Medical and recreational marijuana have longstanding roots around the globe. Cannabis, more commonly known in the past two centuries as marijuana, has a long history of uses and slang names.
There’s growing evidence that ancient cultures knew about the psychoactive properties of the cannabis plant. They often applied the use in medicine and may have cultivated some varieties to produce higher levels of THC for use in ceremonies or healing.
Along with cannabis plants, the hemp plant has similar characteristics and healing potential. The use of cannabis and hemp in medicine is nothing new to the planet. Cultivation in America dates back to colonists who grew hemp for textiles and rope. Hemp fiber was used to make clothing, paper, sails and rope while seeds were often used as food.
Because it’s a fast-growing plant that’s easy to cultivate, hemp was widely grown throughout east coast and at Spanish missions in the Southwest. In the early 1600s, the colonies of Virginia, Massachusetts and Connecticut required farmers to grow hemp. U.S. hemp fields also were planted in 1957 in Wisconsin.
Industrial hemp continued to be grown in the United States throughout World War II, when its domestic cultivation was encouraged after the Philippines—a major source of imported hemp fiber—fell to Japan.
Hemp plants have low levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical responsible for marijuana’s mind-altering effects. But hemp plants contain high levels of the cannabidiol or CBD.
The History of Marjiuana as Medicine
Most ancient cultures didn’t use the plant to get high. However, cannabis has a long history as a medicinal aid.
Cannabis has been used in central Asia for thousands of years. Archaeological research proves it was being cultivated in China in 4000 B.C. and Turkestan in 3000 B.C. People living in countries like India, China, parts of the Middle East, South Africa and South America have long understood the medicinal power of cannabis.
More than 5000 years ago, a Chinese emperor is recorded as using cannabis to treat things like malaria, pains associated to arthritis and “female disorders.” There are reports of the Chinese taking hemp and mixing it with wine to make a form of anesthesia that could be used during surgery.
In India, cannabis has long been used as a way to treat insomnia, stimulate the appetite of people who did not want to eat because of physical elements or psychological disorders. Uses also included lowering body temperatures, easing migraine headaches and treating dysentery.
In African countries, cannabis also was used to treat dysentery, malaria and high fevers.Today, there are tribes in Africa where women will smoke marijuana prior to childbirth.
Through the late 1700s and 1800s, Western civilization began exploring the benefits of cannabis. However, toward the end of the 19th Century, the use of medical cannabis began to decline for lack of proven results.
The use of cannabis as medicine has entered the national debate in the United States and other Western countries within the past two decades.
In the 21st Century, interest in using cannabis as medicine has grown exponentially and has resulted in a change in public opinion. People in the United State, Europe and Israel have research now to back claims of treating everything from skin conditions to stomach ailments. As marijuana use becomes legal in more states, more people will be able to experience its benefits.
Key Historical Dates
- Medicinal cannabis started in Asia around 500 B.C. Strains of cannabis and hemp plant originally evolved in Central Asia before humans introduced the plant into Africa, Europe, and eventually the Americas.
- Burned cannabis seeds have been found in the graves of shamans in China and Siberia from as early as 500 BC.
- In the 1830s, Sir William Brooke O’Shaughnessy, an Irish doctor studying in India, found that cannabis extracts could help lessen stomach pain and vomiting in people suffering from cholera.
- By the late 1800s, cannabis extracts were sold in pharmacies and doctors’ offices throughout Europe and the United States to treat stomach problems and other ailments.
- In the 1970, researchers in Israel found cannabis eased nausea in children after incurring chemo treatments.
- Hashish (a purified form of cannabis smoked with a pipe) was widely used throughout the Middle East, India and parts of Asia near 800 AD.
History of Recreational Cannabis
An ancient Greek historian named Herodotus described the Scythians—a large group of Iranian nomads in Central Asia—inhaling the smoke from smoldering cannabis seeds and flowers to get high.
In the United States, marijuana wasn’t widely used for recreational purposes until the early 1900s. Mexicans that immigrated to the United States during the tumultuous years of the Mexican Revolution introduced the recreational practice of smoking marijuana to American culture.
History of Cannabis and the Law
Massive unemployment and social unrest during the Great Depression stoked resentment of Mexican immigrants and public fear of the “evil weed.” Consistent with the Prohibition era’s view of all intoxicants—29 states had outlawed cannabis by 1931.
The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 was the first federal U.S. law to criminalize marijuana nationwide. The Act imposed an excise tax on the sale, possession or transfer of all hemp products, effectively criminalizing all but industrial uses of the plant.
As part of the “War on Drugs,” the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, signed into law by President Richard Nixon, repealed the Marijuana Tax Act and listed marijuana as a Schedule I drug along with heroin, LSD and ecstasy.
In 1972, a report from the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse (also known as the Shafer Commission) released a report titled “Marijuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding.” The report recommended “partial prohibition” and lower penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana. Nixon and government officials, however, ignored the report.
California, in the Compassionate Use Act of 1996, became the first state to legalize marijuana for medicinal use by people with severe or chronic illnesses. Washington, D.C., 30 states and the U.S. territories of Guam and Puerto Rico now allow the use of cannabis for limited medical purposes.
As of January 2018, nine states and Washington, D.C., have legalized marijuana for recreational use. Colorado and Washington became the first states to do so in 2012. Adults also can light up without a doctor’s prescription in Alaska, California, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Vermont and Oregon. Vermont is the only state where it is legal but not sold.