4 Ways Marijuana Took The World By Storm
If you felt disconnected from humanity while you blazed alone on the couch these past pandemic 4/20s, fret not! You can find solace in the fact that people have been smoking pot for millennia. And based on current legalization and popularity trends, weed will be around for a long time to come. Hell, if some of our world leaders don't join Team Green and just chill out, it might just be weeds, Weed, and the radioactive cockroaches that survive the nuclear apocalypse without us.
But before we get started tracing the roots of the plant, we should clear up one thing. Hemp and marijuana are the same plant: cannabis. The difference is the amount of THC, the chemical compound that gets you high, where hemp has little and marijuana has more. Hemp may be humanity's oldest agricultural crop, dating back 10,000 years with uses in textiles, paper, and even food. The getting high, marijuana part of cannabis took a bit longer to figure out. And that's what we're gonna talk about ...
The Cradle of Cannabis
2500 years ago, tucked away in the Chinese steppes, some magical humans decided to smoke the dope that would eventually lead to all your favorite stoner comedies. Keep in mind, this is the earliest known date -- these dudes may have had to hide it from their parents, and thus modern historians, for a while beforehand.
At Jirzankal Cemetery, in the Xinjiang region, archaeologists found ten wooden bowls (normal bowls, not glass pipe from the head shop bowls) spread out among eight tombs. Nine of these ceremonial "incense burners" contained particularly high levels of THC. The running theory is that they were used as part of a funeral rite. Blazing hot stones were put in these wooden basins, and then some weed tossed on top of that. Everybody would breathe deep, and, well, you get it -- pretty badass way to send your friends to the afterlife.
While cannabis has been found in multiple archaeological sites, what makes the Jirzankal cemetery special is the strength of the psychoactive chemical. The wild cannabis of central Asia had a low THC percentage, definitely under the %.03 that separates "hemp" from "marijuana." The residue found at the burial site had such a high presence of the psychoactive chemical that it led scientists to theorize that the Jirzankalians actively bred the plant to produce a stronger high, the first known case of stoner behavior.
And if you don't want to trust the scientists on this one, why not trust the gossip column of the era? Greek historian Herodotus gives an account of the Scythians (ancient Eurasian steppe people) and their burial practices:
"The Scythians, as I said, take some of this hemp-seed, and … throw it upon the red-hot stones." Then, when the plant began to smoke and release a vapor, the "Scyths, delighted, shouted for joy."
I guess shouting for joy is a fine substitute if there are no Doritos to be munched.
The Grass, er, Silk Road
Once the floodgates of highness were opened, everybody wanted to play. Less than a century after our friends in Jinzankal got stoned, some neighboring nomads had one hell of a going-away party in the Caucasus Mountains. They added some visual stimulation to their bud's funeral ceremony by swapping out the wooden bowls for some pretty epic gold vessels. One can only assume Snoop would approve of the bling.
And while we don't know much more of what happened at these burial ceremonies, if we follow weed's growth, we can see how cannabis worked its way into many types of cultural practices across the world. One of its first stops was the Indian subcontinent, where it was met with enthusiasm. In his book High Points: An Historical Geography of Cannabis, historian and geographer Barney Warf explains, "India developed a continuing tradition of psychoactive cannabis cultivation, often with medicinal and religious overtones." He goes on to say that marijuana culture reached its "greatest efflorescence" in India.
Part of that excitement meant finding a new way to consume cannabis, this time in the form of bhang. Essentially you grind up weed leaves with a fat like butter or milk to create little round balls of bliss. From there, it can be spiced and added to food or drink. It's stronger than you think, and I have proof in the form of endless funny stories of traveling Westerners who think they can hang.
One of the most important gods of the Hindu religion, Shiva, is said to be something of a pothead himself, having brought the plant down from a mountain for the "benefit of mankind." Apparently, he figured out that smoking marijuana both relaxes the body and aids in meditation. I wonder if it helped with his Freshman philosophy class papers as well.
On Shiva's main festival night, Maha Shivratri, Hindus from all walks of life celebrate the God and partake of his hash habit. In Kathmandu, over one million people visit the city each year to participate in the festivities. Similar to the fantastically colorful holiday of Holi, during the holiday, marijuana use is everywhere. And based on a quick Google of the photos, pretty excessive in the best way.
Before we move on, now is a good time to note that while Rati is the goddess of sexual pleasure, Shiva, the God of all creation and destruction in Hindu mythology, is also known as "The God of Bhang." Nice.
The Rest of the World …
Big topic, right? We got this. From central Asia, cannabis continued to slowly spread its sticky fingers through trade routes to Europe and North Africa, and nothing very exciting to our story happened for a long time. Whew, good work, now let's talk about the Rastas.
After Jamaica banned slavery in 1833, the landowners wanted cheap labor to work the cane fields of the plantations. At the time, Jamaica was under British crown rule, and India was under the control of the British East India Company. A deal was struck, and the small island imported upwards of 36,000 Indian indentured laborers seeking their own personal fortune. They brought several bits of their culture with them for their new lives, like goat curry, rice, roti, and a variety of spinach called callaloo dishes which have become part of the national cuisine. They also brought the ganja. In fact, while many a stoner likes to say "ganja" in a shitty Jamaican accent, it's actually a Hindi word passed down from Sanskrit – "gāñjā" means "hemp resin."
The practice of smoking cannabis spread like wildfire through the island. But since most visible smokers were field laborers or inner-city Jamaican Blacks, the government passed the Ganja Law of 1913 to keep power in certain hands. But it was too late to stop the Rasta movement and its deep, spiritual connection with marijuana.
Rastafarianism got its start in the late 19th century when a Pan-African movement began to take hold in the communities of the descendants of slaves in Jamaica. Similar to Hinduism, the Rasta religion places marijuana in a very high status, believing it to be the Tree of Life in the Bible. For them, one does not smoke to enjoy a high. Instead, it's supposed to aid in a variety of spiritual endeavors.
Despite many college stoners' idolization hopes, the world's best-known Rastafarian, Bob Marley, smoked weed for spiritual growth, not for a cheap high. Surely, Bob would be happy to know that Jamaica updated its laws on marijuana possession on what would have been his 70th birthday, allowing Rastas to carry weed without fear of arrest.
… And the U.S.
Cannabis has been in the United States since colonial times. In 1619, the Virginia legislature passed a law that required every farmer to grow hemp (Thomas Jefferson included). It lasted this way until the late 19th century, when the nation started opening up to the idea of medicinal cannabis in potions and tinctures.
Everything was going fine until, once again, racism reared its ugly head. During the Mexican Civil War of 1910, thousands of immigrants poured into the country, and they brought their peaceful past time of pot smoking. As the popularity spread among poor people and nonwhites (annoyingly a theme here), the government passed a Marihuana Tax act after several high-profile campaigns against the evil weed. The US even brought its tea-totaling, holier-than-thou attitude abroad and essentially screwed over centuries of Japan's weed laws.
It's that kind of attitude from one of the world's leading nations that led smaller countries to develop disproportionately severe punishments, such as life in a Saudi Arabian prison for even residual amounts of herb. Make sure you clean your pockets next time you fly through Riyadh!
As things change nationwide, check out the progress of your state's legalization with this handy list from the Marijuana Policy Project.
Now, if you haven't had your second bowl of cereal yet, grab it, slouch on the couch, find a Seth Rogen movie, and enjoy your hit of history.
Top image: Martin Gaal/Shutterstock