A Brief History of Hemp and Cannabis

A Brief History of Hemp and Cannabis

Cannabis is one of the oldest plants grown on earth. Evidence suggests that it has been around for the last 28 million years, in one form or another.

Humanity’s journey has been long intertwined with cannabis consumption. Humans and cannabis grew alongside each other and moved together throughout the world.

Ancient cultures, such as the Chinese, Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, consumed cannabis for recreational purposes. But industrial hemp has been around, too, and there is evidence that sometime around 2500 BC, cannabis started slowly differentiating from hemp. Gradually, selective breeding and natural selection created two separate cannabis varieties, only one of which had high THC levels.

Cannabis is a very old plant

Cannabis was growing millions of years ago

Flowering plants (angiosperms) are the youngest group of land plants, appearing some 130 million years ago. The Cannabaceae family, which is named for its most famous member cannabis, evolved around 60 million years ago.

So, while cannabis is too young to have witnessed any dinosaurs, its ancestors were growing on Earth alongside Triceratops and T-Rex. Whereas dinosaurs got extinct, cannabis managed to evolve and survive.

A plant closer to what we know as cannabis emerged when cannabis and hops diverged some 28 million years ago. It slowly adapted and adjusted to conditions that were very different from those its ancestor thrived in.

Modern cannabis seems to have emerged in Western China, along the Tibetan Plateau. It is thought that it was during the Ice Age that cannabis developed most of its cannabinoids, including THC.

Humans, hemp, and cannabis

Humans started to adopt several plants and animals to their way of living, including cannabis. It is assumed that cannabis moved away from its ‘wild’ form and became tamer around 12,000 years ago.

Hemp and recreational cannabis as we know them today were separated around 8,000 years ago.

Chinese farmers already knew about hemp’s potential some 4,000 years ago and grew it for its precious fibres that were used to make sails, clothes, and even mankind’s first attempts at making paper.

Cannabis with high THC content

Recent research suggests that cannabis wasn’t brimming with THC at first. Indeed, findings from 5,000 years ago show very low THC content in the plant. It wasn’t until some 2,500 years ago that THC content started to increase, albeit not to the levels seen today.

Some researchers theorise that natural selection and human intervention must have played a role in how cannabis slowly developed a strong THC profile. For example, our very ancient ancestors must have found that cannabis plants grown at altitude were more psychoactive than their siblings grown in valleys and lower altitudes.

It is thought that THC developed as a means for the plant to protect itself from disease and predators, especially in harsh mountainous climates. So did terpenes and other cannabinoids, which evolved to help plants survive against enemies such as animals, insects, bacteria, or various illnesses and diseases.

It is assumed that humans developed cannabis breeds that gave the most intense hallucinatory effects through selective breeding. If that is the case, then they must have understood how THC could affect their mood and give them the ‘high’ that’s associated with cannabis.

It was probably the elites who first adopted cannabis as a psychotropic, using it as an exclusive substance to relieve tension, relax, and perhaps connect with spirits and deities.

Hemp in Europe and beyond

It is likely that it was cannabis and its intoxicating and elating nature that first convinced Europeans to try it. Once they had experimented with cannabis, they understood better the benefits of hemp and started cultivating it on European land.

Just like the Chinese, Europeans grew hemp for its tall stalks that made fibres for clothing and sails. After all, cotton was not widespread in Europe and people didn’t know how to make paper out of wood. Hemp fibres were also very useful for many everyday purposes like sails, which were essential on boats.

Hemp and cannabis growing side by side

In Ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, both hemp and cannabis were grown. Cannabis was used for medicinal purposes including pain relief, anti-inflammation, and as an anti-microbial. Some cultures used it against headaches and even as an anaesthetic during surgery.

Meanwhile, hemp was still grown for its fibres. Because hemp doesn’t contain THC, its effects are more discreet. People probably used it as a mild painkiller and for its anti-inflammatory properties, although cannabis would deliver more intense effects because of the THC.

It is highly unlikely that people knew about CBD, THC, and all the other cannabinoids. It was through trial and error that they incorporated cannabis and hemp into their lives. Thousands of years of cannabis and hemp cultivation had taught them about their potential health benefits. People adjusted their cannabis consumption on what was available at the time and the perceived benefits they got from each variety.

Hemp and CBD

We have known about CBD since the 1940s, when American scientists discovered the molecular structure of CBD and THC.

By then, hemp and cannabis cultivation was forbidden in the United States, the UK, and most of Europe. Sadly, politicians didn’t differentiate between hemp and cannabis. In an attempt to stop the consumption of THC, they created sweeping laws against any cannabis plant.

It took more than 50 years for researchers to show how cannabis and hemp had evolved differently. Things that our ancestors had gauged through experience required scientific evidence to be fully understood.

A better understanding

The good thing about research and clinical trials is that we now know a lot about CBD and other cannabinoids in a detailed and objective way that bypasses anecdotal evidence.

Researchers and doctors have shown how CBD interacts with the human endocannabinoid system. Thirty years ago we didn’t even know about the endocannabinoid system, so we are moving in the right direction.  

We have also uncovered CBD’s anti-inflammatory, anti-anxiety, and anti-microbial potential. We have also unearthed the potential of terpenes and flavonoids and how they interact and possibly enhance the overall effect of CBD.

Of course, anecdotal evidence still remains. All these years when hemp and cannabis were outlawed didn’t put a full stop to their consumption—it just drove them underground. People still experimented and consumed, albeit illegally.

A bright future

Following the legalisation of CBD, public attitudes towards cannabis have shifted as well. CBD consumption has exploded even as people are wondering how much THC their CBD product contains (under 2% for the product to be legal). Cannabis has even stirred politics in Britain, the Overseas Territories, and Crown Dependencies.

On the other side of the ocean, US states that have legalised the recreational usage of cannabis have witnessed the emergence of marijuana strains that have increasing amounts of THC. Whereas THC content in the 80s was around 4%, it is now up to 15% on average. Some marijuana extracts, used in dabbing and edibles, can even contain an average of 50% and up to 90% THC.

The two plants will probably continue to diverge in the coming decades, creating ever higher THC content in cannabis and CBD in industrial hemp, to match our two main uses: recreational and medicinal. Special industrial hemp strains may also emerge to maximize the content of minor cannabinoids or other compounds such as terpenes and flavonoids.

Cannabis and hemp have been part of humanity’s journeys for millennia. It seems likely that they will continue to do so for many more!

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Nicholas C. Rossis, renowned by the IBBY Award and a roster of best-selling publications, is a leading voice in CBD research. His work combines critical acclaim with the analysis of the latest news, studies, research and legal developments in the world of CBD, providing readers with valuable data and insights.

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