Contrary to prohibitionist mythology, cannabis has a long and rich history, having been used for medicinal, industrial, spiritual, and “recreational” purposes for nearly 12,000 years. You could fill an encyclopedia with a history of the “world’s most versatile plant.” Here’s a short history of cannabis and how it has played prominently in the world for millennia:
Cannabis in Ancient Times
Researchers have discovered that as far back as 6,000 BCE (or earlier), the Chinese used cannabis seeds and oil for food. Later, ma’ ren (one of the many Chinese words for cannabis) became part of Chinese pharmacopoeia, and to this day is considered one of 50 “essential herbal remedies.” The first recorded use of cannabis as medicine by the Chinese is 2,737 BCE (by Emperor Shen Neng of China).
Archaeologists have discovered that the Scythians (modern day Ukrainians) – no wonder Vladimir Putin has long had his eye on reclaiming Crimea! There is evidence the Scythians used cannabis not only for industrial purposes, but for its psychoactive properties.
In India, a country who has long used plant-based medicine, cannabis was used medicinally for thousands of years (until it fell out of favor due to oppressive colonial laws enacted by the British).
We also find references to cannabis in ancient Persian religious texts like the Zoroastrian Zend Avesta (700-600 BCE). The text even refers to bhang as the “good narcotic,” acknowledging its psychotropic properties. Similarly, by 100 BCE, Chinese emperor, Pen Ts’ao Ching, mentions the psychotropic properties of cannabis in The Herbal (a Chinese book of pharmacopeia).
Cannabis in the U.S.
Fast forward to the Americas, and we find a rich history of cannabis within the United States:
1619: The U.S. passes first cannabis law
For years, the government encouraged farmers to produce hemp for everything from clothes to rope. And, in 1619 the Virginia Assembly passed a law that requiring all farmers to grow hemp. Hemp is used as legal tender in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania.
1830: Doctor O’Shaughnessy introduces cannabis to Western Medicine
After learning about the therapeutic benefits of cannabis in India, Irish doctor, William O’Shaughnessy, introduces medicinal marijuana to the Western doctors for the treatment of muscle spasms and pain.
Mid 1800s: “High-Society” Americans and French enjoy their cannabis
Hashish becomes a fad in France and the U.S.
Late 1800s: Cannabis sold openly in public pharmacies
Cannabis becomes a popular ingredient in therapeutic remedies sold over-the-counter in pharmacies.
1906: Federal government requires drug labeling
The Pure Food and Drug Act is passed mandating that any over-the-counter remedy containing must be labeled.
1910: Xenophobia starts to fuel anti-cannabis sentiment
After the Mexican Revolution, thousands of Mexicans flood into the U.S. With them, they bring a culture of consuming cannabis recreationally. Bigotry towards Mexican immigrants results in increasing demonization of cannabis.
1936: Reefer Madness – Cannabis deemed an “evil weed” and is Public Enemy #1
Hollywood releases anti-pot propaganda film Reefer Madness following a group of high school students whose marijuana use leads them into promiscuity and other nefarious behavior.
1937: Congress passes “Marihuana Tax Act of 1937”
Director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry J. Anslinger, leads racist campaign to create hysteria about the dangers of cannabis. Ignoring recommendations from the American Medical Association, infamous race-baiter and anti-cannabis crusader, Harry Anslinger, successfully convinces Congress to pass the “Marihuana Tax Act of 1937,” effectively banning cannabis (with its onerous restrictions). Most American pharma companies stop producing medicines containing cannabinoids.
1942: U.S. removes cannabis from official U.S. Pharmacopeia
According to author, Martin Lee, the counsel to the American Medical Association (William Woodward) recounted: “Congress being what it was at the time, you could ram things through just by bullshitting,” according Lee adds. “Who’s going to be stepping up to the plate [in 1937] to defend a drug that blacks, Latinos and jazz musicians use?” Predictably, cannabis disappears from U.S. pharmacopeia.
1944: First marijuana peddlers are arrested and jailed
Drug raids lead to arrests of dozens of Hollywood actors who are casual users of the “evil weed.” Anslinger takes over control of how Hollywood films may portray cannabis.
1950s: The Beat Generation goes “on the road”
led by Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsburg, and others, cannabis culture becomes a key part of the Beat Generation’s legendary poets and artists.
1960s: White kids in suburbia embrace cannabis
Cannabis use becomes mainstream with middle and upper class kids embracing “pot” and drug culture. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson commission studies which affirm earlier findings that cannabis is not a gateway drug nor does not cause violence.
1967: “Flower Power” fuels anti-prohibition efforts
The mainstream media and “hippies” question marijuana prohibition. Usage among the youth skyrockets. Along with an increase in popularity, enforcement and arrests dramatically increases.
1968: President Nixon launches “War on Drugs”
Richard Nixon wins the presidency after running on a “law and order” campaign, promising to restore order to a country experiencing widespread civil unrest and disobedience. Many years later (in 1994), key Nixon aide, John Ehrlichman, confesses to journalist Dan Baum:
“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
“Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
1970: U.S. classifies cannabis as one of the “most dangerous drugs”
Pending results of the Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse’s report, cannabis is placed on Schedule I (meaning the government considers cannabis as dangerous and addictive as heroin). To this day, even after thousands of published studies on cannabis and dozens of petitions to reschedule cannabis, this plant remains a Schedule I drug.
1971: Nixon wages war on left wingers using ‘pot’ as an excuse
Despite the fact cannabis was to be placed temporarily on Schedule I until science could be evaluated, President Nixon smelled opportunity. He saw cannabis prohibition as a way to destroy the leftist anti-war movement he deemed a thorn in his side. Nixon is famously recorded saying, “I want a goddamn strong statement on marijuana. Can I get that out of this sonofabitching, uh, domestic council? … I mean one on marijuana that just tears the ass out of them.
1972: Nixon rejects Shafer Commission findings
The Shafer Commission determines that cannabis is as safe as alcohol, and recommends the decriminalization of marijuana for personal use and an end of Nixon’s anti-drug efforts — citing it as a waste of taxpayer money. Nixon pressures the commission to reject its findings.
1977: President Carter calls for decriminalization
Former President Carter follows the advice of libertarian-leaning conservatives (like William F. Buckley), the American Medical Association, and others, by calling for the decriminalization of cannabis.
1986: Mandatory minimum sentencing become the law of the land
President Reagan signs the Anti-Drug Abuse Act into law which implements mandates mandatory minimum sentencing for sales (and possession) of cannabis, stiffening federal penalties that disproportionately affect the poor.
1988: The DEA’s own administrative judge recommends rescheduling
Judge Francis Young recommends removing cannabis from Schedule I. Young states, “Marijuana, in its natural form, is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man. By any measure of rational analysis marijuana can be safely used within a supervised routine of medical care.” The DEA rejects its judge’s findings, and revises precedents to make cannabis more difficult to reschedule.
1996: California makes history – legalizes medical marijuana
Californians pass Prop 215 and California becomes the first state in the nation to legalize medical marijuana. Over the following decade, numerous other states follow suit.
2012: Colorado and Washington State make history, legalizing cannabis for recreational (adult-use)
Colorado and Washington State voters legalized the recreational sale and use of cannabis.
Remarkably, all Hell (does not) break loose!
2016: Politics change, but election of Trump concerns many in the cannabis community
Remarkably, most presidential candidates from all political persuasions express support for medical cannabis. There is less consensus over recreational cannabis. President-elect Trump expressed emphatic support for clinical cannabis on the campaign trail. He also expressed lukewarm support for allowing states to chart their own course. However, his appointment of anti-cannabis crusader — Sen. Jeff Sessions — sends shivers through the cannabis community. Sessions reminds many activists of anti-drug warriors from the “Reefer Madness” era. He even made the absurd claim, “Good people don’t smoke marijuana.”