Cannabis 3,000 BC–1,500 AD
The correct name for the plant that provides marijuana is cannabis. The word marijuana comes from Mexican Spanish, but the reason for this name is not clear.
Thousands of years before the illicit drug industry in the Americas, the cannabis plant was used medicinally and industrially. For more than 3,000 years, it has been known that cannabis fibers were strong and durable, and provided excellent raw materials for cord and rope.
In ancient China and Egypt, cannabis was used medicinally for soreness from gout, rheumatism and other problems. The ancient Greeks also used cannabis to relieve inflammation.
When cannabis plants are used for fiber for ropes or clothes, the plant is referred to as hemp. The Chinese used hemp fibers for fabric and ropes starting as far back as 1000 BC. Fishing nets were also made of hemp. The world’s oldest piece of paper dates back to around 500 BC and was made of hemp fibers. There was no cotton used in China until around 900 AD, increasing the importance of hemp.
While the intoxicating ingredients of cannabis are very low when the plant is cultivated in the best manner to produce clothing or rope, there is evidence that the ancient Chinese knew about this effect of the plant. Around 100 AD, a medical reference book stated that if the seeds were taken in excess, it “will produce hallucinations.” The seeds were later mixed with wine to create an anesthetic that could be used during surgery.
The Romans and Vikings began to use hemp fibers for ropes. Both cultures relied heavily on sailing ships for exploration, colonization and trade. They lived or died by the ropes securing their sails. If ropes broke during a storm, the ship could be lost.
Much of the hemp used by the Romans was cultivated in Sicily. The Arabs had brought hemp seeds to Sicily, after using the plant for medicine, rope, and cloth for hundreds of years.
Hemp ropes and fabrics continued to be used in Italy for centuries, particularly around Venice. Venice was known for its beautiful fabrics made of hemp, that were very long lasting and nearly as lovely as those made of silk. The Venetian hemp industry was competitive and highly regulated. Different regions around Venice produced hemp fibers of varying grades so the fibers were carefully labeled as to their origins. Hemp ropes also contributed to the superiority of the commercial ships carrying Venetian commodities to other parts of the world.
Gradually, the use of hemp moved to England, which became a major sea power around 1500 AD. King Henry VIII greatly increased the number of ships in the English navy and ordered that more cannabis or hemp be planted to provide the ropes for these ships. For various reasons, English farmers could not meet the demand for hemp and so country began to import the fiber from Russia. England put great effort into maintaining their supplies of hemp as their trade and colonization activities in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries required the construction and maintenance of hundreds of ships.