A Brief History of Cannabis Use

Our brief history of cannabis discusses some of the more notable events in the cultivation and use of Cannabis sativa. Read more about some notable people who used throughout history.


When we think of growing hemp or cannabis we usually consider it being grown for our own modern-day needs. We use hemp in balms, oils, beauty products, dietary supplements etc. When in fact, archaeological evidence suggest that Cannabis sativa – the plant from which hemp or CBD oil is derived – was in fact being cultivated not a couple of hundred years ago. Not even just a couple of thousand, but around 10,000 or more years ago. This was at the end of the last ice age, making it one of the first agricultural crops grown by early man. The history of cannabis is a long story, but we have summarised some interesting highlights here.

Was cannabis the first agricultural crop grown?

A credible argument could suggest cannabis was the first agricultural plant grown. Its strength and versatility are virtually unrivaled. Archeological finds note that both cannabis seeds and oils were being used in food in China as early as 6000BC. A few thousand years later, around 4000BC, it appears the plant is globally cultivated. This is borne out by evidence that textiles made from hemp were in common use at that time. From Vikings to Romans, Phoenicians to Egyptians, these great civilizations would use hemp for clothing, ropes and sails. By 900BC the Arabs were learning to make paper from hemp.

The earliest use of hemp for medicinal purposes

The earliest known use of cannabis/hemp for medicinal purposes was recorded in 2727BC by the Emperor Sheng Nong. He was one of the fathers of Chinese medicine and known as the patron of all herbalists and apothecaries. It is said that he used cannabis tea with great effect for a variety of ailments from gout to rheumatism. In fact, cannabis was popular all across East Asia for thousands of years. The Greeks – a reliable source for documented history – mention the medicinal uses of cannabis frequently. Indeed Herodotus, the father of Greek history, espouses the benefits of cannabis for various complaints in his book “Histories.” In other parts of the world, cannabis has been found in numerous archaeological digs such as in Naples and Western China

Hemp – a rising commodity

After the Greeks came the Romans of course. The physician for the infamous Emperor Nero’s army was including cannabis on his medicinal inventories. For the next few hundred years things ticked over nicely. Improvements in the sowing cultivating and production of hemp saw the rise of the number of products available with the quality of these commodities improving through time. 

Growing hemp becomes mandatory

In 1533, King Henry VIII declared hemp a mandated crop. This required 1/4 of an acre out of every 60 acres be set aside for hemp cultivation (or face a fine). A steady supply of hemp was needed predominantly for the construction of the naval fleet. Products used included hemp oils, fibres essential for the production of rigging, sails, oakum and ensigns. In reality – many ships would never have sailed if it was not for hemp. Who knows how different history might have been without this incredibly versatile plant!

Hemp reaches the New World

Less than 100 years later, the colonist of The New World had arrived on these ships and were growing hemp in Virginia. Soon, after the amazing benefits of this plant were acknowledged it became law for farmers to grow hemp in Virginia Connecticut and Massachusetts. They could face jail if they didn’t grow hemp on their land, harking back to the days of Henry VIII.

Fast forward a few hundred years and we see no decline in the popularity of this plant. However, due to the various plants domesticated here and the climate in the UK, there were little or no psychoactive properties present. For this and other reasons resulting from the convoluted history of cannabis production, many medicinal opportunities were missed. With the rise of the British Empire in the early 1800’s, more doctors, scientists, botanists and herbalists etc., were traveling the globe. They were expanding the empire and encountering new societies. These civilizations were cultivating cannabis for both its medicinal and intoxicating potential.

William Brooke O’Shaughnessy

One of theses Doctors was a young Irish surgeon by the name of William Brooke O’Shaughnessy. Between 1833 and 1841, O’Shaughnessy travelled India extensively, researching the medicinal properties of many indigenous plants, cannabis being one of them. He almost immediately noticed its therapeutic qualities. He also became aware that the indigenous people had been using cannabis for medicinal and recreational purposes for thousands of years.

From experimentation on animals to implementation on humans

Eager to test the claims of the locals he began experimenting, initially on animals then having realised how safe cannabis was, humans. He revealed the results of these experiments in a publication entitled: “On the preparation of the Indian hemp their effect on the animal system in health, and their utility in the treatment of tetanus 6 and other convulsive disorders.”

O’Shaughnessy’s findings were groundbreaking and his impact on the modern day uses of CBD cannot be overstated. He was successful in stopping the muscle spasms in a tetanus patient. He also stopped febrile seizures (convulsions) in an infant child. Though he had only limited success in treating other ailments, the beneficial calming and pain relief effects were apparent in all cases.

Cannabis tinctures by Royal Appointment

On his return to London in 1841, 0’Shaughnessy brought back not only his research papers but also a large quantity of cannabis and cannabis seeds. These were given to groups such as the Royal Pharmaceutical Society and the Royal Botanical Gardens. It was about this time he became acquainted with a pharmacist named Peter Squires. Together they made a wide range of cannabis tinctures which were available at local pharmacies.

When Queen Victoria’s physician (Sir Russel Reynolds) became aware of O’Shaughnessy’s research he prescribed the tinctures for her majesty’s menstrual cramps. He also began promoting the use of cannabis for medicinal purposes. His tinctures – and many other products besides – were widely available and very popular from about 1840 to the early 1900 when we see the age of cannabis prohibition creeping in.  Overall, O’Shaughnessy has had quite some considerable influence on the path of the history of cannabis.

CBD technology progresses

The CBD products we know today differ vastly from those of yesteryear. The psychoactive properties within the plant, most notably THC has been mostly eradicated in modern medicine and supplements. This in part is due to the work of Dr Roger Adams. In 1940, at the University of Illinois, he discovered and isolated Cannabidiol (or CBD). This is just one of over a hundred cannabinoids that can be found within the hemp plant. However, it would take more than another 20 years of research (which was also responsible for the discovery of THC) to make headway.

The relationship between THC and psychotropic effects

It was another young maverick Dr Raphael Mechoulam in 1963 who successfully revealed the direct relationship between the cannabinoid THC and the euphoric effect it produces. In modern times we can isolate and identify many cannabinoids. We also have a better understanding of their uses and how they function.

Research marches on relentlessly

Although research is, as always, ongoing, what we already know is undeniably astounding. In possession of this wonderplant for thousands of years, we have used it to make clothes, ropes, maps, books. We have used it in cooking and for recreational purposes. We have used it as a medicine to treat and provide relief from a multitude of ailments – often with impressive rates of success.

Cannabis has been found to have thousands of uses

It is undeniable that the cannabis plant has played an integral part in the civilization of mankind. There has been a global rise in its use and the techniques for growing, cultivating and producing the Cannabis sativa plant. It’s easy to see why there are now over 50,000 commercial uses for this plant.

Nowadays the stigma surrounding this plant is virtually eradicated. Its unquestionable medicinal benefits have also been recognized. Our ability to isolate and identify certain cannabinoids to promote health and well-being and the promising research work being done has extended the ancient knowledge of its potential. Throughout the history of cannabis, mankind has been experimenting and making discoveries about this remarkable herb. Now is a very exciting time to be working with hemp products or CBD oil. We are uncovering even more that it has to offer and making it available to the general consumer.