A history of cannabis

In Blog // on October 27th, 2012 // by // No comment

As a young girl growing up in fairly small-town Southern Ontario, pot, weed, marijuana used for anything medicinal was unheard of.  It wasn’t until after high school that I even realized hemp, an industrious material used in cloth and textiles, was derived from cannabis sativa.  Truthfully, even then, sturdy fibre and paper made from the same plants ‘the stoners’ smoked made me giggle.  Cannabis was a drug, but not the kind the doctor prescribed.  I was warned it was to get unmotivated, apathetic youths high, and then burn them out.  Just say no.

From Ontario I moved to Vancouver, British Columbia.  I was prepared to find the ‘weed culture’ in BC quite a different story than the hushed basement practice back in Ontario.  There is a general openness and acceptance of marijuana’s place on the West Coast; there’s no great need to ‘cloak the smoke’ (even though technically marijuana use is illegal in Canada).  West Coasters, as a group, have the reputation of being recreationally pot-friendly, but there is a wide and growing interest in using the laid-back bud as a certified medicine to help patients with everything from cancer to AIDS/HIV to sleep disorders to PMS.

There was an element of novelty when I began working reception at Westcoast Medicann, a new medicinal marijuana dispensary (now across the street from Vancouver City Hall) however, the real draw was being a part of a ‘new-wave’ health-care treatment.  I have not been disappointed.  As the months have gone by, and more and more patients walk through our doors, I have seen firsthand the importance of what Westcoast Medicann has to offer.

All kinds of clients – young, old, conservative, liberal, of varying ethnic backgrounds and religious persuasion – are being so positively affected by the medicine that marijuana provides.  With this large diversity of health seeking individuals, it’s interesting to learn about the history of cannabis globally, and it’s history and modern day use in Canada.  It’s medicinal qualities, and purposes of relief and belief (one of the greatest benefits of medical marijuana is the hope to overcome the issue) seem to becoming revitalized, and the old stigma of burnt-out teenagers is disappearing – sort of.

Although there are questions about where hemp (cannabis) originated, researchers believe China gave the plant it’s agricultural roots.  Hemp fibre made for strong rope, fishing nets, and paper.  The grains were even used in breakfast cereal.  Care-givers encouraged the course texture of the plants as a counteract to digestive issues such as ‘wasting diseases’ where patients just couldn’t keep anything in.

As the plant moved west, cannabis seeds were found around Sibera, burnt into vapour at funerals and buried with the dead, both evidence of pagan rituals.  Archeologists believe cannabis was used because of it’s ability to “engage a man’s introspection.”


Although not necessarily used for it, cannabis contains THC, which is a psychoactive resin, and the psychoactive effects of cannabis do date back to second century A.D. Chinese doctors.  Over history, cannabis has been documented as both stimulating and relaxing – which would appeal to a wide variety of needs and purposes. Populations all over the globe have used the plant for every day material and ‘soulful experiences’.  Culturally  “intimate association with magical, medical, religious and social customs” were found in India, Africa, South America (Brazil), and Jamaica for hundreds of years.

When cannabis finally showed up (on paper) in North America, it had probably existed long before the Europeans arrived.  Elders of some North American native tribes can remember their ancestors using cannabis in ritual, not entirely for the psychoactive properties.  Cannabis was already being used in clothing, cordage, to make sails and covered wagons, and proving it could make a (government) profit.

In fact, King James I commanded the American colonists to produce hemp, and later in 1619, the government of the colony of Virginia imposed penalties on those who did not produce cannabis, and awarded bounties for cannabis culture and manufacture.

By the end of the 19th century, when hemp was becoming overshadowed by the production of cotton, new petroleum-based synthetic textile companies were the new large and powerful.  Perhaps they saw hemp production as a threat to big business?  There was definite friction over the plant, even though cannabis was also being used in medicinal practices all over North America.  (Between 1840 and 1900, more than one hundred papers were published in the Western medical literature recommending it for various illnesses and discomforts. Just a few of the reasons for cannabis use in medicine were rabies, rheumatism, epilepsy, tetanus and as a muscle relaxant.  Cannabis became so common in medicinal use that eventually it was sold over the counter in drug stores.)

It wasn’t the textile companies behind all the resistance.  The THC and psychoactive effects were becoming an issue for 20th century North America.  They say it was the recreational spread of cannabis use that garnered a narcotic classification of 1937, when the United States enacted the Marijuana Tax Law, making it really tough on cannabis fibre producers (and other kinds of cannabis users).  The Canadian government, banding with the Americans, also stopped production under the Opium and Narcotics Act on 1 August 1938,

Therefore, medical experts also supported the American Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, as well as the Canadian Opium and Narcotics Act in 1938, both of which not only controlled the cannabis economic industry with prohibitive taxes, but also prevented further experimentation on the medicinal effects of cannabis.

It just kept getting harder and harder to use the plant, and a negative stigma began to dissolve the memories of cannabis’ positive attributes, especially with the prohibition of alcohol in the United States.

Even when the mayor of New York, Fiorello La Guardia, published a study that said:

“...the behaviour of the smoker is of a friendly, sociable character, and aggressiveness and belligerence are not commonly seen.”  The study also found no relationship between crimes of violence and marijuana.  And yet, the recommendations of this report were ignored.

Americans were faced with a heavy handed government that seemed hypocritical on it’s war on drugs.  It is believed the Reagan-Bush administration used cocaine in order to bypass a need for funding, and George Bush was a director of a major pharmaceutical company (and major shareholder) throughout his political career.

It was in 1988 that Canada filed its harshest censorship on cannabis:

“To advocate the legalization of cannabis, to promote the consumption of marijuana for medical reasons, to advocate the use of cannabis hemp for fibre, to show how marijuana is grown, to put out newsletters, magazines or videos talking positively about marijuana (or any “drug, herb or substance” prohibited by government) could invite a criminal prosecution with penalties of $100,000 for first offense, and a $300,000 for a second offense, with six months to one year in jail.”

Being taught this public attitude towards cannabis certainly explains my former feelings towards the plant.  I believe when there is censorship on anything, be it thought or material item, a certain sense of danger and darkness accompanies it.  There are all kinds of issues with underground trade – drug lords and black markets, etc.  However, from what I’ve learned about marijuana and it’s healing properties, there should be no such restrictions on the responsible use of cannabis.

When pills such as Sativex, the world’s first prescription medicine derived from the cannabis plant, are being approved in Canada (2005) for the relief of pain in multiple sclerosis, no one can deny the benefits of whatever is in this plant!  (Which is exactly more than 61 chemicals, called cannabinoids, including THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol), the main psychoactive cannabinoid most responsible for the “high” associated with marijuana use.)

And accessibility to it should be of utmost importance.

I truly feel that financial competition between the public and private industries (in which category I will include the government) have set Canadian health care practices way back.  Although British Columbia, and the Westcoast Medicann Society, are offering ways to safely and lawfully obtain medicinal marijuana, there is still heavy clouds overhead.

Look forward to the next article defining where Canada actually stands today, and the support and legalization of medicinal marijuana.


Chris Bennett.  “When Smoke Gets in My Eye.”  Cannabis Culture.  April 1995.

Chris Bennett, Lynn Osburn and Judith Osburn.  Green Gold:  Marijuana in Magic & Religion.  Frazier Park, CA:  Access Unlimited, 2001.  p. 267.

Leah Spicer.  “Historical and Cultural Uses of Cannabis and the Canadian “Marijuana Clash”. The Senate Special Committee On Illegal Drugs.  April 2002.

Michael Aldrich.  “History of Therapeutic Cannabis.”  In Cannabis in Medical Practice.  Ed. Mary Lynn Mathre.  North Carolina:  McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers 1997.  p. 36.

Author unmentioned, (Tuesday, January 26, 1999). History of Cannabis in Canada. HEMPBC (online). webmaster@cannabisisland.com

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