Where did we go wrong? For thousands of years we have utilized either marijuana or hemp in one way or another throughout society, but today it is taboo to even talk about allowing it back in. What many people fail to realize is that not only has cannabis been a valuable crop in the United States, but around the world as well and provided many uses.

However, be aware that the history of cannabis is extremely extensive, and only some of the main pieces of its history will be highlighted throughout this article. Yes, the history of cannabis is that long.

Earliest Days of Cannabis

SeshatLuxorfulloptim Where Did We Go Wrong: A Very Brief History of Cannabis
Photo credit: PR NTR KMT

There are many questionable sources as to how far back cannabis has been ingrained throughout our world. However, according to The Columbia History of the World (1981), between 8,000-7,000 B.C. the earliest woven fabric apparently was made of hemp fibers.

Moving onto around 2700 B.C., the first ever consumption of cannabis was recorded as Chinese Emperor Shen Nung discovered the medicinal properties of cannabis. Almost 1000 years later, in 1500 B.C., the Chinese Pharmacopeia had the earliest written reference to its medicinal properties like Shen Nung had discovered.

Many other places such as Egypt, India, and the Middle East all soon discovered the medicinal properties of cannabis. In 1213 B.C., Egyptians were using cannabis for treating glaucoma, inflammation and enemas. In 1000 B.C., India used bhang, which is a mixture of typically milk and cannabis, and used it as an anesthetic and anti-phlegmatic. In the Middle East, an ancient Persian religious text mentions bhang and also lists cannabis as the most important of 10,000 medicinal plants. Consuming cannabis for medicinal purposes would eventually reach the U.S., but we have not reached that era yet.

All About Hemp

Hemp rope Where Did We Go Wrong: A Very Brief History of Cannabis
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Although there is a lengthy history of medical marijuana, hemp was a significant crop throughout the world’s history as well. Hemp was typically grown for fiber, which was introduced in Egypt, Europe and Asia between 1000 and 2000 BC.  There were many uses for hemp’s strong fibers throughout the world. For instance, 90% of all ships’ sails were made from hemp fibers while the other 10% were typically minor fibers or flax. Until around the 20th century for most of the world, 80% of all textiles and fabrics were also made from hemp fibers. These included clothing, bed sheets, towels, and even “Old Glory.”

Hemp was used as paper and rope around the world as well. In fact, until 1883, 75-90% of all paper in the world was made with hemp fiber. Using the fibers helped make books, Bibles, maps, bonds, newspapers, etc. In addition, for rope and cordage, nearly every city and town in the world had an industry making hemp rope.

Cannabis In America

hemp history Where Did We Go Wrong: A Very Brief History of Cannabis
Photo credit: Hemp History

After just 12 years of settling in Jamestown, Virginia in 1607, the first marijuana law in America was enacted, but not to ban the plant. Instead, this law was to actually make it mandatory for farmers to grow Indian hempseed. There were other must-grow hemp laws in Massachusetts in 1631, Connecticut in 1632 and also the Chesapeake Colonies in the mid 1700s.

There were even instances where people would be jailed in America for not growing cannabis. This would happen when there were periods of shortage, such as the one in Virginia between 1763-1767. Hemp was even considered to be legal tender in most of the Americas and people were able to pay their taxes with hemp between 1631 until the early 1800s. That’s how much America embraced the cultivation of cannabis.

Junius Brutus Stearns   George Washington as Farmer at Mount Vernon Where Did We Go Wrong: A Very Brief History of Cannabis
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Some of the founding fathers had been involved with cannabis in some way. George Washington grew hemp at Mount Vernon as one of his three primary crops and even promoted the growth of hemp. Thomas Jefferson also grew hemp as he traveled to France to get hempseeds that were smuggled illegally into Turkey from China.

To continue to show how much cannabis was a part of U.S. history, the first draft of the Declaration of Independence was written on Dutch hemp paper. In addition, Americans recognized the medicinal properties of cannabis. Cannabis extracts, hashish extracts, tinctures and elixirs were the 2nd and 3rd most used medicines in America from 1842 through the 1890s, and even the U.S. Pharmacopoeia of 1851 stated illnesses that cannabis could treat. These included asthma, neuralgia, glaucoma, nausea, epilepsy, depression, rheumatism, arthritis, alcoholism and others.

Legality of Cannabis

harry j anslinger Where Did We Go Wrong: A Very Brief History of Cannabis
Harry J. Anslinger; Photo credit: Bangla Deszcz

Unfortunately, the history of cannabis has a lot of propaganda, lobbying, racism and misguided information that has influenced why cannabis became illegal. In 1930, a new division in the Treasury Department was established. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics was born, and a man named Harry J. Anslinger was named director of the division. This marked the beginning of cannabis prohibition as we know it.

With the help of yellow journalism, racist statements, and propaganda such as Reefer Madness, the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was created. Just 4 years after the first failed prohibition, which was the prohibition alcohol from 1920 to 1933, America was to enter another one, which we are still witnessing over 70 years later. Once Richard Nixon declared the War on Drugs in 1971, that is when cannabis prohibition worsened and has created many negative consequences within the nation and around the world ever since.

Cannabis History Is Still Changing

We are still in the midst of history as we watch cannabis legislation being introduced from state to state. Whether it is decriminalization, legalizing for medical use, legalizing for recreational use, or legalizing the cultivation of hemp, cannabis history is occurring as cannabis policies continue to change. There has been a rapid shift of acceptance over the past decade alone, and it looks like the days of our second failed prohibition may finally come to an end in the near future.

Until then, each state that enacts cannabis legislation will continue to shape cannabis history that is still occurring right before our eyes. When do you think cannabis will be accepted once again around the world? Or do you think it never will be?


Header photo credit: Wikipedia