When you think about the early days of cannabis use, you might think of jazz clubs from the 1940s, beatnik poetry readings in the 1950s, or tie-dyed music festivals like Woodstock in the 1960s. But the history of this plant actually goes way back in time, both here in the United States and around the world.
Humans have used the cannabis plant for thousands of years as a form of medicine, ritual, and recreation. By contrast, most countries (including the United States) didn’t outlaw cannabis until well into the 20th Century. You may remember hoaky propaganda films like Reefer Madness, but did you know that the reasons for cannabis prohibition had nothing to do with public safety and everything to do with racism and xenophobia? Read on to learn about the rich, vibrant history of cannabis use around the world!
Thousands of years ago - long before the Torah was written, and longer still before European colonists ever sailed to the western hemisphere - cannabis was cultivated for medicinal purposes in China. The earliest records mentioning cannabis are believed to date back almost 5,000 years to approximately 2727-2737 BCE (before the Current Era). Cannabis is also believed to have been used in Ancient Roman and Greek cultures, eventually spreading through the Middle East and into North Africa, then across the ocean to the Western Hemisphere.
In Ancient China, cannabis was used to treat a range of ailments. It was frequently administered as a brewed tea and was used to treat pain, nausea, rheumatism, and difficulties during the birthing process.
Even here in America, cannabis extracts and topicals were widely used by colonial doctors as early as the 1700s. Cannabis products were used with great success to treat a variety of ailments, including stomach discomfort, nausea, and incontinence. Some doctors even tried to use cannabis products to treat rabies, tetanus, and sexually transmitted infections, though these types of treatments were most likely part of the “snake oil” era of cure-all quack remedies.
A number of Hindu practitioners in India began using cannabis and concentrates (like charas, a hashy resin) around the year 2000 BCE. Its use is mentioned in the Vedas, the ancient Sanskrit compilation of early Hindu texts. Cannabis was used medicinally to treat anxiety and indigestion, but some Hindus also considered cannabis to be a sacred plant associated with the god Shiva. Certain Hindu sects used the plant and its charas in religious ceremonies. To this day, many Hindus observe the religious holiday Holi by drinking Bhang, a milky beverage made from cannabis.
By 500 BCE, some Buddhist sects were using cannabis as an aid to meditation and as a ritualistic part of religious celebrations.
Around the year 400 BCE, Taoist practitioners began burning cannabis in incense censers during religious ceremonies. It was believed to remove desire in practitioners and encourage divine abilities, including the power to communicate with spirits.
Some time between the 12th and 13th Centuries CE (Current Era), a number of Norse and Germanic pagan groups began using cannabis. It is believed to have played an important role in a number of important rituals, such as fertility ceremonies and other spiritual celebrations.
In the early 20th Century, the Rastafarian movement began to take hold in Jamaica. Rastafarians use cannabis to elevate their consciousness, especially during rituals and religious ceremonies.
Not all cannabis is smokable. The hemp plant contains minute traces of THC, and therefore isn’t considered worth consuming recreationally, medicinally, or religiously. However, the hemp plant still has great historical value.
Hemp was revered as a source of strong, hardy fiber. It was used to manufacture rope, sails, textiles, and even paper. The hemp plant was widely cultivated in the original colonies, with some colonies being legally required to plant hemp and develop their own materials.
Hemp was still being harvested for textiles and ropes in the United States during World War II. However, by that point in US history, smokable forms of cannabis had already been outlawed for some time.
Medical cannabis use was widespread in America, largely in the form of tinctures and extracts, with occasional use in snake-oil tonics. However, the recreational smoking of cannabis in the United States came to be associated with immigrants due to the xenophobia and racism that became widespread during the economically-turbulent Great Depression. Many white Americans who had lost their jobs due to the economic downturn blamed immigrants and minorities rather than the economy, and that resentment only fueled the already rampant xenophobic and racist prejudices that swept across the country.
As prohibition against alcohol was coming to a close and bootleggers became a thing of the past, the Treasury Department’s Bureau of Prohibition realized they needed a new type of outlaw to chase. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics was formed in 1930, and their early campaigns were based on lies and racist propaganda that were given a national platform by the newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst.
Cannabis was federally outlawed in 1937. Cultivation, possession, and use of cannabis were made illegal, but things were stepped up even more when Richard Nixon made cannabis a Schedule I drug as part of the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. Ronald Reagan tipped the scales even further by expanding Nixon’s War on Drugs throughout the 1980s, though a few legislators and ballot initiatives helped decriminalize possession of small amounts of cannabis at the state level along the way.
Renewed Interest and Legalization
After the foundation of NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), the group began lobbying at the state level for cannabis law reform. Oregon led the way, decriminalizing cannabis in 1973. A number of states followed suit in the ensuing years, and by 1981 there were 11 states that had decriminalized (though not legalized) possession of cannabis to some degree.
In 1996, California became the first state to legalize the medicinal use of cannabis at the state level. It began with progressive municipalities like San Francisco authorizing local medical use, ultimately leading to the state-wide passing of Proposition 215 (California’s medical cannabis authorization) into law.
Throughout the 2000s, numerous other states followed suit. In 2012, Colorado and Washington passed statewide ballot initiatives to legalize the recreational possession, use, and cultivation/sale of cannabis. Today, in 2018, a combined 29 states have legalized the medical and/or recreational use of cannabis, with that number projected to grow even more in the coming years.
What’s Next For Cannabis?
Want to learn more about the human history of cannabis? We’ll be covering these topics in much greater depth later in the WeEdu series - there’s a lot of history behind this plant! In the meantime, tune in for our next WeEdu lesson, where we’ll be covering the various contemporary medical applications of cannabis and how cannabis use stacks up against other treatment options, including pharmaceuticals. Stay tuned!