A Brief History of Cannabis

The history of marijuana spans thousands of years, dating back to its original cultivation in the ancient world. In fact, burned cannabis seeds have been found in tombs dating back to 3000 B.C.

History of Marijuana

Cannabis comes from Central Asia. It acquired one of its more common names from a region called the Hindu Kush in the mountains of Northern India. To this day, many strains claim an “Afghani” lineage, referring to the timeless style of growing marijuana perfected in Afghanistan’s highlands.

The very first cannabis plants are thought to have originated near Mongolia, in the vast plains of Siberia. As nomads migrated through these lands, cannabis slowly dispersed into the greater world.

Marijuana had many uses to its first cultivators. Out of this period, our understanding of the plant developed to include the manufacture of hemp. These civilizations were the first to use hemp to make rope, clothing, linens, and a variety of other products.

Many cultures throughout history have appreciated the marijuana plant. Traces of cannabis have been found in civilizations throughout time and across the planet, including cultures you wouldn’t expect to have appreciated cannabis. For example, there is evidence that cannabis was smoked by certain Emperors of China, as well as Scandinavian Vikings and Islamic Sultans.

Cannabis in the Americas

The cannabis plant did not always have the same negative stigma attached to it as it does today. In colonial America, for example, farmers in Virginia and Massachusetts were required to grow hemp as a cash crop due to its plethora of uses. However, it was not until later that use of cannabis for its psychoactive and healing effects became widespread in America.

The history of marijuana in America is complicated. For a long time, there were no restrictions on the sale, use, or consumption of cannabis. Before 1910, there simply weren’t enough people using cannabis for it to attract the attention of federal authorities.

During the beginning of the 20th century, however, cannabis consumption began to grow as trade opened up with the rest of the world at an unprecedented rate. Along with opium, the public began to consider marijuana as a “poison”, and it was eventually regulated for the first time under a series of laws known as the “poison laws”.

In 1937, the “Marihuana Tax Act” was passed, which prohibited the possession and sale of cannabis for anything other than medical or industrial use. At the same time, anti-marijuana sentiment and general misinformation about the plant was extremely pervasive, even though the popularity of cannabis continued to grow through illicit means. Regulation of cannabis by the Congress of the United States has only continued since then. This increase in government interference defines the worldwide history of marijuana during this period.

In the 1970s, the legal status of cannabis was reexamined as the old laws were said to be outdated. Unfortunately, this process only resulted in stricter controls being placed on the sale of marijuana. However, redefining the relationship between the government and marijuana has enabled states to pursue their own destiny with regards to the plant, and many states have recently opted for recreational legalization.

Political winds in the United States seem to be moving in the direction of legalization, though history proves that progress is not a straight line. As more states and countries begin to legalize cannabis, the economic benefits will likely change people’s preconceptions about an otherwise remarkable industry.

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Timeline: A Brief History of Cannabis

Contrary to prohibitionist mythology, cannabis has a long and rich history, having been used for medicinal, industrial, spiritual, and "recreational" purposes for nearly 12,000 years. You could fill an encyclopedia with a history of the "world's most versatile plant." Here's a short history of cannabis and how it has played prominently in the world for millennia:

Cannabis in Ancient Times

Researchers have discovered that as far back as 6,000 BCE (or earlier), the Chinese used cannabis seeds and oil for food. Later, ma’ ren (one of the many Chinese words for cannabis) became part of Chinese pharmacopoeia, and to this day is considered one of 50 “essential herbal remedies.” The first recorded use of cannabis as medicine by the Chinese is 2,737 BCE (by Emperor Shen Neng of China).

Archaeologists have discovered that the Scythians (modern day Ukrainians) - no wonder Vladimir Putin has long had his eye on reclaiming Crimea! There is evidence the Scythians used cannabis not only for industrial purposes, but for its psychoactive properties.

In India, a country who has long used plant-based medicine, cannabis was used medicinally for thousands of years (until it fell out of favor due to oppressive colonial laws enacted by the British).

We also find references to cannabis in ancient Persian religious texts like the Zoroastrian Zend Avesta (700-600 BCE). The text even refers to bhang as the "good narcotic," acknowledging its psychotropic properties. Similarly, by 100 BCE, Chinese emperor, Pen Ts'ao Ching, mentions the psychotropic properties of cannabis in The Herbal (a Chinese book of pharmacopeia).

Cannabis in the U.S.

Fast forward to the Americas, and we find a rich history of cannabis within the United States:

1619: The U.S. passes first cannabis law

For years, the government encouraged farmers to produce hemp for everything from clothes to rope. And, in 1619 the Virginia Assembly passed a law that requiring all farmers to grow hemp. Hemp is used as legal tender in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania.

1830: Doctor O’Shaughnessy introduces cannabis to Western Medicine

After learning about the therapeutic benefits of cannabis in India, Irish doctor, William O’Shaughnessy, introduces medicinal marijuana to the Western doctors for the treatment of muscle spasms and pain.

Mid 1800s: "High-Society" Americans and French enjoy their cannabis

Hashish becomes a fad in France and the U.S.

Late 1800s: Cannabis sold openly in public pharmacies

Cannabis becomes a popular ingredient in therapeutic remedies sold over-the-counter in pharmacies.

1906: Federal government requires drug labeling

The Pure Food and Drug Act is passed mandating that any over-the-counter remedy containing must be labeled.

1910: Xenophobia starts to fuel anti-cannabis sentiment

After the Mexican Revolution, thousands of Mexicans flood into the U.S. With them, they bring a culture of consuming cannabis recreationally. Bigotry towards Mexican immigrants results in increasing demonization of cannabis.

1936: Reefer Madness - Cannabis deemed an “evil weed” and is Public Enemy #1

Hollywood releases anti-pot propaganda film Reefer Madness following a group of high school students whose marijuana use leads them into promiscuity and other nefarious behavior.

1937: Congress passes “Marihuana Tax Act of 1937”

Director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry J. Anslinger, leads racist campaign to create hysteria about the dangers of cannabis. Ignoring recommendations from the American Medical Association, infamous race-baiter and anti-cannabis crusader, Harry Anslinger, successfully convinces Congress to pass the “Marihuana Tax Act of 1937,” effectively banning cannabis (with its onerous restrictions). Most American pharma companies stop producing medicines containing cannabinoids.

1942: U.S. removes cannabis from official U.S. Pharmacopeia

According to author, Martin Lee, the counsel to the American Medical Association (William Woodward) recounted:  “Congress being what it was at the time, you could ram things through just by bullshitting,” according Lee adds. “Who’s going to be stepping up to the plate [in 1937] to defend a drug that blacks, Latinos and jazz musicians use?” Predictably, cannabis disappears from U.S. pharmacopeia.

1944: First marijuana peddlers are arrested and jailed

Drug raids lead to arrests of dozens of Hollywood actors who are casual users of the “evil weed.” Anslinger takes over control of how Hollywood films may portray cannabis.

1950s: The Beat Generation goes "on the road"

led by Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsburg, and others, cannabis culture becomes a key part of the Beat Generation's legendary poets and artists.

1960s: White kids in suburbia embrace cannabis

Cannabis use becomes mainstream with middle and upper class kids embracing “pot” and drug culture. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson commission studies which affirm earlier findings that cannabis is not a gateway drug nor does not cause violence.

1967: “Flower Power” fuels anti-prohibition efforts

The mainstream media and “hippies” question marijuana prohibition. Usage among the youth skyrockets. Along with an increase in popularity, enforcement and arrests dramatically increases.

1968: President Nixon launches “War on Drugs”

Richard Nixon wins the presidency after running on a “law and order” campaign, promising to restore order to a country experiencing widespread civil unrest and disobedience. Many years later (in 1994), key Nixon aide, John Ehrlichman, confesses to journalist Dan Baum:

“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

“Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

1970: U.S. classifies cannabis as one of the “most dangerous drugs”

Pending results of the Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse’s report, cannabis is placed on Schedule I (meaning the government considers cannabis as dangerous and addictive as heroin). To this day, even after thousands of published studies on cannabis and dozens of petitions to reschedule cannabis, this plant remains a Schedule I drug.

1971: Nixon wages war on left wingers using ‘pot’ as an excuse

Despite the fact cannabis was to be placed temporarily on Schedule I until science could be evaluated, President Nixon smelled opportunity. He saw cannabis prohibition as a way to destroy the leftist anti-war movement he deemed a thorn in his side. Nixon is famously recorded saying, “I want a goddamn strong statement on marijuana. Can I get that out of this sonofabitching, uh, domestic council? … I mean one on marijuana that just tears the ass out of them.

1972: Nixon rejects Shafer Commission findings

The Shafer Commission determines that cannabis is as safe as alcohol, and recommends the decriminalization of marijuana for personal use and an end of Nixon’s anti-drug efforts — citing it as a waste of taxpayer money. Nixon pressures the commission to reject its findings.

1977: President Carter calls for decriminalization

Former President Carter follows the advice of libertarian-leaning conservatives (like William F. Buckley), the American Medical Association, and others, by calling for the decriminalization of cannabis.

1986: Mandatory minimum sentencing become the law of the land

President Reagan signs the Anti-Drug Abuse Act into law which implements mandates mandatory minimum sentencing for sales (and possession)  of cannabis, stiffening federal penalties that disproportionately affect the poor.

1988: The DEA's own administrative judge recommends rescheduling

Judge Francis Young recommends removing cannabis from Schedule I. Young states, “Marijuana, in its natural form, is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man. By any measure of rational analysis marijuana can be safely used within a supervised routine of medical care.” The DEA rejects its judge's findings, and revises precedents to make cannabis more difficult to reschedule.

1996: California makes history - legalizes medical marijuana

Californians pass Prop 215 and California becomes the first state in the nation to legalize medical marijuana. Over the following decade, numerous other states follow suit.

2012: Colorado and Washington State make history, legalizing cannabis for recreational (adult-use)

Colorado and Washington State voters legalized the recreational sale and use of cannabis.

Remarkably, all Hell (does not) break loose!

2016: Politics change, but election of Trump concerns many in the cannabis community

Remarkably, most presidential candidates from all political persuasions express support for medical cannabis. There is less consensus over recreational cannabis. President-elect Trump expressed emphatic support for clinical cannabis on the campaign trail. He also expressed lukewarm support for allowing states to chart their own course. However, his appointment of anti-cannabis crusader -- Sen. Jeff Sessions -- sends shivers through the cannabis community. Sessions reminds many activists of anti-drug warriors from the "Reefer Madness" era. He even made the absurd claim, "Good people don't smoke marijuana."


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