The very basic idea of plant-as-medicine dates back to before recorded history. In the past few decades, we have seen a return to herbal remedies and treatments. Despite the pharmaceutical industry’s attempts at taking over, synthesizing, and standardizing a plant’s chemical components, plant-based medications are the cornerstone of the practice of medicine.
Cannabis has been a medicine since at least 2800 BCE, and until the 1940s, it was listed in America’s pharmacopeia. Remains of a ritual object that contained charred hemp seeds, dating back at least 5,000 years, have been excavated in Romania. The Yanghai Tombs near Turpan, China, were excavated to reveal the 2,700-year-old grave of a Caucasoid shaman whose accoutrements included a large cache of cannabis, superbly preserved by climatic and burial conditions. The cannabis, female plants only, was presumably employed by this culture as a medicinal or psychoactive agent, or an aid to divination (Russo et al. 2008).
What is Hemp? Clothing, Sails, Rope, Paper, Medicine, Lamp Oil, Food
The earliest known hemp-based textiles, woven fabrics dating back to 7000 BCE, were discovered in northern China. In India, evidence for cannabis use dates to between 1400 and 2000 BCE; and in Egypt, remnants of a cannabis plant were found on the mummified Ramses II, circa 1200 BCE. In the millennium before Christ, hemp was our planet’s largest agricultural crop — a major industry providing fabric for clothing and sails, rope, paper, canvases, medicine, lamp oil, and food.
Cannabis in the 1800s: Tinctures, Extracts, Patent Medicine
In America, cannabis was a patent medicine, an ingredient in numerous tinctures and extracts throughout the 1800s and early 1900s. In the 1930s, Harry Anslinger (the man who almost single-handedly smeared cannabis and is largely responsible for its illegality) opted for a new name for the plant, one that would be unfamiliar to Americans: marijuana. Mexican migrant workers who smoked it were demonized by his tirades against the “loco weed” which he insisted would make them insane and dangerous, raping our white women and wreaking violent havoc on us all.
Add to that the Southern black jazz musicians who were known to smoke their mezz, and you have a recipe for xenophobia and racism dictating drug policy. (And not much has changed in that regard. Blacks and Latinos have always been arrested and jailed disproportionately for all drug policy offenses.) In 1937, with the passage of the Marihuana Tax Stamp Act, this medicine — cannabis — was turned into an illegal drug — marijuana.