Ancient Highs: Cannabis' Long, Weird History

The history of humans and cannabis is a long, tumultuous love affair that you probably haven’t dedicated much thought to.


Nowadays, ingesting marijuana is discussed endearingly in countless forms of media. We sing songs about it, watch TV shows around it, blog about growing it, and gloat about cooking with it. The love for cannabis extends far past college campuses and music festivals — how many homes do we visit that have some sort of glassware on the coffee table? Marijuana culture is mainstream culture now, and the existence of this column is one of many examples of that.


But the thing is, marijuana’s been mainstream since we hunted for food and gathered around fires for warmth. Since ancient times, the plant’s been recognized for its medicinal and cerebral qualities. It was only in the last century that marijuana’s been demonized in politics, religious sermons, and culture at large. Although it seems it took a long time to exorcise the ghosts of the Reefer Madness days, (and some would argue that we haven't finished) we’ve shifted the public discourse back toward a generally positive view of marijuana.


This week we’ve plucked some factoids from cannabis’ rollercoaster of a historical timeline to help put into context the journey this amazing plant took from obscurity to popularity, and then from taboo to ubiquity. Here’s part one of our brief history of cannabis.

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The Original Stoners - 2700 BC


References to cannabis use extend as far back as 2737 B.C. when the Chinese Emperor Shen Neng mentioned its healing properties, and placed it among other staple herbal remedies like ginseng and ephedra. He called the plant “ma” and brewed it into tea. The Chinese appreciated this.



Then God Said, Let’s Get High - 1500 BC


If there is a God (and he’s an Abrahamic one), then he created every plant and animal, including marijuana.


According to historical linguists like Polish born Sula Benet, cannabis may have been referenced in the Bible. Exodus (30:22-23) includes a recipe for holy oil made from fragrant herbs, olive oil, and kaneh-bosem, which etymologists understand to mean cannabis.


Was Jesus anointed with oil made from cannabis extract? Maybe. Later in the New Testament (which would be around 30 AD, for purposes of this timeline), Jesus anoints his apostles with the same holy oil Exodus described. Traces of cannabis residue have been found in ancient pottery in Judea, so it’s quite possible that Jesus “the anointed one” was something of a stoner prophet. The dude loved promoting peace and walking around barefoot, so he fits the bill.


Pharaonic Order: Bury Me With A Kief Stash - 1213 BC

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Seshat was an ancient Egyptian goddess of record-keeping and measurement who was commonly associated with marijuana. The flowers of the plant adorn her head. 

When archeologist examined the mummy of Ramesses II, they found an ancient cannabis pollens caked on his eyelids. It’s unknown whether Ancient Egyptians revered the plant for spiritual or medicinal properties, but either way, they had it.  


Ancient Indians Loved Marijuana Milkshakes - 1000 to 600 BC


The cannabis plant made its way to India from China, and once it arrived, it never left. Ancient Indians invented bhang thandai, a cannabis reduction made with milk that was used to as a muscle relaxer and a treatment for a wide range of maladies. A couple hundred years later it appeared in the Ayurvedic (a system of Indian medicine) treatise of Sushruta Samhita noting it as a cure for leprosy. Of course, cannabis can’t cure leprosy, but it might have made users suffering from the disease more content with their unfortunate situation.


Centuries later ganja would be regarded as a holy plant by the Sadhus, Hindu monks who smoke it (to this day) to help lubricate their paths to enlightenment.


The Romans Use It For Sexual Suppression (And Rope) - 70 AD


Apart from the Greeks, the Romans were likely the horniest people in the Ancient Mediterranean world. So horny, that some people worried the Empire would crumble from degeneracy (it would about 650 years later). One of these people was Pedanius Dioscorides a Roman army doctor and botanist who wrote in De Materia Medica urging his countrymen to use the juice of the cannabis plant to suppress sexual longing. He probably wasn’t popular at dinner parties.


Later Romans would prove less of a buzzkill and use cannabis’ fibrous cousin hemp as a way to make military grade rope for their mighty legions.


Muslims Invent A Potent Alternative: Hashish - 800 AD


The spread of hashish, a powerful concentration of the marijuana's psychoactive resins, is directly linked to the proliferation of Islam throughout the Middle East.


The Quran forbade its followers to intoxicate themselves with alcohol, but it didn’t mention anything about cannabis. Muslims took advantage of this, despite the warning of Arab physician Ibn Wahshiyah who urged his patients to steer clear of the extract which he considered a deadly poison.


Despite pockets of misunderstanding, use of hashish exploded throughout the Muslim world, with the mystical Sufis encouraging followers of Allah to use it as a tool to connect with the divine. A special prophet of marijuana even emerged from these psychedelic travels who the ancient Muslims called Al-Khadir or "The Green One."


Today, Sharia Law condemns the use of cannabis, but back in the Golden Age of Islam, it was celebrated.

Francis Flisiuk can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Last modified onThursday, 27 July 2017 13:05