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History of Marijuana

Sometimes it seems like marijuana is a recent fad, a powerful plant discovered and toked only in the last few decades. At other times it seems like we’ve had the drug forever.

Neither is true, of course, but the reality is that cannabis has been with the human race for many, many, many years. Indeed, we’ve been using pot longer than they’ve been drinking tea in China. And that’s a very long time.

People have probably been ingesting intoxicating chemicals of one kind or another since the dawn of the species. Stone Age humans used psychedelic mushrooms and probably other herbs. Archaeology suggests the first alcohol was brewed at least 10,000 years ago, probably much earlier. And the ancient Sumerians were using opium by at least 7,000 years ago.

By those standards, cannabis is young. The non-intoxicating part of the plant has been with us much longer, however: roughly 12,000 years. Hemp fibers appeared in pottery by at least 8000 BCE.

Marijuana History

Marijuana Used for 5,000 Years

Marijuana the drug, on the other hand, has been found on human remains buried as long as 5,000 years ago. So while weed may not be the oldest drug, it’s definitely near the top of the list.

Of course, it’s possible that people were smoking pot long before that. Carl Sagan speculated that hemp might be the world’s first agricultural commodity, responsible for the very birth of civilization.

But the historical record doesn’t reflect common recreational or medical use until a few centuries after 3,000 BCE, when Emperor Shen Neng became the first medical marijuana patient in recorded history.

Born in the Hindu Kush Mountains

The plant grows natively in a relatively small part of the tropics, where humans first found it on the slopes of the Hindu Kush Mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Cannabis soon spread to India, Nepal, and other tropical regions.

Hindu Kush Mountains
Humans first found cannabis on the foothills of the Hindu Kush Mountains.

From there, it spread around the world. By 500 BCE, it had reached at least as far afield as Siberia, where scientists discovered the mummified body of an “Ice Queen” who was buried with cannabis. Experts believe she died of breast cancer and used pot to treat it.

Cannabis made its biggest geographic leap in 1492, when Christopher Columbus brought several plants to the New World. Not surprisingly, it quickly spread across the Western Hemisphere.

Marijuana Was Historically Widely Accepted

Not a lot changed in marijuana history for hundreds of years. With rare exceptions, pot was tolerated, even promoted. Napoleon and his troops brought hashish back to Europe with them after the conquest of Egypt. Queen Victoria became the best-known MMJ patient of all time. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington grew fields of hemp.

But in the early 20th century, Mexican immigrants introduced pot smoking to the United States, sparking a race-driven campaign to prohibit the drug. Starting in 1911, states rapidly banned weed until 1937, when the feds took over.

That was the year Harry J. Anslinger, chairman of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (predecessor to the DEA), convinced Congress to bar marijuana under federal law. The Marihuana Tax Stamp Act made it a federal crime to make, sell, or buy marijuana without a tax stamp from the government, which simply refused to issue any.

1940s: Farmers Encouraged to Grow Hemp

That changed during the early 1940s, when the feds actually encouraged farmers to grow hemp, which was badly needed for the war effort. For years afterwards, the government denied any of it ever happened, until some pro-reform celebrities discovered a long-lost videotape that proved otherwise.

In 1969, Americans almost got a taste of real legal reform. The Supreme Court tossed out the Tax Stamp Act, saying it violated the constitution by forcing people to incriminate themselves when asking for a tax stamp.

1970: Controlled Substances Act Passed

Richard Nixon CSA
President Nixon Signs the Controlled Substances Act of 1970.

But Congress and President Richard Nixon quickly stepped in to prevent any real change, passing the Controlled Substances Act in 1970. The Act organized various legally controlled substances into “schedules” according to how dangerous, addictive, and medically useless Congress considers them to be. Marijuana has always been in schedule 1, the most highly restricted category, along with ecstasy and heroin.

The new law was even tougher than the old, and the feds began a long effort to lock up as many potheads as possible. That campaign peaked in about 2007, and the numbers have been dropping ever since.

1996: First Medical Marijuana Program Launched

By 1996, reform looked promising to more Americans. Legalization wasn’t a popular idea yet, but it was starting in that direction. That November, voters in California approved the first legal medical cannabis program in the world.

Other states soon followed suit, and by 2012, MMJ had become an established reality. What came next couldn’t have happened without that change.

2012: First States Legalized Recreational Use

In November 2012, voters in Colorado and Washington State became the first in the world to approve fully legal recreational marijuana, sold in shops, regulated by law, and taxed by the state. The first retail pot shops in both states opened their doors in 2014.

The Future of Marijuana

The biggest victories in marijuana history may yet be to come, though. Momentum for marijuana reform is an almost unstoppable force now. Public support continues to rise, we’re seeing an increasing number of people in the public eye advocating for policy reform, and the availability of cannabis is continually increasing. Legal marijuana is here to stay.