Marijuana, also known as cannabis or pot, has a long history of human use. Most ancient cultures didn’t grow the plant to get high, but as herbal medicine, likely starting in Asia around 500 BC. The history of cannabis cultivation in America dates back to the early colonists, who grew hemp for textiles and rope. Political and racial factors in the 20th century led to the criminalization of marijuana in the United States, though its legal status is changing in many places.
The cannabis or hemp plant originally evolved in Central Asia before people introduced the plant into Africa, Europe and eventually the Americas. Hemp fiber was used to make clothing, paper, sails and rope, and its seeds were used as food.
Because it’s a fast-growing plant that’s easy to cultivate and has many uses, hemp was widely grown throughout colonial America and at Spanish missions in the Southwest. In the early 1600s, the Virginia, Massachusetts and Connecticut colonies required farmers to grow hemp.
These early hemp plants had very low levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical responsible for marijuana’s mind-altering effects.
There’s some evidence that ancient cultures knew about the psychoactive properties of the cannabis plant. They may have cultivated some varieties to produce higher levels of THC for use in religious ceremonies or healing practice.
Burned cannabis seeds have been found in the graves of shamans in China and Siberia from as early as 500 BC.
Medicinal use of marijuana dates back at least 5,000 years, as such cannabis history is tied to many iconic time periods. Marijuana was said to have been an ingredient in a holy anointing oil referenced in the original Hebrew version of Exodus. The Ancient Egyptians reportedly used marijuana to treat glaucoma as well as general inflammation. Chinese Emperor Fu Hsi called cannabis a popular medicine in 2,900 BC, and the Chinese had identified more than 100 medicinal uses for marijuana by 100 AD.
In 1,000 BC, the Indians created a drink called bhang, a mixture of marijuana, milk, and other ingredients, and used it as an anti-phlegmatic and anesthetic. This drink is still used in India today. Ancient Indians may have also used cannabis as a purported cure for leprosy and dysentery as well as to cure fever, encourage sleep, and improve judgment and cognition. It was also thought to prolong life.
Marijuana also has a long history of spiritual use in India. It is said that the Hindu god Shiva rested under a cannabis plant and ate its leaves following a family argument. Shiva is referred to as the Lord of Bhang. The Vedas, a collection of ancient scriptures, refer to cannabis as an herb to release people from anxiety. One story in the Vedas describes a drop of heavenly nectar falling on the earth and becoming the cannabis plant.
Other ancient cultures also used marijuana. The Ancient Greeks used it for inflammation, earaches, and swelling. In his Histories, Greek historian Herodotus described cannabis being smoked for spiritual, emotional, and sometimes recreational purposes. He discussed groups coming together and smoking, stating that the people smoking marijuana would “howl with pleasure.”
In 70 AD, Roman medical texts listed it as a cure for earache and as a way to suppress sexual desire. The Romans also boiled the roots of the plant and used them as a treatment for gout, arthritis, and generalized pain. The Arabians used it from 800 AD to 900 AD for migraines, pain, and syphilis.
The English also documented many medicinal uses of marijuana for ailments, such as:
- Menstrual cramps
- Joint pain
- Muscles spasms
- Insomnia and sleep problems
- Childbirth (to promote uterine contractions)
Marijuana in America
In the mid-1500s, the Spanish brought cannabis to the New World. They intended to grow this crop for hemp — strong fibers that could be used for clothes, bags and most especially for the rigging of ships. In Britain as well as Scandinavia, cannabis was an important crop because hemp ropes were durable despite wet, salty environments. More than 120,000 pounds of hemp ropes made from the fibers of cannabis plants were required to complete the rigging for the U.S.S. Constitution.
Also in the mid-1500s, African slaves transported to Brazil brought cannabis with them. They worked farms in Brazil and they were allowed to grow crops of marijuana to smoke.
When steamships began to replace sailing ships in the late 1800s, the need for hemp began to wane.
By 1890, hemp had been replaced by cotton as a major cash crop in southern U.S. states, but hemp plants were not grown for their intoxicating properties. The level of intoxicant in this plant was very low. That began to change in 1910 when many people fled Mexico during that country’s revolution, arriving in America and bringing cannabis with them.
Cannabis appeared as an ingredient in many patent medicines of the day, but it was a small percentage compared to the number containing opium or cocaine.
Soon after 1910, European and American legislators began to ban the use of drugs. First, there was an Opium Convention in 1912 and the Harrison Act of 1914 that, for the first time, defined use of cannabis and other drugs as a crime. By 1925, cannabis was banned or restricted in thirteen countries, including the United States. For some reason, this law did not go into effect until 1938.
It was in the 1920s that marijuana began to catch on. Some historians say its emergence was brought about by Prohibition. Its recreational use was largely restricted to jazz musicians and people in show business. “Reefer songs” became the rage of the jazz world. Marijuana clubs called tea pads sprang up in every major city. These marijuana establishments were tolerated by the authorities because marijuana was not illegal and patrons showed no evidence of making a nuisance of themselves or disturbing the community. Marijuana was not considered a social threat.
Marijuana was listed in the United States Pharmacopeia from 1850 until 1941 and was prescribed for various conditions including labor pains, nausea, and rheumatism. Its use as an intoxicant was also commonplace from the 1850s to the 1930s.
A campaign conducted in the 1930s by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Narcotics (now the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs) sought to portray marijuana as a powerful addictive substance that would cause some users to become violent.
By the 1950s, it was an accessory of the beat generation. In the 1960s it was used by college students and “hippies” and became a symbol of rebellion against authority.
The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 classified marijuana along with heroin and LSD as a Schedule I drug, which means that it has high abuse potential and no accepted medical use. Colombia then became the main supplier.
The “zero tolerance” climate of the Reagan and Bush administrations resulted in passage of strict laws and mandatory sentences for possession of marijuana and in heightened vigilance against smuggling at the southern borders. The “war on drugs” thus brought with it a shift from reliance on imported supplies to domestic cultivation (particularly in Hawaii and California) but still, boatloads of high-potency marijuana made their way from Colombia to the U.S.
Beginning in 1982, the Drug Enforcement Administration turned increased attention to marijuana farms in the United States. The potency of domestic marijuana was also increasing at this time, doubling between 1979 and 1985. According to the Monitoring the Future annual survey of drug use by teens, more than a decade of decline in marijuana use reversed in 1992. Use increased until 1997 and since then, has gone through small increases and decreases. It has never returned to the low level seen in 1991.