While many states across the U.S. debate the legalization of marijuana, there is a long-standing relationship between marijuana, religion, and medicine of which many are unaware. This article explores that long and enduring history.
A long-standing medicinal
Both medically and religiously, marijuana (hemp, cannabis) has been used for thousands of years. During the reign of the Chinese emperor Shen Nung (Shennong circa 5,000 BP), considered the Father of herbalogical studies, cannabis was cited in the most widely-read herbal of the time, recommended for malaria, constipation, rheumatic fever, absent mindedness, insomnia, nervousness, and a variety of female disorders. In India, hemp has been used to quicken the memory, lower fever, induce sleep, relieve headaches, and cure venereal disease. In Africa, it has been used for malaria and other fevers–with documented results–and even today, tribes continue to use cannabis poultices for snake bites and brew hemp tea for women during childbirth. Cannabis was regaled by Galen (129–199?), the Father of Modern Medicine, as well as many other physicians of the Classical and Hellenistic Periods, and was commonly prescribed in Medieval Europe. In the 1700s, The Edinburgh New Dispensary recommended it for the treatment of coughs, venereal diseases, and urinary incontinence.
The renown physician and herbalist Nicholas Culpepper (1616–1654) cited its use for coughs, jaundice, colic, worms, joint inflammation, gout, hip pain, and burns. Likewise, Jethro Kloss (1863–1946) in his now famous herbal Back to Eden, adds rheumatism, influenza, pleurisy, asthma, and diphtheria as possible uses for the plant. Well into the 20th century, the popularly used Mrs. Grieve’s (1858–1941), A Modern Herbal, advocated hemp for easing stomach pain, insomnia, nervous disorders, and a variety of other disorders–with the author professing to use it as needed herself. The religious use of marijuana is documented in many ancient texts from around the world, and is presumed to have been used for thousands of years before recorded history.
Physical evidence dating to prehistoric times clearly shows that it played a significant role in the development of African, Middle Eastern, East Indian, and Chinese religions. Making the logical assumption that early humans would have experimented with every plant they could chew, avoiding cannabis (which has been known to exist for at least 50,000 years) and discovering its properties would have been virtually impossible. In their quest for edible seeds, early humans undoubtedly ate the sticky tops of the marijuana plant and subsequently discovered its euphoric and hallucinatory properties.
Religion historians speculate that cannabis may well have been accepted as a special gift from the gods who provided them a sacred medium with which to communicate with the spirit world; psychology speculates that it would have reproduced the dream-state early humans thought only existed during sleep. Used primarily as an incense in historic times, its use can be found in the writings of the Egyptians, Babylonians, Palestinians, Mesopotamians, Greeks, and Semite tribes–including the Israelites.
The Ethiopian-Zion Coptic Church
Many present-day religions such as the Rastafarians of Jamaica, followers of the Ethiopian-Zion Coptic Church, and members of many Pagan/pre-Christian religions believe it is referred to in Biblical text: "Oil and perfumes make the heart glad" (Prov. 27:9), "The tree of life and the leaves of the tree were for healing of the nations" (Rev. 22:2), and "God said, ‘Behold, I have given you every plant bearing seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree and seed you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth . . . I have given every green plant for food’" (Gen. 1:29). Many theologians throughout the world today view marijuana in much the same light as indigenous peoples regard peyote, coca, or jimson–plants that have been used in religious ceremonies for millennium. The question they pose is, "How can governments presume to control how people commune with god?"