Cannabis was once one of the most notorious illicit drugs in history, more popular than all other drugs combined. Now legalized, the market of legal cannabis is a booming billion-dollar industry in the Canadian economy. And the product has changed too: today’s marijuana is a lot more powerful, glistening with psychoactive resin and able to be grown smaller and faster, offered in hundreds of unique strains.
Make no mistake, this is not your grandmother’s weed.
Not many know exactly what they’re buying. Research is still in its infancy. And with so many possible treatments to tailor to our desires and problems, it’s important to understand the history of cannabis to understand why cannabis is the way it is today.
So where did cannabis come from? That answer is complicated.
The historical origins of cannabis as a plant directly ties to our geographical movement as a species. As we moved around the world, so did this coevolutionary little leaf from which we’ve harvested so much human experience. Estimated to have evolved from over 65 million years ago, it was one of the earliest plants to be domesticated by humans, who have cultivated it for at least 10,000 years, starting with Neolithic man. The earliest record of cannabis comes from a grave of a Caucasian shaman carrying 700 grams of high-grade indica, unearthed by researchers in 2008 just outside Chosun in Central Asia.
It first grew wild in the Middle East, in the valleys of the Hindu Kush mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan. This resulted in the popularization of hashish, a paste made of cannabis resin. From there, it then spread to India, where it became a holy drink. William Brooke O’Shaughnessy helped introduce cannabis to modern medicine after encountering the drug in Calcutta working for the British East India Company. It eventually found its way to Africa, where it was used as herbal medicine called daga. Zulus smoked it to relax and inspire courage before the battle, while pygmy tribes inhaled it through a mound in the earth and called it “earth smoking.”
Finally, it was carried to the Americas, through the transatlantic slave trade. There it became popular under a different name, devoid of the psychoactive attributes that could only be cultivated in warmer climates: hemp. Hemp was used for a huge amount of utilities, in the production of rope, sails, paper, clothing, and more. Robert Ford even developed a car running completely on hemp oil in 1949.
Two widely accepted psychoactive variants of cannabis exist, first coined by Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in 1753: the harder-to-grow cannabis sativa, which is taller and skinnier and produces a lethargic stoned feeling and calms people down; cannabis indica, the shorter, bushier, tough guy transplanted from the cool mountains of India, is more psychoactive, inducing a euphoric energetic high. In between those two types is their bushier cousin, cannabis ruderalis, found in the foothills of Russia.
In the late 1970s, Americans, unsatisfied with their own crop after their original supply diminished from Mexico’s crackdown on cartels, started smuggling cannabis from the Hindu Kush mountains. They cross-bred frost resistant indica with their weaker sativa. This gave them numerous benefits: indica allowed them to be grown indoors because they were shorter/smaller. Ruderalis allowed for shorter flowering times so plants could sprout faster.
But the biggest breakthrough of all was the discovery of a breeding method called sinsemilla (Spanish for “seedless”), first glimpsed by Linnaeus so many years ago. The process is simple: the grower separates female plants from the males. Over time, this sexual frustration results in more resin production, and they clip these heads to regrow more plants. Over each generation, more and more resin is produced without pollination, resulting in all flowers and no relief. This whole process produces crops with much stronger effects: cannabis plants that averaged 5 percent to 8 percent THC before the war on drugs were now capable of producing flowers with THC levels of 30 percent and more. And with the invention of sodium lights in the 1980’s, the volume of homegrown hybridized cannabis exploded. In the US alone, the record tonnage of marijuana they seized was 38 percent larger than the government’s estimate of the entire U.S. national crop that year.
That is why it so difficult to know completely what kind of plant you’re getting. No pure samples of indica or sativa are known to exist. So much interbreeding has happened, it makes it difficult to identify each plant’s original source. And that’s why it is so important to understand the geographical history of weed. Without these historical movements, such as the shadow of colonialism, the slave trade, the war on drugs and the racial bias of prior cannabis criminalization, cannabis as we know it today would not exist in the same way. As improvements in biotechnology and chemistry change how we breed, grow, label and study cannabis products, a new link in the coevolutionary chain between cannabis and our forms. It seems modern agricultural engineering is about to transform cannabis yet again.
We at GAGE Cannabis are lucky to be part of that change in transforming and understanding this extraordinarily global plant.
(As a bonus, we’ve highlighted some of the key events that have shaped Canada’s history with cannabis below.)
1801: The Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada distributed hemp seeds to farmers in an effort to stimulate industry.
1923: Cannabis was deemed illegal in Canada in 1923, after the Narcotics Drug Act Amendment Bill introduced the Act to Prohibit the Improper Use of Opium and Other Drugs, adding cannabis, in addition to opium, cocaine and morphine.
1968: The number of cannabis convictions jumped up to 2,300 as marijuana use increased, particularly among college students and the hippie psychedelic counterculture.
1969: The Canadian government formed the Royal Commission of Inquiry in the Non-Medical Use of Drugs, known as the Le Dain Commission, to investigate the non-medical uses of cannabis.
1971: The first pro-cannabis smoke-in was held in Vancouver’s Gastown district. Known as the Gastown Riot, or the “Battle of Maple Tree Square,” hundreds of peaceful protesters demonstrated on Water Street before being forcefully dispersed by police officers on horseback. Vancouver was also pivotal in that it was one of the key countries playing a role in the medical cannabis movement through what were called “compassion clubs”, community-led underground relief centres providing the drug partly in response to the AIDS crisis.
1972: The Le Dain Commission released a report on cannabis, recommending that the federal government remove criminal penalties for the use and possession of cannabis, although the report did not recommend legalization outright. No steps were taken to decriminalize cannabis.
1996 – 2000: Terrance Parker is arrested for cannabis possession, cultivation, and trafficking after he was caught growing cannabis to control his epileptic seizures. He appealed to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Later in his trial, the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that the prohibition of cannabis use infringed on Terrance Parker’s right to life, liberty and security of the person, therefore rendering cannabis prohibition unconstitutional.
2001: The Canadian government enacted the first rendition of the country’s medical marijuana law, the Marihuana for Medical Access Regulations (MMAR), allowing licensed patients to grow their own cannabis or access it from licensed growers.
2006: Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced a new national anti-drug strategy, imposing mandatory prison sentences on cannabis dealers, and anyone charged with growing more than 500 plants would face a two-year minimum sentence. Maximum penalties for producing cannabis increased from 7 to 14 years in jail.
2011: Justice Donald Taliano ruled that the MMAR and the prohibitions against the possession and production of cannabis were constitutionally invalid and ordered that the government fix the program accordingly.
2013: The government implemented the Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations (MMPR), which created a commercially licensed industry for the production and distribution of medicinal cannabis.
2015: Owen Smith, a cannabis baker, was charged with the possession of cannabis-infused cookies. He appealed the charge, and the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that restricting legal access to only dried cannabis flower violated the constitutional rights of medical patients. Licensed producers were now allowed to produce cannabis oils and patients were allowed to possess and alter different forms of cannabis.
2016: Neil Allard challenged the MMPR for suspending personal production licenses from patients, requiring patients to access cannabis solely through licensed producers. The Federal Court of Canada ruled in Allard’s favour and revised the law yet again with the Access to Cannabis for Medical Purposes Regulations (ACMPR).
2017: The Government of Canada proposed the Cannabis Act, which would legalize the possession, use, cultivation, and purchase of limited amounts of cannabis by adults 18 years of age and older.
2018: The Cannabis Act goes into effect, legalizing cannabis for adult use nationwide.