What You Need to Know About the History of Cannabis

What You Need to Know About the History of Cannabis

There’s no denying that there’s a huge disparity in all the information about cannabis. Seems odd, right? It may make some more sense if we look at the history of the plant. The use of cannabis sativa has long been debated. Understanding cannabis’ rocky road lends to understanding all the confusion and controversy. So let’s crack this egg and get to the bottom of it…

Cannabis can be traced back 36 million years ago to the Central Asian/Himalayan region. While it’s important to know that cannabis history predates everything we’ve ever known, this isn’t a history blog. So let’s focus on the States…

History shows that cannabis was brought to the New World by Christopher Columbus. Our forefathers utilized hemp in making ropes and ship sails. To pay their taxes, settlers were required to plant and harvest hemp. 

The cannabis plant also played an impressive role in the shaping of our country. The Declaration of Independence was first drafted on hemp paper before it’s final copy was imposed on animal skin- as it was thought to last even longer. The creator of the American flag, Betsy Ross wove the stripes and stars of red, white and blue with hemp fiber.

By the 1800s, cannabis was being prescribed by American doctors and was officially listed in the United States Pharmacopeia. In 1839, physician William Brooke O’Shaughnessy published his findings of cannabis being an analgesic, appetite stimulant, antiemetic, muscle relaxant, and anticonvulsant. These findings were backed up by psychiatrist Jacques-Joseph Moreau when he documented the use of his patients, students and himself. Cannabis was then available in the US Dispensatory in 1854. The first cannabis medical conference was held by the Ohio State Medical Society in 1860.

More than one-hundred scientific articles had been published about the efficacy of cannabis in the United States and Europe by the 1900s. The plant was becoming know to treat many conditions and diseases including hay fever, tuberculosis, and gout. Cannabis tinctures were available and marketed by Merck, Burroughs-Wellcome, Bristol-Meyers Squibb, Parke-Davis, and Eil Lilly. Yes, even Big Pharma once embraced cannabis.

The Mexican Revolution in 1910 caused an influx of immigrants into American society. They were said to introduce recreational cannabis use and the term “marihuana” – combining the name Maria, mother of Jesus, and huana is a slang Spanish word for stuff. At the same time, Punjabi immigrants landed on the west coast bring “ganja” or “chakras” with them.

At this time, racism was not only socially acceptable but it was the way of life. Recreational cannabis use became know as “the opium for the poor.” Its use was increasingly popular by “darker-skinned immigrants.”     

As Steve DeAngelo says in his book The Cannabis Manifesto, “Prohibtion has never been about the inherent properties of the plant- it’s always been about the people using it.”

Four years later, as cannabis was making it’s way into racially diverse American neighborhoods, the Congress passed the Harrison Act defining drug use – including cannabis – as a punishable crime. Over the course of a decade+ (1915-1927), the states started to prohibit the non-medical use of a cannabis. By 1936, the movie “Reefer Madness” was used a propaganda to scared Americans away from cannabis. None of the information circulating about cannabis with based on scientific or historical research. Research did matter at this time. The problem was seemingly the people who were partaking in cannabis use.

Harry Anslinger, the Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) had said, “Most marijuana smokers are Negroes, Hispanics, jazz musicians, and entertainers. Their satanic music is driven by marijuana, and marijuana smoking by white women makes them want to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and others.” Some say Anslinger was the mastermind behind cannabis prohibition with quotes like this one. He campaigned against cannabis sensationalizing hate and racism. Subsequent laws prohibiting cannabis were based on racial stereotyping and gross misinformation.

Dr. William C. Woodward of the American Medical Association (AMA) testified in front of Congress, “The American Medical Association knows of no evidence that marijuana is a dangerous drug…future investigation may show that there are substantial medical uses for Cannabis.” This testimony seemed to have fallen on deaf ears. While the testimony of William Randolph Hearst- who’s timber business was being challenged by the hemp industry- made a lasting impression. Hearst also had holding in media / publishing that were used to push his anti-hemp agenda. Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. 

In 1939, New York Mayor Fiorello LaGaurdia commissioned a committee of mostly medical professionals to conduct a thorough study on cannabis. Their findings stipulated that cannabis did not cause crime nor lead to addiction. This just cause Anslinger and the  FBN to invent “gateway drug” propaganda to further their racist agenda.

By 1941, cannabis was no longer being recognized for its medicinal use and it was removed from Pharmacopoeia.

The FBN continued their misguided plight until Anslinger retired from in 1962. President Kennedy convened an Ad Hoc Panel on Drug Abuse which found “the hazards of marijuana use have been exaggerated…long criminal sentences are in poor social perspective.” By the end of the 1960s, evidence was overwhelming collected supporting that cannabis should never that been made illegal in the first place.

But that all changed again with the Nixon Administration. The “War on Drugs” was launched in 1968. The prohibition of cannabis culminated with the 1970 Controlled Substance Act. Cannabis was “temporarily” placed as a Schedule I drug. In conjunction with these efforts, The Schafer Commission produced the most comprehensive report on cannabis conducted by the federal government. While they found cannabis does not cause violent crime, addiction, psychosis, or any significant negative impact, Nixon would not accept these findings.

John Ehrlichman put it like this, “Look, we understood we couldn’t make is illegal to be young and poor or black in the United States, but we could criminalize their common pleasure.”

Cannabis was categorized as a Schedule I drug deeming it as highly addictive, devoid of medical value, and lacking safe use. Cannabis shares this categorization with cocaine, LSD, and heroin. The laws also reflected the scheduling of the drug categories with possession of small qualities of cannabis leading to lengthy incarceration. Cannabis then came to the aid of the racist political agenda. Nixon went as far as to close down the Mexican border to prevent cannabis imports in Operation Interception.

The attitude of shifted and many American increasingly saw cannabis as part and parcel with racial mixing, sexual freedom, women’s liberation and the anti war movement. Cannabis like all these other movements were considered a threat to traditional values.

The political dealings did not stop researchers. In the 1970s to the early 1990s, clinical interest was re-ignited with the identification of the chemical compound THC. Researchers have continued to prove cannabis has Malay medicinal qualities and should not be a Schedule I drug. The IOM, AMA, American College of Physicians and many other prominent groups have petitioned the government to reconsider cannabis’ Schedule I status.

Presidents Carter and Clinton worked to have this changed to no avail. Even the DEA’s own Administrative Law Judge Francis Young stated “marijuana in its natural form is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man.” President Clinton endorsed legalization of cannabis at a state-level.

Now as the majority of Americans approve of legalization, cannabis remains a Schedule I drug. It’s been legalization for medicinal and recreational use in the majority of states but businesses still aren’t able to use federally funded banking, and are subjected to high taxes, federal raids,and possible criminal penalties. 

Americans are getting hip to the decades of federal lies. Like cannabis activist Steve DeAngleo says, “Cannabis prohibition in the United States was born out of a combination of ignorance, paternalistic intentions, then-acceptable racism, and a Big Government political agenda. It has been maintained and repeatedly expanded with a federal sponsored campaign of deliberate deception that goes on to this day.”

While there seems to be no denying that Big Government has greatly effected cannabis in the past, it also seems that modern day Big Pharma is also playing an enormous role. Big Pharma and their lobbyist have kept addictive and ultimately lethal medications in the hands of patients. This has fueled the opioid epidemic and turned a spotlight on addiction. The general public knows cannabis as an addictive substance. So people remain scared of what them actually came to know as political propaganda.

When I learned about all this, I knew that I needed to take a closer look at cannabis. Now with state legalized cannabis, so much more research is being done and new medical treatments are being discovered again. I hope you’ll continue to rediscover cannabis with me. 




McPartland JM, Guy GW. The evolution ofCannabisand coevolution with the cannabinoid receptor: a hypothesis. In: Guy GW, Whittle BA, Robson PJ (eds).The Medicinal Use of Cannabis and Cannabinoids. London: Pharmaceutical Press; 2004; 71-101.

17. McPartland JM, Guy GW. The evolution ofCannabisand coevolution with the cannabinoid receptor: a hypothesis. In: Guy GW, Whittle BA, Robson PJ (eds).The Medicinal Use of Cannabis and Cannabinoids. London: Pharmaceutical Press; 2004; 71-101.

Bostwick MJ. Blurred boundaries: the therapeutics and politics of medical marijuana.Mayo Clin Proc. 2012;87(2):172-186. 

Zuardi AW. History of cannabis as a medicine: a review.Brazilian Journal of Psychiatry. 2006;28(2):153-157.

Ben Amar M. Cannabinoids in medicine: a review of their therapeutic potential.Journal of Ethnopharmacology. 2006;105(1-2): 1-25.

Mikuriya TH. Marijuana in medicine: past, present and future.California Medicine. 1969;110(1):34-40.

This Post Has 16 Comments

  1. Pam

    Very interesting – I had no idea of the history of cannabis!

  2. Very interesting fact, all I know is cannabis help to cure pain. If it does, it might help people with chronic pains and medical issues they have!

  3. Tricia Snow

    Because there is no money in a cure that can not be patented!

  4. Evelyn Hernandez

    There is so much controversy with Cannabis. I feel if it can help people than legalize it,. Thanks for sharing the history.

  5. Monica

    What an interesting history lesson. I figured it was something political or having to do with money. Thanks for the explanation.

  6. Michele Vadnais

    Since my family jokingly calls me a “conspiracy theorist at heart” I’m not surprised by much of this. But it is interesting to see the juxtaposition of viewpoints and what influences were in play when laws were passed.

  7. Christa

    So much interesting information! I hope that the stigma can be lessened so more people can benefit from the medicinal benefits of cannibis.

  8. Vessy

    Woooow! What a fantastic, interesting and informative article! You did an amazing job…really! ?? I am all for legalizing weed…it’s time already! ?

  9. Kristi Ann

    What a fun little history lesson! So interesting!

  10. Tiffany

    I am an herbalist at heart and in practice so I am all for medicinal use and medical research surrounding cannabis. I did not, however, know anything about the political history. Thanks for putting this out there!

  11. Naomi

    I really appreciate you informing us about the history of cannabis. Cannabis gets negative press because many people abuse it. You are helping us see the positives of cannabis.

  12. Kesha

    Very informative article. I never knew much about marijuana just all the negative things people say. Lately, I’ve been starting to hear more about how it has helped many people with medical problems. Thanks for providing the history behind it.

  13. Heidi

    Interesting info!

  14. Kat

    Great history lesson! Very comprehensive

  15. Shanna

    Super helpful info for everyone interested in this history! Great research!

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