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History of Cannabis: Where Does Marijuana Come From?

People have been using some form of cannabis for thousands of years. The history of cannabis cultivation starts with hemp, one of the earliest agricultural crops. In many regions, people cultivated the plant for fiber and used the seeds to make food and oil. Archeological evidence shows that hemp was used to make different textiles, ropes, and paper.

Many different cultures and religions have documented the cannabis plant in medicinal, spiritual and recreational practices. So, how did cannabis go from a common agricultural crop to becoming the fastest growing industry in the United States? The answer is complex given the plant’s storied history as a universal medicine, political catalyst, and cultural phenomenon.


One of the oldest references of cannabis use dates back to an ancient Chinese pharmacological book, titled Shen Nung Pen Ts’ao Ching (The Classic of Herbal Medicine). Many scholars believe that the Red Emperor Shen Nung wrote the book around 2500 B.C. Shen Nung is the father of Chinese medicine and a celebrated patron of herbalism. The Classic of Herbal Medicine says that hemp can balance the yin and yang energy in the body. Many herbalists prescribed hemp to treat pain, gout, rheumatism, poor memory, and as an anesthetic.

In Hindu culture, hemp was considered a holy plant. Sacred Hindu texts dating back to around 2000 B.C. refer to the plant as a liberator of fear and source of happiness and joy. At that time, cannabis was often ground into a paste and made into a drink called bhang, a beverage still consumed today. Medical cannabis has been mentioned in ancient texts from Egypt, Greece, and Arab countries to treat ailments ranging from gastrointestinal issues, inflammation, pain, and insomnia.

Throughout the Middle Ages, cannabis, in the form of hashish, became very popular in Arab countries. It eventually made its way to Europe during medieval times. It is said that Shakespeare smoked cannabis in the 1600s, but it is certain that French luminaries did. In the mid-1800s, Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Charles Baudelaire, and other intellectuals formed the Club des Hashischins, a salon dedicated to exploring the effects of hashish tea.

The medicinal use of the plant quickly spread across Europe and to North America in the 19th century. It was first listed in the United States Pharmacopeia in 1854. After that, hundreds of medical articles followed. Many physicians considered cannabis a remedy for dozens of conditions, including dysentery, typhus, cholera, alcoholism, opiate addiction and insanity.


Cannabis was once commonly known as marijuana, but today the word is considered controversial throughout the industry. So, where did the term marijuana originate? The term “marihuana” dates back to the early 1900s and comes from Mexican Spanish. Prior to 1910, the word cannabis was used by medical literature and the public to refer to the plant. At the time, major pharmaceutical giants, like Bristol-Meyers Squibb and Eli Lilly, sold cannabis extracts as medicine. Cannabis was considered a common household remedy that had a variety of benefits.

You might wonder – why do people think cannabis is such a bad thing? The answer is rooted in political agendas, powerful government propaganda and a fear of the unknown. To understand why cannabis has such a huge social stigma, we have to take a look at the early 20th century. The Mexican Revolution of 1910 forced a wave of immigrants to migrate to the Southwestern United States. A dislike for foreigners led local U.S. authorities to develop and promote a fear of the new immigrants and their traditional, all-natural form of intoxication: cannabis. Police and newspapers sensationalized violent crimes of immigrants, blaming their behavior on cannabis use. This kicked off a decades-long misrepresentation of the cannabis plant, effectively laying the foundation for the War on Drugs.


In the 20th century, the United States saw major development in government policy. Passed in 1906, the Pure Food and Drug Act, also known as the Wiley Act, was one of the first pieces of legislation to offer consumer protection. The measure required drug manufacturers to list the active ingredients on product labels. The Wiley Act led to the creation of the Food and Drug Administration.

In 1913, California lawmakers passed the first bill to ever criminalize the cultivation of cannabis referred to then as “locoweed”. Though cannabis was becoming a racially-charged scapegoat in other parts of the country, this first bill was more of an effort to regulate psychoactive pharmaceuticals by the Board of Pharmacy. In 1914, the Harrison Narcotics Act officially declared drug use a crime. The Harrison Narcotics Act regulated and taxed the production and distribution of coca products and opiates. These drugs were technically illegal for distribution and use, but physicians could continue to prescribe narcotics. This measure paved the way for the modern pharmaceutical industry.

So, who made cannabis illegal? It’s a complex combination of different people and events, but there is a primary person we can point to. Notorious cannabis opponent, Harry Anslinger, led the newly-created Federal Bureau of Narcotics in an aggressive national campaign against cannabis use. In the 1930s, the United States was struggling after the Great Depression. The psyche of the American people was hurting and a continued influx of immigrants only exacerbated things. In the South and metropolitan areas, jazz music was becoming more popular. Many musicians embraced cannabis for its creative and uplifting properties, but this only radicalized the plant further. Anslinger used this fear of change and progressive music to cement the negative perception of the plant.

Between 1915 and 1937, over half of the states banned the cultivation, consumption, and sale of the plant. In 1937, the United States government introduced the Marijuana Tax Act, placing a small tax on the sale of cannabis. Additionally, the law prohibited any non-medical use of cannabis.

Anslinger testified before Congress during the sole hearing for the Marijuana Tax Act. He shared,

“There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz, and swing, result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and any others. The primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races. Marijuana is an addictive drug which produces in its users insanity, criminality, and death. You smoke a joint and you’re likely to kill your brother. Marijuana is the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind.”

Rabinowitz, M. and Lurigio, A. J. (2009, Aug.). “A Century of Losing Battles: The Costly and Ill-Advised War on Drugs.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association Annual Meeting, Hilton San Francisco, San Francisco, CA. Retrieved from

Despite the fact that the American Medical Association considered cannabis to be a fairly harmless drug, the vote passed. By vilifying the plant and the minorities who used it, Anslinger instigated a fear of ‘reefer madness’ across the country, forever changing our cultural landscape. The Marijuana Tax Act intended to discourage the cultivation and consumption of cannabis, by taxing individuals who grew it and the physicians and druggists who provided it. In addition, the measure allowed for the arrest and imprisonment of those who violated the act.

In 1944, the Mayor of New York, Fiorello LaGuardia, who opposed the Marijuana Tax Act, launched a committee to study the scope of cannabis use in New York. This was one of the first in-depth studies to look at the effects of smoking cannabis.

The New York Academy of Science published the report which found that smoking cannabis does not lead to addiction in the medical sense of the word. The report also stated that it is not a determining factor in major crimes and “the publicity concerning the catastrophic effects of marihuana smoking in New York City is unfounded.”

Despite this research, the war marched on, in large part to Harry Anslinger’s far-reaching power and anti-cannabis mission. Throughout the following decade, the U.S. experienced a significant shift in public opinion. Cannabis continued to be marginalized as a dangerous substance, detrimental to the well-being of our society.


In October 1970, Congress passed the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act. This included a statute, the Controlled Substances Act, that created categories for controlled substances determined by their medicinal use and addictive qualities. This legislation sealed the fate of cannabis as an illicit substance. In 1970, Dr. Roger O. Egeberg, the Assistant Secretary of Health, wrote a recommendation that cannabis should be classified as a Schedule I substance. In this letter, he wrote,

“Since there is still a considerable void in our knowledge of the plant and effects of the active drug contained in it, our recommendation is that marijuana be retained within schedule 1 at least until the completion of certain studies now underway to resolve the issue.”

Gupta, S. (2013, Aug). Why I changed my mind on weed. CNN. Retrieved from

Essentially, his reasoning for the strictest drug classification was not because of scientific evidence of its dangers, but because of a lack of research illustrating its benefits. At the time, there were preliminary studies that showed promise for the medical benefits of the cannabis plant. Rather than launch clinical studies of the plant, the government chose to outlaw it completely.

In 1971, President Nixon famously declared drug abuse to be public enemy number one, leading the press to coin the term, “the War on Drugs”. Many hypothesized that the government launched a campaign to catalyze the anti-drug mission by associating cannabis and heroin use with hippies and African-Americans, respectively. However, their concern wasn’t about the drugs as much as it was about these two groups.

In 1994, John Ehrlichman, who served as the White House Domestic Affairs Advisor, admitted on the record that this was, in fact, the Nixon administration’s intention. In an interview with Harper’s Magazine, Ehrlichman shared,

“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.”

Lopez, G. (2016, Mar). Nixon official: real reason for the drug war was to criminalize black people and hippies. Vox. Retrieved from

A few years later, the Bureau of Narcotics was replaced by the Drug Enforcement Administration. The DEA spearheaded an aggressive mission to eradicate drug use domestically. In the 1980s, the Bush administration began involving the U.S. military and the CIA with national and international drug efforts. Over the following decades, the War on Drugs continued to have immense negative repercussions in the U.S. and around the world. Hundreds of thousands of people were incarcerated for cannabis consumption and possession. Harsh sentencing laws destroyed lives and tore families apart. Minority communities were impacted far more than others. All of this also created a huge social stigma attached to consuming cannabis.

Meanwhile, the marijuana movement was slowly beginning to take shape. Grassroots activists launched organizations, like NORML, and began campaigning for cannabis reform. In 1973, Oregon became the first state to decriminalize certain cannabis offenses. Other states began to rethink their laws.

In the mid-70s, California reduced the personal possession of an ounce or less of cannabis from a felony to a misdemeanor with a small fine. Progressive policies on the West coast gave people more freedom to consume, allowing them to discover just how many therapeutic benefits the marijuana plant has.

A few decades of dedication and commitment by patients and activists culminated in 1996 when California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana, the first real win in the medical marijuana movement.


In 1998, Oregon, Alaska, and Washington all legalized medical marijuana through ballot measures. The next two decades saw about one state per year follow in these footsteps. By 2011, nineteen states legalized medical marijuana in some way, shape or form. As more states legalized medical programs, cannabis activists gained momentum which culminated in the 2012 legalization of recreational cannabis in Washington and Colorado. This was a momentous accomplishment for cannabis activists and sparked a global cannabis movement.

Many factors contributed to the change in public opinion, but compelling patient stories were, by far and away, the most powerful source of influence. From cannabis’ remarkable ability to reduce seizures in epilepsy patients to its potential as a treatment for PTSD, it became hard for the public to ignore the medical possibilities of the marijuana plant. Our nation’s opioid epidemic also fueled America’s acceptance of medical cannabis.

Although cannabis is still listed as a Schedule I narcotic at the federal level, more and more states are taking cannabis regulation into their own hands by implementing medical marijuana programs and making it legal for adult use. Regulations are evolving, allowing researchers to conduct real scientific research about the effects of cannabis. The more we learn, the further we propel cannabis towards national decriminalization and, someday, full legalization.


So, where does medical marijuana stand today? In the United States, thirty-three states and D.C. have legalized some form of medical marijuana. In 2018, Congress passed the Farm Bill, legalizing the cultivation and production of hemp and hemp-derived products across the country. Though this doesn’t affect access to cannabis directly, it is a huge step in the right direction.

In non-legal states, we’re seeing more and more lawmakers introduce and co-sponsor decriminalization and medical marijuana bills. Lawmakers are current debating crucial pieces of legislation. The Democratic and Republican support for bills like the SAFE Banking Act and the VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act makes it clear that cannabis has officially become a bipartisan issue. For the first time in history, we’re seeing presidential candidates on both sides campaign for the reform of cannabis laws.

Patients and their caretakers have been essential to the medical marijuana movement in the past decade. By sharing their stories, cannabis advocates have helped shape public opinion and influence legislation. Over the past few years, North America has set an example of how crucial it is to increase access to safe, reliable forms of cannabis. Slowly, but surely, other countries are following suit by reevaluating their drug laws. In the past five years, places like the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, Greece, Australia, South Korea, and Thailand have legalized medical marijuana in some form.

No one can deny that the cannabis movement is in full force. It is imperative that we remain focused on changing policy and repairing the damages done by the War on Drugs. But it’s also important to look back on how far we’ve come. We should all celebrate our immense progress and be grateful for the freedoms we have today.


From the earliest known example of cannabis use to the Western world’s discovery of the plant, the history of cannabis is complex and still somewhat of a mystery. It is, however, a fascinating look at how government and propaganda can turn an ancient medicine into a supposed “dangerous” narcotic. Today, the medical marijuana movement is too powerful to ignore and someday, hopefully soon, everyone will have access to the benefits of the marijuana plant.

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