The rising interest in cannabis, particularly for its healing properties, may seem like a recent trend, but the cannabis and hemp plants have a long, colourful, and culturally rich history of human use.
In the UK, our relationship with this plant has changed many times over the years. Once championed as a wondrous healing tool and robust industrial fibre, cannabis went on to be labelled as a danger to society to be avoided at all costs. The British history of hemp and cannabis is a rather fascinating one.
Early evidence of cannabis use
The cannabis plant has a rich history. It is believed to have been cultivated over 12,000 years ago, evolving on the steppes of central Asia. Many Eastern cultures have been harvesting the medicinal and industrial properties of this plant for thousands of years – long before it first came to the UK.
By 7000 BC, hemp fibre was being woven into fabric and the cannabis plant soon became widely used for industrial purposes. Hemp fabric was used to make clothes, shoes and ropes. It was also made into paper and the seeds were eaten as food. The earliest documented use of the cannabis plant for medicinal purposes dates back to 2800 BC when it was listed in Emperor Shen Nung’s pharmacopoeia.
The arrival of hemp in Britain
Cannabis entered Northern Europe around 500 BC, but the earliest recorded evidence of cannabis in Britain isn’t until the 10th century. Cannabis seeds were found in a well of what once was a Viking settlement in Micklegate, York. It is believed that the plant was utilised for its durable fibre to make textiles and ropes, but there are no sources that confirm or deny the use of cannabis for its psychoactive properties.
The first reports of cannabis being used as a psychoactive drug in Europe date back to 1271, where Marco Polo told stories of Hasan ibn al-Sabbah and his assassins using hashish, or hash, which is made from compressed trichomes in the cannabis plant.
The golden age of hemp in Britain
Fast forward to the 16th century, the reign of Henry VIII saw a hemp heyday in Britain. In 1533, a hemp cultivation law was introduced. It declared that those with land must dedicate a quarter of an acre for every 60 acres to grow hemp, or they would face a fine. This hemp fibre was then used to produce durable and rot-resistant sails, rope, and nets for the navy.
Aside from the industrial uses of hemp, it is also believed that cannabis was used for its medicinal and more recreational, psychoactive purposes in Elizabethan England. Cannabis was even thought to have inspired some of Shakespeare’s genius; pipe fragments found in the playwright’s Stratford-upon-Avon home have shown to contain traces of cannabis – although this is disputed by historians. But adding weight to this claim, Shakespeare wrote in Romeo & Juliet in 1597:
“And hereabouts he dwells—which late I noted
In tattered weeds, with overwhelming brows,
Culling of simples. Meagre were his looks,
Sharp misery had worn him to the bones”
This, translated into modern text, reads as ‘I remember a pharmacist who lives nearby. I remember he wears shabby clothes and has bushy eyebrows. He makes drugs from herbs’.
Before the 18th century, most accounts of medical cannabis use in Britain were from the diaries of voyagers who learned about the plant’s therapeutic wonders when abroad. Robert Knox, an East India Company merchant, discovered the anti-sickness properties of cannabis when in the Sri Lankan kingdom of Kandy in 1670. He met with Robert Hooke in 1689 to obtain a sample of the plant, which Hooke called the “intoxicating leaf and seed” that was “accounted wholesome, though for a time it takes away the memory and the understanding”.
In 1753, the cannabis plant was formally classified as Cannabis sativa by the Swedish botanist, Carl Linnaeus. A second species of cannabis was then described in 1785 by Jean-Baptiste Lamark, called Cannabis indica. The two strains differ in their cannabinoid content and physiological effects on the body; industrial hemp, in particular, is a class of Cannabis sativa with low levels of the psychoactive compound, THC.
Cannabis, as a medicine, was first introduced to Britain by Dr William O’Shaughnessy, in the 1840s. O’Shaughnessy had witnessed first-hand the positive medical applications of hemp while treating cholera patients in India. The medicinal use of cannabis was more well-documented from the 19th century, the plant was even used by Queen Victoria to relieve her menstrual cramps. Cannabis was believed to have been prescribed to the Queen by Sir J. Russell Reynolds, her doctor, in 1890.
The downfall of the cannabis plant
After the golden age for industrial hemp in the 16th century, British hemp production experienced a major decline. Though hemp was still used in small-scale farming, it became cheaper for it to be imported from overseas. Soon, much of the machinery used to make hemp fibre was shipped abroad, and local hemp textile production was lost.
Not only did Britain see a decline in hemp production, but the entire Western world’s attitude towards cannabis took a complete turn in the 20th century. Cannabis went from a treasured plant to a demonised drug, and this is how:
In 1901, a Royal Commission concluded that cannabis is relatively harmless and not worth prohibiting, but the political events that followed completely disregarded this statement. In the US, the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 kickstarted a series of drug restrictions enforced by Western governments.
By 1920, the UK had made opium and cocaine illegal, but cannabis was not considered dangerous enough to be added to the list. However, in 1925, Britain signed the Geneva International Convention on Narcotics Control. Egypt and Turkey requested for cannabis to be added to the list of controlled substances. This was the first time that cannabis fell victim to global drug controls.
Then, in 1928, Britain introduced the Dangerous Drugs Act. Cannabis, including hemp crops, were criminalised. The nation saw a sudden rise in cannabis prosecutions. By 1950, there were more prosecutions for cannabis in the UK than for opium and other manufactured drugs combined.
Ironically, this was mirrored by a rise in recreational cannabis use by middle-class, Western citizens. In retaliation, governments began to crack down on cannabis restrictions in the 60s. The United Nations Single Convention on Narcotics Drugs treaty was organised in 1961; cannabis was said to have the same risk to public health as opiates and cocaine, and the World Health Organisation claimed that it had ‘no medical value’.
In the UK, cannabis convictions rose by 79% in 1965. Just 2 years before US President Nixon declared the ‘war on drugs’ in 1971, the United Nations estimated that there were between 200 million and 250 million global cannabis users. The UK soon followed in the footsteps of the US in their approach to drug policy; cannabis was classified as a Class B drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 – it became illegal to grow, produce, possess, or supply cannabis.
Where are we now?
In modern-day Britain, our attitude towards the cannabis plant is constantly evolving. Hemp was re-legalised in 1993, provided the grower had a Home Office license and the THC content of the plant was below 0.2%.
Campaigns to decriminalise cannabis began in the late 90s. In 1997, The Independent newspaper launched a campaign to decriminalise cannabis. In 2001, the Home Secretary at the time, David Blunkett, announced that cannabis would be reclassified from class B to class C. But, in 2009, fears of a link between cannabis use and psychosis prompted the government to move the drug back into class B.
At the time, there was an ironic parallel happening between the UK government clamping down on drug laws and the progressions of cannabis in modern medicine. Researchers were learning more and more about the effects of cannabis on the body; the endocannabinoid system was discovered in 1988. CB1 receptors in 1990 – and CB2 receptors in 1993.
Since then, cannabis-based therapies have made their way to the UK. 2016 saw the legalisation of CBD for its medicinal properties. Then, in November 2018, the UK government changed legislation to permit the prescription of cannabis. But during this time, only three NHS cannabis prescriptions have been given on the NHS.
Despite the historic use of cannabis for its industrial, spiritual, and medicinal properties, it is struggling to shake its reputation as an illegal psychoactive drug. As science progresses and the public perception of cannabis continues to broaden, the plant may, once again, become a valued tool in society.