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The History of Cannabis in the US & Beyond

These days, you can buy cannabinoid isolates and buds with the click of a button. But it has been a long road for the cannabis industry to get to this point.

The remnants of this magical green plant are etched into the annals of the past, and its mere existence was either seen as a blessing or a curse to generations of our ancestors. In this article, we will dive into the rich and varied past of cannabis, both in the United States and around the world.

Origins of Cannabis

Egypt: The first use of cannabis most likely dates back at least 5,000 years. It was said to be an ingredient called kaneh bosem, used in a holy anointing oil by the Israelites.

This oil was referenced in the original Hebrew version of the book of Exodus. The Ancient Egyptians were said to use cannabis in the treatment of glaucoma and for reducing inflammation.

China: In 2,900 BC, Emperor Fu Hsi called cannabis a popular medicine. The Chinese had over 100 medicinal uses for the plant by 100 AD. It is also possible that ancient cultures experienced the psychoactive properties of cannabis.

It has been speculated that these cultures used cannabis with higher THC content to use for religious ceremonies as early as 500 BC. This has been speculated due to the burned cannabis seeds that were found in shamans’ graves in China and Siberia.

Central Asia: Iranian nomads in Central Asia called the Scythians are believed the first recreational users of cannabis. Herodotus, a Greek historian around 450 BC, described that the nomads would inhale the smoke from burning cannabis seeds and flowers.

This would make them high, and they would “howl with pleasure.” Hashish was popularized during the spread of Islam throughout the middle east and parts of Asia around 800 AD.

The correlation with Islamic followers occurred because the Quran forbids alcohol and other intoxicants. Cannabis, however, was not one of these intoxicants specified. 

India: Ancient India was known for its history of marijuana use. In 1,000 BC, Indians used a combination of marijuana, milk, and a few other ingredients and called it bhang.

It was used as an anti-phlegmatic and to relieve pain. It is still used in present-day India. Here are some other medicinal uses of cannabis as believed by ancient Indians:

  • To cure leprosy
  • To treat dysentery
  • To break a fever
  • To enable better sleep
  • To improve judgment and cognition
  • To prolong life

Cannabis also was used for spiritual purposes in India. The Indians believe that Shiva, the Hindu god would eat the leaves of the cannabis plant after a family argument.

They sometimes referred to Shiva as the Lord of Bhang. In the Vedas, a group of religious texts from ancient India, cannabis was said to be a herb that would release anxiety from people.

This origin of the plant was depicted in one story as a drop of nectar falling from heaven to the Earth and growing into the cannabis plant. From these areas, the use of cannabis then spread to Africa, then to Europe, and finally to the Americas.

In Calcutta, cannabis was first used medicinally in the modern age during the 1830s. This was when Irishman Sir William Brooke O’Shaughnessy found that cannabis could relieve rheumatic pain and still the convulsions of an infant.

He ended up publishing one of the first papers on the medicinal effects of cannabis. By the end of the 19th century, the use of cannabis had spread to pharmacies and was prescribed by doctors in Europe and the US. 

Greece: Cannabis came to ancient Greece through trade with the Scythians, Egyptians, and Persians. Ancient Greeks used cannabis for inflammation, swelling, wound dressing, and earaches.

Rome: Ancient Roman medical texts in 70 AD listed cannabis as a cure for earaches and a way to decrease libido. They would also use the plant roots to treat gout, arthritis, and pain.

England: Evidence of the use of cannabis in Britain dates back to seeds found in Micklegate that were associated with a 10th century Viking settlement. The peak of cannabis cultivation in Great Britain was in the 16th century. The British documented later on documented these medicinal purposes for cannabis:

  • Menstrual cramps
  • Rheumatism
  • Convulsions
  • Gout
  • Joint pain
  • Muscle spasm
  • Insomnia and other sleep disorders
  • Promotion of contractions during childbirth
cannabis leaf on the world map America

Cannabis in the United States

Cannabis was brought along with the colonists to America for the following uses:

  • Clothing
  • Paper
  • Rope
  • Sales
  • Food

It was heavily used through the colonial period and even spread to Spanish missions in the southwestern US. These plants were low in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the cannabinoid which causes psychoactive effects.

Recreational marijuana wasn’t popularized in the US until the early 20th century. It was introduced by immigrants from Mexico during the Mexican Revolution. It was during the Great Depression that Americans became resentful of the Mexican immigrants’ psychoactive import, labeling marijuana as “evil.” So, riding in the wave of Prohibition, 29 states outlawed cannabis by 1931.

History of Cannabis Legality in the US

After states began to outlaw cannabis on their own, marijuana was criminalized by the federal government with the passing of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. An excise tax was put on the sale, possession, and transfer of hemp and hemp products.

And it criminalizes all uses of cannabis that were not industrial or medical. Industrial hemp was still grown and utilized in the US through World War II. A surge occurred, however, when the Philippines fell to Japanese military pressure.

This meant the US lost one of its main sources of imported hemp fiber: The Philippines. Hemp was cultivated on a wide scale till the last hemp fields were planted in 1957 in Wisconsin. 

Classified as a Controlled Substance

Hemp fell away in 1970, due to the Controlled Substances Act. This was the beginning of President Richard Nixon’s “War on Drugs.” Marijuana was at that time added to the list of Schedule I drugs along with substances like heroin and LSD.

No medical use was allowed. The National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse (the Shafer Commission) pushed back against the harsh measures in 1972. They released a report called “Marijuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding.”

It called for partial prohibition and lower penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana. It was ignored by government officials.

Marijuana was also demonized in the famous D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program of the ‘80s and ‘90s, further enforcing the idea that marijuana was a “gateway drug.”They believed smoking marijuana could give you a high potential of using harder drugs down the line. 

Legalization in Some States

Things began to turn around in 1996. This is when the state of California passed the Compassionate Use Act, which legalized medical marijuana. As of this day, many other states have followed suit.

Additionally, some states have even legalized the recreational use of marijuana, the first of which to do so were Colorado and Washington in 2012. This set the stage for a change in the opinion about cannabis in the minds of many Americans.

Changes on a Federal Level

In the following years, the Farm Bill of both 2014 and 2018 loosened the federal grip on hemp. It was first distinguished from marijuana through the amount of THC content and then taken off the list of Schedule I illegal substances.

This means that hemp and its derivatives are now federally legal. That being said, marijuana is still illegal federally. The laws constantly shift and change, but we are seeing a gradual change towards more and more legalization as time has gone on.

We will continue to follow the controversy and medical findings. For a more in-depth look at the bumpy path of Green America, we’ve included a detailed timeline of its tumultuous history.

USA Flag on cannabis background.

Timeline of Cannabis in the US

  • 1600s: The settlement of the Americas correlates with the first uses of cannabis in the region. This means the early settlers brought it along with them to the new land. The hemp plant was used to make clothing, rope, and sails. The Virginia Assembly required all farmers to grow hemp as of 1619. In some states, hemp was even used as currency.

  • 1700s: George Washington cultivated hemp throughout his lifetime for industrial purposes. These purposes included the creation of rope, sail canvas, clothing, and even to repair large seine nets used for fishing. In the 1760’s, Washington even considered using hemp as a cash crop rather than tobacco. Eventually, he decided wheat was a better alternative.

  • 1840: Cannabis became popularized in the field of medicine and was included in many products found in pharmacies. 

  • 1850: Cannabis was added to the U.S. Pharmacopeia, a compendium of drug information published every year. The plant was known as a treatment for opioid withdrawal, appetite stimulation, pain, nausea, and vomiting. 

  • 1862: Vanity Fair advertised hashish candy as a cure for melancholy and nervousness. 

  • 1900-1930: For three decades, cannabis was included in a few medications, including painkillers, sedatives, and as a treatment for muscle spasms. Also during this time, Mexican immigrants started an influx of recreational marijuana use. Because of this, people began to distrust the medications, calling cannabis the “Marijuana Menace.”

  • 1906: The passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act was the first attempt to federally regulate cannabis. The legislation required that cannabis was listed as an ingredient on product labels so that consumers would be aware of its presence. 

  • 1914-1925: Laws were passed by 26 states for the prohibition of marijuana, without much pushback from the public or political arenas. 

  • 1930s: Americans became more concerned about the dangers of cannabis. The media began to link marijuana use with crime and violence. Additionally, people like Harry Anslinger, the commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, claimed marijuana use led to insanity. This stigmatization was a big reason all states had heavily regulated marijuana use by 1936. 

  • 1936: A movie called Reefer Madness was popularized. It gave the impression that marijuana could cause its users to commit acts of violence and rape. It even pushed the idea the substances could lead to suicide and psychosis. 

  • 1937: The Marijuana Tax Act was legislated. It only allowed for specific uses of industrial and medical cannabis at the cost of a heavy excise tax.
     
  • 1942: Cannabis was removed from the U.S. Pharmacopoeia, resulting in less and less use of it in the medical sector. 

  • 1942: THC, CBD, Delta-8, and other cannabis extracts were successfully isolated for the first time by Roger Adams.

  • 1944: The argument on marijuana’s effects waged on when the New York Academy of Medicine published a report that stated marijuana was just a mild intoxicant. In response, Harry Anslinger solicited an article in the American Journal of Psychiatry attempting to discredit this claim.

  • 1952: The Boggs Act was passed, which created strict punishments for crimes involving marijuana and other drugs. 

  • 1960s: This was a big era for recreational marijuana use. It started to gain popularity among young people, especially hippies. It was found by commissioned reports from President John F. Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon Johnson that marijuana did not cause violence.

  • 1964: It is said that Dr. Raphael Mechoulam of Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel was the first to discover THC. However, there is evidence that in fact, Roger Adams was the first to isolate THC sometime in the 1940s.

  • 1965-1970: State authorities increased marijuana arrests tenfold as they began to crack down on marijuana possession and sale. 

  • 1970: The Controlled Substances Act was passed by Congress. This legislation placed marijuana on the DEA’s list of Schedule I drugs, which also included LSD and heroin. It placed harsher punishment on drug crimes. This also made it harder for the study of these substances. The legislation banned the buying, selling, possessing, or consuming of cannabis. This included all forms of cannabis including extracts, oils, and isomers. At this time, hemp had not been properly defined. There was no differentiation between THC-heavy marijuana and industrial hemp used to make building material.

  • 1970s: Even though the war on drugs waged strongly in the federal sector in these years, certain states decriminalized marijuana. Some of them were Oregon, Maine, and Alaska. 

  • 1972: The National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse (the Shafer Commission) recommended that some of the laws surrounding recreational marijuana use be loosened, but President Nixon stood his ground. 

  • 1980s-90s: More and more people considered marijuana dangerous, strengthening the opinion of it as a “gateway drug.”

  • 1982: The “Just Say No” campaign began, headed by First Lady Nancy Reagan. 

  • 1983: The Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program began in schools. Police officers would come to schools to talk about the negative effects of drugs. Eventually, funding was cut back when it was evident that the program did not deter kids from using drugs. The program finally ended in 2009. 

  • 1986: The Anti-Drug Abuse Act was enacted by President Ronald Reagan. It increased the punishments for possession and sale of marijuana. These punishments were on the same level as heroin use.

  • 1989: The “New War on Drugs” began under President George H.W. Bush. He later approved drug-related policies and the 1033 program, which equipped local and state police with military-grade equipment for anti-drug efforts. Years later, the evidence shows that these changes made no difference in the amount of drug use. 

  • 1996: California was the first state to make medicinal marijuana legal on a state level. This now allowed researchers to expand their studies into cannabinoid medical uses, including CBD. This is when the stigma began to shift.

  • 1998-1999: The Clinton era produced TV campaigns with anti-drug messages during primetime shows, spending $25 million. 

  • 2014: The Agriculture Act, or Farm Bill, of 2014 was passed. Section 7606 of 2014 The purpose of this was to cultivate hemp for research and agriculture purposes. Additionally, this legislation separated hemp from marijuana, defining it as “the plant Cannabis sativa L. and any part of such plant, whether growing or not, with a delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol concentration of not more than 0.3 percent on a dry weight basis.”

  • 2018: The Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, or Farm Bill, declassified hemp as an illicit substance. It exempted any cannabinoid that is derived from hemp excluding THC. CBD and Delta-8 fall under this category and were at this point considered federally legal. 

A Promising Green Future

The quickly evolving world of ours has brought us fast cars, access to all knowledge ever discovered at our fingertips, and the ability to communicate with people oceans away. But one thing that remains constant over the centuries is cannabis.

We still use it for its medicinal, recreational, and even spiritual purposes. And as the government is loosening its stronghold of these useful substances, it has become more accessible than ever at your local dispensary or online store.

Smoke one for a promising green future where we play a part in cannabis history.

Disclaimer: We want to state that this content is for informational purposes only. It is not provided to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease or ailment. It should not be interpreted as instruction, medical, or legal advice. It should not displace the advice of your doctor or lawyer. We recommend talking to your doctor to prepare a treatment plan for any diseases or ailments.