Marijuana’s History: How One Plant Spread Through the World
From the sites where prehistoric hunters and gatherers lived, to ancient China and Viking ships, cannabis has been used across the world for ages, and a new report presents the drug’s colorful history.
In the report, author Barney Warf describes how cannabis use originated thousands of years ago in Asia, and has since found its way to many regions of the world, eventually spreading to the Americas and the United States.
“For the most part, it was widely used for medicine and spiritual purposes,” during pre-modern times, said Warf, a professor of geography at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. For example, the Vikings and medieval Germans used cannabis for relieving pain during childbirth and for toothaches, he said.
“The idea that this is an evil drug is a very recent construction,” and the fact that it is illegal is a “historical anomaly,” Warf said. Marijuana has been legal in many regions of the world for most of its history.
Where did pot come from?
It is important to distinguish between the two familiar subspecies of the cannabis plant, Warf said. Cannabis sativa, known as marijuana, has psychoactive properties. The other plant is Cannabis sativa L. (The L was included in the name in honor of the botanist Carl Linnaeus.) This subspecies is known as hemp; it is a nonpsychoactive form of cannabis, and is used in manufacturing products such as oil, cloth and fuel. [11 Odd Facts About Marijuana]
A second psychoactive species of the plant, Cannabis indica, was identified by the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, and a third, uncommon one, Cannabis ruderalis, was named in 1924 by Russian botanist D.E. Janischevisky.
Cannabis plants are believed to have evolved on the steppes of Central Asia, specifically in the regions that are now Mongolia and southern Siberia, according to Warf. The history of cannabis use goes back as far as 12,000 years, which places the plant among humanity’s oldest cultivated crops, according to information in the book “Marihuana: The First Twelve Thousand Years” (Springer, 1980).
“It likely flourished in the nutrient-rich dump sites of prehistoric hunters and gatherers,” Warf wrote in his study.
Burned cannabis seeds have also been found in kurgan burial mounds in Siberia dating back to 3,000 B.C., and some of the tombs of noble people buried in Xinjiang region of China and Siberia around 2500 B.C. have included large quantities of mummified psychoactive marijuana.
Both hemp and psychoactive marijuana were used widely in ancient China, Warf wrote. The first record of the drug’s medicinal use dates to 4000 B.C. The herb was used, for instance, as an anesthetic during surgery, and stories say it was even used by the Chinese Emperor Shen Nung in 2737 B.C. (However, whether Shen Nung was a real or a mythical figure has been debated, as the first emperor of a unified China was born much later than the supposed Shen Nung.)
From China, coastal farmers brought pot to Korea about 2000 B.C. or earlier, according to the book “The Archeology of Korea” (Cambridge University Press, 1993). Cannabis came to the South Asian subcontinent between 2000 B.C. and 1000 B.C., when the region was invaded by the Aryans — a group that spoke an archaic Indo-European language. The drug became widely used in India, where it was celebrated as one of “five kingdoms of herbs . which release us from anxiety” in one of the ancient Sanskrit Vedic poems whose name translate into “Science of Charms.”
From Asia to Europe
Cannabis came to the Middle East between 2000 B.C. and 1400 B.C., and it was probably used there by the Scythians, a nomadic Indo-European group. The Scythians also likely carried the drug into southeast Russia and Ukraine, as they occupied both territories for years, according to Warf’s report. Germanic tribes brought the drug into Germany, and marijuana went from there to Britain during the 5th century with the Anglo-Saxon invasions. [See map of marijuana’s spread throughout the world.]
This map shows how marijuana spread throughout the world, from its origins on the steppes of Central Asia. (Image credit: Barney Warf, University of Kansas )
“Cannabis seeds have also been found in the remains of Viking ships dating to the mid-ninth century,” Warf wrote in the study.
Over the next centuries, cannabis migrated to various regions of the world, traveling through Africa, reaching South America in the 19th century and being carried north afterwards, eventually reaching North America.
How did marijuana get to the United States?
After this really long “trip” throughout the pre-modern and modern worlds, cannabis finally came to the United States at the beginning of the 20th century. It arrived in the southwest United States from Mexico, with immigrants fleeing that country during the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1911.
“Many early prejudices against marijuana were thinly veiled racist fears of its smokers, often promulgated by reactionary newspapers,” Warf wrote in his report. “Mexicans were frequently blamed for smoking marijuana, property crimes, seducing children and engaging in murderous sprees.”
Americans laws never recognized the difference between Cannabis sativa L. and Cannabis sativa. The plant was first outlawed in Utah in 1915, and by 1931 it was illegal in 29 states, according to the report.
In 1930, Harry Aslinger became the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) and undertook multiple efforts to make marijuana illegal in all states. In 1937, the Marijuana Tax Act put cannabis under the regulation of the Drug Enforcement Agency, criminalizing possession of the plant throughout the country.
“Today, the federal government still classifies marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance, along with heroin and LSD, indicating it has high potential for abuse and addiction, no accepted medical uses and no safe level of use,” Warf wrote.
From the Asian steppes where Cannabis sativa plants first evolved, to prehistoric hunters and gatherers, ancient China, Viking ships and finally the Americas, a new report outlines marijuana’s history.
Where does most weed come from
Research from one think tank finds that as much as two-thirds of the pot in the U.S. could be coming from Mexico, sales of which fuel the drug war south of the border. At the same time, the growing acceptance of medical marijuana may be boosting domestic production.
The fact is that when you buy pot on the black market, there’s usually no way to know where it came from. In the world of high-end marijuana, there aren’t any labels or stickers; just fancy sounding cannabis strains.
“We were just dealing with some AK-47, Sour Diesel, and O.G.,” explained a dreadlocked marijuana middleman after making a pot purchase.
What he and his partner do is illegal, so they asked that their identities not be revealed. They are both in their 20’s and asked to be described as “the conservative looking one and the hippie with dreads.”
They are part of a tiny section of the drug economy that actually knows where their product comes from.
They drive to Northern California to buy directly from growers or from distributors who buy from growers there. Most of their business is from the so-called “Emerald Triangle,” a cluster of counties that are to marijuana what Napa and Sonoma counties are to wine.
“I would feel that we are kind of a rarity as far as being as connected as we are,” the clean-cut one said.
He said he knows who is profiting from his purchases. It is not violent drug cartels in Mexico, but working people in the Emerald Triangle.
He said money going to them “is going to profit families and paying mortgages.”
After the middlemen make their purchases, they sell to other dealers, college kids, medical marijuana users and professionals in Las Vegas. Those are customers who are serious enough about quality to pay $60 for an eighth of an ounce – or enough for about 15 joints.
“They want a high THC content. They want to see no seeds,” the clean cut one said. “They want to see big, puffy nuggets, sticky, sticky weed.”
And it’s getting easier for those smokers to get what they want.
“There has never been a time where it has been this easy to get access to high quality marijuana,” said Beau Kilmer, the co-director of the Drug Policy Research Center at the Rand Corporation in Los Angeles, a public policy think tank.
That availability seems to be a result of the rising medical marijuana industry in California and more people growing domestically. A few years ago a pound of pretty high end Northern California weed at wholesale price went for about $3500, now the price has fallen to about $2500 (though street prices have remained constant).
But Kilmer’s research shows high quality marijuana remains a small part of the national market.
“The large majority of the country still is consuming commercial grade marijuana, not the high quality stuff,” Kilmer said.
In fact, at least 80 percent of the marijuana smoked in the US is commercial grade, according to Kilmer’s estimates. It costs just a fraction of the nice stuff coming out of the Emerald Triangle and is likely less potent. And where does that commercial grade pot come from?
Kilmer says a large chunk is imported from Mexico. Purchasing that smuggled pot would benefit the Mexican cartels who are engaged in violent turf battles south of the border.
While law enforcement officials said Mexican nationals are behind much of the cultivation of marijuana on California’s public lands, there isn’t evidence at this point that those sales directly benefit the major drug trafficking organizations south of the border, such as the Sinaloa Cartel or the Gulf Cartel.
Regardless of the social implications, Mexican-grown weed doesn’t have a good reputation in Las Vegas.
“Oh man, Mexican is like, jeez, it’s like dirty,” said Ryan Chrisman, a local construction worker who was relaxing on the Las Vegas strip on a recent week night. “It has seeds. It taste like nothing.”
Another smoker complained of the side-effects.
“It gives me a headache, the Mexican weed does,” said a man hawking water bottles to tourists. He just gave his first name, Mike, which was also tattooed on his neck.
“I’d rather smoke the stuff in the smoke shops that ain’t even weed,” he said.
Finally, a visiting hip hop artist from Chicago who uses the name Donahmeni, explained the American appetite for Mexican pot.
“I ain’t gonna front: I love the dirt,” Donahmeni said while selling his CDs in front of the Bellagio. He calls the low-grade marijuana that is typically grown in Mexico, “dirt,” as in dirt weed. And he likes it because it’s cheap.
“I can smoke 20 blunts, you know what I am saying,” Donahmeni said.
Beau Kilmer’s research finds that somewhere between 40 to 67 percent of all marijuana in the US probably comes from Mexico. But it’s impossible to track the marijuana market with any certainty because much of the data remains murky.
To quantify the American appetite for pot, researchers must rely on survey data that asks only limited questions about marijuana use. Or on data from law enforcement seizures that may not be a useful proxy for the amount of pot actually distributed and consumed.
Good statistics on who is smoking what, from where, and how much, is critical for making effective marijuana policy, according to Kilmer.
“This is important for assessing the amount of revenues that the Mexican drug trafficking organizations are bringing in,” Kilmer said. “It’s also important for making projections about legalization.”