Cannabis. Marijuana. Weed. Whatever name you use for it, it always refers to preparations of the parts of the cannabis plant(usually the flowers, leaves, and stalks) and is are used either as a recreational psychoactive drug, or as a medical remedy, and, according to the United Nations, it's the, "…most widely used illicit substance in the world."
But where did it come from?
Well, the cannabis plant originates in central and southern Asia, but it's always been a well-traveled weed. Charred cannabis seeds found at an ancient burial site in what is now Romania show that people have been smoking it since the 3rd millennium BC, for example, and just a few years ago (2003) a leather basket full of cannabis seeds and leaf fragments was found next to the 2,500-2,800-year-old mummy of a shaman in China.
Other cultures known to have used cannabis include the Hindus and Nihang Sikhs from ancient India and Nepal, which cultures used the Sanskrit term for the herb - gankika, which evolved into the modern ganja. An equally ancient drug called "soma" was also sometimes associated with cannabis.
But Cannabis didn't end with the Asians. It was well known by the ancient Assyrians who knew about its psychoactive properties and used it in some of their religious ceremonies, referring to it as qunubu - way to produce smoke - and a possible precursor of the modern form of the word "cannabis." As well the Dacians, Scythians, and Thracians had shamans known as kapnobatai, or "those who walk on smoke," who burned cannabis flowers to enter trance states. From there, the drug moved into the cult of Dionysus, and the regions of Greece and Turkey.
The Scythians may have been one of the most prominent cultures to use cannabis for religious or spiritual reasons, but they're certainly not alone. Some writers have even claimed that ancient Jews and early Christians may have used the drug, basing this theory on the similarities between the terms qannabbos (cannabis) and the phrase qené bósem (aromatic cane) in old Hebrew. The early Sufi Muslims also used the drug.
In slightly more recent times, a study published in the South African Journal of Science referred to pipes "dug up from the garden of Shakespeare's home in Stratford-upon-Avon.." had traces of cannabis. This was confirmed via chemical analysis after research scholars theorized that the "journey in my head" Shakespeare wrote about in Sonnet 27 and the "noted weed" he mentions in his Sonnet 76 were references to the drug and its use.
Jumping ahead to the twentieth century, we see the beginning of the criminalization of cannabis use. In the USA, the first restrictions on the sale of the plant came in 1906. South Africa followed suit in 1911, Jamaica in 1913, and New Zealand and the United Kingdom of Great Britain in the '20s.
Canada criminalized the use of marijuana as part of the Opium and Drug Act of 1923, before any use of the drug had actually been reported in that country. Two years later, in 1925, camet an international conference in The Hague, the International Opium Convention, which banned the exportation of "Indian Hemp" to any country prohibiting its use and required that importing countries issue certificates approving the arrival of the substance, and stating that hemp or cannabis was necessary "…exclusively for medical or scientific purposes." Also required was the exercising of an, "…effective control of such a nature as to prevent the illicit international traffic in Indian hemp and especially in the resin."
In 1937, the United States passed the Marijuana Transfer Tax Act which prohibited the production of hemp - a fiber made from the cannabis plant - in addition to marijuana. It is generally assumed that businessmen like the DuPonts, Andrew Mellon and Randolph Hearst pushed for this limitation because of Hearst's concern that the less expensive hemp would supplant the need for wood pulp to make paper - he had extensive timber holdings, and because Mellon had invested in the DuPont's new creation, a synthetic fiber called nylon.
Modern research, however, has shown that while hemp fiber is great for animal bedding, construction material, and even clothing, it is NOT an adequate replacement for wood pulp in paper.
Today, using cannabis as a drug is illegal in most of the world, though some countries allow small amounts for personal use. In the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada, small portions of the population have been allowed to use marijuana for medical purposes, but the laws regarding the use of cannabis are changing almost constantly. Pro-pot activists foresee a day when marijuana comes under the same restrictions as tobacco, while anti-drug lobbyists continue to tout cannabis as a "gateway" drug that leads to the inevitable use of "harder" substances like methamphetamine and cocaine.