Cannabis + Culture: A Brief Overview of Humanity’s Relationship with Cannabis

Amber Williams

By: Patient Care Specialist Amber Williams

Humanity’s rise has been inextricably linked to the understanding of agriculture. From the earliest evidence of trial plant cultivation dating back 23,000 years ago, society’s ability to understand, cultivate, harvest, and to utilize the plants around them has been a key factor in moving our earliest ancestors from hunter-gatherers to permanent settlements. Beyond food, plants served as a key component of medical, spiritual, and communal activities. Arguably, Cannabis is one of the most well known and controversial of those plants.

Anthropological findings of cannabis-related paraphernalia date back as far as 10000 BCE, when hemp was cultivated in Taiwan. Cosmologist Carl Sagan posited that cannabis was the first agricultural crop and its cultivation—coupled with the experimentation of its multitude of medicinal and psychoactive properties—was directly related to the meteoric rise in humanity’s ability to understand and interact with their surrounding environment. While this is certainly debatable, it cannot be debated that humans have had a relationship with cannabis for the better part of the history of societal development.  The Vedic science of Ayurveda held Bhang (bowl filled with Cannabis leaves, stems, and seeds) (missing a word?) in high regard as “sacred grass” and one of 5 holy plants. Lord Shiva, the third God in the Hindu triumvirate, is very closely associated with cannabis and was often depicted with a bundle of herbs or with the aforementioned bhang.

There are even references to cannabis in the earliest writings of all three of the Abrahamic religions as both a medicinal and spiritual oil. The Jewish Talmud mentions the euphoric effects of cannabis, while the Book of Isaiah in the biblical Old Testament contains a recipe for a holy anointing oil that calls for almost 13 pounds of cannabis. Early Islam has a particularly interesting history with cannabis use in conjunction with paramilitary endeavors.  Hasan bin al-Sabbah, an 11th century Persian, was known to promote the use of hashish as a hypnotic aide before assassinations. His followers were referred to as the Hashshashins, and the linguistic lineage to the modern English word “Assassin” is crystal clear.

With such a rich and varied history of cannabis running concurrent to our cultural evolutions in almost every major civilization, one cannot help but wonder why cannabis fell out of societal favor and eventually became one of the most prohibited and taboo of natural medicines. But as with most substances that can produce mind-altering effects, whomever controls access to cannabis effectively controls the narrative surrounding it. One of the first edicts against the use of hashish was issued in by a Turkish official 1378, presumably because of the violent acts unfairly associated with its consumption.

Cannabis’ history has been intertwined with humanity for as long as we have had an understanding of agriculture. Whether it is being lauded as a miracle or demonized as a dangerous substance, cannabis’ influence on human culture cannot be ignored. With relaxed legislation and a reemergence in cannabis as a medicinal aide serving as the undercurrent of the modern zeitgeist, the long-standing relationship between the plant and humans shows no sign of diverging.



Leave a Reply