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John Sinclair, political activist, wearing a large cannabis plant patch, smoking marijuana outdoors with John Rosevear (left) in Ann Arbor, MI, in 1968. (Photo by Leni Sinclair/Getty Images)

learn | 01.01.2022

The History of Marijuana–or Most of What You Should Know By Now

Knowledge is power.

In 1938, the cannabis plant was praised as part of “America’s Newest Billion-Dollar Industry.” Yet, by the early 70s, the herb became “public enemy number one.” So, what happened? The history of marijuana is a twisted one, pulling at heartstrings and drawing reactions from the darkest corners of the human spirit.  

The Western history of marijuana was never really about a plant. Instead, the herb seems more like a scapegoat for the harsh battles we wage within ourselves, upon others, and upon nature. At the root of cannabis prohibition is fear—not health, safety, and certainly not rationality. Instead, rationality is replaced by something else: anxiety and a rejection of ourselves that represent desire, passion, and an unbound nature. This is a far cry from Eastern traditions, which often considered the plant a divine gift.

Canadian suffragette and prohibitionist, Emily Murphy, first warned of the terrors of cannabis in her book The Black Candle. Published in 1922, Murphy’s writing is thought to have influenced the first cannabis prohibition laws in Canada. Prior to Murphy’s writing and activism, cannabis was a relatively undiscussed topic across the nation. What was deemed a pressing issue, however, was opium. Opium was outlawed nearly a decade earlier was a part of the Opium and Drug Act of 1911. The act was the first piece of policy to criminalize the use of opium, morphine, and cocaine.

Come 1923, three more drugs were added to the list of undesirables: heroin, codeine, and cannabis indica. But, here’s the thing; at the time of outlaw, cannabis products were not popularly used in Canadian society. Murphy, referencing comments made by the Los Angeles Police Chief Charles A. Jones, writes:

Persons’ using this narcotic [marahuana], smoke the dried leaves of the plant, which has the effect of driving them completely insane. The addict loses all sense of moral responsibility. Addicts to this drug, when coming from under the influence of this narcotic, these victims present the most horrible condition imaginable. They are dispossessed of their natural and normal willpower, and their mentality is that of idiots. If this drug is indulged to any great extent, it ends in the untimely death of its addict.

While it is well-known now that there has never been a single death associated with cannabis consumption, Murphy and Jones’ reaction to the “loss of morality” by way of cannabis isn’t surprising. Around this same time, the era saw the birth of jazz along with Sigmund Freud’s publishings on his theories of sexuality.

While Freud is touted as the father of psychology, his theories were not well-received by a society still dominated by Victorian ideals. Similarly, American author William Faulkner published famous novels which arguably shed light on oppositions in the human condition. Struggles between a controlled, moral way of living and a freer approach to life were engaged in a battle within the cultural ethos of the time. The cannabis plant found itself smack-dab in the middle of this tug-o-war.

An Ancient History of Marijuana

Throughout history, marijuana has not always been considered a plant to fear. What Murphy and other prohibition enthusiasts forgot was that the plant may be one of the oldest agricultural and economic crops. In fact, the earliest evidence of human cannabis cultivation dates back over 10,000 years to around the year 8,000 BCE. Originating in Central Asia, the multifaceted herb was essential for early agrarian societies. Like many of the most valuable agricultural crops, the cannabis plant can be used in several distinct ways. Fibrous stalks from hemp can be processed to create materials for housing, rope, textiles, and paper. Nutritious seeds are rich sources of essential fatty acids, which are vital to human health. The resinous flowers of the plant were used as medicine and for spiritual purposes by various societies throughout history.

Some of the earliest mentions of the medicinal uses of the cannabis plant came from the Chinese Emperor Shen-Nung in the Pen Ts’ao Ching, which is akin to the Chinese Materia Medica. In the Pen Ts’ao Ching, cannabis is believed to possess therapeutic properties for the treatment of rheumatism, female reproductive problems, malaria, and absent-mindedness. This materia medica may be as old as 2700 BCE. In India, references to the cannabis plant date back to one of the oldest Vedic texts, the Atharva Veda, which was thought to be written between 1600 BCE and 500 CE. The plant was considered among the five sacred plants in the ancient Hindu writings.

Throughout the Indian subcontinent, traditional cannabis preparations like bhang and hashish are thought to have appeared around 1,000 BCE. However, the first evidence of cannabis in Northern India dates back to an estimated 4000 to 3000 years before present. Bhang is still consumed and sold in India to this day, legally through government-regulated bhang shops. Its traditional preparation includes mixing activated cannabis with yogurt and other spices into something akin to psychoactive buttermilk. While the plant played a medicinal role in India, bhang was also consumed for spiritual purposes. As James Campbell, a land and narcotics collector stationed in Bombay writes in 1894:

To the Hindu the hemp plant is holy. A guardian lives in the bhang leaf.

Early History of Medical Marijuana

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Cannabis plant with leaves, buds, and roots. (Photo by Florilegius/SSPL/Getty Images)

For a time, the marijuana plant, along with the opium poppy, may have been one the most valuable medicines available to the human species. Throughout history, many societies used the herb to treat a wide variety of ailments. In fact, some of the most common references to cannabis medicines in ancient texts were for gynecological disorders and conditions related to pregnancy. According to a 2002 review from a well-known cannabis researcher and neurologist, Dr. Ethan Russo, evidence suggests that simple cannabis preparations were used to treat labor troubles and other women’s health issues in ancient Egypt, India, and Israel/Palestine. Later, references to the herb’s use as a women’s health aid were cited in Spain, China, and some parts of Europe.  

In 1993, for example, archeologists found a container of the herb in a 2,500-year-old burial chamber of a young Siberian woman who may have died due to complications caused by breast cancer, suggesting that the tattooed woman may have used the plant for pain relief. Her remains were found in the Ukok plateau, which lies at the intersection of present-day Russia, Mongolia, China, and Kazakhstan. In the West, medical cannabis rose to popularity in the mid-19th century. The Victorian era, however, wasn’t the herb’s first foray into western medical practice. In fact, the famous Greek physician Galen was one of the first known Westerners to use hemp as medicine close to the year 200 AD

Cannabis extracts were widely distributed among physicians in the 1800s. In fact, even Queen Victoria’s own physician, Sir J. Russell Reynolds, prescribed Cannabis Indica to the queen for menstrual cramps back in the 1890s. According to Reynolds:  

Indian hemp, when pure and administered carefully, is one of the most valuable medicines we possess.

The use of medical cannabis throughout Europe was perhaps spurred in part by the Irish doctor, William Brooke O’Shaughnessy, who served in India with British colonists. After noticing the medicinal use of the herb among the Indian locals, he performed a series of animal experiments to test the herb’s safety. After determining that the plant was safe, O’Shaughnessy reportedly used the herb to treat muscle spasms related to tetanus and rabies, as well as rheumatism and even infant seizures. After success with cannabis therapies for such severe diseases, O’Shaughnessy wrote a paper for the Provincial Medical Journal in 1843:

The preceding cases constitute an abstract of my experience on this subject and constitute the grounds of my belief that in hemp the profession has gained an anti-convulsive remedy of the greatest value. Entertaining this conviction, be it true or false, I deem it my duty to publish it without any avoidable delay, in order that the most extensive and the speediest trial may be given to the proposed remedy.

Unfortunately for epileptics and O’Shaughnessy alike, patients are still waiting on trials of cannabis-based medicines today.

A few years after O’Shaughnessy’s publication, in 1860, Committee on Cannabis Indica of the Ohio State Medical Society in the United States reportedly published findings that cannabis medicines successfully treated stomach pains, childbirth psychosis, gonorrhea, and chronic cough. Cannabis-based remedies for a migraine headache and tremors associated with Parkinson’s Disease were also alluded to in early medical literature. By the end of the Victorian era, doctors, researchers, and scholars of Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine had already discovered much of what the general public has come to accept about the benefits of medical cannabis today.

Hashish Dreams

As Victorian doctors in the West began utilizing cannabis medicines with greater frequency, the psychoactive properties of the plant began to dazzle members of upper-class European society. Opium and hashish clubs popped up among European elites, who had become enraptured by the seemingly ornate style, customs, and wisdom of Asia. Hashish is a pressed or hand-rubbed cannabis preparation that had been used by locals in Nepal, Pakistan, India, and other parts of central Asia for centuries.

The most renowned club was founded by the French writer, Pierre Jules Theophile Gautier, who reportedly grew curious about hashish after hearing stories from French soldiers in Egypt. Ultimately, he fathered the group Le Club des Hashischins. The club is rumored to have been an inspiration to novelist Alexandre Dumas, who later alluded to his mind-bending experiences with hashish in the famous novel The Count of Monte Cristo. Without TV, the books and periodicals were primary sources of entertainment in the home. Read by elites and middle-class Europeans and North Americans alike, Dumas’ novel and others by writers similarly inspired by their experiences at Le Club des Hashischins, helped introduce hashish into Western popular culture.

There is some lore which suggests that the phrase hashishiyyin which is the Arabic word for “hash eater” or “hash user” is the root word for the modern term assassins. As the story goes, a sect of Persian assassins was encouraged to consume the herb prior to their attacks in the 10th century. Though, the accuracy of this historical myth is questionable and may have been propagated by explorer Marco Polo, who lived between 1254 and 1324.  

An Attack on Opium

Opium led to the eventual crackdown on cannabis. Opium dens were becoming popular spots for white westerners, who enjoyed the leisurely and narcotic effects of the poppy plant. Yet, these crackdowns were not without a racial slant in many countries. The same year cannabis, codeine, and heroin prohibition began in Canada, the federal government put forth the Chinese Immigration Act. The act essentially put a halt to Chinese immigration into the country. Just as cannabis was later linked incorrectly to a growing population of Mexican immigrants in the United States, opium trade was pinned on Chinese immigrants in Canada.

The need to put a halt to opium trade across Western countries is ultimately what inspired the first international treaties to outlaw the cannabis plant and begin to criminalize recreational drugs. The results of the 1912 Hague Opium Convention paved the way for the Dangerous Drugs Act of 1925, which banned “Indian hemp and all resins and preparations” throughout most of Europe. As time passed, these early drug treaties led to the 1961 U.N. Convention on Narcotics, which continues to ban the production and export of cannabis and other drugs to this day.

The Beginnings of Cannabis Criminalization

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The brigade specializes in eradicating marijuana and poppy fields. (Photo by Matias Recart/AFP/Getty Images)

In Canada, the United States, and many European countries, the War on Drugs began with restrictions and criminalization of opium use and trade. In more southern North American countries, however, cannabis prohibition began a little earlier. The cannabis plant was outlawed in Mexico 17 years before the first federal ban of the plant in the United States and three years before prohibition began in Canada. In Jamaica, a law conforming to international restrictions on opium trade unilaterally banned cannabis as well.

Cannabis is not native to Mexico, Latin America, or Jamaica. In Latin America, the herb likely arrived on the American continent with Spanish and Portuguese settlers. The Spanish word for industrial hemp cáñamo first appeared in texts in the mid-1500s, and cultivation of the plant in Latin America is thought to have started in the 16th century. While the plant was most often used for fiber by European Spaniards, leaves and seeds were reportedly consumed by indigenous peoples for spiritual purposes. In the late 1770s, a priest and Enlightenment scientist named Jose Antonio Alzate y Ramirez discovered that a psychedelic substance often called pipiltzintzintlis consumed by indigenous peoples in Mexico was actually the same plant as European hemp.

The Racist History of Cannabis Prohibition

Consumption of pipiltzintzintlis, of course, was frowned upon by Catholic Spanish colonists, who notoriously smashed images of traditional idols, destroyed ancient tapestries and weavings, and tried to “Christianize” indigenous peoples by forcing them to disown their native religions. This anti-cannabis sentiment continued into the early 20th century when the first laws banning the herb targeted mostly poor Mexican workers, perhaps kicking off the long-time habit of criminalizing cannabis consumption and cultivation by minority and marginalized groups.  

The classicist sentiment regarding Mexican cannabis was first articulated in the Mexican Herald and later published by the LA Times in 1905, according to a report originally published in Contemporary Drug Problems and written by Dale Gieringer:

Marihuana is a weed used only by people of the lower class and sometimes by soldiers, but those who make larger use of it are prisoners sentenced in long terms…The drug leaves of marijuana, alone or mixed with tobacco, make the smoker wilder than a wild beast…Everything, the smokers say, takes the shape of a monster, and men look like devils. They begin to fight, and of course, everything smashed is a “monster” killed… People who smoke marijuana finally lose their mind and never recover it, but their brains dry up and they die, most of the time suddenly.

The herb was criminalized even faster in Jamaica. The plant was likely brought to the island country by Indian workers, who arrived after Britain abolished slavery in all of its colonies in 1838. In fact, Jamaicans still refer to the plant by its Hindi name—ganja. The plant, however, was outlawed in 1913, one of the earliest nations to criminalize the herb. At the time, cannabis was reportedly consumed by Black and Indian workers, who occupied a lower class status than the white hierarchy propagated by the British.

In 1913, the state of California also banned cannabis, making the state the first American state to criminalize the herb. California, too, followed the trend of banning a plant as a means to control immigrant populations. While Mexico’s policies targeted the poor and Jamaica’s policies most affected those of African and Indian Descent, California took on Mexican and Hindu populations. In a 1911 letter to the California Board of Pharmacy, an important board member Harry Finger wrote:

Within the last year, we in California have been getting a large influx of Hindoos and they have in turn started quite a demand for cannabis indica; they are a very undesirable lot and the habit is growing in California very fast.

Regarding Mexican immigrants likely seeking a safe haven from worsening living conditions and civil war, Finger wrote:

In view of the increasing use of marihuano [sic] or loco weed as an intoxicant among a large class of Mexican laborers, F.C. Boden, inspector of the State Board of Pharmacy, yesterday formulated an appeal to the State authorities asking that the drug be included in the list of prohibited narcotics.

Syrians also were targeted by the California Bureau of Pharmacy, as per Gieringer’s report:

In addition to this use by Hindus in this country, I have learned on good authority that it [marijuana] is commonly used by the Syrian element in our population. You certainly should have your legislature do something in regard to the control of Indian hemp.

The History of the Word “Marijuana”

The origin of the word “marijuana” is somewhat of a mystery. While it is often thought to be of Mexican/Spanish descent, used by rural Mexican workers in the early 19th century. However, some scholars suggest that the word may have roots in three different continents. The original spelling “mariguana” first appeared in Spanish language writing in the early 1800s. It peaked in popularity in the 1970s, along with the term’s anglicized spelling “marijuana.”

“Marijuana” first appeared in the American lexicon in the early 1900s, spurred to popularity by the anti-immigrant propaganda put forth by the first American drug czar, Harry Anslinger. Government documents from the 1930s were more likely to use the spelling “marihuana.” According to a 2005 study by Alan Piper, the earliest usage of a term that resembles marijuana appeared in a magazine in 1894, just over 40 years before federal criminalization, and wasn’t seen or mentioned again for eleven years. In fact, the term marijuana was rarely used until after 1910.

Once the anti-drug campaign lead by Anslinger picked up steam, the “reefer madness” era of the 1930s took off and the word began to spread across the country. Anslinger was the director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, which can arguably be considered the early precursor to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). There is certainly no doubt that Anslinger was a man with an agenda. In Anslinger’s view, cannabis was something beloved by black jazz musicians and immigrant populations, and he wanted to take that away. He infamously stated:  

There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz, and swing result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.                                                        

In one of Anslinger’s most appalling allegations, he claimed that “reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.” Anslinger’s racist crusades with the Bureau of Narcotics eventually led to the passing of the first bill that criminalized cannabis cultivation: the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937.

Although the American Medical Association (AMA) objected the Marihuana Tax Act at the time, suggesting that the health claims made by the Bureau of Narcotics were not supported by the AMA, the bill was passed into law in the spring of 1937. The bill placed a one dollar tax on anyone who was caught selling hemp, and those who failed to pay the fee were arrested. In the 1930s, a one-dollar tax was a hefty fine and those who couldn’t pay up were forced to face the music. Thus, Anslinger and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics paved the way to the criminalization of hemp farmers and sellers in the United States. 

The History of Global Cannabis Prohibition

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President Richard Nixon makes victory speech at a rally shortly after being elected to serve a second term by a landslide in the November 7th Presidential election. (Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images)

Nearly 30 years had passed since the first cannabis bans in the United States and 40 years after bans in Canada, Jamaica, Mexico, and most of Europe. Tensions had been growing around the popular use of psychedelics and narcotics over the past decade. In the 1960s, drug use was popularized by middle-class culture, becoming a symbol of protest against the Vietnam War and the constrictive social policies that hindered civil liberties.

Perhaps as a result of the growing social changes and increased global traffic of drugs, the United Nations moved to place standardized restrictions on the global production and distribution of narcotic drugs. As of 2018, 193 countries are member states in the United Nations, indicating that policies set forth by the institution can have wide-reaching effects.

In 1961, the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs was put into action. Cannabis, opium, and their derivatives were placed under Schedule VI status in the convention, requiring the strictest government oversight on cultivation, production, and medical application. A decade later, components of the cannabis plant were also placed in the strictest classifications in the U.N. Convention on Psychotropic Substances of 1971.

The scheduling of cannabis among the most dangerous drugs known to humankind was not without criticism. In the 1970s, advisors to U.S. President Richard Nixon pointed out that cannabis is not a narcotic and therefore has no place in a convention on Narcotic Drugs. More recently, the World Health Organization (WHO) has determined that some non-intoxicating components of the cannabis plant (cannabidiol) “exhibits no effects indicative of any abuse or dependence potential” and therefore should not be restricted by international drug treaties. The WHO also recently suggested that psychoactive cannabis should be put to clinical review.   

The History of the War on Drugs in the U.S.

The War on Drugs officially began in 1971 with a declaration from short-lived U.S. President Richard Nixon. In a press release, he famously stated: ”America’s public enemy number one in the United States is drug abuse. In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new all-out offensive.” Nixon was the first president to introduce military-like rhetoric to the issue of illicit drug use. Nixon’s administration is also to thank for the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, which classified cannabis as a harmful drug with “no medical value.”

Nixon approved the Schedule I narcotic status of cannabis despite the recommendations of his advisers. In 1972, Nixon appointed Republican Pennsylvania Governor Raymond Shafer as leader of a commission to review the research on the subject. While the Shafer commission did not approve of the outright legalization of cannabis, the group did recommend a form of decriminalization. The first official report reads:

Scientific evidence has clearly demonstrated that marihuana is not a narcotic drug, and the law should properly reflect this fact. […] In those states where the Uniform Controlled Substances Law has not been adopted, twelve of which continue to classify marihuana as a “narcotic”, the Commision recommends that the legislators distinguish marihuana from the opiates and list it as a separate category. The consequence of the appropriate definition is that the public continues to associate marihuana with the narcotics, such as heroin. The confusion resulting from this improper classification helps perpetuate prejudices and misinformation about marihuana.

Simply summarized, the Shafer Commission called the bluff on the idea that cannabis is as dangerous as heroin and should be treated as such in the law. The Commission also brought up the fact that the plant has numerous potential therapeutic uses, which should be further studied. Unfortunately, neither the Nixon or proceeding administrations took these recommendations to heart.

The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 is the document that is still responsible for blocking cannabis research, medicinal use, and personal cultivation by patients and enthusiasts alike. The Controlled Substances Act replaced the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. Instead of collecting a tax, the legislation allowed for the expansion of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), which for decades has been allowed to enter the homes of U.S. residents with police weapons, arrest those in possession of cannabis or narcotics, and seize all assets. Violators of the Federal Controlled Substances Act include state-scanted medical and recreational cannabis dispensaries, who continue to be targets of DEA raids to this day.

Today, DEA raids on cannabis businesses have lighted up substantially since the early 2000s. More recently, DEA resources are focused on prosecuting international drug crimes. The administration also has a clean-up program for clandestine laboratories and has recently pledged to invest more resources in combating the current opioid epidemic.

While Nixon is blamed for the beginning of a new era of a militaristic style war on drugs, he was also responsible for the opening of the first methadone clinics across the country. Though Nixon certainly is not remembered for his soft-on-drugs approach, he was the first U.S. president since the narcotic bans of the early 20th century to offer treatment to heroin addicts. After a model methadone clinic received federal support from Nixon in 1972, heroin overdose deaths begin to decline in Washington D.C. and crime rates reportedly fell by 26.9 percent that year. Interestingly, today, more recent research has found that the presence of cannabis dispensaries may also have a positive effect on reducing petty crime in their local area. After mass closures of medical cannabis dispensaries in the Los Angeles area in 2010, petty crime rates increased in the surrounding neighborhood.

Unfortunately, Nixon’s drug treatment programs were short-lived. Once Regan entered the office, the War on Drugs continued to escalate both in the United States and internationally throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Domestically, local police departments utilized stop-and-frisk and three-strikes policies to catch and prosecute low-level cannabis offenders.

Present Day

According to a 2013 report from the American Civil Liberties Union, between 2001 and 2010, there were over eight million arrests for cannabis-related charges. Of those, 88 percent were for simple possession. By 2010, half of all drug arrests in the United States were related to cannabis. Even into 2010, the racially charged history of cannabis criminalization continues. As the ACLU report articulates, African Americans were found to be 3.25 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis crimes than their white counterparts. This is regardless of the fact that both races consume the herb at similar rates.

Fast-forward to the present day. Two countries, Canada and Uruguay, have fully legalized both the medical and recreational use of cannabis for all residents. A growing number of countries have developed their own medical cannabis programs and several more have decriminalized the plant. In the United States, the federal government still lists cannabis as a Schedule I controlled substance. Ten individual states have now legalized and developed regulations for the recreational use of cannabis, and 30 states and Washington D.C. have developed at least some form of medical cannabis program.

In late 2018, the United States officially legalized the production of industrial hemp—a full 81 years after first outlawing the non-intoxicating plant. In terms of criminal policy,  some U.S. states are considering reforms that retroactively erases or eases some sentences on prior cannabis convictions. Yet, despite recent changes in cannabis policy at the state level the U.S. still had the highest incarceration rate in the world in 2016. According to Pew Research, 2.2 million people were imprisoned. Based on data pulled from November of 2018,  just over 46 percent of all inmates serving federal time are in custody for drug-related crimes.

A Note from the Writer: This history offers merely a brief glimpse into primary historical trends in Western cannabis use and legalization. Like all brief histories, however, this simple report does not do justice to the depth and breadth of the International War on Drugs and all of the people affected by changing cannabis policies and cultural understandings throughout history and across the globe.

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