Origins of Marijuana
The origins of marijuana indicate that mankind’s relationship with the cannabis plant extends back to a time when we weren’t quite human yet. In fact, it has been suggested that marijuana and man coevolved, making it an unlikely prospect to suggest a permanent parting of the pair as would be the case if the War on Drugs were to be “won” in the traditional sense [read; eradication and interdiction]. But with more than half of the citizens in the United States calling for full legalization of the plant, a closer look at the origins of marijuana is prudent, as we can only create clear direction for the future by understanding our past.
Cannabis was Born in the Hills of Asia
While it’s impossible to know for certain, mainstream scholars agree that marijuana originated on the slopes of the Himalayas in Asia. (1) As a tropical and subtropical plant, we can safely assume that cannabis was born in the equatorial region of Asia, making other continents including South America, Australia and Africa possible places for the rapid spread of the species.
In their book; Cannabis: Evolution and Ethnobotany, authors Robert C Clarke and Mark D. Merlin discuss how climate change that occurred during the Pleistocene and Holocene eras affected the distribution of cannabis. (2) From this it’s logical to argue that cannabis has existed for at least 2 million years, with a large majority of its evolution occurring during a time when the most likely benefactor of the plant was becoming the dominant force on the planet. This primarily included mammals and birds that almost certainly fed on the plant’s rich, plentiful and nutritious seeds.
Of course, the true origins of marijuana as we know it probably lie much farther back than 2 million years ago considering that the plant is part of the hemp and hops family, with long roots stretching back deep into prehistoric times. But if the plant was originally confined to Asia, it quickly spread throughout the rest of the world with the help of what would one day become modern humans.
Marijuana and Humans Likely Coevolved
Controversial but sound hypotheses have been put forward suggesting that humans and marijuana coevolved. The University of California at Berkeley describes coevolution in simple terms:
“The term coevolution is used to describe cases where two (or more) species reciprocally affect each other’s evolution. So for example, an evolutionary change in the morphology of a plant, might affect the morphology of an herbivore that eats the plant, which in turn might affect the evolution of the plant, which might affect the evolution of the herbivore…and so on.” (3)
If this hypothesis is correct, it would mean that the existence of the marijuana plant as we know it today was directly influenced by modern humans, and vice versa; a concept not easily accepted in a world where the machinations powering the War on Drugs still tout the plant as a dangerous evil to be persecuted and eradicated out of existence. However, there is significant evidence to support the idea of man and cannabis coevolving.
For instance, consider the fact that the cannabis plant is a colonizer. This means that in the wild the plant generally needs open, cleared soil in order to grow. As Mel Frank and Ed Rosenthal point out, cleared patches of fertile ground do not occur often in nature; perhaps after a storm, flood, fire or some other type of disaster. As a colonizer, cannabis would also be short-lived once larger growth vegetation moved in. This means that the plant’s ideal environment is a patch of clear ground that stays clear.
Did cannabis lead to civilization?
Enter our early human ancestors. With their newfound habit of clearing land for agricultural-based settlements, cannabis found an unlikely partner in man, who provided more clearings and fertile patches of ground than the plant would encounter naturally. (1) This meant that interactions between the two species were virtually assured at least as far back as the Neolithic period.
Interestingly, some powerful figures have even speculated that the newly developed agricultural lifestyle of Neolithic man was probably focused on cultivation of cannabis directly, and was likely mankind’s very first – and often only – crop. Carl Sagan, famed author, astronomer and astrophysicist, even goes one step further and suggests that if cannabis led to agriculture, then it therefore led us to civilization. (4)
Humans are Physiologically Linked to Cannabis
If the previous theories on the coevolution of man and marijuana aren’t convincing enough, there is also the fact that cannabis is literally, physically part of human genetic makeup. It is widely known that there are thousands of cannabinoid receptor sites spread throughout the human body, with most located in the brain and spinal cord. These receptors bind with cannabinoids to produce various effects throughout the central nervous system – cannabinoids that are generally only present when marijuana is consumed. According to a study by the University of Auckland, these cannabinoid receptors are found in the brain at nearly all stages of human growth:
“Cannabinoid receptors were distributed in a heterogeneous fashion throughout the adult human brain and spinal cord. The allocortex contained very high concentrations of cannabinoid receptor binding sites in the dentate gyrus, Ammons’s horn and subiculum of the hippocampal formation; high concentrations of receptors were also present in the entorhinal cortex and amygdaloid complex. Cannabinoid receptor binding sites were also present throughout all regions of the neocortex…” (5)
Marijuana supporters often cite the fact that because of the presence of these cannabinoid receptor sites, humans must be “designed” to use marijuana. However, the deeper question often posed is this: Did humans evolve cannabinoid receptor sites naturally, or did these sites evolve as a result of our ancient relationship with the cannabis plant?
If humans developed these cannabinoid receptor sites as a result of thousands of years of cultivation, veneration and consumption of the plant, then the idea that man and cannabis coevolved would appear to be factual. In fact, suggesting that these receptor sites evolved independently and coincidentally probably doesn’t make much sense considering the complete lack of supporting evidence or logic.
Ancient History Shows Early Human Consumption
Between 8,000 and 10,000 years ago humans were using corded hemp in pottery and other applications in the area that is now Taiwan. (6) This means that the plant was almost certainly selectively cultivated and processed for a variety of different uses, indicating a society that was at least partly based on the cultivation of hemp.
By almost 5,000 years ago we find written records in China detailing the medicinal properties of cannabis; records that are echoed in India and later in Greece and Egypt. (6)(7)
While it’s probable that early hemp was primarily cultivated for its value as a raw material, eventually science advanced enough that variations of the cannabis plant were developed that partly focused on creating a more potent intoxicant. Variants that led to today’s cannabis plant were first recorded in 1587 by D’ Ale’ champs, with future strains being more closely detailed by Linnaeus around 1738 and Lamarck in the 1780s. (8)(9)
Modern Humans & Marijuana
In the last 200 years cannabis has been developed into several highly specialized strains, including “nichified” localized strains, but nearly all of today’s marijuana growers choose to focus on potency of the marijuana produced. While the average strain today produces pot with THC content of around 10%, extremely strong strains are regularly sold that have 20% or higher THC. These strains are comparable in potency to stronger drugs like opiates, cocaine and benzodiazepine – a fact often cited by authorities in their efforts to persecute marijuana growers and users.
But despite the decades-long War on Drugs, Americans are showing a strong desire to allow the seemingly natural relationship between humans and cannabis to resume, with the majority of the nation now in favor of full legalization. (10) However, the suppression of marijuana-related research combined with demonization of the plant makes it likely that this type of action is still a long way off. Additionally, marijuana legalization supporters are often staunchly unwilling to admit that there are any negative side effects of the drug – especially smoking it – thereby undermining their own cause.
The reality is that we must strike a balance on this issue, and that balance can only be struck when we understand just how linked to this plant we really are; for better or worse. Whatever the case may be, it’s obvious that current U.S. marijuana policies just aren’t working; policies that fly in the face of the fact that the origin of marijuana is deeply linked to the origin of man.
[Editor's Note: this article is neither pro-marijuana nor anti-marijuana; it is merely a presentation of the facts as researched in late May, 2013. Please keep in mind that humans have had a similar relationship with opium, but this fact doesn't make use of opiates safe or logical. The same applies to marijuana and all other drugs of abuse whether natural or synthetic. The goal of the article is to better inform the public in an effort to help end the War on Drugs, which is largely propped up by the persecution of the marijuana trade. The author and publishers also wish to point out the fact that current research indicates as many as 9% of people who use marijuana will become dependent - an important point to consider during public discourse on marijuana legalization and reform.]
(1) Frank, Mel and Rosenthal, Ed Marijuana Grower’s Guide, Deluxe Edition 1978 Chapt. 1 pg. 3 Cannabis and Ancient History http://www.walnet.org/rosebud/ancienthistory.html
(2) Clarke, Robert C. and Merlin, Mark D. Cannabis: Evolution and Ethnobotany, Chapt. 11 University of California Press ISBN-13: 9780520270480 http://www.nhbs.com/cannabis_tefno_190173.html
(3) Evolution 101 Coevolution University of California at Berkeley http://evolution.berkeley.edu/evosite/evo101/IIIFCoevolution.shtml
(4) Sagan, Carl The Dragons of Eden, Speculations on the Origin of Human Intelligence (From a footnote on page 191)
(5) Glass M, Dragunow M, Faull RL. Cannabinoid receptors in the human brain: a detailed anatomical and quantitative autoradiographic study in the fetal, neonatal and adult human brain. Department of Anatomy, School of Medicine, University of Auckland, New Zealand. Neuroscience. 1997 Mar;77(2):299-318. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9472392
(6) 10,000 Year History of Marijuana Use in the World Advanced Holistic Health http://www.advancedholistichealth.org/history.html
(7) UK Cannabis Internet Activist A Brief History of Cannabis http://www.ukcia.org/culture/history/
(8) Clarke, Robert C. Marijuana Botany An Advanced Study: The Propagation and Breeding of Distinctive Cannabis 1981 Ronin Publishing & Publishers Group West
(9) Indica Genetic History http://cannabisgenetics.com/indicagenetics/indica_cannabis_genetics.htm
(10) Bratu, Becky Survey: 52 Percent of Americans in Favor of Legalizing Marijuana ABC News 04/04/2013 http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/04/04/17603170-survey-52-percent-of-americans-in-favor-of-legalizing-marijuana?lite