In this chapter of The Ultimate Guide to Cannabis Extraction, we’ll explore the history of how humans have used and extracted cannabis and hemp over the millennia. From its ancient, pre-historic roots, through the use of cannabis extracts as a mainstream medicine in the 1800s, to 20th century prohibition, right up to the very latest in present-day, cutting edge cannabis extraction technology.
Cannabis and hemp plants are indigenous to Central Asia and India and are possibly one of the earliest plants to be cultivated by humans. The history of cannabis cultivation and extraction begins thousands of years ago in the depths of pre-history.
To date, we have unearthed just a few precious clues in archeological digs and ancient scripts that place the origins of the human consumption of cannabis to approximately 10,000 years ago.
Cannabis had been cultivated in Japan since the pre-Neolithic period for fibre and food, and possibly as a psychoactive material. An archaeological site was found to contain cannabis seeds from about 8,000 BCE, probably signifying use of the plant.
In the Judaic world, cannabis residues have been found on two altars dated to the Kingdom of Judah in the 8th century BCE, pointing to the use of cannabis for ritualistic and/or psychoactive use in ancient Judea.
Hemp fibre imprints have been found on pottery dating to the 5th millennium BC in China. The Chinese later made ropes, clothes, shoes, and paper out of hemp.
Chinese historical documentation records the earliest use of cannabis as a medicine as early as 2737 B.C., when the Emperor Shen Neng prescribed cannabis-infused tea for conditions such as malaria, gout, and arthritis. Hemp fabric has also been discovered in Korea that dates back to 3,000 BCE.
Cannabis was also used by the ancient Assyrians from Mesopotamia as an aromatic. They called it qunabu and qunubu; potentially the origin of the modern word “cannabis”.
In the ancient language of Sanskrit, hemp is known as ganja. Vedic scholars suggest that “soma”, the ancient drug mentioned in the Vedas (the oldest scriptures of Hinduism dating back to 1,500 BCE) was in fact, cannabis.
In ancient Greece, cannabis was enjoyed by the Scythians, Dacians, and Thracians whose shamans or kapnobatai—”those who walk on smoke/clouds”—burned cannabis flowers to induce a trance for both ritual and recreational purposes.
The widespread use of hashish began to emerge from the Persian world into the Arab world around the turn of the first millennium. Cannabis was introduced to Iraq in 1230 AD, during the reign of Caliph Al-Mustansir Bi’llah, by an entourage of Bahraini rulers visiting Iraq. Hashish was introduced to Egypt by mystic Islamic travellers from Syria sometime during the Ayyubid dynasty in 12th AD.
Egyptian Sufis (Islamic mystics) were avid lovers of hashish in the thirteenth century CE, and a unique type of cannabis referred to as Indian hemp was also documented during this time.
Around the same time, cannabis is thought to have been introduced to Africa by early Arab or Indian Hindu travellers. Smoking pipes uncovered in Ethiopia and carbon-dated to around 1320 CE were found to cannabis traces.
In 1607, the early American settlers observed the local indigenous people growing “hempe” in Richmond, Virginia.
In 1613, Samuell Argall reported wild hemp was growing “better than in England” along the shores of the upper Potomac river.
In 1619, the Virginia House of Burgesses passed an Act requiring all planters in Virginia to sow both English and Indian hemp on their plantations.
During the late 18th century hashish made its way to Europe and was quickly used by pharmacists to make medicinal compounds. Hashish-based medicines quickly became popular throughout Europe and the U.S. during the late 18th century.
In 1798, during Napoléon Bonaparte’s invasion of Egypt alcohol was not freely available to the troops because Egypt was and still is an Islamic country that frowns on the consumption of alcohol. So instead of drinking, Bonaparte’s troops found a way to relax from the rigors of war by smoking hashish. When the French left Egypt in 1801, Napoleon’s men brought hash back with them to France.
In 1844, following his travels in the Middle East and North Africa, French physician Jacques-Joseph Moreau wrote about the effects of cannabis and became a founding member of the famous Club des Hashischins (“Club of the Hashish-Eaters”) in Paris. The Club was a group of Parisians dedicated to the exploration of drug-induced psychological states. Its members included famous artists, thinkers, and writers such as Victor Hugo, Charles Baudelaire and Honoré de Balzac.
In the 1880s hash was made by hand in the ancient method of rubbing the sticky oil from trichomes and which is still—to this day—known as charas and kief.
It was around this time that modern-day extraction was born with the use of vegetable oil being used as a solvent. The hash or kief was dissolved or infused into vegetable oil suitable for administration as an edible. Even today, the use vegetable oils such as olive, coconut, or other vegetables is a preferred solvent of home extractors!
Experimentation to isolate the active ingredients in cannabis were carried throughout the late 1800s but it would still be many decades before the term “cannabinoid” would be invented. Cannabis tinctures and extracts were included in the annals of British and American Pharmacopoeia. These early medicinal cannabis solvent-derived extracts were called cannabin (1845), cannabindon, cannabinine, and cannabinol.
Cannabis-based medicines and tinctures were a common medicinal cure for illnesses such as pain relief, nausea, infant convulsions, and even as anaesthesia during dental procedures.
The drug started gaining traction in the U.S. in the 1910s after Mexican refugees brought marijuana with them as they fled the violence of the Mexican Revolution. In the 1930s, it became popular among the hepsters, the black jazz community made up of “hep cats” like jazz singer Cab Calloway, who had a hit with his song “Reefer Man.”
In 1925, at the International Opium Convention in The Hague, there was an agreement made to ban exportation of “Indian hemp” to countries that had formalized the prohibition thereof. It also required any importing countries to issue certificates stating that the shipment was required “exclusively for medical or scientific purposes” only. Lastly, it also required parties to “exercise an effective control of such a nature as to prevent the illicit international traffic in Indian hemp and especially in the resin” (hash).
In 1937, in the US, the Marihuana Tax Act was passed, which prohibited the production of hemp and cannabis. The reasons that hemp was also included in this law are disputed and unclear. Historians have claimed that the act was passed in order to destroy the US hemp industry.
However, then came WWII and the United States was forced back into encouraging hemp cultivation to make uniforms, canvas, and rope.
The short film from 1942, Hemp for Victory, was produced by the US Department of Agriculture to promote hemp as a necessary crop to win the war.
A fascinating chapter in the development of concentrated THC-rich cannabis extracts is the story of the role of U.S. intelligence during WWII in the development of a THC acetate “serum”. This solvent-based extract was used by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS—the precursor to today’s CIA) for their controversial and top-secret biochemical interrogation program. This concentrated cannabis extract was used alongside the psychedelic LSD to interrogate prisoners and “unsuspecting persons”. How successful this program actually was in gleaning information from subjects remains a source of ongoing historical debate.
The experimental and unethical program continued on through the ‘50s and ‘60s as a part of the highly publicized CIA program “Project MK Ultra”. Incidentally, a company called T.H. Seeds of Amsterdam developed a cannabis strain called MKUltra).
After WWII cannabis became a favorite of the counterculture with the emergence of the Beat Generation and “Beatniks”. Comprised of disillusioned WWII veterans, artists, poets and writers such as Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, and Jack Kerouac, these were the forefathers of the legalization and widespread use of cannabis. The Beats consumed cannabis mainly through smoking joints or “spliffs”. Hash oil was also added to joints and or consumed in edibles.
The 1950s is also when prohibition of cannabis ramped up with stricter sentencing laws. The enactment of federal laws (Boggs Act, 1952; Narcotics Control Act, 1956) set mandatory sentences for drug- and cannabis-related offenses. For example, a first-offense marijuana possession carried a minimum sentence of 2-10 years with a fine of up to $20,000.
The 1960s was the golden age for cannabis. It exploded into the Baby Boomer generation counterculture and became widespread in the white upper middle classes across the western world. Flower and hash were still the staple cannabis end-product consumed by the “Flower Power” generation. The joint became a ubiquitous accessory to nearly any gathering of young adults. However, it wasn’t until the 1970s that modern-day concentrated cannabis extracts started to appear in small, illegal labs.
Modern butane hash oil (BHO) emerged in the U.S. market the 1970s. The oil was imported from Kabul, Afghanistan by The Brotherhood of Eternal Love (an illegal drug distribution organization based in Orange County, California). Known as “butane honey oil”, it had a potency of around 10 to 30 percent THC.
While underground cannabis extractors quietly tinkered in their secret labs experimenting with producing solvent-based cannabis extracts, for the first time in history two books were published that outlined actual cannabis extraction methods.
The first was Cannabis Alchemy: The Art of Modern Hashmaking written by D. Gold and published in 1973. Gold outlined a method of making butane honey oil using activated charcoal and pure alcohol as a solvent. After evaporation of butane, the resulting oil looks almost exactly like dark honey with a clear amber color and similar consistency.
The second book was Michael Starks’ Marijuana Chemistry: Genetics Processing and Potency, published in 1977. Starks details hash oil preparation using various solvents including ethanol, chloroform, ethanol, petroleum ether, and isopropanol, among others. Extraction apparatuses and purification procedures are also described in detail, making this one of the most detailed accounts of the extraction of modern hash oil and cannabis derivatives.
Cannabis as medicine began to attract renewed interest in the 1980s mainly due to AIDS and cancer patients for relief from the effects of chemotherapy and AIDS wasting syndrome.
In 1994, the famous Cannabis Buyers Club in San Francisco was founded. An outlaw collective the Club was not only the first cannabis dispensary in the US but the first place in the country where you could buy cannabis and administer it on the premises.
The Club’s activist founders Dennis Peron and Brownie Mary (Mary Jane Rathbun) lived under the constant threat of law enforcement raids, being arrested, and shot by the police. A few years later, Peron, his husband John Entwistle, and Brownie Mary were also among the co-authors of Proposition 215, the act that ultimately made medical cannabis legal in California in 1996.
In 1999, Erowid.org a popular counterculture online forum and knowledge base published a blog article on Hash Honey Oil Technique –the first such description of a BHO (butane hash oil) extraction procedure on the Internet. The article outlines a detailed process of feeding butane though a vertical column packed with milled cannabis later inspiring the innovators of modern, solvent-based cannabis extraction to invent today’s closed loop systems (CLS). The article is still live and accessible here in Erowid’s archive.
*Needless to say, please don’t try BHO extraction at home! It’s definitely a process for professional extractors to perform in a compliant and safe extraction lab.
In 2001, Canada became the first country to adopt a system regulating the medical use of cannabis. And in 2005, an article entitled Beautiful Budder in Cannabis Culture featured “budder” hash oil extracted by a Canadian man known as by his alias “Budderking” and the world of dabbable cannabis extracts—AKA “dabs”—was born. The extraction process involved a series of refinement processes using alcohol to a translucent, amber-colored extract which turned into a buttery texture in room temperature. The product made its launch into the market in 2003.
Budderking also innovated the first “dab rig” to consume the budder. The appeal to consumers was immediately obvious; the extract had a high purity and cannabinoid concentration loved by connoisseurs of potent cannabis extracts.
In 2009, high quality solvent-based budders, saps, and waxes started to enter into dispensaries. Just a year later in 2010, dabbable products made their debut at the High Times Cannabis Cup.
In 2014, the states of Colorado and Washington began to license hash oil extraction and cannabinoid manufacturers started to experiment with various solvents including carbon dioxide (CO2), propane, butane, and the ever-popular ethanol. They also discovered that combining hydrocarbon solvents such propane and propane could also improve end-product quality and potency by preserving fragile terpenes and increasing cannabinoid concentrations.
Today there are a plethora of cannabis and hemp end-products easily available at dispensaries across the US and Canada.