The Legalization of Cannabis at an International Level Has Become Inevitable

Alessandro Bruno

The universal tendency towards legalization, decriminalization of cannabis is undeniable, as is an increasing social acceptance of the plant and its various derivatives. No doubt the profits that many expect from the new legal cannabis businesses have eased the path. Yet, it is through a better  understanding of the history of cannabis and why it became illegal in the first place that investors (and anyone else for that matter) might learn to appreciate the true, and huge, potential of the ‘new’, yet ancient, industry.

And there’s no turning back.

Canada, some U.S. States, Uruguay and a handful of other countries have legalized cannabis for both medical and recreational use. The majority of Governments have not; yet, they are merely lingering in a limbo of modest and weakening objection towards cannabis. All it takes is for a large regional market to become fully legal – such as the United States – to break down any remaining ‘authoritarian’ instincts worldwide, releasing the full potential ‘genie’ from the proverbial cannabis lamp. Still, it’s instructive, in order to better understand the potential of the emerging cannabis market, to consider the history of cannabis and the reasons-or better: the interests and lobbies-that forced it to go underground and turned into a ‘substantia non grata’ to borrow a term of offense associated with international diplomacy.

The reason why this is important is because, some of the interests that turned cannabis into an illegal substance in 1937 (in the United States) have not gone away in 2019. While many of these interests have remained occult, hiding their opposition to legalization, they have grasped the favorable prospects of the emerging cannabis market and have continued to put pressure against it, fueling the stigma of cannabis consumption. If cannabis legalization is a boon for many consumers, entrepreneurs and investors alike, not everyone supports it. And all it takes is the interest of a handful of people to affect the course of events – especially in matters of politics and society.

The best defense against the positions of the powerful minority is an educated public, determined to argue the medical and societal benefits that legal cannabis creates in the face of  ​​misinformation and fossilized clichés. Indeed, the facts suggest that the public has welcomed the legalization of cannabis for therapeutic purposes. After all, why not? Humans have done this for thousands of years: archaeology and history show that cannabis was widespread as far back as the Neolithic Age (that is the last phase of the Stone Age, ca. 7,000-4,500 BCE depending on region – when agriculture was just beginning). History is generally understood to begin, in the academic concept at least, when the Neolithic ends, writing is invented. Much has been said about the Indian use of kannabis and ganja. The Cannabis plant – known as marijuana and ganja (in Sanskrit) is unique: it can be used as an intoxicant, a medicine or as a fiber. And it may surprise some to discover that cannabis cultivation dates back to some 10,000 years ago, smack down in the Neolithic period, when the Aryans, ancestors of Indo-European populations, may have taught the Indians the hallucinogenic properties of cannabis. The Sumerians, Babylonians and Assyrians of Mesopotamia were aware of cannabis, as were the Persians. The Chinese also investigated the plant and a pharmacological treatise attributed to the period of Emperor Shen Nung (ca. 2730 BC) cites the use of cannabis as a medicine.

Some Cannabis – or Kannabis– History

The ancient Greeks called it κάνναβις (Kannabis): There’s substantial material evidence that the Greeks used hemp since at least 600 BC as archaeologists have found hemp fiber in the ruins of a Carthaginian ship sunk near Sicily. The famous historian Herodotus, the great Greek historian, wrote in 450 BC that the Thracians produced high-quality hemp clothes. More significantly perhaps, the same Herodotus told of the Scythians, who inhaled the fumes emitted by Kannabis burning on hot stones inside tents. (Histories 4.73, 75). A few centuries later another classical historical, Plutarch, confirmed Herodotus’s accounts and noted the intoxicating effects of the kannabis plant.

Ancient Greece

The Greeks, however, were also aware of its therapeutic qualities: Greek literature from about 400 BC cites kannabis as a remedy for back pain. (Source: Cannabis in the Ancient Greek and Roman World). More significant is the contribution of one Pedanius Dioscorides, whom the Romans ‘hired’ in 70 A.D., a Greek physician to research and catalogue plants considered to have medical or therapeutic properties. Dioscorides published his results, cataloguing some 600 species, in a  book, De materia medica. One of these was Kannabis or Cannabis Sativa L. Discorides cited its use for making ropes. He also noted that kannabis was a remedy for earaches. ‘De materia medica’ was translated into dozens of languages and serving as a key manual for Western medicine for over 1500 years.


More or less around the same period as Discorides, in China, Taoist alchemists inhaled burned hemp seeds and inhaled the smoke to induce hallucinations. More significantly, they considered cannabis to have the ability to rejuvenate the body and the mind. The surgeon Hua Tuo, famous during the Han Dynasty (ca. 220-200 BCE) used a mixture of hemp resin and wine, as an anesthetic, which he called mafeisan(literally, cannabis boiling powder). Centuries later, mafeisan was said to be used to treat fevers and ease childbirth (Source: ScienceSource). And, perhaps, the most famous and documented use of cannabis is found in India, where one of the Hindu myths tells of the God Shiva, who found comfort from the heat by eating cannabis leaves. Shiva decided cannabis to be his favorite food; so much so, that he is often referred to as the Lord of Bhang: bhang is an ancient Indian drink, made from a mix of Cannabis, spices and numerous herbs. Moreover, traditional Indian medicine has long used cannabis to treat fever, dysentery and even leprosy.


The ancient Indians also believed that cannabis eased digestion and sharpened intelligence – among other desirable effects. And the catalogue of ailments and uses of cannabis in the ancient world – and not even all that ancient – is replete with fascinating examples, begging the question: what happened to cannabis in more recent times? That is, how did the consumption of a plant so revered and praised in so many ancient cultures for so many centuries suddenly become demonized? Like so many institutionalized practices of the present era, for better or worse, the roots of cannabis demonization are European. Apart from the medicinal properties of cannabis, Europeans had always enjoyed the plant for recreational properties.

Prohibition and Its Roots

Already by the early Renaissance, some overly keen officials were concerned about the plant’s ability to distract people from thinking about more ‘serious matters’. In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII issued a bull (a papal decree) forbidding Christians to use cannabis. Probably, Francois Rabelais, a physician, botanist and monk who wrote The Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel, the satirical 16thcentury novel, decided to challenge the increasingly oppressive religious climate (which led to religious wars and inquisitions) also by writing about the herb pantagruelion, and its marvelous properties (Source: Civilized). The Vatican’s condemnation no doubt helped promote the use of cannabis for recreational purposes among intellectuals and dissidents for centuries – leading to the establishment of the Club des Hashischins(Club of hashish eaters) in Paris, frequented by such writers as Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas and Charles Baudelaire among others. Nevertheless, the cultivation of cannabis continued – and legally so for centuries until 1937 (see above). Hemp, which belongs to the cannabis sativa genus, has also been used to make paper. The first Bible, which Gutenberg printed using movable type in 1453 on hemp paper imported from Italy. And hemp was also used to make sails for ships. The Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria – the three boats, Christopher Columbus used to reach the Americas, used sails made of hemp. Indeed, the use of cannabis became widespread in North America. The first U.S. President, George Washington, cultivated hemp and the very U.S. Constitution was printed on hemp paper. By the 1850s there were over 8,000 hemp plantations in the United States. (Source: PBS). It’s only in the first half of the 20thcentury that cannabis and the hemp plant becomes demonized and progressively banned all over the world

It was at the start of the 20th century, when some American industrialists, saw hemp as a threat to their profits – especially to people like William Randolph Hearst, who published several newspapers and, who preferred to produce paper from pulp. Makers of the emerging synthetic fibers also saw hemp as a threat. In 1935, the Treasury Secretary, Andrew Mellon (the very same industrialist, who owned significant interests in major corporations ranging from chemicals to automobiles and oil), also oversaw the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN). In 1937 – note that’s when DuPont developed the artificial fiber of nylon – Mellon appointed one Henry Anslinger as head of the aforementioned FBN; and Anslinger swiftly moved to establish the infamous Marijuana Tax Actwhich subjected all hemp growers under his department’s jurisdiction. Anslinger used racist arguments, veiled in ‘moralistic’ terms to target cannabis, suggesting that most ‘marijuana smokers’ were “Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and artists….:their satanic music, jazz, swing, are the result of the use of marijuana. Marijuana causes white women the desire to have sex with blacks, artists and others” (Huffington Post).

The combined bigotry and economic forces of Anslinger and Mellon helped propagate – through media and exploiting the schizophrenia induced crime committed by one Victor Licatain 1933 – a virulent anti-cannabis message aimed at demonizing the plant, linking its use to anti-social and violent behavior. Hearst ran anti-cannabis ads and articles in his numerous media outlets throughout some of the biggest cities of the United States.  The campaign included all varieties of cannabis sativa: the psychoactive one, containing CBD and THC and the non-psychoactive industrial variety, typically known as hemp (some U.S. States maintain a ban on the cultivation of industrial hemp). Still, during WW2, Europeans continued to produce hemp, given that there was demand for raw materials containing cellulose to make explosives – nitrocellulose.

Conclusions: Prohibition is Expensive and Damaging to the ‘Hand of the Market’ (in the purest Adam Smith sense of the term)

The revival of cannabis and cannabis culture, from the therapeutic to the more industrial possibilities, has triggered another wave of the entrepreneurial spirit that led to the development of the personal computer, the Internet and the smartphone. Increasingly, among cannabis users and detractors alike, there is the sense – if not the certainty – that prohibition is a failed policy. Considerations over cannabis’s medical properties aside, legalization of cannabis has opened up research possibilities, which can both understand what are the risks incurred by users of these substances (and the risks associated with some of the ways in which they are sued: vaping for example) and what are the benefits. Apart from the fact that all substances carry risks from overuse – pharmaceuticals first and foremost – research and development thanks to legalization will help reduce cases of abuse because the quality and the substances shall improve as the potential benefits of the active ingredients that cannabis contains are better studied and understood. Naturally, wide-scale international legalization would help governments extract more taxes while weakening organized crime. Cannabis itself presents opportunities to introduce sophisticated and sustainable agricultural techniques. The plant lends itself to organic cultivation – requiring few if any chemical treatments, adapting to all type of climates and altitudes. Cannabis Sativa plant varieties can be used in dozens of ways from the therapeutic to the medical, recreational, comestible and industrial. Cannabis, like few other substances has the potential to give rise to a whole new industry, stimulating investment and creating employment. The so-called war against drugs, whether conducted by popes in the 16thcentury or U.S. presidents in the 21st, has and will have no impact in curbing use of ‘drugs’ and even less impact in curbing global mechanisms of supply and demand. More research, meanwhile (and made possible by the early stages of legalization in key U.S. States, Canada and parts of Europe and Latin America) has also shown that the prohibition of cannabis has little credibility from the medical or scientific perspectives.

Alessandro Bruno

Alessandro Bruno

Alessandro Bruno, born in Naples, (BA and MA in International Relations, University of Toronto). Alessandro is a research analyst and writer in various business sectors and international politics. He was a Programme Officer for the UN in North Africa and a senior for one of the first international sustainable investment...
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