A Brief History of Cannabis

People have been using some form of cannabis for thousands of years. Hemp was one of the earliest agricultural crops. The plant was cultivated for fiber and the seeds were used 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?



One of the earliest mentions of cannabis use dates back to an ancient Chinese pharmacological book, titled Shen Nung Pen Ts’ao Ching (The Classic of Herbal Medicine). It is believed that the Red Emperor Shen Nung wrote the book around 2,500 B.C. Shen Nung is known as the father of Chinese medicine and is celebrated as a patron of herbalism. In The Classic of Herbal Medicine, hemp was said to balance the yin and yang energy in the body. It was prescribed to treat pain, gout, rheumatism, poor memory, and was eventually used 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 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, dedicated to exploring the effects of hashish tea. The medicinal use of the plant quickly spread across Europe and to the United States in the mid-19th century. It was first listed in the United States Pharmacopeia in 1850 as a remedy for dozens of conditions, including dysentery, typhus, cholera, alcoholism, opiate addiction and insanity.

The Modern Era

In the 21st century, there is a significant shift in public opinion and government policy as it relates to cannabis. In 1914, the Harrison Act officially declared drug use a crime. In 1937, the U.S. government introduces the Marihuana Tax Act, prohibiting any non-medical use of cannabis. Throughout the following decade, notorious cannabis opponent, Harry Anslinger, led the newly-created Federal Bureau of Narcotics in an aggressive national campaign against marijuana use. By vilifying the plant and the minorities who used it, he instigated fear of ‘reefer madness’ across the country, forever changing our cultural landscape. 

In 1970, the Controlled Substances Act sealed the fate of cannabis as an illicit Schedule I substance, officially declaring the War on Drugs. It wasn’t until 1996 that policy began to change when California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana.


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 has sparked a new cannabis movement in recent years.


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 programs and making it legal for adult use. As regulations evolve, researchers are learning more than ever before about the medicinal and recreational benefits of the plant, thrusting cannabis closer to deregulation and, someday, full legalization.

Stephanie ThompsonIn the Know