A Short History of Marijuana

Although hemp has been discovered, woven into cloth, at archaeological sites dating back 10,000 years, the first written record of its use is found in Shen Nung's pharmacopoeia. Regarded as one of the fathers of Chinese medicine, Shen Nung is credited with developing the science from the curative power of plants. Hemp was so highly regarded in China that they named their country 'Land of Mulberry and Hemp', and its cultivation is still intensive there. In early Taoist ritual, the recommended addition of cannabis in incense burners was said to produce mystic exaltation and contribute to well-being.

In common with the practice of medicine in the rest of the ancient world, the early Chinese based their doctrine, in part, on the concept of demons. So too in Japan: Shinto priests used a gohei, a short stick with gathered hemp fibres at one end, to drive away evil spirits. In addition hemp clothes were always worn during Japanese religious ceremonies because of hemp's association with purity.

Zoroaster (c. 628-c. 551 BC), the Persian prophet, is responsible for the earliest mention of the plant's use as a sacrament. He gave hemp first place in the sacred text, the Zend-Avesta, which lists over 10,000 medicinal plants. For the Zoroastrians - among whom may have been the biblical Magi - cannabis was considered the chief religious sacrament of the priest class.

In India, hemp is still made into a drink that is reputed to have been the favourite beverage of the god Indra. Tradition maintains that Indra gave marijuana to the people so that they might attain elevated states of consciousness and delight in worldly joy anf freedom from fear. Perhaps the cannabis drink known to have been made in the ancient Thebes around 2000 BC was used in the same way.

Later in India, in c. 1000-500 BC, cannabis was mentioned in the Atharva-Veda, a collection of Hindu magic spells, as 'sacred grass' and regarded as the 'source of happiness', 'joy giver' and 'liberator'. (Shen Nung had also viewed cannabis as a 'liberator'.) According to Indian tradition and writings, Siddhartha used and ate nothing but hemp and its seeds for six years prior to announcing his truths and becoming the Buddha in the 5th century BC. Today in the Tantric Buddhism of Tibet, cannabis plays a very significant role in the meditation ritual - a practice known since 500 BC, when cannabis was thought of as a most holy plant. One of the prized varieties of hash today is the potent Nepalese 'temple ball'.


Listed in Shen Nung's pharmacopoeia 200 BC ISRAEL Used as a medicine by the Essenes


Made as a drink in ancient Thebes AD 700 MIDDLE EAST Brought divine revelation to Sufi priests


Used as a herbal medicine AD 1200 EUROPE Banned as a medicine by the Inquisition


The principle sacrament of the Zoroastrians AD 1480s ITALY Criminalised by Pope Innocent VIII


Considered a most holy plant AD 1835 FRANCE Club des Hashichines established


Inhaled as an intoxicating incense

The Indian Hemp Drug Commission Report published in seven volumes

Cannabis also has links to Christianity through the Ethiopian Coptic Church, held to have been established by St Mark in AD 45. The Copts claim that marijuana as a sacrament has a lineage descending from the Jewish sect, the Essenes (who are considered responsible for the Dead Sea Scrolls), with influences that go as far back as neighbouring Thebes. It is the Coptic view that cannabis played an important role in early Christian and Judaic rituals as a sacrament burned in tabernacles, to commemorate such times as the communication with God on Mount Sinai by Moses, and the transfiguration of Christ.

References to being spiritually illuminated in a cloud of smoking incense could have parallels with the use of cannabis by the Scythians of Central Asia, as described by the Greek historian Herodotus in the 5th century BC. After observing them throwing hemp on to heated stone, he wrote:

As it burns, it smokes like incense and the smell of it makes them drunk, just as wine does. As more fruit is thrown on, they get more and more intoxicated until they jump up and start singing and dancing.
Evidence for the use of cannabis has been discovered in frozen Scythian tombs:along with the plant was found a miniature tripod-like tent over a copper censor in which the sacred plant was burned - a tabernacle. Does this throw a different light on the 'burning bush'?

Many users of cannabis today recount feelings of 'oneness with God', 'peace and tranquillity', 'reduced anxiety', 'a greater understanding of life' and a 'greater appreciation of music and art'. Spirituality and music in particular seem inextricably linked to cannabis culture - from Scythian partying to black soul and jazz, Sixties' rock'n'roll, and the Rasta influences of today. The Sufis, African dagga cults, the Cuna Indians of Panama, the Cora Indians of Mexico, Ethiopian Copts, Taoists, Scythians, Buddhists, Essenes, Hindus, Zoroastrians and Rastafarians have all used cannabis in religious ceremonies, many regarding it as part of their culture and an important sacrament.

During the Middle Ages, while adopting wine as a sacrament, the Inquisition, instituted by the Roman Catholic Church, outlawed cannabis ingestion: anyone found using the herb to communicate with God or heal others would be branded a witch. In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII singled out cannabis as an unholy sacrament of the Satanic mass. Yet while the Church persecuted cannabis users in Europe, the Spanish conquistadors were busy planting hemp around the New World to provide raw materials for, among other things, sails, rope and clothing.