Today, cannabis is more popular than ever. It provides health benefits on a mental and physical level. But if you go back in time to study the history of cannabis, you will find it hasn’t always been this way.
This article will review the history of cannabis so you can see its trajectory over the year.
The History of Cannabis: The Early Days
The history of cannabis can be traced back to around 500 B.C. It’s likely to have been first grown in Asia. Back then, people did not smoke it primarily to get high. It was mostly used for medical and religious purposes.
Eventually, crops spread to other countries. It became popular in Africa and Europe before making its way to America.
Cannabis was largely used for its hemp fiber which was integrated into ropes, sails, clothing, and paper. Its seeds were used as food.
Early cannabis did not have a high THC content. However, it is believed that ancient cultures eventually discovered cannabis’s potential psychoactive properties and cultivated it to become more potent. Marijuana with potent THC was used in ceremonies and healing practices.
Medical Marijuana Becomes a Thing
Cannabis use continued throughout the years, but it gained attention in the 1830s when an Irish doctor named Sir William Brooke O’Shaughnessy found it had medical properties. His studies revealed it could reduce stomach pain and vomiting in people suffering from cholera.
By the late 1800s, changes occurred in the history of cannabis. Extracts were sold in pharmacies and doctors’ offices throughout the United States and Europe. It was later found that the doctors of the 1800s were on to something. Recent studies show THC interacts with parts of the brain to reduce nausea and promote hunger.
The Rise and Fall of Recreational Weed
Weed had long been used for recreational purposes throughout the Middle East and Asia. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus described a group of Iranian nomads in Central Asia, called the Scythians, inhaling smoke from smoldering cannabis seeds to get high.
Smoking hashish became a habit in these same regions around 800 AD. It was especially popular with Islamics. The religion forbade drinking alcohol and other intoxicating substances but did not prohibit marijuana.
Recreational weed smoking did not become popular in America until the early 1900s. It was introduced to the country by Mexican immigrants who migrated to the United States during the Mexican Revolution. This was a huge stepping stone in the history of cannabis.
But the freedom to enjoy marijuana would be short-lived. The civil unrest of the Great Depression bred resentment toward Mexicans. That sentiment, along with a suspicion of intoxicating substances that came with Prohibition, led to cannabis being outlawed. It was illegal in 29 states by 1931.
The Marijuana Tax Act is Introduced
Things went from bad to worse when the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 was introduced. It was the first United States federal law to criminalize marijuana nationwide. It imposed an excise tax on the sale, possession, and transfer of all hemp products including industrial goods.
Industrial hemp continued to be grown in the United States throughout World War II. However, the Philippines, a major source of hemp fiber, become controlled by Japanese forces.
Without the ability to trade with the Philippines, it was inefficient for America to continue cultivating hemp. The last hemp fields of the era were planted in Wisconsin in 1957.
In other news, 58-year-old farmer Samuel Caldwell became the first person prosecuted under the Marijuana Tax Act. He was arrested on October 2, 1937, just one day after the bill passed. He was sentenced to four years of hard labor.
Things looked bleak for the history of cannabis.
Marijuana Becomes a Controlled Substance
The next chapter on the history of cannabis is the War on Drugs.
The War on Drugs was launched in the 1970s as a government-led initiative to stop illegal drug use. President Richard Nixon did his part by repealing the Marijuana Tax Act and replacing it with the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. It placed all substances regulated under existing law into one of five schedules.
Marijuana was classified as a Schedule I drug placing it in a category with much more serious drugs, such as heroin. A Schedule I drug is said to be highly addictive and to have little medical use. Anti-drug programs like D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) referred to it as a ‘gateway drug.’
A 1972 report from the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse, AKA the Shafer Commission, titled “Marijuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding,” recommended lower penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana and a partial prohibition stance. Nixon and other officials ignored the report.
Marijuana continued to be illegal and stigmatized for several years. But the tide changed in 1996 when California launched the Compassionate Use Act that legalized marijuana use for people with severe and chronic illnesses. Twenty-nine states, Washington D.C., and the U.S. territories of Guam and Puerto Rico followed suit allowing limited marijuana use for medical reasons.
This paved the way for big changes in the history of cannabis.
As of 2023, 20 states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for recreational use. Thirty-eight states and the District of Columbia allow the medical use of cannabis products.
Looking back at the history of cannabis, we’ve certainly come a long way. While marijuana is still not legal on a federal level, bills to change legislation are being introduced on an ongoing basis. Hopefully, we will soon reach that goal.
In the meantime, smoke ‘em if you’ve got ‘em!