Brief History of Cannabis

Medically reviewed by Alexander Tabibi, MD
January 28, 2021
Weed and History
Weed and History

We all know that weed has a colorful and also complicated history.  But many of us underestimate just how far back that complicated history dates.  The history of cannabis begins with it being a natural substance, it is obvious that marijuana has been part of culture for not just centuries, but thousands of years.  And, throughout generations, it is managed to be one of the most controversial plants of all time.

So, what is it about marijuana that has sparked such controversy, that continues to endure today?  Well of course, it’s THC, the chemical compound that gives marijuana its psychoactive compounds.  But up until only recently, cannabis laws prohibited the use of hemp as well, which also belongs to the same genus but does not have psychoactive properties.  Now, hemp is legal, which is why the CBD market is booming, and meanwhile, marijuana is finally seeing growing support for widespread legalization.

Today, we are going to take a closer look into the history of cannabis, to better understand why it has the reputation that it does today, and how we’ve gotten to this point in time, during which legalization continues to be a struggle in America and worldwide.

Cannabis in Ancient History

We know that both hemp and marijuana have been used since at least 3000 BC, according to archaeologists.  Marijuana was used for its psychoactive properties, as well as its medicinal properties, long before pharmaceuticals took its place.  Also, the fibers of both the plants are renowned for being very strong, so cannabis was used for practical applications, like making cloth, rope, and paper.

Cannabis comes from Central Asia and India and may be one of the first plants to ever have been cultivated due to its many uses.  The Chinese especially counted on hemp to produce clothing, as well as other types of textiles, along with pottery.  Clothing samples have been recovered from thousands of years ago that have been shown to be made from hemp material.

Assyria, now making up parts of Iran and Turkey, was known for using cannabis for religious purposes, burning it as an aromatic, potentially for its psychoactive properties.  Meanwhile, shamans in neighboring regions used it directly for its mind-altering effects, finding them to be good for enhancing spirituality.  The ancient Greeks were known to use it recreationally, enjoying the high that it created.

Weed Used Throughout the World Over the Centuries

Sometime around 1000 AD, the Middle East began to embrace marijuana in the form of hashish, which is the pressed resin that is particularly potent, and easy to smoke.  It likely came to this region in 1230 and took off quickly.  Many documents of the era show that smoking hashish was common practice during the time, without restrictions that we have now.  Around the same time, marijuana was introduced to Africa, where Africans began to build ornate pipes for smoking it.

Interestingly, Napoleon Bonaparte’s troops started using hashish during their travels, as they were unable to acquire alcohol while in the Egyptian region due to religious restrictions.  This helped marijuana usage spread throughout France and England during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Over the next several decades, cannabis became a global industry as the result of years of trade.  It became particularly popular in Spain and South America, and eventually entered America around the time of the first settlers.  It was cultivated heavily in Virginia, with an emphasis on the hemp plant, which was lauded for its durability.  Hemp became a lucrative farming material due to its high demand.

Attempts at Regulation

By the late 1700s, cannabis restrictions were going into effect in various places throughout the world.  Brazil was one of the first, making possession a criminal offense.  Napoleon quickly banned its use amongst his soldiers around the same time.  Meanwhile, an influx of English territories began outlawing it.

By the 1920s, marijuana was banned in many locations throughout the world, including ones in the Middle East and Europe, with England being one of the last countries to do so.

Criminalization of the 20th Century

In America, marijuana use was becoming extremely popular through the 1920s, as part of the jazz age era which generally had a more relaxed view on the use of intoxicating substances.  Its rising popularity may have also been a direct consequence of alcohol prohibition, with people looking for a legal option for experiencing mind-altering effects.  Weed use was especially popular within the jazz scene that was taking over pop culture at the time, in areas like Harlem and Chicago.

In 1925, at an international conference, it was determined that cannabis could no longer be imported from its original cultivation hub, India, throughout the world.  This was the first major blow to cannabis users throughout the world.

In 1937, the Marihuana Tax was passed, which effectively changed the industry forever, requiring enormous tax on cannabis products that effectively ended the trade as it had been thriving up until then.

At this point in time, it is worth pointing out that the word “marijuana” didn’t exist until after 1910.  Up until then, it was always referred to as cannabis, which included marijuana and hemp.  The term likely came from the influx of Mexican immigrants entering the United States during the era, who were probably unjustifiably blamed for rising cannabis use.  The term was likely used strategically to associate the substance with the growing Mexican population, who were looked down upon during the time.

For the next couple of decades, cannabis cultivation lost its appeal throughout the world, and especially in America.  But the rise of counterculture during the late 50s into the 60s introduced it back into the mainstream, which directly led to its complete criminalization as part of the early stages of the war on drugs.  In 1971 hemp became completely illegal, and possession of any amount would lead to jailtime in the United States.

Of course, this did not lead to weed’s eradication.  The underground drug market was birthed as a result of this legislation, and at the same time, authorities began cracking down like never before on the marijuana trade, leading to an unprecedented number of arrests throughout the country for those possessing even small amounts.  This era of mass incarceration continued through the decades and still exists today, disproportionately affecting black American communities according to statistics, where the presence of narcotics officers may be higher.

Changing Attitudes and Legalization

In 1972, Denmark decided to legalize marijuana use recreationally, making Amsterdam a popular vacation spot for cannabis enthusiasts.  It took a couple of decades for countries in North America to begin exploring legalization, and California was the first state to legalize medical marijuana.  Since then, more and more states throughout the country have legalized marijuana use, either for medicinal or recreational purposes, and in 2018, the Farm Bill legalized hemp as a substance separated from marijuana.

Still, legalization advocates have a long way to go.  America has yet to legalize marijuana federally, and many countries around the world still use harsh punishments for those caught possessing small amounts.

However, attitudes are changing, and medical researchers are discovering more and more that marijuana may be a useful therapeutic.  This means that in the next decade, marijuana could very well be legalized in much of the world.  Until then, if you live in the United States, you must check up on your state laws to know whether or not you can use it lawfully.  Hopefully, there will soon be a time when restrictions that we face today are removed at last.