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A brief history of getting high

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Several ancient societies burned hemp during funeral ceremonies. What better way to part with the dead than by getting hella faded?

Nowadays people tend to associate the cannabis plant with Mexico, and for good reason. For decades, narcos smuggled their harvests into the United States and Europe. Along with California, Mexico is known to produce some of the finest cannabis in the world. The states of Sinaloa, Nayarit, Jalisco, Michoacán, Guerrero, Oaxaca, Chihuahua, Sonora, and Durango—where the largest farms are located—all have climates that are perfect for cultivating cannabis: year-round temperature ranging between 70 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit, with cool, long nights and low humidity.

But long before cannabis was introduced to—and became synonymous with—the New World, it was being cultivated in the lands of Central Asia. Initially, though, the cannabis or hemp plant was grown not for its leaves but for its stems, which could be processed into a strong and durable rope.

Excavations reveal that humans have been using hemp rope since the Neolithic age. The earliest evidence for burning cannabis, meanwhile, dates back to 3,500 BC, and is attributed to the Kurgans of modern-day Romania. This Proto-Indo-European tribe probably burned the plant as part of their rituals and ceremonies, a practice that spread eastward as its practitioners migrated. Why the Kurgans burned cannabis is difficult to say. They may well have discovered the plant’s psychoactive properties by accident, only to find that the smoke heightened their connection with all things spiritual.

The earliest evidence for smoking cannabis comes from the Pamir Mountains in western China. There, in 2500-year-old tombs, researchers discovered THC residue inside the burners of charred pipes that were probably used for funerary rites. (Similar pipes, dated to the 12th century BC, were later found in Ethiopia, left there by a separate culture). These devices, compared to pyres, would have yielded a much stronger high. Given their placement inside a crypt, however, it’s safe to say they were used only ceremonially, not recreationally. 

Some scholars have argued that cannabis was an important ingredient of soma, a ritual drink concocted by the Vedic Indo-Aryans of northern India. Described in the Rigveda, a collection of ancient Sanskrit hymns, soma was made by extracting juice from an unknown plant. When taken in small doses, soma was reported to induce a feeling of euphoria. In higher doses, it caused people to see hallucinations and lose their sense of time. All three of these effects have been ascribed to cannabis, but even if cannabis was not the main ingredient of soma, it may have been combined with psychedelics such as psilocybin, a.k.a. magic mushrooms.

Aside from rope, cannabis was most often processed into medicine. When the Hindus of India came down with a case of “hot breath of the gods,” healers treated the illness with cannabis smoke. The logic behind this treatment was not exactly scientific; cannabis was thought to possess healing powers because it was the favorite food of the supreme godhead Shiva, also called “Lord of Bhang.” In reality, cannabis would have been able to reduce fevers because its active ingredient, THC, works on the hypothalamus to lower body temperature.

The Assyrians used cannabis not in a medical but religious context, burning it in their temples to release an aroma that supposedly appeased their gods. Sources from the region refer to cannabis as qunubu, providing a possible origin for the word we use today. The Assyrian Empire was conceived in the 21st century BC and lasted until the 7th. During this time it engulfed much of modern-day Iraq as well as parts of Iran, Kuwait, Syria and Turkey. Through trade and conquest, Assyrian traditions spread to neighboring societies, including the Dacians, Thracians and Scythians, the latter of which were among the first to consume cannabis in a distinctly recreational manner.

The Scythians were part of a Central Asian nomadic culture that flourished from 900 to around 200 BC. Originating in northern Siberia, Scythian tribes settled as far as the shores of the Black Sea, where they came into contact with the ancient Greeks. When Scythians died, their friends and family burned hemp inside tents to commemorate their passing. While the Kurgans and Assyrians burned their cannabis out in the open or in large indoor spaces, the Scythians were essentially hotboxing themselves at every funeral. At least, that’s the image we receive from the historian Herodotus, who wrote that “the Scythians enjoy [the hemp smoke] so much that they would howl with pleasure.” And so, the primary purpose of this ritual was to send off the dead, it clearly also served to entertain the living.

Herodotus did not live among the Scythians, but his observations seem to have been confirmed by excavations. Archeologists discovered fossilized hemp seeds at a Scythian camp in western Mongolia that were left there between the 5th and 2nd century BC.

Romans, too, consumed cannabis for their own pleasure, but not in the way you might expect. Like many societies of classical antiquity, they harvested the plant for its seeds rather than its leaves, which were discarded as a waste product. When grounded, the seeds were used in medicine. When fried, they were served up as delicacies during lavish dinner parties. Roman chefs mentioned cannabis seeds in the same breath as caviar and cakes. Galen, the famous Roman physician, wrote that they were consumed “to stimulate an appetite for drinking.” Nowadays, it’s the seeds—not the leaves—that are considered useless. However, the Romans believed they, too, had some intoxicating properties; Galen adds that, when consumed in large amounts, the seeds would send people into a “warm and toxic vapor.”

Cannabis was so widely consumed in classical antiquity that people raised the same questions and concerns we are debating today. The Greek physician Pedanius Dioscorides, for instance, wrote that the plant’s spherical seeds, “when eaten in excess, diminish sexual potency.” Modern-day cannabis users are all too aware of the connection, even if they don’t eat seeds. As stated by Healthline, cannabis is “often associated with side effects that may affect sexual health, including erectile dysfunction.” Similar to some psychedelics, the general sense of euphoria generated by cannabis may counteract or override the reception of sexual stimuli.

Let’s skip forward a bit. Recreational smoking became especially popular after the 9th century AD. In the Middle East and Western Asia, the followers of Islam took up the habit for the simple but somewhat amusing reason that their holy scripture, the Quran, forbade the consumption of alcohol and various other intoxicating substances. Fortunately for Muslim stoners, the Quran did not say anything about weed. Of course, they smoked not just any weed, but hashish.

Skipping forward again, this time to the 16th century—the century that cannabis arrived in the New World, and for the sole purpose of making rope no less. Actually, Americans did not start smoking weed until about one-hundred years ago, when Mexican immigrants entered the country to seek refuge from the Mexican Revolution. For decades the U.S. government turned a blind eye on this harmless, multicultural and age-old practice. However, this changed during the Great Depression, when Washington redirected the anger of unemployed workers to their Mexican brethren. After millennia of peaceful consumption, cannabis was suddenly decried as an “evil weed” and, in 1937, the U.S. became the first country in the world to criminalize cannabis on a national level.

The rest, at this point in time, has now become history as well.

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