The History of Marijuana: A Long & Turbulent Tale

History of Marijuana

Of all the plant species’ stories in the world, the long history of marijuana seems to be the most exciting one! After all, it has all it takes for a thrilling Hollywood movie. Marijuana is of interesting and ancient origin. A world traveler, pleasure provider, which was both banned and praised for decades. At the moment, still mystical and very beneficial. In other words—a true hero!

When you put it this way, isn’t it too easy to fall in love with marijuana? Yes, plenty of cannabis users around the world couldn’t agree more! However, the history of marijuana laws has caused a bit of turmoil. The laws have changed so much over the years, and we’re still hoping for the total acceptance.

Are you ready to see how it all started and what it is all about? Debunk some myths and reveal the conspiracies? If so, lay back, take a puff, and enjoy the story of marijuana!

Cannabis History: Origins

As Old as the Hills

Marijuana or cannabis is much, much older than the human race. The earliest traces of its origins date back as far as 28 million years ago! That‘s much earlier than the first humans (some 200,000 years) and yet later than the dinosaurs. If you’ve already had an image of a brontosaurus getting high in a cannabis field, we’ll just have to disappoint you. T-Rex and the gang disappeared 65 million years ago.

Where did marijuana originate? Its birthplace is the Tibetan Plateau, according to the latest news.

The History of Marijuana Use

Don’t assume that early humans started smoking cannabis right away! The earliest recorded use of the cannabis plant regards the hemp species (cannabis sativa). Hemp fiber was used for making an imprint on Yangshao culture pottery as early as 5,000 BC in China (but that’s not why marijuana is called “pot”). What is more, some cannabis achenes from 8,000 BC were found on the Oki Islands near Japan. From the evidence they could gather about marijuana history, scientists assume cannabis has been cultivated for over 10,000 years.

So, if it wasn’t for smoking, what did people use marijuana for at the beginning? Here’s a brief explanation.

There are three types of marijuana species: cannabis sativa (which includes hemp), cannabis indica, and cannabis ruderalis. The first one is incredibly versatile. The oldest uses of hemp include fiber production for clothes and sails, shoes, edible oil, ropes, and so on.

As for the history of weed smoking, we can’t tell for sure who is the first person ever to get high, but we can vouch for second-hand smoking in a way. Namely, archeologists have found evidence of people enjoying cannabis smoke some 2,500 years ago. Marijuana strains high in THC were placed on hot rocks in a brazier during a mourning ceremony for the people to enjoy its unwinding effect in difficult times.

A World Traveler

Throughout the history of marijuana, it has been a true cosmopolitan. It is indigenous to Asia, but it has spread throughout the world.

Historical facts about marijuana can be summed up in the following marijuana timeline:

  • 2000 BC: Farmers brought marijuana to Korea.
  • 2000 BC–1000 BC: Marijuana was spread to India and South Asia by Aryans.
  • 2000 BC–1400 BC: Cannabis came to the Middle East and spread into Russia and Ukraine.
  • Around 700 AD: Marijuana reached Africa from the Middle East.
  • 850: Vikings bring marijuana to Iceland.
  • 1000: Romans use hemp for their ships.
  • 1200: Anglo-Saxons took German cannabis to Britain.
  • 1300: Cannabis spreads from Egypt to the rest of the continent.
  • 1549: Brazilian cannabis timeline begins with cannabis brought by African slaves.
  • 1616: Hemp is grown in Jamestown.
  • 1788: Hemp is introduced to Australia with the First Fleet.
  • 1800: Marijuana reached the Caribbean.
  • 1910: The US gets its cannabis from Mexico.

Quite a journey, right? However, it wasn’t calm at all. Nomadic tribes, merchants, and armies contributed to marijuana’s worldwide dominance the most, and historians left notes about its effects.

History of Marijuana in the US

The presence of marijuana in America may be brief regarding the time period, but it is filled with turmoil. Hardly has any other country in the world spend so much effort on trying to nullify it. On the other hand, the US is one of the largest marijuana markets in the world. The CBD industry is simply booming, while the pros and cons of legalizing marijuana are still enticing debates.

The US history of cannabis begins with hemp. The first time hemp reached American shores was with Christopher Columbus in 1492. The Santa María’s masts and sails were made of hemp. At the time, hemp was the second most used material in the shipbuilding industry. What is more, his clothes were made of hemp, his Bible was made of hemp, the sailors ate hemp seeds, and the oil lamps were filled with—yes, you’ve guessed it—hemp oil.

Some suggest that the history of cannabis sativa (hemp) begins with Columbus introducing the seeds and the species. Nevertheless, the majority of the sources claim it happened a bit later with the population of Jamestown, one of the first colonial towns in the New World.

Hemp was very much loved and adored in the US as an extremely practical and versatile material. Several colonies demanded from their farmers to grow hemp by law. Even the Declaration of Independence was drafted on hemp paper! However, hemp reign was badly shaken by steamship invention and cotton production.

Marijuana was completely legal in the US. So, what went wrong? The trouble came when one more marijuana species came into the states.

History of Marijuana Prohibition in the US

It all began with the Mexican Revolution (1910-1911).

Immigrants were fleeing from Mexico into the United States and they brought their precious remedy along.

The majority of them were not smoking cannabis, but the funny plant still gained a bad reputation. It was mostly enjoyed by soldiers and prisoners, hence associated with violence, illegal acts, and dread.

However, the situation wasn’t all that bleak. The medical benefits were acknowledged and even the Vanity Fair advertised it as medicine.

Everything was about to change, though.

Marijuana Prohibition History Begins

In 1911 Massachusetts bans marijuana and this encouraged other states to instigate prohibition.

Britain had already proclaimed marijuana as a harmful, insanity-causing substance in the 1800s, mostly to deal with Indian rebellions. South Africa and Jamaica (!) forbade cannabis use in 1911, too. The UK, New Zealand, and Canada followed suit in 1913.

The Justification

At the time, cannabis was still listed as a medicine in the US Pharmacopeia from 1850 and this lasted until 1941. Doctors recommended it mostly as a pain reliever and for preventing nausea.

Why was marijuana made illegal is a good question. Its bad reputation was emerging because it was prevalently used by socially questionable groups such as jazz musicians, bohemians, and immigrants. Event the name marijuana was used to denote danger and spread propaganda. Up until that moment, it was just called hemp or cannabis.

As a result, more states passed prohibition laws: Colorado, Iowa, Oregon, Washington, Nebraska, and so on.

The Marijuana Tax Act 

In most articles and discussions about the US history of weed legalization and prohibition, this 1937 act is cited as the beginning of prohibition.

Still, this marijuana act did not proclaim marijuana illegal. What it did was impose enormous taxes and rules about its use. For example, if a doctor were to prescribe it to a patient, they had to give the exact address and other personal data. Whoever was in hold of marijuana or hemp had to pay great taxes and do tons and tons of paperwork.

The Marijuana Tax Act is one of the worst laws in marijuana law history. It made it nearly impossible to use marijuana/hemp without legal consequences. Not paying the tax would lead to five years in prison.

In their defense, the US Federal Bureau of Narcotics (now the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs) argued marijuana inspired violence.

Cannabis in WW2

Laws often change in times of great need, and World War 2 was such a period for the US. The Hemp for Victory agriculture program was a sudden decriminalization of weed. Remember how hemp was essential in shipbuilding and for producing ropes? Hemp fiber was still essential for uniforms, ropes, buttons, and other merchandise.

Today, we have plenty of high-quality synthetic fibers. Back then, the US was importing hemp fiber from the Philippines. Once WW2 started, that source was cut off, but the hemp need even increased. American farmers were enthusiastically supported to grow as much hemp as possible. And the Marijuana Tax Act? It was put on hold.

There was even a short Hemp for Victory movie, but it got lost along the way.

The Controlled Substances Act from 1970

This is the point in the recent history of marijuana when it all went wrong. Why, you may ask? Wel, it is this act that put cannabis on the list of Schedule 1 drugs.

The Controlled Substances Act was the first step in President Nixon’s strategy to deal with the opponents of his regime and an interlude to the (unsuccessful) War on Drugs. The very first thing he had to do is demonize marijuana. Despite the efforts from healthcare experts, cannabis was listed as a Schedule 1 drug. An extremely dangerous, addictive substance with no medical potential. Marijuana legalization history is still being made due to this.

The War on Drugs 1973

The Flower Power appears unimaginable without weed. Some say it was a symbol of rebellion against authority. Or is it just good marketing, but from the authority’s side?

If you think that the War on Drugs was targeted against drugs, you are very much mistaken. For marijuana history in the US, these were the dark ages. A man from Nixon’s team publicly declared the war was against a movement and a community—the antiwar protesters and the black community.

The seemingly noble cause of destroying a “dangerous substance” had a completely different goal. Nixon wished to deal with the antiwar movement and the black community and connecting them with marijuana use and dangerous behavior solved all his problems in this respect. Male imprisonment rates jumped by 200% after Nixon had declared war. The forming of DEA is another important point in the history of cannabis prohibition.

Unfortunately, even after Nixon finished his rule and his insane marijuana policy project, the old ways seemed to be integrated too well and the arrests continued to multiply. The discrepancy between the whites and blacks still remained, too. Parental anti-drug campaigns were very much focused on marijuana in the late 70s and early 80s. President Reagan set the Anti-Drug Abuse Act and President Bush declared a new war on drugs during a TV speech in 1989.

Marijuana Legalization Timeline

You can’t keep a good pot down forever.

After decades of governments’ endeavors to outlaw cannabis for one reason or the other, the states have begun introducing laws to legalize marijuana. Here are some of the highlights:

  • 1996: California makes medicinal marijuana history. It becomes the first state to legalize medical marijuana with Proposition 215. Marijuana is approved for cancer, AIDS, and other dangerous diseases. Arizona tries to do the same but fails.
  • 1998: Several states pass medical cannabis laws, including Washington, DC.
  • 2000: Colorado, Maine, and Hawaii contribute to medical marijuana history with new medical marijuana laws.
  • 2003: California passes SB 420, which ensures doctors can freely prescribe medical marijuana.
  • 2004: Vermont and Montana become medical marijuana states.
  • 2009: President Obama becomes a marijuana advocate by stating that personal drug use is a public health issue rather than a serious crime. This is in strong opposition to the 20-year war on drugs. Federals prosecutors no longer have the authority to pursue cannabis users who obey the state law.
  • 2010: California tries to make weed history and legalize recreational marijuana but fails.
  • 2012: Colorado and Washington legalize small amounts of cannabis for recreational use.
  • 2014: Alaska, Oregon, and Washington, DC legalize recreational marijuana. Minnesota and New York legalize medical marijuana.
  • 2018: Vermont legalizes recreational marijuana. It is the first of recreational weed states to pass the law by way of the state legislature.
  • Late 2018: The signing of the Farm Bill and legalizing hemp on the federal level is the brightest moment in US history of marijuana legalization. Hemp, or the cannabis sativa species with less than 0.3% THC, is fully legal to be grown and consumed in every way imaginable.


As an ancient plant species, marijuana is the most controversial one. This popular remedy and a stress reliever has been filling cancer, epilepsy, anxiety, and depression statistics for quite some time now. Yet, it was scrutinized and prohibited for decades, and the consumers were imprisoned and stigmatized.

So, what does the future hold for cannabis? The new history of marijuana pages are being written as you are reading this. Marijuana testimonials abound and more research is being encouraged for the greater good, but also to support the newly emerged CBD industry.

Hopefully, the US and the world will soon follow Uruguay and Canada’s example and legalize cannabis for good. We should all have the right to take advantage of nature’s green treasure.


Why is marijuana illegal in the USA?

First, there is a general stigma following cannabis, which was building up for over a century. Secondly, there is the DEA list of drugs which clearly puts marijuana in the same category as heroin—no medical properties and extremely addictive. In addition, not enough trials involve human subjects. Lastly, even though the marijuana industry is reaping billions, big pharmaceutical corporations are still much stronger. For example, the latter get most of their revenues from cancer medications.

When did marijuana become illegal?

The notorious Tax Act restricted its use so much that it was extremely hard to obtain any without confronting the law. For this reason, 1937 is usually taken as the year marijuana became prohibited in the US. However, it is more precise that the Controlled Substance Act made it fully illegal by defining it as the most dangerous drug.

Why was hemp made illegal in 1937?

Besides the fact that at the time it was impossible to determine the extremely low traces of THC, there were money matters. Hemp had a wide application as a material (it still does). It threatened to replace paper, which would mean huge losses to the cellulose industry.

The petrochemical industry was/is a strong competitor regarding fiber production too. For example, the Rockefeller family, who ruled the oil industry, did not take to hemp-sourced ethanol, which was used for Henry Ford’s Model T.

The history of marijuana was tempered with. Otherwise, we would probably all have cars running on hemp fuel. Marijuana prohibition changed our lives on levels we can hardly imagine.

Why is Emperor Shen Neng important?

Hardly any article on the history of medical marijuana is complete without him. The Chinese emperor is thought to be the first person ever who made a record about medical marijuana. Nevertheless, this is just another common marijuana myth.

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