The cannabis, in its scientific name cannabis sativa L., has an extensive history stretching several millennia back to Central and South Asia, the natural origin of the plant. Evidence pointing to actual use of cannabis has been shown to exist as early as the 3rd millennium BC, in widely diversified regions and extents of Asia: in south-eastern Europe, traces of used cannabis seeds in a burial site have been found, whereas in North-Western China, leaves and seeds of the plant have also been located.
Cannabis in the Ancient Times
The ancient Indian culture has been aware of the drug and presumably used it as part of their rituals, and the Assyrian culture received it from those Asian cultures and transferred it further in the direction of Europe. During this transfer, the plant may have also received its name – from the Assyrian words qunubu. Cannabis was also shared by the Hindus with several Greek subcultures or cultures bordering the ancient Greek world, and some ancient Greek rituals may have also involved inhaling the drug
There are also claims that cannabis has played a role within several Old World religious affiliations, such as the ancient Hebrews. Although those claims can neither be approved nor disproved, they show the significant role the plant has played in the history of the world.
Cannabis in Europe
Throughout European history, there are several references to the drug which, while vague enough to be attributed to other substances, mostly like do refer to cannabis, one of them being from William Shakespeare himself in his 76th sonnet – “Why write I still all one, ever the same, / And keep invention in a noted weed”. While most references have been implied at best, the tendency to keep to secrecy and implications has naturally increased after the widespread criminalization of the drug.
Cannabis in Modern Times
During the early 20th century, cannabis was criminalized in several countries across the world. It was outlawed in the United States in 1920, and was often banned together with several other different drugs such as opium in Canada’s Opium and Drug Act of 1923. In 1925 in Holland, common ground was reached on how cannabis was to be dealt with, where countries wanting to import “Indian hemp” had to present evidence and state that the import was strictly for medical or scientific purposes.
In 1937 in the United States, the production of hemp was put out of law as well. There have been many speculations that the ban on marijuana may have actually resulted from pure business interests, although this cannot be proven. Hemp had proven to be good fiber material, excellent for producing sailing ropes as well as other products, and was also a good substitute for paper pulp, used in the newspaper industry. Its relative cheapness and the fact the plant can be grown in most conditions, given enough sunlight, has lead opponents of it, including several businessmen who had interest in promoting their own fibers, such as nylon, to lobby increasingly for its ban.
Criminalizing Cannabis Use
The reason cannabis, when used recreationally, is mostly known as today as “marijuana”, is actually the result of the efforts of several American drug prohibitionists throughout the 1920s and the 1930s. The term marijuana stems from Mexican Spanish and has several interpretations as to its origins, the most common one being that it symbolizes two people, Maria and Juana – Mary and Jane. There are speculations as to why a Mexican name has been chosen, and one of them assumes that it was used to increase negativity towards cannabis by giving it a foreign-sounding name of a nearby culture.
Alongside the drug’s increased criminalizing, whether out of business interests or as an attempt to repel the drug’s perceived or real negative influences, there have been other tendencies in regard to cannabis. The general direction a country takes in forming its policy about cannabis, whether softening or tightening control over its consumption (trade has been almost universally banned), largely depends on the current government. In addition, regardless of the official policy regarding cannabis, the realm of enforcing laws pertaining to the possession and use of cannabis has largely remained vague throughout the years, regardless of country. In many cases, a law may exist but is not enforced actively or at all by the police; in others, a law may specify a certain amount legal for possession or use, while there may be a different amount silently agreed on by police and users depending on the region and the circumstances.
Re-Legitimization of Cannabis for Recreational Use
Enforcement set aside, one of the leading tendencies of the later 20th and the early 21th century has been the decriminalization or re-legalization of cannabis for recreational use. Throughout several European countries, cannabis has been made legal for use and sale, such as in the Netherlands, or decriminalized for possession and use completely, such as in Switzerland, Denmark or the Czech Republic. Other countries which have not officially decriminalized cannabis have taken a largely tolerative approach towards it, such as Germany, even defining the amounts tolerated for possession and use. And finally, European countries still maintaining highly restrictive policies in regard to cannabis and other drugs, such as Sweden, nonetheless instruct their police forces to treat cannabis use as a low priority crime.
One of the main reasons for the increased decriminalization, inofficial tolerance or re-legalization of cannabis, not just in Europe but also throughout the US in several states, has been largely attributed to lobbying attempts by organizations individuals, but also to the nature of this ‘crime’. The consumption and possession of cannabis for recreational use is almost universally, other than in the most extreme cases of abuse, a victimless crime, and thus can often simply not be pursued by sheer lack of an offended party. In the case consumed publicly, it is not more harmful to third parties than being exposed to tobacco smoke.
In addition to the drug’s increased acceptance in the Western world as a recreational activity, the use of medical marijuana has also been widely legalized and accepted, and while most countries require a long bureaucratic process to allow the administration of the drug to patients, this has also been a step in its reintroduction and reaffirmation as part of the world’s culture.