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History & uses

Botanically speaking, cannabis is part of the Cannabaceae family. The Humulus (hops) and Celtis (hackberry) genera are also part of the same family (Backes et al., 2017). Cannabis is a fast-growing, annual plant that is naturally pollinated by wind (Holland et al., 2010).

A widely accepted hypothesis suggests that it originated on the Central Tibetan Plateau 27.8 million years ago, when cannabis and hops diverged from a common ancestor (McPartland & Guy, 2016). It is one of the most ancient cultigens¹, as archeological evidence indicates that cannabis was used as a vegetable fibre 12,000 years ago, in China (Nelson, 1996; Schultes, 1970).

The oldest record of its medicinal use dates back 5,000 years ago when the plant was included in the Pen Ts’ao, the earliest Chinese materia medica book, written in the name of legendary Emperor Shen Nung (Holland et al., 2010). The document recommends cultivating female cannabis plants, as they offer greater medicinal properties than the male plant. Henceforth, it was understood that the female plant provided more active ingredients then its male counterpart.

The Pen Ts’ao also documents how cannabis can be used for treating constipation and reproductive disorders (Touw, 1981). At the very beginning of the Common Era, Hua Tuo (140-208), the father of Chinese surgery, was incorporating cannabis and a mix of other plants into wine to practice anaesthesia on his patients during surgical procedures (Li H., 1974). Fertilized cannabis seeds have also been used for a long time in Chinese medicine (Touw, 1981). As a matter of fact, the seeds are still used today in China to treat gastric problems like constipation, and to produce topical healing creams and ointments using hemp oil (Touw, 1981). In the Western world, linoleic acid, one of the primary active compounds of cannabis seeds, is used to help treat various forms of eczema and psoriasis.

1 The origin or selection of the plant is mainly a result of intentional human activity.


Backes, M., Weil, A., McDue, J. D., (2017), « Cannabis Pharmacy: The Practical Guide to Marijuana », Black Dog & Leventhal Publishing.

Holland et al., (2010), « The Pot Book, A Complete Guide to Cannabis », Park Street Press, Holland.

Li, H.L., (1974), « The origin and use of cannabis in eastern Asia linguistic-cultural implications » Econ Bot 28, p. 293–301.

Nelson, R. A., (1996), « Hemp and History », RexReasearch. Chapter 1, The Early History of Hemp.

Schultes, R.E., (1970), « Random Thoughts and Queries on the Botany of Cannabis », The Botany and Chemistry of Cannabis.

Touw M., « The religious and medicinal uses of Cannabis in China, India and Tibet », (1981), Psychoactive Drugs, p. 23-34.