The History of Cannabis in Europe

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Different European civilizations have used the cannabis plant for millennia. In fact, cannabis has been one of the most important crops for mankind up to the 20th century. At this point in our European history, some forms of cannabis were banned.

Related: The Legal Situation of Hemp, Marijuana and CBD in the EU in 2019

Nowadays, cannabis is making a comeback, not as a recreational drug, but as a medicinal tool. Cannabis-infused products help you sleep, relieve anxiety, and they can be useful for various medical conditions.


Cannabis helped ancient civilizations prosper

As you might have expected, nobody knows for sure when the history of cannabis in Europe started. However, we know that hemp, which is a strain of the Cannabis sativa plant species, was one of the first plants ancient humans turned into textile fibre more than 10,000 years ago.

Hemp cloth is believed to be one of the oldest examples of human industry. A remnant of hemp cloth found in modern Iran dates back to 8,000 BC, and it’s proof that the people of ancient Mesopotamia used hemp for the textile industry.

Now, scientists trace the origins of cannabis back to central Asia and the middle East, where it’s believed the plant emerged at the end of the last ice age. Since the climatic conditions were favourable, and cannabis grows, well, like weed, it’s safe to assume the plant covered large land surfaces at the time.

At the moment, nobody knows if the widespread prevalence of the cannabis plant or the plant’s easy harvesting convinced the ancient civilizations to cultivate it, but archeological evidence indicates that nomadic tribes brought the crop to Europe.


Cannabis and the Yamnaya culture

The Yamnaya or Yamna culture dates to 3,300 – 2,600 BC, and through several migrations, the culture covered a surface between the Ural river and the north of the Black Sea (or the western borders of the Carpathians and even farther, depending on the source) at its peak.

Archeologists believe that the Yamnaya culture spread from Asia to Europe through nomadic tribes. This happened during the late Copper Age and the early Bronze Age. You might have heard that most European languages have an Indo-European ancestor. Well, the Yamnaya culture certainly played a role in that.

Yamnaya were usually nomadic pastoral people, but when they reached the fertile soil of Europe, some of them settled down near rivers and started tending crops. And it seems that hemp was the crop they relied on for textile fibre.

Cannabis weaving as a driver for civilization

Hemp cloth can be used to make clothing, sails, or decorations

Weaving is a craft that’s mostly forgotten in modern society, but it’s a craft that made modern society possible. Humans discovered weaving in the Paleolithic era, and used plants such as flax, nettle, and hemp to produce everything from clothing to baskets, rope, fishing nets and decorations.

Thanks to its structure and durability, hemp was commonly used to make sail canvas and naval ropes for Bronze era ships. Hemp has a similar texture as linen, and it’s just as versatile. Hemp was also commonly used to make clothes. In some cultures, hemp processing became the main activity of women.

Ancient potters used hemp cloth to line their molds and hemp rope to create decorative impressions on their pottery.


Marijuana as a recreational drug in ancient cultures

Believe it or not, one of the oldest evidence of cannabis used as a recreational drug comes from ancient Greek historian, Herodotus. Also known as “The Father Of History” and as one of the most unreliable ancient historians due to his tendency to write legends into historical accounts or to blatantly lie when it suited him, Herodotus is one of the first people to mention cannabis in writing.

According to Herodotus, the Scythians — a nomadic society that lived in today’s southern Siberia — used to inhale the vapours of cannabis flowers and seeds they heated on rocks. As a curiosity, Herodotus only mentioned this practice to show how barbaric the Scythians were when compared to his fellow Greeks who preferred getting intoxicated by drinking wine.

Cannabis is present in ancient Greece, but there’s little evidence its recreational use. The Greek philosopher Democritus at one point describes a concoction called potamaugis as a blend of wine, myrrh and cannabis. According to the philosopher, the concoction brought on hallucinatory states (and probably dry mouth and terrible headaches the following day).


Cannabis as medicine in ancient times

The word cannabis has a Greek origin, and there’s plenty of evidence that in ancient Greece the cannabis plant was used for its medical proprieties. Dioscorides, a distinguished physician and botanist, included cannabis in his encyclopedia of medicinal plants called De material medica.

Dioscorides recommended the medical use of cannabis to lessen inflammation, treat edema and disperse hardened matter around the joints. The physician also states that the juice extracted from the cannabis plant is good for earaches and that eating the seeds in large quantities can quench conception (do NOT try this at home).

Even though De material medica is a little better than an amateur botanist’s diary in today’s standards, the Greek manuscript was translated in multiple languages and had been used as the primary pharmacology manual for medical practice until the end of the 15th century.


Cannabis in the middle ages

Scandinavians used hemp to make rope and cloth for their sailboats

The Middle Ages brought a lot of changes to European civilization, but cannabis still played an important part in this historical era.

It seems that hemp was a popular textile among the Scandinavians. People living in the Nordic countries tended cannabis crops and used the plant to make rope and cloth for sailboats. The discovery of a farmstead close to Norway’s southern border offers evidence that hemp cultivation was common in the area.

So far, the archeologists could not find any evidence that Scandinavians used cannabis as a hallucinogenic drug, so they assume most of it was grown for textile production.

However, the Muslim population of Europe used cannabis as a recreational drug during the Middle Ages, when the spread of Sufism influenced the Muslim world.

During the Middle Ages, cannabis established itself as one of Europe’s most important crops thanks to the sturdiness of its fiber. Hemp was cultivated in large quantities across the continent, and many kingdoms and soon-to-be empires relied on it.


Cannabis in modern history

Even though cannabis was used extensively in Europe until the Early Modern Period, this is when it shines.

In 1533, English ruler Henry VIII passed a law compelling all landowners to grow hemp over at least a fourth of an acre for every 60 acres of land they owned or risk a fine. King Henry’s law hoped to provide the necessary fibre needed for rope and sailcloth by the country’s expanding fleet.

Thirty years later, in 1563, Henry’s successor Elizabeth I passed a similar law in an effort to expand her navy. The fine for not complying was £5, which at the time was the equivalent of five pounds of silver. That’s pretty expensive even by today’s standards.

The increased demand for cloth of the British Navy encourages the Empire to cultivate hemp in the New World to speed up the colonization process. A report from 1613 states that hemp was already present across the Atlantic when the British introduced it, and that it’s better than the one found in England.

This might have happened because, in 1545, the Spaniards brought industrial hemp to Chile and the natives started cultivating it. Or it might have happened because the cannabis plant was already growing in the Americas when the Europeans reached the new world. Scientists haven’t figured that one out so far.


Cannabis use during the late modern period

When Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt in 1798, the French troops were devastated to discover that there was no alcohol to be found, since Egypt was an Islamic country that forbade alcohol consumption. Instead of drinking alcohol, Bonaparte’s troops tried hashish, which they found much to their liking.

In fact, the French troops enjoyed hashish so much that they brought it back to France, where the substance became an overnight sensation. The French conquest of Algeria that started in 1830 and lasted until 1847 increased the popularity of hashish consumption even further.

In 1844, a select group of intellectuals that included famous people such as Victor Hugo, Honoré de Balzac, Alexandre Dumas, Eugène Delacroix and Dr. Jacques-Joseph Moreau created a group called Club des Hashishins (Club of the Hashish-Eaters) and held monthly “séances”. Nobody knows for sure if the group managed to contact the dead or not, but they apparently spent fortunes on hashish.


Cannabis in contemporary history

CBD for wellness purposes

CBD oil can help with anxiety, insomnia and different health conditions

Even though the consumption of marijuana has been banned in many European countries since the late 1800s or the beginning of the 20th century, industrial hemp has been used for various purposes across the continent throughout this time.

Through selective breeding and extensive research, European nations managed to create industrial hemp strains that are useful for a wide variety of applications, such as the production of textiles, shoes, paper, bioplastics, biofuel, insulation, husbandry, food and construction materials.

Today, it seems that the hemp industry is on the rise thanks to the increase in popularity of cannabidiol (CBD). CBD is a substance that has shown great promise in the treatment of epilepsy, anxiety and depression, certain skin conditions and insomnia.

In addition, marijuana is making a comeback as well. Many European countries have legalized or are in the process of legalizing the use of medicinal marijuana for treatment purposes, and some legalized its use for recreational purposes as well.


The history of cannabis in Europe – Final Thoughts

The history of cannabis in Europe is a long and complicated one, much like the history of the continent itself. However, there’s no doubt that cannabis is one of the plants that helped our ancestors bring this continent to its current geopolitical state.

Europeans have been using cannabis for millennia, and it seems like we’re not going to stop using it now. Thanks to its medicinal and ecological proprieties, cannabis will continue to change the face of the continent in the years to come.

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