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Marijuana in Ancient China

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Marijuana has a rich history. California’s legalization of medical marijuana through Proposition 215 and the public debate surrounding it has sparked renewed interest in the cannabis sativa plant, from which marijuana is harvested. The growing public acceptance of medical marijuana is helping to dispel myths about cannabis.

Only recently has marijuana been treated like a dangerous drug. Ancient cultures valued the many practical and medicinal uses of cannabis. As a food, fiber, and medicinal compound, cannabis has a fascinating history.

The history of marijuana use stretches back more than ten thousand years to where it appears to have originated: China. Imprints of hemp rope on broken pottery dating to around 10,000 BC. show one of the earliest known uses of the plant. Cannabis was widely grown and cultivated in ancient China.

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The oldest known Neolithic culture in China made clothing, fishing nets, and rope from hemp fibers separated from the stalks of cannabis plants. The fibers could be spun into yarn or woven into cloth. Hemp fibers were used from the second or first century BC. used to make the first paper, which was very strong and durable.

Cannabis seeds were counted as one of the “five grains” of ancient China, along with barley, rice, wheat, and soybeans. Marijuana seeds were roasted or used to prepare meals. Cannabis seeds can also be cooked into a pulp. These marijuana seeds remained an important part of the Chinese diet until they were replaced by higher quality grains in the 10th century.

The ancient Chinese learned to press marijuana seeds to extract the oil that could be used for cooking, lamps, or lubrication. The leftover cannabis residues were used as fodder for pets.

Medical marijuana was also used in ancient China. China’s oldest known pharmacological work described marijuana preparations as treating conditions ranging from constipation to malaria. Marijuana treatments included grinding the roots into a paste for pain management. The Chinese surgeon Hua To even used the cannabis plant for surgical anesthesia in the second century.

The earliest records of the psychoactive effects of marijuana are also found in China, dating to around 2000 BC. Materia Medica Sutra, notes that “when consumed in excess” the cannabis seed allows the user to see spirits. “If taken over a long period of time, it allows you to communicate with spirits and lighten your body.” Later writers, such as the 5th-century Chinese physician T’ao Hung Ching, believed that the hallucinatory effects of cannabis combined with ginseng would allow users to see into the future.

California marijuana laws are helping to restore cannabis to its rightful place as a useful and medicinal plant.

Thanks to Charles M. Brooks

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