What's Legal

A Brief History of Cannabis - Part 1

From ancient crop to herbal medicine

Image of a sunrise with a cannabis plant in the foreground

The cannabis plant has a long and complicated history. It’s been both honoured as an herbal medicine and in 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.


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.

79 CE 

Roman Texts Cite Cannabis as a Cure for Illnesses and Ailments
Pliny the Elder, a Roman naturalist and author scientist and historian, writes about the cannabis plant: “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.

1606 

Cannabis Introduced to North American Settlers, Used for Textiles and Rope
European colonists transport the cannabis plant across the ocean to the Americas. Louis Hebert, a French botanist and friend of colonist Samuel de Champlain, plants the first hemp crop in Canada in Port Royal (now Nova Scotia) in 1606. In Europe and in Canada, hemp is grown for textiles and rope, and is an especially strong material for making sails. The plant’s seeds are used as food and oil.

Image showing a map of Nova Scotia

1801

Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada Distributes Hemp Seeds to Farmers
In effort to stimulate the hemp industry, the Canadian government (on behalf of Britain) begins promoting hemp as a worthwhile crop by distributing free seeds to farmers. 

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

1830s to 1900s 

Doctors Consider Cannabis in Medical Treatments
In the 1830s and 1840s, William Brooke O’Shaughnessy, an Irish doctor working in India, undertakes research exploring the possible medical uses for cannabis. He touts cannabis as a useful sedative and an anti-convulsive that reduces pain and treats nausea. Later, cannabis tinctures and other cannabis-derived medicines appear in pharmacies and apothecaries in North America and Europe.


Read Part 2: Cannabis becomes prevalent — and illegal, here.

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