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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.

5 Countries With the Highest Cannabis Spending by 2024

These countries are expected to account for virtually all of the legal marijuana sold globally in five years.

Marijuana is one of the fastest growing industries on the planet. Legal weed sales have more than tripled between 2014 and 2018, and they’re on track to roughly quadruple between the $10.9 billion generated in licensed cannabis stores 2018 and the projected $40.6 billion in worldwide licensed store sales by 2024. That’s according to the 2019 “State of the Legal Cannabis Markets” report released earlier this year by Arcview Market Research and BDS Analytics.

Yet, what you might find intriguing about this rapid growth is that it’ll wind up being attributed to just a select few countries. Even though more than three dozen countries around the world have legalized medical marijuana, five countries are forecast by Arcview and BDS to account for $38.2 billion of this aforementioned $40.6 billion in licensed-store sales by 2024. Note, licensed-store sales doesn’t include general retailers selling cannabidiol (CBD) products, or cannabinoid-based drug developers selling pot-derived pharmaceuticals.

Image source: Getty Images.

1. United States: $30.1 billion in cannabis spending by 2024

As should be no surprise, the U.S. projects as the leading marijuana market in the world by sales in 2024. In fact, the $30.1 billion in licensed-store revenue should comprise almost three-quarters of global licensed sales. According to Arcview and BDS, $9 billion of these sales are expected to come from the medical side of the equation, up from $4 billion in 2018, with the remaining $21.1 billion derived from recreational marijuana, up from $5.9 billion last year.

The thing about the U.S. is that cannabis stocks can still thrive even if the federal government doesn’t change its classification of marijuana from Schedule I. As long as Congress and the president continue to respect the right of states to make their own choices on cannabis, the industry could have plenty of runway.

One of the fastest early stage growers looks to be multistate dispensary operator Cresco Labs (OTC:CRLBF) . Cresco, which holds the licenses to more than four dozen retail locations in 11 states, made a bold move in April when it announced an all-stock deal to acquire Origin House (OTC:ORHOF) . Origin House is one of only a few companies to hold a cannabis distribution license in California, the state responsible for a quarter of all U.S. marijuana spending by 2024. Thus, Cresco Labs’ purchase of Origin House will give it access to more than 500 Californian dispensaries, and over 700 nationwide. Cresco and its vertically integrated peers appear well-positioned to take advantage of this huge growth opportunity.

Image source: Getty Images.

2. Canada: $5.18 billion by 2024

Despite being the first industrialized country in the world to legalize recreational weed, Canada looks to take a distant second to the United States by 2024 in terms of sales. Arcview and BDS are projecting that $4.8 billion in sales will come from the recreational market by then, with the remainder made up of medical cannabis sales. It’s not uncommon for the medical industry to get cannibalized when adult-use marijuana is legalized, because it means patients no longer have to wait for a doctor’s approval and prescription to buy weed.

There’s a lot of competition in Canada right now, so it’s still unclear which company will be Canada’s kingpin. However, Aurora Cannabis (NYSE:ACB) is a relatively good bet to be near the top of the pack solely based on its production potential. Aurora is already leaps and bounds ahead of its next-closest competitors with an annual run-rate output of 150,000 kilos as of the end of March, and plans to be producing at least 625,000 kilos on a run-rate basis by the end of June 2020. With most of this production located in Canada, and the company sporting a number of large-scale grow farms, Aurora Cannabis should be able to take advantage of economies of scale to drive down its growing costs per gram.

Of course, the real near-term excitement revolves around the upcoming launch of derivative products (e.g,, edibles, vapes, topicals, concentrates, and infused beverages) by mid-December. Derivatives have much better margins and pricing power than dried cannabis flower, which is why Aurora Cannabis and its peers have been busy beefing up their product offerings over the past year in preparation for this upcoming launch date.

Image source: Getty Images.

3. Germany: $1.35 billion by 2024

Even though Arcview and BDS are not expecting Germany to legalize recreational cannabis, the company’s highly permissive stance toward medical marijuana, and the fact that health insurers cover medical weed in the country, should allow sales to soar from $79 million in 2018 to $1.35 billion by 2024.

Interestingly enough, Canadian cannabis stocks were actually big-time winners of the German cultivation licensing process. Both Aurora Cannabis and Aphria (NASDAQ:APHA) were awarded licenses to grow cannabis in Germany. For its part, Aphria plans to have an 8,000-square-meter facility in Germany that’ll begin supplying the country with medical marijuana in the early part of 2020. In addition to growing cannabis, Aphria introduced CannRelief in Germany, which is a CBD-based nutraceutical and cosmetics product line.

As for Aurora Cannabis, its approval to construct a growing facility will allow the company to supply the German market with 4,000 kilos of marijuana over four years, with shipments expected to commence October 2020. Of course, this production capacity is liable to be bumped up if patient demand merits it.

Image source: Getty Images.

4. Mexico: $1.02 billion by 2024

Arguably one of the oddest “legality” situations concerning marijuana right now is with Mexico. The nation’s Supreme Court has ruled five times since 2015 that imposing a ban on recreational cannabis is unconstitutional. That’s important, because when Mexico’s Supreme Court reaches five similar decisions on an issue, it becomes the standard throughout the country. Or, in layman’s terms, the Supreme Court has essentially affirmed the legality of recreational marijuana and is simply waiting for lawmakers in the country to hash out the details.

According to Arcview and BDS, Mexico will have legalized adult-use cannabis by 2024, although the ramp-up of legal sales could be slow. By 2024, recreational weed sales are only expected total $582 million, with an additional $441 million in medical spending, for a combined $1.02 billion. Mexico’s considerably larger population than Canada makes for an attractive market opportunity, but it’s unclear how well legal industries will fare with the noted presence of illicit producers.

One company that hasn’t been shy about its push into Mexico is Medical Marijuana, Inc. (OTC:MJNA) , the very first publicly listed pot stock. Southern California-based Medical Marijuana was the first company to import CBD-rich oils into Mexico in 2016, giving it a head start on building important relationships with the country’s medical community. You’ll note that even with recreational legalization likely on the horizon, medical spending should continue to grow in Mexico. That gives Medical Marijuana and its RSHO-X hemp oil a real shot to continue penetrating the Mexico’s medical cannabis market.

These countries are expected to account for virtually all of the legal marijuana sold globally in five years.