Written by Matthew Clark
The cannabis plant is extraordinarily versatile: it can be used for textiles, oil, food, rope, building materials, medicine and inebriation. During several millennia, particular varieties have been selectively bred by humans for either fibre, seed or psychoactive properties. This has resulted in numerous different kinds of cannabis plant. In this article we will be looking at the discovery of cannabis, its botanical classification, and its historical use as a medicine in Europe.
Earliest evidence of the use of cannabis
The earliest evidence of what may be the cannabis plant has been found in pollen samples found in Lake Baikal in Southern Russia, dating to around 130,000 years ago; though these traces in pollen may instead be of Humulus (the hop family) (1).
The cannabis plant probably first disseminated before the last Ice Age (c.13000 BCE) in at least two regions: Central Asia and Eastern Europe. The earliest evidence of humans using cannabis comes from recent research conducted at the Okinoshima (on the Boso peninsular) site in Japan, which indicates the use of cannabis (adhering to pottery of the Jomon culture) in 8200 BCE. Cultivation of the plant appears to begin in the Copper Age (c.3500–2300 BCE), increasing in the Bronze Age (c.3500–1600 BCE) (2).
Historically, cannabis has been one the most widely cultivated plant in human history (Schultes et al. 1975:22) (3). Due to travel, cultivation, selective breeding, trade and global seafaring, numerous varieties of the cannabis plant grow on all continents; cannabis finally arrived on the continent of South America in the 15th century (4).
Earliest evidence of cannabis inebriation in Europe and Asia
There is abundant evidence for the use of cannabis in Europe for fibre, rope and textiles that dates back several millennia;(5) there is also archaeological evidence from Eastern Europe (in Bulgaria) and Central Asia dating from the 5th millennium BCE which has revealed that in antiquity cannabis was smoked for inebriation. Buds would be placed on hot stones or a brazier inside a simple, tent-like structure made of felt, which then became filled with smoke (6).
Amongst other similar discoveries, cannabis material, almost certainly used for inebriation, has been found at sites in Xinjiang Province in western China,(7) dated to the mid-first millennium BCE, and in Israel at the Judahite shrine at Arad, dated to the 8th century BCE (8).
The earliest, extant report in the West of the effects of cannabis, which is well known, is by the Greek historian Herodotus in his Histories,(9) who around 450 BCE described militant, wild, horse-riding Scythians in a region near the Black Sea inhaling cannabis smoke in felt tents and “howling with laughter.”
Despite the report of the psychoactive properties of cannabis by Herodotus and later accounts from the world of radical Qalandar Sūfīs in the Middle-East and Central and South Asia from the 12th century onwards,(10) and although known as a medicine in the classical Greco-Roman world, the psychoactive effects of cannabis were hardly known about in Europe until the mid-nineteenth century.
The botanical classification of cannabis
As mentioned above, research suggests that the cannabis plant may have originated in at least two regions, in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, resulting in at least two main varieties, which may have resulted from early human selection and cultivation.
The botanical classification of cannabis plant species began in 1542 with the identification and image of Cannabis sativa (“cultivated” Cannabis) in a work on plants (De historia stirpum commentarii insignes) by the German physician and botanist Leonhart Fuchs (11). More than 200 years later, Carolus Linnaeus, the Swedish “father” of modern botanical classification, also identified Cannabis sativa from specimens growing in Holland and Sweden (12) in his 1753 compendium Species Plantarum. The variety grown in Europe, and subsequently in North America, which was psychoactively weak, was generally known as “hemp.”
The classification of the cannabis into Cannabis indica (“Indian cannabis”)and Cannabis sativa began with the Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Lamarck in his Encyclopédie méthodique, publishedin 1785 (13). Lamarck was of the opinion that the indica variety was the kind native to India and Persia.
Cannabis ruderalis (“roadside Cannabis”), a small (two feet high), dark green, weedy variety found primarily in parts of Russia, was subsequently added to the classification in 1924(14), making a tripartite classification of the naturally growing cannabis plant. It was, however, only in the 1960s that botanists became fully persuaded that cannabis is not a monotypic plant but is, rather, polytypic (15).
The current, general consensus is that Cannabis sativa strains have thinner leaves, are taller, spindlier, have less dense branch formations, and are generally reputed to have a proportionally higher component of THCs, while Cannabis indica strains have broader leaves, are shorter, and are reputed to be higher in CBDs, with less THCs. The third variety, Cannabis ruderalis, has a low THC and CBD content. (THCs provide the stimulating “high” of cannabis, while CBDs have a generally non-psychoactive, sedating effect.)
Although still adhered to by consumers, growers and suppliers, with the current awareness of the diversity of plant types, referred to above, this three-type classification of cannabis now seems inadequate (16). Based on extensive research, particularly by Karl Hillig at Indiana University, Clarke and Merlin (17) tentatively classify ten historical strains of cannabis originating in Europe and Asia.
Cannabis medicine in the Greco-Roman world
Medicinal uses of the cannabis plant were known to the Greeks and Romans. The works of three medical authorities, Pliny, Discorides and Galen, are cited below, as they were perhaps the most influential on the subsequent development of medicine in Europe.
Pliny The Elder
Pliny (the Elder) (23–79 CE), the Roman naturalist and military commander, knew cannabis. He describes it in his work Natural History (17), but not at all as an inebriant, even though he also discusses the inebriating, sleep-inducing properties of opium in this work (20.76), which was written in 77 CE. In Book 20 (“Drugs Obtained from Garden Plants: Hemp, Nine Remedies”), Pliny made the following observations:
Hemp originally grew in the forests, where it is found with a blacker and rougher leaf than in the other kinds. Hempseed, it is said, renders men impotent: the juice of this seed will extract worms from the ears, or any insect which may have entered them, though at the cost of producing head-ache. The virtues of hemp, it is said, are so great, that an infusion of it in water will cause it to coagulate: hence it is, that if taken in water, it will arrest looseness in beast of burden. A decoction of the root in water, relaxes contractions of the joints, and cures gout and similar maladies. It is applied raw to burns, but it must be frequently changed, so as not to let it dry.
Dioscorides (40–90 CE), the Greek physician and pharmacist, also knew cannabis. In his five-volume work on herbal medicine (De Materia Medica), he lists two kinds of cannabis, Kannabis emeros and Kannabis agria (19). He observes that Kannabis agria and Kannabis emeros are useful for making ropes, earache, “quenching conception,” inflammation and aching joints:
3–165. Cannabis Emeros
Cannabis is a plant of considerable use in this life for twisting very strong ropes. It bears leaf with a bad scent, similar to the ash; long hollow stalks, and a round seed. Eaten in quantities these quench conception. The herb (juiced while green) is good for earaches. It is also called cannabium, schoenostrophon, or asterion; the Romans call it cannabis.
3–166. Cannabis Agria
Cannabis sylvestris bears little stems similar to those of althea [3–163] but darker, sharper and smaller. The leaves are similar to the cultivated but sharper and darker. The reddish flowers are similar to lychnis [3–114, 3–115], with the seed and root similar to althea. The root (boiled and applied) is able to lessen inflammation, dissolve oedema, and disperse hardened matter around the joints. The bark of this is suitable for twining ropes. It is also called hydrastina, the Romans call it terminalis, and some, cannabis.
Galen (Claudius Galenus) (129–c.199–216 CE), the great, Greek medical author and physician to several Roman emperors, briefly discusses cannabis in his De alimentorum facultatibus (34 ) (19) He observes that:
[Cannabis] produces headaches and unhealthy humours. Nevertheless some people roast and eat it with other sweetmeats. (Clearly, I am calling things that are eaten after dinner for pleasure while drinking, sweetmeats.). The seeds are quite warming, and consequently when they are taken in quantity over a short period they affect the head, sending up to it a vapour that is both warm and like a drug.
It has been suggested by some scholars that the classification of the cannabis plant into two kinds by Pliny and Dioscorides supports a thesis that they only used Cannabis sativa, which had little or no psychoactive resin, and that the other kinds he referred to were the more psychoactive variety Cannabis indica. However, neither Pliny, Dioscorides or Galen seem to have fully known about the psychoactive effects of any variety of cannabis. It seems more likely that the varieties of cannabis that they were acquainted with were simply those with a low THC content.
The discovery of psychoactive cannabis by Europeans
Perhaps the first reports in any European language about the psychoactive effects of cannabis was by François Rabelais (1490–1553), who had translated the Histories of Herodotus before writing the novel Gargantua and Pantagruel,(21) in which he enthuses about the usefulness of the fibre of cannabis (which he refers to as “Pantagruelion”); he also notes the “perfect jollity” induced by cannabis and some of its medical applications
The first substantial notice in a European language of the medical and psychoactive properties of the plant comes from two doctors stationed on the west coast of India. Cristoval Acosta, from Burgos in Spain, wrote a treatise on medicine and drugs in 1578; Garcia d’Orta, from Portugal, was the first European to compile a materia medica for India, in 1563, entitled Coloquios dos simples e drogas he cousas medicinais da India, which became a major source of information for Linnaeus. d’Orta observes how his servants are reluctant to work, get hungry and laugh after eating cannabis, and how women are particularly prone to its aphrodisiac effects (22).
Cannabis was subsequently referred to in several important botanical works, including the voluminous, twelve-volume work in Latin, Hortus Marlabaricus, which was published in Amsterdam between 1678 and 1693 by the Dutchman Hendrik Adriaan van Rheede tot Drakenstein (van Rheede), who became the Dutch Governor of Cochin in 1663 (23) In this work, cannabis is referred to as Kalengi Cansjava (24).
Cannabis medicine in Britain
Cannabis continued to be known in Europe as a medical remedy throughout the medieval period (25). Robert Burton, an English clergyman, recommended cannabis for depression in his Anatomy of Melancholy, published in 1621.
Nicholas Culpepper writes in his widely-read Complete Herbal that, (26) “[Hemp] is so widely known to every good housewife in the country, that I shall not need to write any description of it.” Similarly to other physicians of the time, he records its usefulness for jaundice, earache, swelling, cough, worms, and other ailments; but he makes no mention of its inebriating properties.
“It is sown in the very end of March, or beginning of April, and is ripe in August or September. It is a plant of Saturn and good for something else you see, than to make halters only. The seed of Hemp consumes wind, and by too much use thereof disperses it so much that it dries up the natural seed for procreation; yet, being boiled in milk and taken, helps such as have a hot dry cough. The Dutch make an emulsion out of the seed, and give it with good success to those that have the jaundice, especially in the beginning of the disease, if there be no ague accompanying it, for it opens obstructions of the gall, and causes digestion of choler. The emulsion or decoction of the seed stays lasks and continual fluxes, eases the cholic, and allays the troublesome humours in the bowels, and stays bleeding at the mouth, nose, or other places, some of the leaves being fried with the blood of them that bleed, and so given them to eat. It is held very good to kill the worms in men or beasts; and the juice dropped into the ears kills worms in them; and draws forth earwigs, or other living creatures gotten into them. The decoction of the root allays inflammations of the head, or any other parts: the herb itself, or the distilled water thereof doth the like. The decoction of the root eases the pains of the gout, the hard humours of knots in the joints, the pains and shrinking of the sinews, and the pains of the hips. The fresh juice mixed with a little oil and butter, is good for any place that hath been burnt with fire, being thereto applied.“
The New London Dispensary, published in 1682, also includes hempseed decoctions for various ailments (27).
The first report in English of the inebriating effects of cannabis was around the same time, by Captain Thomas Bowery, who drank bhāṅg on the west coast of India and published a short (and quite hilarious) account of his and his ten friends’ experience of it around 1680 in a Geographical Account of Countries Round the Bay of Bengal. Interestingly, Bowery notes how bhāṅg, “operates accordinge to the thoughts or fancy of the Partie that drinketh thereof.” (28)
The great scientist, architect and polymath Robert Hooke (1635–1703) obtained some cannabis in a coffee shop in London from Robert Knox, an East India Company merchant who had used bhāṅg successfully in India to cure dysentery, after he had escaped from captivity in Sri Lanka (29).
On December 18th 1689, Hooke gave a lecture entitled “An Account of the Plant call’d Bangue” (29) to the Royal Society in London, in which he explained that the drug is used by thousands of people and that the person who introduced it to him had experimented with it many times himself. Hooke reported that the dose of powdered leaves to be eaten was about the quantity that would fill a common tobacco pipe. He observed that: the patient understandeth not, nor remembereth any Thing that he seeeth. heareth or doth, in that Extasie but becomes, as it were, a mere Natural, being unable to speak a Word of Sense; yet he is merry, and laughs, and sings and speaks Words without any Coherence, not knowing what he saith or doth; yet he is not giddy or drunk, but walks and dances and sheweth many odd Tricks.
He did not consider it at all dangerous, giving “no Cause of Fear, ‘tho possibly there may be laughter”. Hooke (27) also observed that cannabis could: “prove as considerable a Medicine in Drugs, as any brought from the Indies; and may possibly be of considerable Use for Lunaticks, or for other Distempers of the Head and Stomach, for that it seemeth to put a Man into a Dream, or make him asleep, whilst yet he seems to be awake, but at last ends in a profound Sleep, which rectifies all…and in all probability would cure them [lunaticks]”.
In these remarks, Hooke is anticipating by around three hundred years the potential of cannabis for treating particular psychiatric disorders.
Cannabis research in France and Bengal
Knowledge in modern Europe of the psychoactive effects of cannabis was primarily due to psychological research by French investigators, principally Moreau de Tours (1845). Two other French medical doctors, Raymond Meunier and Pascal Brotteaux also published detailed accounts of the psychological effects of cannabis inebriation, in 1909 and 1934, respectively.
Besides the investigations by French psychiatrists, the person most influential in drawing attention to both the psychoactive effects and potential medical applications of cannabis was the Irish doctor and pioneer cannabis researcher, William O’Shaughnessy, who first reported his research findings in 1839 (32). He observed in Bengal first-hand the well-known effects of cannabis inebriation and wrote detailed reports of its various medical applications. He brought cannabis back to England and had a cannabis tincture manufactured by Peter Squire, a well-known pharmacist of Oxford Street in London who produced “Squire’s Extract.”
From the mid-19th century until global prohibition began in 1924, medical preparations that included “Indian hemp” were widely prescribed by western doctors for a range of ailments. Between 1840 and 1900, around a hundred articles on the therapeutic applications of cannabis were published in medical journals.
We have seen how knowledge of the medicinal and psychoactive properties of cannabis had a long gestation period in Europe, stretching back two millennia to Greco-Roman times. Between 1924 and until December 2020, when cannabis was finally rescheduled by the UN as having potential medical applications, global medical research was hampered in various ways for nearly a century by legal restrictions. In recent years great progress has been made uncovering the potential uses of cannabis for a host of ailments. The full range of the possible medical applications of “soe admirable a herbe” are finally being brought to light, with attention now being focussed on several of the hundreds of molecular components of the plant.
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