As Americans continue to share under-reported narratives about our historically unjust culture, cannabis can’t be left out of the conversation. Criminal justice reform in this country begins with discussions of the over-policing and over-prosecution of drug crimes, particularly where marijuana is concerned, and state prosecutors are only beginning to grapple with decades of unjust mass incarceration connected to a substance that is now legal in a growing swath of the country.
With that in mind, SPARC is launching a series of history lessons on this blog aimed at filling in some of the story you may not know about how cannabis farming and consumption began, culminating in a look back at the 20th century in the U.S. and how it came to be treated as a vice worthy of jail time.
To start: How cannabis arrived in the New World
Cannabis was first cultivated in Central Asia both for hemp fiber, used in early rope-making, and for the psychoactive effects of its flowers. Wild cannabis varieties can be found growing in the cool mountain foothills of western China and east to the Caucasus, and these were likely the first plants found by humans. But THC and cannabinol levels in these plants are so low that it’s likeliest that ritual uses of the psychoactive compounds only came after people learned to grow the plant for its flowers.
Marijuana is believed to be among the oldest cultivated crops by human beings, with its first domesticated origins around 12,000 BCE in the steppes of what are now Mongolia and southern Siberia. From there, we know that cannabis seeds have been found in burial mounds dating to 3,000 BCE, and by 2,000 BCE the plant was likely being traded as far east as Korea and eastern China, and as far west as the Middle East and eastern Europe.
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The earliest proven and carbon-dated evidence of ritual cannabis smoking was only found by archeologists in recent years: residue from wooden braziers that date back over 2,500 years, to around 500 BCE, was found in 2019 by archaeologists working in western China. These braziers, researchers say, were used in mortuary ceremonies at Jirzankal Cemetery on the Pamir Plateau in what is now China’s Xinjiang region, and the residue suggests that the cannabis used had high levels of psychoactive compounds and was therefore cultivated for this purpose.
As NPR reported at the time, Yimin Yang, an archaeologist at the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, believes that the funerary use of cannabis in this location, combined with what’s known about other uses of the plant in the region, may reflect “some kind of community of shared beliefs in the Eurasian mountain foothills.”
The plant would not make it to Africa for another few hundred years, via Arab merchants around the 13th Century, and from there it would be traded and transported first to western Europe, and then on ships to the New World likely as soon as those ships started sailing. Calling it “Dagga,” cannabis was reportedly consumed by Indian indentured servants in South Africa for centuries.
There is ample evidence that multiple Native American tribes consumed cannabis for ritual purposes, and it’s unclear at what historical point the plant might have migrated to the Americas from Asia — only recently have archaelogists begun to believe that the first humans in the Americas may have been big-game hunters who walked and sailed from East Asia around 11,000 BCE, and perhaps they brought cannabis with them.
George Washington grew hemp but likely did not ever smoke cannabis — though novelist Thomas Pynchon thinks otherwise in an amusing, fictional scene in Mason & Dixon.
We know that smoking cannabis for pleasure was likely something popularized among Indian slaves who worked on sugarcane plantations throughout the Caribbean in the 19th century. But the presence of African slaves helping grow hemp crops in the U.S. in the 18th century would lead us to believe that cannabis smoking was likely happening here decades before the U.S. government took notice of it.
“Black history is cannabis history,” writes DM Blunted. ”Black Americans have been out here, smoking cannabis before it was a billion dollar industry and generations ago, working fields of hemp as enslaved people. Our roots are thick and firmly planted in the same soil of cannabis.”
In our next installment, we’ll look specifically at how cannabis entered popular culture and first landed on the radar of U.S. law enforcement.