Marijuana has had a complicated history in recent years. There has been great movement in decriminalization and increased talk of legalization for both medical and recreational use.
While people are learning about the benefits of the plant after years of vilification, many don’t realize that cannabis has a powerful past serving a myriad of purposes in multiple cultures through most of human history.
It is believed that marijuana use likely originated over 28 million years ago in the eastern Tibetan Plateau and the plant is still known to grow wild in certain parts of Central Asia.
Some of the earliest examples of humans finding uses for marijuana dates back almost 5,000 years. Common early uses included using the plant to make rope, paper and clothing; and its seeds were eaten as food.
Not long after this, the Chinese discovered the medical benefits of marijuana. It was listed as a form of medical treatment in Emperor Shen Nung’s pharmacopeia back in 2800 BCE. The Chinese were ultimately able to find over one hundred medical uses for cannabis over the next three thousand years.
When it comes to humans specifically smoking marijuana for recreational purposes, a 2019 study by a team of archaeologists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences discovered evidence of humans burning cannabis for its intoxicating fumes dating back about 2500 years ago.
Meanwhile, in nearby India, around 1,000 BCE, a beverage called bhang was created that consists mainly of milk and marijuana. Bhang is used as both an anti-phlegmatic and anesthetic and is still used in India to this very day.
Additionally Indians would use cannabis for other medical purposes such as a cure for both leprosy and dysentery, encouraging sleep, improving judgment and cognition, and even prolonging life.
Indians also developed a spiritual connection to the plant with the Vedas mentioning cannabis as a heavenly nectar that releases people from their anxieties and the Hindu god Shiva being known as ‘The Lord of Bhang’ due to marijuana plants being his favorite food.
During the Hellenistic period, Greeks, Romans, and Arabians all found certain uses for marijuana in their respective civilizations. The ancient Greek biologist Galen, who is considered to be the father of human anatomy in the Hellenistic era, wrote how he would use marijuana for its therapeutic properties as well as its mood enhancement.
Roman medical texts from 70 CE made mention of cannabis being used to cure earaches, treat arthritis, and even increase sexual desire.
Arabians would use marijuana as a way to treat syphilis, migraines, and regular pain. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus even mentioned how the Scythians from modern-day Iran would smoke cannabis seeds for recreational use; this is believed to be because the Quran forbids the consumption of alcohol, but makes no mention of marijuana being forbidden.
It is also believed by some historians that the holy anointing oil from the Hebrew version of the Book of Exodus may have contained cannabis.
When it comes to modern western civilization, hemp would be grown in both European nations and their American colonies in order to make rope, clothing, and sails. It was so popular in the colonies that in 1619, all farmers in Virginia were required to grow hemp and some would even use it as a form of currency.
After the revolution, farmers in the United States would continue the practice of growing hemp, including founding fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. One of Washington’s journals from 1765 made mention of him considering the potential medicinal uses for the plant.
But it wasn’t until an Irish doctor by the name of William Brooke O’Shaughnessy would write of the many therapeutic uses for marijuana while studying medicine in India in 1841 that cannabis became fully embraced as a form of modern medicine and could very easily be purchased at pharmacies in Europe and the United States.
So where did it all go wrong? While marijuana was widely accepted for medical purposes, it wasn’t used as a recreational drug until the early 1900s when Mexican Immigrants introduced the concept of smoking weed to America.
Due to racist and xenophobic resentment toward Mexican immigrants marijuana was looked down upon, and it became known as the “Mexican Menace”. Between 1914 and 1925, twenty six states passed laws that prohibited marijuana use with little outcry or opposition by the general population.
The situation for marijuana only got worse from there with the release of the now-infamous propaganda film, Reefer Madness in 1936, which depicted cannabis users committing violence, suicide, and rape.
The Marijuana Tax Act was passed the following year which was the first federal opposition to the drug and created excise taxes on cannabis and indirectly criminalized it for any non-industrial uses.
Then in 1970, the Controlled Substance Act declared that marijuana, along with LSD and other drugs, had no medical value and created harsher laws for drug use at the federal level, undoing almost 6,000 years of cultural and medical history in the process.
While there were attempts to decriminalize marijuana at the state level in the 1970s, the Reagan Administration in the 1980s declared the war on drugs with the creation of campaigns to prevent children from taking recreational drugs and passing laws that increased the seriousness of penalties for using marijuana and other drugs. However,both the administration’s D.A.R.E. and “Just Say No” campaigns failed to decrease drug use in the country.
But then in1996, the tides began to turn with California becoming the first state to legalize medical marijuana through the Compassionate Use Act and Colorado being the first state to legalize recreational marijuana in 2014. Since then twenty one states have legalized marijuana for recreational use, an additional fifteen states have legalized marijuana for medical use, and ten states have decriminalized it.
While there more than likely will be more opposition to marijuana use, the future is looking up for cannabis in a way that we haven’t seen in a while, but have definitely seen before throughout the entire world.
AJ Favorito is a freelance writer, photographer, and filmmaker specializing in comedy and animation.
LAWLER, Andrew. “Oldest Evidence of Marijuana Use Discovered in 2500-Year-Old Cemetery …” Science.org, 12 June 2019, https://www.science.org/content/article/oldest-evidence-marijuana-use-discovered-2500-year-old-cemetery-peaks-western-china
“History of Cannabis.” The University of Sydney, The University of Sydney, https://www.sydney.edu.au/lambert/medicinal-cannabis/history-of-cannabis.html#:~:text=The%20use%20of%20cannabis%20originated,father%20of%20Chinese%20medicine)%20pharmacopoeia. https://www.history.com/topics/crime/history-of-marijuana
Tackett, Brittany. “The History of Marijuana: Learn about the Origin of Marijuana.”
Edited by Dan Wagener, Recovery.org, American Addiction Centers, 15 Nov. 2022, https://recovery.org/marijuana/history/