5 Historical Customs That Used Cannabis
Cannabis has been a topic of conversation and on the minds of many Canadians in the last several years, particularly leading up to and following the legalization of cannabis for recreational use in October 2018. Today, cannabis is used for a number of medical and recreational purposes but cannabis has been used for centuries. In history, both cannabis and hemp were used for a wide variety of purposes, many of which were spiritual.
As we move forward in the cannabis industry it’s important to know where we came from and that includes some of the historical customs that used cannabis.
Rising from Pan-Africanism, Rastafarianism took root in 1930 in Jamaica following the coronation of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie. It can be described as both a religious and political movement that emphasized an idealized Africa. The movement earned global attention thanks to Bob Marley (a devoted Rastafarian) and still endures in many countries today.
Many Rastafarians grew cash crops, including cannabis and hemp in order to make a living; many of which continue to be cannabis farmers today. As a result, cannabis became a predominant symbol in the Rastafarian movement and its use became a religious practice.
Rastafarians believe cannabis brings them closer to Jah (their God), and they smoke it in ceremonies known as “reasonings”, which involves deep meditation, prayer, debates, and discussions among peers. In defense of their beliefs, Rastafarians often cite several sections of the Bible. They believe “God who created all things made the herb for human use” and will cite Genesis 1:12 as their proof.
Even today, it’s believed that cannabis is a holy herb and when inhaled, it allows a person to ‘loosen up’ and truly perceive themself as a Black person without the pre-conditioned forces of European society.
Not only do they feel cannabis is the key to a new understanding of the self, the universe, and God but smoking was also a symbol of protest for the Rastafarians against the Jamaican establishment and representative of the Rastafarians’ freedom from Jamaican laws.
Cannabis in North America and Black Slavery
When we talk about cannabis, particularly the hemp industry in the United States, we cannot ignore the importance of black history involved in the industry. The hemp industry, like many other industries in the US, was built on slave labour. And when the ‘war on drugs’ began in the 1970s it was disproportionally focused on black men.
Even after the south fell, the hemp industry in Kentucky (where the hemp industry remained prominent) relied on scamming newly freed black people with sharecropping.
Cannabis was used in Africa in many traditional and spiritual practices prior to the arrival of Europeans to the continent. It’s believed that cannabis arrived in Africa from the East. Cannabis which they called, dagga, began being smoked regularly in groups as well as in ceremonies. Several tribes included cannabis as part of the spiritual practices including; the Balubas tribe who smoked cannabis on holidays and feast days, the Bashilenge tribe who made cannabis an important part of their cultural and religious view, and the Zulu and the Sothos tribes who were known to smoke cannabis prior to going to war.
Indigenous People’s of Canada
The cannabis plant is not native to Canada, therefore it’s unlikely that cannabis was used in traditional indigenous practice prior to colonization. That being said, whether or not cannabis is an important part of cultural practices for the indigenous people of Canada is unclear.
When Canada was colonized there was a focus on the growth of hemp as a way of stimulating industry. At this time hemp appears to have been mostly used for the production of ropes, clothes, parachutes, and many other things similar to this. Cannabis was criminalized in Canada in 1923.
During a CBC Indigenous live panel in 2018, Kylo Prince spoke about the use of cannabis in indigenous traditions based on his personal knowledge. He’s originally from the Long Plains Nation in Manitoba, and over the years he’s spent a lot of time reconnecting to his culture and ceremonies since his culture was taken from him as a result of being a child during the 60s scope. He mentioned ‘some elders have told him that cannabis is used as traditional medicine’ and that he personally has used cannabis to manage the trauma he experienced. He also noted that cannabis has been a better alternative of treatment for him when compared to medications as well as healthier than the harder drugs he’d done in the past.
Though cannabis appears less likely to be used in cultural or ceremonial practices. Elder Albert McLeod, from the same panel, mentioned ceremony is focused on purification, therefore, cannabis use shouldn’t necessarily be part of the ceremony itself. He claims that traditional ceremonies and plant medicines focus on the use of tobacco, sage, and sweetgrass. Though he does not believe those who are drug users, even those who are using drugs other than cannabis, should be turned aways from ceremony.
It’s believed that the first use of the cannabis plant dates back to China. Not only was cannabis used in traditional Chinese medicine but hemp was used to make clothes, ropes, fishing nets, and paper. The cannabis plant took on such great importance in Chinese culture that early priest doctors often used the plant’s stalk as a symbol of power as a means to drive away evil.
The first mention of cannabis in Chinese medical literature is in The Divine Farmer’s Materia Medica, which is believed to have been published in the first couple of centuries A.D. by the legendary emperor, farmer, and herbalist Shennong. This text is still in clinical use today. Cannabis had a number of medical uses throughout Chinese medical history including pain relief, seizures, mental illnesses (particularly depression), and it’s even believed to have been used as an anesthetic for a time.
Today, hemp seeds are still an important part of Chinese medicine. This is likely a result of cannabis being illegal for an extended period of time. However, this traditional use of cannabis is being to become more accepted again.
Cannabis and Hinduism
Cannabis is mentioned in the Atharva Veda, a Hindu text considered the be the ‘knowledge storehouse’, along with four other sacred plants with medicinal and spiritual properties. The other plants mentioned are tulasi, sandalwood, jasmine, and neem. Cannabis is also associated with the Hindu god Shiva, who is believed to use the herb for meditation and simply tends to enjoy cannabis. To many Hindus, Shiva is considered to be the destroyer of evil, the transformer, and the God of cannabis.
Today, cannabis is still associated with Hinduism. There are three traditional ways of consuming cannabis:
- Bhang is a preparation that is typically mixed with milk and drank.
- Ganga the cannabis flowers and sugar leaves of the female cannabis plant are smoked.
- Charas is a resin extracted by rolling almost-mature flower buds slowly between the palms. It’s also known as “black gold” or “finger hash.” Charas is smoked in a pipe called a chillum, sometimes mixed with tobacco.
Of the three traditional means of consumption (or preparations), charas is considered most special. Cannabis consumed in the charas method often plays a role in festivals such as Holi. This festival is all about new beginnings; it welcomes the spring and celebrates the end of winter.
Celebrate Cannabis’ Place in All Cultures that Make Up Canada
Throughout history cannabis, and hemp, have played important roles in spiritual and ceremonial practices including in the formation of culture. As we move forward in the cannabis industry in Canada it’s important to be aware of and acknowledge the history and where we have come from. This is an important aspect of advocacy and activism necessary to recognize and acknowledge the needs of Canadians to have access to legalized cannabis, without penalty.