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Major Studies of Drugs and Drug Policy
Canadian Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs
Volume I - General Orientation

Chapter 6 - Users and uses: form, practice, context

Patterns and circumstances of use


Why do people use cannabis? In fact, why have people felt the desire or the need to use all manner of psychoactive substances since time immemorial? We suspect that these questions are highly charged with symbolic and political meaning: when it is a question of cannabis, sometimes the focus is on its “soft drug” nature, its festive and sociable side, and sometimes the focus is more on its role as part of a marginal, if not pre-delinquent, trajectory and the risks associated with moving on to other drugs. When it comes right down to it, and rather surprisingly, we know very little about users’ motivations and experiences.

We can distinguish two large groups of studies: socio-anthropological studies that try to identify users’ practices and certain environmental factors that put these practices in context, and psychological studies that try to relate personality and family-related factors to cannabis use. Although both types of studies are just as relevant to understanding the nature of the phenomenon, their approaches and their results are often difficult to reconcile. But, first, a few historical notes on the uses of cannabis.


Cannabis in history [1][29]

Although the historical routes of cannabis still remain obscure, archaeologists discovered a Chinese village where they uncovered the oldest use of the cannabis plant, dating back approximately 10,000 years. It was primarily used for clothing, ropes and fishing nets, paper and other decorative purposes. It was also considered one of China’s five cereals. Around 2000 B.C. the Chinese became aware of the psychotropic and medicinal properties of cannabis oil (resin) and used it in particular for the treatment of menstrual fatigue, gout, rheumatism, malaria, constipation and absentmindedness, and as an anaesthetic. Religious uses were also identified, and the Chinese noted that its use allowed communication with spirits and lightened the body. In the first century B.C., Taoists used cannabis seeds in their incense burners to induce hallucinations that they considered a way to achieve immortality.

Several historians attribute the origins of cannabis to the Scythians around Siberia and North Central Asia towards the 7th century B.C. According to Herodotus, a Greek historian who lived in the 5th century B.C. marijuana was an integral part of the cult of the dead that the Scythians followed to honour the memory and spirit of their departed leaders. Indications of cannabis use, often for religious purposes, have also been found with the Sumerians and, according to some, in certain passages of the Bible.

The first ethnographic description of ancient people inhaling marijuana as a psychotropic stimulant was confirmed by a Russian anthropologist, Rudenko, in 1929. Not only did he find the embalmed body of a man and a bronze cauldron filled with burnt marijuana seeds, but he also found shirts woven from hemp fibre and metal censors designed for inhaling marijuana smoke. Apparently this activity was not religious in nature but was a daily activity in which both men and women participated, as confirmed by the discovery of the frozen body of a 2,000-year-old woman in the same cemetery where Rudenko made his first discovery. Archaeologists found some of her possessions, including a small container of cannabis that would have been smoked for pleasure and used in pagan rituals, buried in a hollow tree trunk.

In India, cannabis has been closely associated with magical, medical, religious and social customs for thousands of years. According to legend found in the Vedas, Siva is described as “The Lord of Bhang”, a drink made of cannabis leaves, milk, sugar and spices. This drink is still part of the traditions of certain castes. Cannabis is also renowned for its use in Tantric sexual practices. Approximately one hour before the yoga ritual, the devotee drinks a bowl of bhang after reciting a mantra to the goddess Kali. Similarly, “charas” holds a special place in the prayer ceremony called Puja. Lastly, cannabis was used for medical purposes.

Although not indigenous to Africa, the cannabis plant is part of religious, medical and cultural traditions across almost the entire continent. In Egypt, it has been grown for over a 1,000 years, while the first evidence of its presence in central and southern Africa dates back to 14th century Ethiopia where ceramic smoking-pipes containing traces of cannabis were discovered. In North Africa, cannabis influenced music, literature and even certain aspects of architecture since in some homes, a room was set aside for kif where family members gathered to sing, dance and tell stories. The plant was also used as a remedy for snake bite (Hottentots), to facilitate childbirth (Sotho) and as a remedy for anthrax, malaria, blackwater fever and blood poisoning (former Rhodesia).

In South America, it would have been primarily slaves imported from Africa who brought cannabis. East Indian labourers brought cannabis to the Antilles, and Jamaica in particular, where it is not only used recreationally but is integrated in many aspects of Jamaican, and particularly Rastafarian, culture.

As for North America, it is not known exactly when the psychotropic properties of cannabis were discovered. Some think that it played a role in several native cultures; others doubt that it ever played a significant role. The oldest evidence of the existence of cannabis in North America dates back to Louis Hébert, Champlain’s apothecary, who introduced cannabis to white settlers in 1606, essentially as a fibre to be used to make clothing, cordage, sails and rigging for ships. However its psychotropic properties were not discovered until the 19th century. Between 1840 and 1900, it was used in medicinal practice across almost all of North America. It was prescribed for various conditions such as rabies, rheumatism, epilepsy and tetanus, and as a muscle relaxant. Moreover, its use became so widespread that cannabis preparations were sold freely in drug stores.

The first study of cannabis was conducted in 1860 by the American Governmental Commission. When presenting the findings of the Commission to the Ohio State Medical Society, Dr. Meens said:


Cannabis effects are less intense than opium, and the secretions are not so much suppressed by it. Digestion is not disturbed; the appetite rather increases; the whole effect of hemp being less violent, and producing a more natural sleep, without interfering with the actions of the internal organs, it is certainly often preferable to opium, although it is not equal to that drug in strength and reliability. [2][30]


At the same time, other doctors criticized its use because of the variability and uncertainty of its effects. As for its recreational uses, they seem to have been noted for the first time at the beginning of the 20th century and quickly became the subject of social concern, especially because of the association of cannabis with Mexican and then black American workers, strengthening fears about its criminogenic and aphrodisiac effects. In 1915, California became the first state to prohibit possession of cannabis. Canada followed suit in 1923, while the United States outlawed possession in 1937. However, in 1944, the La Guardia report, from the State of New York, emphasized the harmless effects of cannabis. It was followed by reports from the Le Dain Commission in Canada and the Schafer Commission in the United States at the beginning of the 1970s. On the international scene, cannabis was prohibited by the Single Convention of 1961 (which will be discussed more fully in Chapter 19).

In Canada, mass use of cannabis came with the 1960s. Prior to that, the phenomenon was almost invisible and there were only 25 convictions for cannabis possession between 1930 and 1946. In 1962, the RCMP reported 20 cannabis-related cases. Then came the explosion: 2,300 cases in 1968 and 12,000 cannabis convictions in 1972. According to the Le Dain Commission, the sudden growth in cannabis use could be attributed to the hippies, the Vietnam War, underground newspapers and the influence of the mass medias. On top of these major counterculture movements, Canada became more open to the world: more and more young Canadians were travelling and Canada itself received more and more visitors and immigrants. Since then, except for a few years, cannabis use for non-medicinal purposes has increased as we saw in the previous section.


[1][29]  This section is based extensively on Spicer, L. (2002) Historical and Cultural Uses of Cannabis and the Canadian “Marijuana Clash”, Ottawa: Library of Parliament, report commissioned by the Committee from the Library of Parliament.

[2][30]  Quoted in Spicer, op. cit., page 29.

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