule 1 Drug

Cannabis became categorized as a Schedule 1 Drug in the U.S., which limited further research into the plant. It was listed as having “no accepted medical use”.

1988: CBD Receptors Discovered

The CBD1 and CBD2 cannabinoid receptors were discovered. Today, we know they are some of the most abundant neuroreceptors in the brain.

2000-2018: Medical cannabis legalization

Governments, such as those of Canada and various states, begin to legalize cannabis for medical purposes from licensed producers. Recreational legalization quickly starts to follow.

SOURCE: The Visual Capitalist

You might also enjoy