The Culture of Cannabis 

On October 17, 2018, after 95 years of prohibition and criminalization, Canada became the first G7 country, and the second country in the world to federally legalize cannabis. The first country was Uruguay, a country with 1/10th of Canada’s population. The culture of cannabis in Canada is beginning to evolve in major ways because of legalization.   

It’s offering adults new experiences and ways to enjoy cannabis, relax and have fun. Cannabis for wellness and medical use is also developing at an unprecedented pace, offering exciting opportunities for patients for a multitude of purposes. Because of the prohibition era, authoritative sources of information backed by evidence-based research are also evolving.  

Cannabis is a complex plant.  At its root, it is one of the oldest domestic plants on earth. The leaves and flowers produce a resin that affects how we feel, think and act. In fact, Cannabis has centuries of history of use by humans, and has been used in many cultures around the world to for fiber (hemp), seed oils, seeds, medical treatment, spiritual rituals, and recreation.  

Cannabis Weed Marijuana

Yellow Hemp Datisca Cannabina

Anthropologists and historians have discovered how cultural traditions, medicinal practices, along with historical, political, legal, and economic forces play a large part in the role cannabis has in different societies and cultures. For instance, many cultural groups around the world believed and still believe that smoking cannabis is a means of relaxation, introspection, and sociability. Others value cannabis’ immediate effects, producing a surge of energy which helps to complete daily tasks. On the flip side many are discovering its benefits at the end of the day to unwind and prepare for sleep. 

The realization that cannabis plays important roles in various cultures is significant for Canadians. Canada is a mosaic country with a cross-section of immigrants from countries throughout the world, each with their own cultural views on cannabis.    

Appreciating the global, historical, and current cultures of cannabis illuminates the motivation behind its popularity as well as helping to realize how our current social and cultural beliefs came to be. This plant spans across all aspects of our social world, affecting individuals and society on several levels, as well as influencing many social institutions including industry, politics, health care, education and spirituality.  


Cultural uses around the world  

While cannabis is still prohibited in many countries around the world, it continues to be used in a cultural context. Because of its psychoactive properties, it has been used in magical, religious, medical, spiritual, and social customs for thousands of years. Now that cannabis is Federally legal in Canada scientists and others are looking at the cultural history to help create the future of cannabis. 



China has a long and complex history with cannabis, dating back to ancient times. One of the first crops cultivated in China, it was used for various purposes, such as fiber, food, medicine, and ritual. 

According to legend, the Chinese emperor Shen Yung discovered the medicinal properties of cannabis around 2700 BCE. He wrote the Pen Ts’ao, a medical encyclopedia that listed cannabis or ma as one of the main beneficial drugs derived from plants. In his detailed description, he noted that cannabis had both yin and yang aspects, meaning it could balance the body’s energy and harmony. He also experimented with all parts of the plant, such as the seeds, leaves, and flowers, and found that they had different effects on the body. He used cannabis to treat ailments such as rheumatism, gout, malaria, and absent-mindedness. 

Chinese emperor shen nung marijuana

Shen Yung’s contribution to medical cannabis was significant. He was the first to document its therapeutic benefits and classify it according to the principles of Chinese medicine. His work influenced later generations of Chinese doctors and herbalists, as well as other cultures that adopted cannabis as a medicine. 

Cannabis was also used in religious ceremonies in ancient China. Archaeologists have found evidence of cannabis being burned in incense holders in tombs dating back to 500 BCE. Interestingly, the cannabis used in these rituals had higher levels of THC than cannabis used for industrial or medical purposes. This suggests it was chosen particularly for its psychoactive effects.  

A valuable commodity in China, it was used to make high-quality textiles, paper, fish nets, clothing, and oil. Hemp rope was especially useful for making bows that could shoot arrows farther than bamboo bows. It was also traded with other cultures, such as India and Central Asia, where it was introduced as a recreational and medicinal treatment. 

Cannabis remained an important part of Chinese culture until the 20th century, when it was banned under the influence of Western powers and international treaties. In 1985, China joined the Convention on Psychotropic Substances and identified marijuana as a dangerous narcotic drug, illegal to possess or use. But the cultivation of hemp for industrial purposes was never prohibited in China, and cannabis seeds, considered one of the most nutritious foods are still used as a food source and medicine. 



In India cannabis has been and continues to be a customary part of life. In ancient India was a widespread and diverse practice involving religious, medicinal, and recreational aspects. It was considered a sacred plant by the Hindus, who believed it to be a gift from God Shiva. According to the Veda, the oldest Hindu scriptures cannabis was one of five sacred plants that could bring happiness, joy, and liberation.  

It was also used in rituals and ceremonies, such as offering it to the gods, using hemp boughs to overcome evil forces and burning it as incense. A popular and socially accepted intoxicant cannabis was often consumed as a drink, called bhang.  Made by mixing cannabis with milk, yogurt, nuts, spices, and sugar, it’s a common drink during festivals, celebrations, and social gatherings. It was believed to induce euphoria, laughter, and relaxation.   


Its medicinal and therapeutic properties were valued in ancient India. It was used as part of the Ayurvedic system of medicine, which is based on the balance of the body’s energy and harmony. Cannabis was believed to have both yin and yang aspects, meaning it could treat a variety of ailments and conditions. Some of the uses of cannabis in ancient Indian medicine include: 

    • Bronchitis 
    • Fever due to illness 
    • Cramps and regulating the menstrual cycle 
    • Headache relief 
    • Diabetes management 
    • Analgesic to relieve pain 
    • Anesthetic during medical procedures 
    • Enhancing memory and concentration 

 Cannabis was also smoked or eaten in various forms, such as ganja, charas, or majoon. And sometimes combined with other substances, like opium, to enhance effects.  

Cannabis use in ancient India was a rich and complex phenomenon that reflected the culture and beliefs of the people. Cannabis was revered as a sacred and healing herb, but it was also enjoyed as a pleasurable and fun substance. Cannabis was an integral part of the ancient Indian society, and its legacy can still be seen today. 



African tribes incorporated cannabis into religious rituals and magic beliefs, attributing universal magical powers to the hemp plant. It was thought to not only combat evil, but they also took it with them to war and when they travelled. The hemp pipe had a symbolic meaning analogous to that of the peace pipe for Indigenous peoples. No holiday, trade agreement, or peace treaty occurred without cannabis in one form or another.  

Cannabis has been used for centuries in Africa for both recreational and medicinal purposes. It’s believed to have been introduced to Africa by early Arab and Indian traders. Cannabis leaves were predominantly used in herbal preparations to manage both human and animal ailments. For humans’ cannabis was used to treat over 20 ailments, including asthma, measles, diabetes, dysentery, tuberculosis, cancer, cough, malaria, and as an abortifacient. In animals it was used to manage over 15 ailments, the most common were East Coast fever, pneumonia, dysentery.   



Cannabis was introduced in Jamaica in the 1850’s by imports from licensed businesses often run by Jewish families in the Bengal region of India. It was used largely by indentured servants during British rule of both nations.  

Some of the terms used in cannabis culture in Jamaica are based on Indian terms such as ganga. Over fifty years cannabis use became increasingly popular and was incorporated into many routine cultural practices. Cannabis was then banned in Jamaica in 1913 as a political move under the Ganga law which was supported by white elites and the Council of Evangelical Churches.  

In the 1930’s cannabis became a predominant symbol in the Jamaican Rastafarian culture, used largely as a religious sacrament and folk medicine, thought to provide divine wisdom and healing. The herb is key to a heightened understanding of self, universe, and God. As part of their heritage, Rastafarians cite the Bible and believe that “God who created all things made the herb for human use” (Genesis 1:12).  

In daily life, 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 for months, where it is used for pain relief, either topically or orally. 


Canada’s Historic Culture   

The history of cannabis in Canada predates the well-known modern, view of the 1960’s Hippies and Stoners. There is little evidence that indigenous peoples used cannabis. It was white settlers who introduced the cannabis plant to Canada in the early 1600’s, using it as a fiber for clothing and to provide sails and rigging for ships. The pilgrims also grew hemp so they could make coverings for their wagons. The Canadian government quickly realized the profits that could be made from the production of cannabis fiber (hemp).  

Cannabis was used for medicinal purposes beginning in the 1840’s. Physicians prescribed it for physical conditions such as rabies, rheumatism, epilepsy, tetanus, and a muscle relaxant.  It became so common for medicinal use that cannabis preparations were sold over the counter in most drug stores.

Using mainly hemp, Canadians didn’t realize its psychoactive properties until the end of the 19th century.  With the rise of modern medicine cannabis began to fall out of practice as a medicinal therapy, and simultaneously its use as a recreational drug became popular. At that time physicians began to treat cannabis as a narcotic, implying the dangers of overdose, claiming it was habit-forming, and an aphrodisiac, causing sexual excitement or uncontrollability. This was the beginning of prohibition.   

Criminalized in Canada in 1923, cannabis was added to the Opium and Narcotic Control Act alongside heroin and codeine. It went unchallenged in Parliament in part because little was known about it at the time, and very few people were consuming it. At that time, it didn’t pose much of a threat to society.   

Despite many studies and reports emphasizing the harmless effects of cannabis use, cannabis continued to be illegal.  These laws were not only prohibitive of industrial production and medical research of cannabis, but also prohibitive of the psychoactive use of cannabis that was, and continues to be, an integral part of the many cultures that introduced it to North Americans.  


Well Known Cannabis Users  

Along with the many historical, cultural beliefs and uses of cannabis around the world, there are many people who have made important contributions to our social culture as well as contributing positively to the current culture of cannabis. They, and many others strongly suggest that existing “pothead” stereotypes are nothing more than myths. For most, cannabis is used to relax, feel good, treat common physical ailments or to get their creative juices flowing. Many well-known advocates describe how they benefit from cannabis for both their physical ailments as well as heightened creativity.  Below are a few modern personalities who are outspoken about how and why they use cannabis. 


  • Folk rock singer Melissa Etheridge well-known for her song “The Angels” used cannabis to help her manage breast cancer.   
  • Montel Williams, host of “The Montel Williams Show” uses cannabis to control multiple sclerosis, an inflammatory disease that affects the brain and spinal cord.   
  • Michael J. Fox, the well-known, long-time actor from the “Back to the Future” movies and television shows uses cannabis to deal with Parkinson’s Disease.  
  • Sir Richard Branson, multi-billionaire and founder of the Virgin empire, not only admits he smokes weed, but he also talked about getting high with his 20-something son. He has petitioned for the legalization of cannabis, and has said if it were legal, he’d sell it.  
  • Writer Stephen King has been a vocal proponent for the legalization of cannabis, stating the laws are “ridiculous,” and “I think that marijuana should not only be legal, I think it should be a cottage industry.”  
  • Carl Sagan, one of the most famous scientists in the world, was an enthusiastic advocate for cannabis legalization. In this era of cannabis legalization and gaining mainstream acceptance he stated:  


         “The illegality of cannabis is outrageous, an impediment to full utilization   

         of a drug which helps produce the serenity and insight, sensitivity and   

         fellowship so desperately needed in this increasingly mad and dangerous   



The cannabis plant has been an important and integral part of human societies, culture, and health for centuries. Its long-standing relationship with the world is a testament to its significance. The legalization of cannabis in Canada presents an exciting opportunity for our country to lead globally in cannabis reform. Many countries around the world are looking to us as a model for the legalization, regulation, uses, and social culture of cannabis. As Canadians, we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to revolutionize our culture and pave the way for a brighter future. 

Cannabis presents unique opportunities for the public, activists, and entrepreneurs to help shape modern culture in terms of what industry, politics, health care, education and spirituality will mean for our Canadian way of life moving forward. There are clearly many positive historical and global uses of cannabis that show promise toward a future of health and social wellness for Canadians.  

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