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History of cannabis

about cannabis

The history of cannabis - and why there's so much stigma

(Hint: it’s not what you think!) 

For too long cannabis has had a bad rap, mostly driven by ignorance, misunderstanding and a focus on abuse and negative effects.

But times are finally changing. This ‘stoner’ perception is out of touch with a fast growing reality in markets like the US, evolving in the UK, and catching on in South Africa.

For thousands of years, the cannabis plant has been used as an industrial product, a food, beverage (tea), source of energy, a medicine, and a recreational product to smoke. Evidence of the cannabis plant first being used dates back to its discovery and first consumption in Asia and the Middle east. It was introduced into Africa in the 15th century, and when introduced into Europe and the Americas’ it was established as one of the most farmed crops in its time.

Hemp cannabis, which contains less than 1% THC (the psychoactive compound that makes one ‘high’), was used extensively in everyday life across the world to make clothing, canvas, rope, paper, building material, fuel and edible oil and more. Without hemp, European sailors would not have been able to traverse the world in the middle ages and before the advent of steam ships.

The use of cannabis as a medicine or healing plant also has a long history in Asia and the Middle East became a mainstream plant pharmaceutical remedy in Europe and America in the 18th and 19th centuries. Cannabis oil was one of the most prescribed medicines before the establishment of chemical compound pharmaceutical products at the turn of the 20th century. It was the medicine of choice in the USA for headaches, pain management, anti-inflammatory and arthritic conditions. Cannabis and hemp were also smoked, cooked or used for beverages (tea) for recreational purposes, particularly amongst working classes.

Various forms of medical cannabis from the 1800’s

In the early 1900s, politicians and lobbyists from various interest groups started campaigning to ban both cannabis and hemp. The major opposition stemmed from new and emerging industries such as the pharmaceutical industry (who had recently invented Aspirin), the textile industry (cotton farmers and DuPont who invented plastic fibres/polyester), as well as the paper, tobacco and alcohol industries. In addition to the industry lobby, various politicians complained that the use of cannabis was affecting the productivity of the working class. In the USA, there was a lobby to ban it for Mexican and black workers and here in South Africa, Jan Smuts made a case for banning its use by migrant labourers working in the mining industry.

As a result of the persistent lobbying from competitor industries, cannabis and hemp farming was made illegal in the 1920s. The League of Nations played a role in encouraging member nations to make the cultivation, harvesting and manufacture of any products made using cannabis or hemp on the basis that it was a dangerous, habit-forming drug – in spite of little or no credible evidence-based research.

Over the next 80 years, a major war was waged against cannabis/hemp. Nowhere has this battle been more fiercely and publicly fought in the USA, where the famous Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) was established in the 1920s and funded by industries who focused their efforts on fighting the use of cannabis above other highly addictive and destructive opioid-based drugs and related hard narcotics. (Side note: there are countless studies that refute cannabis as addictive). The American criminal justice system has imprisoned countless millions of their citizens for possession of or dealing in cannabis-related products at a cost of billions of dollars.

In more recent years, studies of cannabis have identified over 250 ‘cannabinoids’ with dozens of isolates (individual cannabinoids) having different medicinal applications. The single cannabinoid that has garnered the most attention is Tetrahydrocannabinol or THC – the compound that produces a psycho-active ‘high’ and has a myriad of curative applications along with dozens of other cannabinoids.

Through the 1960s and 1970s, a strong pro-cannabis lobby ensued in the USA and culminated in legislative changes over the past three and a half decades to enable its use as a medicine as well as a recreational drug. This lobby continues to campaign for cannabis and hemp to be legalised without onerous restrictions. Currently 18 American states and dozens of countries across the world have revised legislation to enable the sale of cannabis for medicinal use and hemp for industrial use and food/medicinal applications. Here in South Africa, the government has revised their legislation and are in the process of making further changes to enable the industry to flourish.

 Sub-Saharan Africa is thought to produce as much as a third of the world’s cannabis which makes its way across the continent and indeed the globe. South Africa is home to a number of world-renowned indigenous land strains of cannabis that are in high demand across the world. The world’s legal cannabis market is currently estimated at $30 billion, whereas illegal sales are estimated to be $280 billion +. 

In the fullness of time, it is hoped that cannabis and hemp will become freely available products for use across a vast array of industrial, medicinal and consumer products. 

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