The Origins of Cannabis

Origin of Cannabis

Anti-cannabis crusaders will wince when they hear that humans and cannabis have a relationship stretching back more than 5000 years that has now spawned a massive variety of potent strains.

Unfortunately, millennia of cultivation, breeding, and the controversial politics swirling around cannabis have made it challenging for scientists to figure out its true genetic origin. Where did cannabis come from, and how did it evolve from a wild plant into the potent multi-billion dollar crop we celebrate today?

Many studies suggest that cannabis traces its roots back to tens of thousands of years in China and India, with historical records indicating that humans have long used it for its potent medicinal and psychoactive properties.

A new research, published in the journal Science Advances,  suggests that cannabis plants have much longer roots than we previously understood.

During the study, scientists utilized genetics to trace the original birthplace of Cannabis sativa, which comprises hemp and marijuana plants. The study points towards East Asia being a possible source of genetic diversity for the growing medical and recreational marijuana market.

The Original Birthplace of Cannabis According To The Study

The researchers used molecular analysis and next-generation DNA sequencing to study approximately 110 genomes of Cannabis sativa plants from around the world.

According to Luca Fumagalli, an evolutionary biologist and co-author of the study, the researchers build phylogenetic trees using the DNA analysis to show the evolutionary relationship between four genetically different groups of cannabis.

  • Basal Cannabis

This group typically consists of plants related to all other cannabis categories, such as industrial hemp and psychoactive marijuana plants. The plants include feral cannabis and traditional weed hybrids native to China, often referred to as 'landraces.'

  • Hemp

This group consists of all hemp varieties that grow naturally throughout the world. Hemp is a variety of Cannabis sativa plants that produce less than 0.3% tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). THC is the psychoactive and intoxicating compound in marijuana plants that gets you high. Unlike marijuana plants, hemp is not considered a drug, and it won't get you high. Instead, its fiber was used for industrial purposes such as making clothes and ropes.

  • The First Group of 'Drug' Cannabis

This category is made up of wild cannabis strains that possess drug-like properties. The strains have a similar effect to marijuana cultivated in China, India, and Pakistan.

  • The Second Group of 'Drug' Cannabis

This group includes numerous strains of cannabis that have been cultivated around the world, with drug-like properties.

The Findings Of The Study

After analyzing and sequencing the four genetic groupings, more specifically the basal cannabis grouping, the researchers concluded that:

The wild cannabis ancestors that gave rise to todays' psychoactive marijuana and industrial hemp plants likely came from East Asia, including parts of present-day China. This finding challenges earlier research and the predominant notion that cannabis was first domesticated in Central Asia.

The analysis also suggests that the split between ancient basal cannabis varieties and modern-day cultivated cannabis occurred nearly 12,000 years ago. This places cannabis domestication in a place and time referred to as the hotbed of agricultural innovation- when modern crops like millet, rice, and apricot were first launched.

The psychoactive (marijuana) and fibrous (hemp) cannabis strains didn't diverge from one another until about 4,000 years ago. According to archaeological evidence from the Bronze Age, this date corresponds with the earliest appearance of fiber artifacts in East Asia, which later spread to Europe.

The researchers behind the study also note that psychoactive cannabis reached India approximately 3,000 years ago from East Asia. The plant then spread to Africa and Latin America in the last 1,000 years, but it did not reach North America until much later, at the beginning of the twentieth century.

This study ultimately found a solid genetic difference between marijuana and hemp. Marijuana has mainly been bred to produce the psychoactive cannabinoid tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), while hemp is mainly grown for its fibers.

Although the basal variety is more closely related to the wild cannabis' ancestors than any other hemp or marijuana strains grown today, the researchers state that the plants all appear to be feral rather than wild. This means that humans have had some influence on the plants' evolution, and hence they can't be considered true or pure wild cannabis.

That, plus the sheer number of genomes sequenced, led the team to a safe conclusion that pure wild ancestors of Cannabis sativa have probably gone extinct.

Cannabis From Asia To Europe

The first record of cannabis in the Middle East was around 1500BC. And it was likely being used by a nomadic Indo-European tribe known as the Scythians. The Scythians, who had migrated westward from Central Asia, are also likely the ones who introduced cannabis into Eastern Europe (Russia & Ukraine) around 500BC as they occupied both territories for a long time.

Germanic tribes may have then carried the plant from Europe into Germany. From here, the plant may have been brought into Britain with the Anglo-Saxon invasions during the 5th century.

With time, the plant became the primary source of vegetable fiber in Britain. As demand continued to increase massively over the years,  King Henry VIII demanded that landlords grow the plant in their lands. Over the next century, cannabis spread to other parts of the world, including North America.

How Cannabis Got To The United States

After a prolonged journey past the pre-modern and throughout the modern worlds, cannabis finally arrived in the United States. Mexican immigrants introduced the drug into the US much more recently during the Mexican revolution in 1910-1911.

Please note that hemp was already being cultivated in the US in the 17th century, mainly for industrial purposes, such as making rope, clothes, and sails. However, domestic hemp production stopped flourishing soon after the Civil war as imports gradually replaced hemp fiber.

Cannabis was popularly used for medical purposes and was sold openly in US pharmacies. But as Mexican refugees flooded the country, they introduced the recreational consumption  (smoking) of cannabis, and the drug soon became associated with 'property crime and murderous sprees.'

Consequently, there was fear and prejudice about the 'newcomers,' Serious anti-drug campaigns soon began, warning against the encroaching 'marijuana menace.' By early 1931, at least 30 states had outlawed cannabis, and in 1937, Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act, effectively making marijuana illegal throughout the United States.

The federal government still categorizes marijuana as a schedule 1 drug with a high potential for abuse and no currently accepted medical value. However, when the 2018 Farm Bill was signed into law, it removed hemp from the legal definition of marijuana, permitting its cultivation, processing, marketing, and distribution throughout the United States.

By legal definition, hemp is any cannabis plant that produces less than 0.3% THC by dry weight, while plants above this threshold are considered marijuana.