A History of Cannabis in the United States

Cannabis and World Globe

Cannabis is a psychoactive substance also known as marijuana amongst a host of other names. The history of Cannabis dates back many centuries ago. It’s primarily utilized for medicinal and recreational reasons.

In fact, it is estimated that close to 183 million people across the globe use marijuana. Cannabis contains hundreds of known compounds. However, the main psychoactive component is delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, popularly known as THC.

These range from euphoria, impaired short-term memory, increased appetite, and so on. On the mental aspect, overdosing on Cannabis can result in hallucinations, paranoia, or even psychosis.

Understanding the history of Cannabis is very fundamental. It is because the substance is touted as a health and wellness product. Therefore using it may have critical health consequences. It is against this background that individuals should have an understanding of how its use evolved. Such a move could help them make sound health decisions.

Having an in-depth understanding of the history of the substance is also vital for legal reasons. It will help you be in sync with the regulatory environment in which it exists. All in all, it helps avoid violating the local laws governing the substance. It is because Cannabis is a tightly controlled substance.

Cannabis Biological Definition

Cannabis refers to an intoxicating plant that is also known as marijuana. In addition to at least 65 other cannabinoids, such as cannabidiol or CBD. There are several ways to consume marijuana. These include smoking, vaporizing, topicals, and edibles. Cannabis is known for its several mental and physical effects. It is characterized by high levels of a psychoactive compound known as delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

History of Cannabis Smoking

One of the most popular topics in hemp smoking history is Cannabis, also known as marijuana, which has a long history of being smoked by humans. However, initially, ancient civilizations did not produce the plant to smoke it.

It was grown mainly for medicinal purposes. One of the most frequently asked questions reads, ‘Where did hemp originate?’ It probably originated in Central Asia many centuries ago.

From there, it was introduced to Africa, Europe, and finally the Americas. It is used mainly as a raw material for the manufacture of clothing, paper, and sails. The seeds were used for food.

However, it is paramount to highlight that these early cannabis plants had low levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). It is the substance that is responsible for affecting the cognitive functions of the brain. There is also evidence that suggests that there were some ancient civilizations that were aware of the psychoactive effects of the cannabis plant.

They may have produced some varieties with higher THC levels to utilize in healing practice or religious ceremonies. They used it in a variety of ways, including inhalation.

Today, smoking marijuana is now legal in a significant number of states. There seems to be a wave of gradually embracing the substance for its recreational purposes, including smoking it.

Medical Cannabis Uses in History

Marijuana Legal History

To have a better understanding of Cannabis, it is important to be fully aware of its legal history. Modern Cannabis legal history is quite long, stretching back to about a century ago.

Before the early 1900s, the use of Cannabis for recreational purposes was very limited. It is the immigrants from Mexico who are mainly responsible for introducing the practice of smoking marijuana for recreational purposes to American society. It was during the chaotic years of the Mexican Revolution.

High unemployment rates and social unrest experienced during the Great Depression sparked resentment targeted at Mexican immigrants due to their use of what was termed as the “evil weed.” As a result, by the year 1931, close to 30 states had outlawed Cannabis.

The Food and Drug Act

In 1906, the Food and Drug Act mandated that any product containing Cannabis should be appropriately labeled. It was one of the first signs that the authorities now had an appetite for tightening regulatory screws around the medicinal purposes of the substance.

The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937

The marijuana tax law was introduced in 1937. It was the first federal United States that criminalized the use of marijuana across the entire nation. The Marijuana Tax Act imposed an excise tax on the sale, possession, or transfer of all hemp-based products.

Effectively, the act criminalized all but industrial uses of Cannabis. One person was charged under the act one day after it went into effect, demonstrating how serious the authorities were about enforcing it. Samuel Caldwell, a 58-year-old farmer, was arrested for selling the substance. He was given a four-year term of hard labor.

It is paramount to note that the production of industrial hemp continued in the United States throughout the Second World War. Domestic cultivation was encouraged because the Philippines, which happened to be the main source of imported hemp fiber, had fallen to Japanese forces.

The Controlled Substances Act

As part of the ‘War on Drugs,’ President Richard Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act in 1970. The Marijuana Tax Act was repealed, and the substance was listed as a Schedule I drug. It placed the substance along with other popular drugs such as LSD, heroin, and ecstasy.

The reasoning behind such categorization was that the drugs had no medicinal benefits but were prone to abuse by individuals.

Cannabis Legalization Efforts

In 1996, the state of California became the first one to legalize the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. It was a particular reference to severe or chronic illness. To date, despite the federal authorities’ stance on the medical use of Cannabis, 33 states have legalized its use for health purposes, and the number is likely to continue rising in the near future.

By June 2019, eleven states and Washington D.C had legalized the use of Cannabis for recreational purposes. This development was spearheaded by Colorado and Washington in 2012. In states such as Michigan, Nevada, Oregon, Alaska, Maine, Illinois, and Vermont, adults can light up in the absence of a doctor’s prescription.

All in all, Cannabis is still federally illegal in the United States. However, it is paramount to note that the legal environment around the substance evolves continuously. Therefore, one should keep up to speed with the legal developments in your local jurisdictions regarding the substance.

Ancient Civilizations: The Rise of the Cannabis Industry

The use of marijuana for medical purposes spans back at least 12000 years. In fact, the rise of the cannabis industry to worldwide prominence is closely tied to several iconic periods. The substance was used in ancient Egypt for the treatment of glaucoma and inflammation.

The well-known Chinese Emperor Fu Hsi identified Cannabis as a popular medicine in 2900 BC. By the 1st century, the Chinese had identified more than 100 medicinal uses for Cannabis.

Around 1000 BC, the Indians created a drink known as bhang. It is a mixture of Cannabis and milk, among other ingredients. Bhang was popularly used for anti-phlegmatic and anesthetic purposes. The drink is still used in some Indian societies.

History studies also suggest that ancient Indians also used Cannabis for the treatment and management of several conditions such as leprosy, dysentery, fever, insomnia, and improvement of cognition and judgment. The substance was also thought to prolong life.

Other ancient civilizations used the plant. The substance was used in the Roman Empire as a cure for earache. The Romans would boil the roots of the plant and use them as a remedy for arthritis, gout, and generalized pain. It was also used by the Arabians from 800AD to 900AD to treat migraines, syphilis, and pain.

The Greeks used it for earaches, inflammation, and swelling. The Greek historian Herodotus, in his Histories, described Cannabis as being smoked for emotional, spiritual, and sometimes recreational purposes. They mentioned that groups would come together, smoke, and ‘howl with pleasure.’

Among the English, Cannabis is documented as having been an effective remedy for a myriad of conditions. These included menstrual cramps, joint pain, muscle spasms, convulsions, rheumatism, gout, and insomnia.

In the United States

Cannabis has had a long and sometimes chaotic rise in the United States ever since the nation was founded. The substance was initially used as a textile material and later as a medicinal ingredient.

It has also become highly controversial over the years. The rise of the substance in terms of timelines and events is described in depth below.


The origins of Cannabis in the U.S can be retraced back to the early days of settlement when it was grown like any other crop. During the 17th century, the mass production of hemp – a species of the cannabis plant, was highly promoted by the authorities.

It was in response to the plant’s usefulness in the manufacture of clothing, rope, and sails. In fact, during the year 1619, the Virginia Assembly passed legislation requiring that hemp be grown by all farmers. Some jurisdictions even accept hemp as legal tender.


George Washington developed a keen interest in hemp farming. However, he questioned the touted medicinal benefits of the plant in his journals in 1765.


Some notable and interesting developments occurred in the cannabis industry during the 1800s. In 1840, Cannabis became widely recognized in mainstream medicine and became an active ingredient in several over-the-counter medications. In 1850, the substance was added to the U.S Pharmacopeia as a remedy for pain, appetite stimulation, nausea, vomiting, and opioid withdrawal.


The 20th century was characterized by tremendous developments in the cannabis industry both on the medical and legal fronts. Up until 1930, for the first three decades of the twentieth century, Cannabis was incorporated as an active ingredient in several medications.

While it was marketed as a pain killer, it was also used for sedation and the treatment of muscle spasms. It is also paramount to highlight that during this period, Mexican immigrants introduced the use of the substance for recreational purposes to American society.

When Cannabis became closely linked with Mexican immigrants, People’s attitudes towards the substance began to shift negatively. In fact, anti-drug campaigners began to refer to the drug as the ‘Mexican Menace.’

During that period, about 26 states passed legislation prohibiting Cannabis. As a clear testament to the shifting public opinion against the substance, the laws were easily passed through with little to no political debate or public outcry.

The 1930s were mainly characterized by the devastating effects of the Great Depression. The unemployment rates were very high. Such an environment created deep-seated resentment towards Mexican immigrants. People were worried that these Mexicans would take away their jobs, which were already scarce, by the way.

The public has begun to be concerned about the societal dangers of Cannabis. Media reports highlighted research showing that cannabis use was closely associated with high crime and violence rates. Around the same period, Harry Anslinger, who served as the commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, made claims that the substance led to insanity and orchestrated a campaign to criminalize it.

His efforts yielded results because, by 1936, all states had some form of legislation that regulated Cannabis. The rise of Cannabis suffered a major setback in 1937. It was when the Marijuana Tax Act was introduced. It restricted the use of the substance to only those who could afford a heavy tax for specific authorized medical and industrial use.

By 1942, the substance had been removed from the U.S. Pharmacopoeia. Also, medical doctors began to discredit its touted medicinal benefits. It included publication efforts in trusted medical journals.

In the early 1950s, the Boggs Act was passed. It created strict and mandatory punishments for offenses involving Cannabis and a myriad of other drugs. Despite these curtailment efforts, the use of Cannabis continued to gain massive popularity during the 1960s.

It was especially among tertiary school students, anti-war activists, and the youth in general. During that period, President J.F. Kennedy and Vice President L. Johnson commissioned reports that concluded that the use of Cannabis did not lead to violence or the use of other dangerous drugs.
Congress established the Controlled Substances Act in 1970.

This act classified marijuana, heroin, and LDS as Schedule I drugs. According to this act, the substances carried no medicinal value and had a huge potential for abuse.

Therefore, violation of the legal statutes about them had to be accompanied by harsher criminal penalties. The act had dire consequences for the scientific community. It made it difficult for researchers and doctors to investigate it as well as its numerous uses.

However, regardless of the federal efforts to enforce strict marijuana laws, some states such as Maine, Alaska, and Oregon have decriminalized it. In 1972, the Shafer Committee placed forward recommendations that the private use of marijuana be decriminalized, but President Richard Nixon’s administration largely ignored them.

In 1976, parents began a movement against marijuana. It was in response to the fact that more and more of them were afraid of it and wanted to prevent its use among teens. Their efforts were complemented by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Public opinion against the use of marijuana continued through the 1980s. In 1983, the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program was established. It brought police officers into schools so that they might highlight the dangers of drug abuse.

However, funding for the program was later withdrawn after it became apparent that it did not lead to a reduction in drug abuse among the youth. In 1986, the Regan administration signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act. This act sought to raise marijuana penalties and mandatory sentences. President George H.W. Bush continues with his anti-marijuana campaign. In 1989, he declared a ‘New War on Drugs.’

From 1998 to 1999, the Clinton administration spent around USD 25 million on anti-drug messages on prime television shows.

21st Century

In the 21st century, Cannabis remains illegal under United States federal law. However, state laws are continuously evolving. Despite the strict legal environment, the cannabis industry has made significant strides to date.

The sale of marijuana for medical purposes, whether to be inhaled or through other methods or via prescription, is now legal in over 20 states. Also, the Food and Drug Administration has approved certain cannabis-based products for market use.

These include Marinol (dronabinol) and Cesamet (nabilone), used for the treatment or management of nausea or neuropathic pain. The general public opinion of Cannabis has also changed significantly.

The number of people who feel that the substance should be legalized for both medicinal and recreational use has increased. With around 60% of public opinion favoring its legalization, the trend is expected to continue. In 2014, Colorado legalized the recreational use of Cannabis. Other states have also followed suit. These include Washington and Nevada.

Final Thoughts

Cannabis is an age-old substance that dates back many centuries. The use and legal environment in which it exists has continued over time. Understanding the history of Cannabis is vital for health and wellness as well as for legal reasons.

Users should also be aware of the fact that the cannabis legal environment is continuously evolving. Therefore, they should always be familiar with the regulations governing the substance in their jurisdictions.

Arthur Scott

Arthur finds an interesting niche where he focuses all his energy in. CBD became his happiness, and he boasts of in-depth knowledge about CBD. He later started writing articles about CBD, and it did not take long before his talent was obvious.

He has now secured a permanent position as a writer and CBD consultant in one of the Giant hemp companies. Scott delivers quality and timely content that educates readers on the benefits, and the definition of the best CBD. He spends his leisure time giving hope to patients suffering from neurological conditions.

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