What's Legal

A Brief History of Cannabis - Part 1

The Cannabis Plant Is “Discovered”

The cannabis plant has a long and complicated history, being both honoured in herbal medicine and religious ceremonies — and outlawed as an illegal substance. This three-part series explores the lows and highs on the long journey toward cannabis legalization in Canada.

Image of a sunrise with a cannabis plant in the foreground

Neolithic period (about 10,000 BCE)

Cannabis and Hemp Grow Organically
Cannabis is indigenous to central and southern Asia, where hemp (a similar plant with less THC) is cultivated for fibre and food.


Image of a map of ancient China and an article discussing medicinal uses of cannabis sativa

2000 BCE

Cannabis Is Used for Medicine and Recreation in Central Asia and China
In central Asia and China, cannabis is used as herbal medicine and to make paper and cloth. Almost 1,300 years later (around 700 BCE), the Scythians (Iranian nomads in central Asia) use cannabis recreationally, inhaling the smoke from smouldering seeds and flowers to produce a high.

79 CE 

Roman Texts Cite Cannabis as Cure for Illnesses and Ailments
Pliny the Elder, a Roman scientist and historian, writes, “The roots boiled in water ease cramped joints, gout too and similar violent pain.” By 800 CE, hashish (cannabis resin) is widely used in religious ceremonies throughout India, the Middle East and parts of Asia.


Cannabis Introduced to North American Settlers, Used for Textiles and Rope

European colonists transport the cannabis plant across the ocean to the Americas. In Europe and in Canada, hemp is grown for textiles and rope, and is an especially strong material for making sails; the seeds are used as food and oil.


Image showing a map of Nova Scotia


Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada Distributes Hemp Seeds to Farmers
While the first hemp crop in Canada was planted in Port Royal (now Nova Scotia) in 1606 — by an apothecary accompanying French colonist Samuel de Champlain — the Canadian government begins promoting hemp by distributing seeds to farmers to stimulate the industry. 


Image of William Brooke O’Shaughnessy and glass jars meant for oils

1830s to 1900s 

Cannabis Medicines Inundate Apothecaries and Doctors’ Offices in Europe, the U.S. and Canada
About 2,000 cannabis liquid extracts and resins are commonly sold in pharmacies and prescribed by doctors’ offices in Europe, the U.S. and Canada. Some of these unregulated medications are dangerous and sport outrageous claims, such as offering protection against cholera and treating rabies. In 1833, William Brooke O’Shaughnessy, an Irish doctor working in India, touts cannabis as a useful sedative and an anti-convulsive that reduces rheumatoid pain and treats nausea. 

Read Part 2: Cannabis Becomes Prevalent, Yet Illegal, here.

6 Game Changing
Moments in
Cannabis History
that Every
Canadian Should
6 Game Changing Moments in
Cannabis History that Every
Canadian Should Know
A Brief History
of Cannabis -
Part 2
A Brief History of Cannabis
- Part 2