Over the years, cannabis has been deeply rooted in Jamaican culture. The plant has been a muse of reggae music as well as a sacrament in the Rastafarian faith. Not to mention, the island's climate provides one of the most ideal conditions for cultivation.
However, cannabis is said to have originated in Central Asia, with widespread use of the plant dating back to 6,000 years ago. Also, common names for cannabis such as “marijuana” and “ganja” actually have Mexican and Indian origins respectively.
It is important to note that marijuana, or “marihuana” initially, was a mixture of non-cannabis herbs used by Mexican immigrants who went to the United States. The term was soon used to associate cannabis with the immigrants and as a means of discrimination, to help demonise the plant as a “violence-causing drug”. This eventually lead to cannabis being banned in the USA during the 1930s.
Ancient Chinese records often refer to the consumption of cannabis seeds as a religious experience that would allow one to communicate with spirits. The medicinal use of cannabis was first found in one of the oldest known pharmacopoeias, The Herbal, which was authored by Chinese Emperor Shen Nung, a pioneer in herbal medicine. The emperor also developed an elixir from cannabis called 'Ma' and cannabis was often used to treat menstrual problems, gout, rheumatism, pain, and senility.
In ancient texts from India the use of cannabis emerged as a part of religious practices before its medicinal use and it is considered one of five sacred plants. However, its medicinal uses were as a result of heavy influence from Islam as Muslim doctors practised Middle Eastern theories of medicinal cannabis.
Cannabis has been mentioned in Greek as well as Roman literature and was used to treat diarrhoea, joint pains, earaches, gout and other illnesses. Towards the middle of the modern era, there was little interest in cannabis outside of its use as a fibre for textiles and rope. This would change after Irish physician William Brooke O'Shaughnessy introduced the plant to western medicine, after conducting research in India in the 1830s, validating its medicinal uses.
As a result of O'Shaughnessy, Queen Victoria's physician Sir J Russell Reynolds prescribed cannabis to relieve the Queen's menstrual cramps and also found it useful to treat insomnia, headaches and muscle spasms.
Hemp was originally cultivated in the Americas for its fibre and later in the late 19th century, its medicinal uses became more evident. Recreational use had also become popularised by immigrants who came from Mexico and by African Americans. Despite the numerous medicinal uses for cannabis, the increased use of synthetic drugs resulted in the declined use of cannabis in the 1930s.
The Ebers Papyrus is an Egyptian compilation of medical texts that also mentions cannabis as having medicinal use. The Egyptians used cannabis for the treatment of glaucoma and other eye diseases, as well as to perform enemas.
Cannabis was later introduced to eastern Africa from southern Asia, and spread across Africa mostly after the 1500s. In sub-Saharan Africa, cannabis use was adapted into traditional practices of plant medicine including pipe smoking, where in Asia it had been consumed orally. It was also used by African tribes to treat snake bites, dysentery and malaria.
Cannabis was adopted for religious use in the 1930s by Leonard P Howell and other elders in the Rastafarian faith who were of the belief that this sacrament had strong Hebrew origins, and actually left the Middle East with the movement of the Dravidians into Asia.
Cannabis is often brewed into a tea and used as a tonic to treat aches and asthma. One common practice in the Jamaican household is to soak cannabis leaves or buds in white rum where it is used for pain relief, either topically or orally.