Medically Reviewed by
Jason Crawford

Article Last Updated on January 18, 2023

The history of cannabis is as long as human agriculture, and it may even be longer given that this resilient plant has been growing on its own for thousands, even millions of years. There are sources that claim that weed was first cultivated by people as early as 10,000 BC, as well as those that claim that weed has been growing on its own in the wilderness for around 28 million years

In this article, we’ll go over all of weed’s history, from the beginnings of its use in China, India, and Egypt, to the spread of cannabis through the Silk Road exchange route to Europe and Africa, and finally how the Spanish brought cannabis to North America in the 19th century. We’ll also discuss current and past marijuana laws, so let’s get started.

Origins of Cannabis: Where Did Weed Come From?

If we take a look at the meaning of the words Cannabis Sativa in Latin, the translation would mean “cultivated” or “sown cannabis”, however, it’s very likely weed grew on its own before people even started cultivating it. According to a 2018 study on fossil pollen, the cannabis plant originated in the northeastern Tibetan Plateau about 28 million years ago. Initially, cannabis had lower percentages of the cannabinoid tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) that produces weed’s psychoactive properties, and significant percentages of the cannabinoid that helps with conditions such as chronic pain, depression, insomnia, and others, known as cannabidiol (CBD).

According to another study done in 2014, cannabis plants evolved in the steppes of Central Asia, specifically in the regions of Mongolia and Siberia, about 12,000 years ago prior to domestic cultivation.

Scientists have discovered different cannabis species which adapted to different climates. The three major species of cannabis that we know today have different levels of cannabinoids and thrived under different climate conditions in different regions. Cannabis Sativa originated in the tropical parts of Eastern Asia and the plant is characterized by thin, long leaves with tall buds. Cannabis Indica originated in southern Siberia under harsher conditions resulting in a plant that is bushy, and stocky with broad and chunky leaves. Cannabis Ruderalis is native to Central and Eastern Europe and Russia and has adapted very well to the harsher environments found in these locations as a plant with a lower THC content compared to Indicas and Sativas. 

When Was Weed First Discovered?

The period when cannabis was discovered is practically aligned with the period when agriculture started in the Asian continent, more specifically, about 10,000 BC. People initially cultivated cannabis to use it as a food source, to make ropes, clothes, and other essentials, before discovering its medicinal benefits and starting to use it either as a medicine or recreationally.

Medical and recreational cannabis use in Central Asia started about 2500 years ago, according to archeological evidence found at the Jirzankal Cemetery in the Eastern Pamirs region. From there, the cannabis plant spread all over the world, initially through the Silk Road exchange routes, and afterward through other intercontinental trade routes. 

Who Discovered Weed?

Cannabis was most likely discovered by the Ancient Chinese population who lived close to where weed grew on its own. They found out that they could use this versatile crop to make food, clothes, paper, and other household equipment. However, after they figured out that cannabis has psychoactive properties, they really tried to domesticate this plant and utilize all its potential. 

Remember that the cannabis that grew about 4000 years ago wasn’t as potent as the cannabis we have today. Those cannabis plants had significantly lower levels of the plant’s most powerful psychoactive component THC, however, the plant did have some beneficial medical properties which is why people in ancient China used it to treat conditions such as rheumatism, malaria, and absentmindedness. 

Ancient people were also known for putting their weed in braziers, lighting it with hot stones, and inhaling the smoke. In fact, some researchers and archeologists have discovered that ancient civilizations cross-bred cannabis strains to grow more potent marijuana.

Early Marijuana Use: When Did People Start Smoking Weed & Who Was the First Person to Smoke It?

People have been smoking cannabis for thousands of years, but what civilizations were among the first to the cannabis smoking game? Let’s see.

The Chinese

As we’ve mentioned above, cannabis was firstly used in Ancient China, most likely by the mythical Chinese Emperor Fu Xi, back in 2900 BC. Other records show that Emperor Shen Nung was the first person to discover the medicinal properties of cannabis back in 2700 BC. That being said, the first reference on the use of cannabis as medical marijuana dates back to the 15th century BC in the Chinese Pharmacopeia where weed was referenced as “Ma”- a plant that has healing powers and can be used to make over 100 medical remedies.

The Ancient Indians

From China, cannabis spread to India most likely through the Silk Road exchange route. There, cannabis was believed to be one of the five sacred plants that were used in ritual offerings to the god Shiva. The cannabis plant was also used to make herbal remedies. One popular herbal remedy is the drink called Bhang which is made by combining milk, cannabis, and spices. Bhang was used as a treatment option for various medical conditions, but also as an anesthetic.

The Ancient Egyptians

The medical use of the cannabis plant was also prominent among ancient Egyptians. They used the weed plant for various medical conditions, including the treatment of hemorrhoids, inflammation, and glaucoma, but also used the hemp plant for making linen, clothes, and ropes.

The Scythians

The Greek historian Herodotus has written that the powerful tribe called Scythians was very popular for their use of cannabis as an intoxicant. He also claimed that the Scythians combined the cannabis plant and opium because of their mind-altering properties. According to his writings, the intoxicating vapors produced by the combination of both drugs gave these ancient nomadic tribes of warriors an advantage on the battlefield. 

Cannabis Use in the Middle East

Cannabis eventually spread to the middle east and became widespread after 800 AD. It’s likely that the use of cannabis, especially hashish, was very popular around this region as a result of the spread of Islam. According to the Quran, it’s forbidden for Muslims to consume alcohol and other intoxicating substances, however, cannabis isn’t mentioned anywhere in these texts.

Marijuana in America: Who Brought Weed to the USA?

The cannabis plant was brought to North America during the colonial period by the settlers that founded Virginia in 1611. Once people discovered the properties and benefits of cannabis, it became an invaluable production resource and its cultivation was stimulated. In fact, people who didn’t cultivate cannabis received penalties from the state. It’s known that even president George Washington cultivated the hemp plant for over 30 years due to the medical use of cannabis.

Cannabis in the 19th Century

As the medical use of marijuana became even more popular, the plant was added to the US Pharmacopeia. People started to use the weed plant to treat conditions such as cholera, opiate addiction, alcoholism, headaches, chronic pain, insomnia, and stimulating appetite.

Cannabis in the 20th Century

Prior to the 20th century, cannabis was mostly used in the US for medical purposes. However, after the Mexican Revolution, immigrants from Mexico who came to the US to seek refuge brought their recreational use of marijuana with them. As a result, recreational use of cannabis was increasing in American culture. The increased use of marijuana led the federal government to start thinking about anti-cannabis propaganda.

When (& Why) Was Marijuana Made Illegal?

When we look at the history of marijuana use, we see that the increased popularity of cannabis in the US after the Mexican revolution was the turning point before the government officials started to impose new regulations with regard to marijuana.

Marijuana Tax Act of 1937

The first major supporter of the prohibition of cannabis was the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry J. Anslinger. Together with the federal government, Anslinger started working on the Marijuana Tax Act which aimed to regulate cannabis. As a result of this act, cultivators, buyers, and sellers of cannabis needed to register and report their business which ultimately led to the decrease of marijuana prescriptions.

War on Marijuana

The war on marijuana, or the “War on Drugs,” is a 1971 campaign by president Richard Nixon against the illegal use of drugs. This campaign was followed by passing the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) which classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug together with ecstasy, heroin, and LSD. The CSA revoked the Marijuana Tax Act claiming that cannabis had no medical uses and a high potential for abuse. Under federal law, cannabis use is still illegal in the US. Despite the efforts to impose strict marijuana laws, states like Oregon, Maine, and Alaska decriminalized marijuana.

The Reefer Madness

The 1930s, an era that was defined by drug use, jazz, and swing, despite the restrictions of the federal government, was the era in which musicians often referenced the use of marijuana in their music. Songs like Sweet Marihuana Brown by Benny Goodman, and That Funny Reefer Man by Cab Calloway, became classics. 

As a way to combat the increased use of cannabis among youth, in 1936 a small church group financed an anti-drug use movie called Tell Your Children, which showed how cannabis made teenagers promiscuous and drove them mad. The movie was later renamed Reefer Madness and became very popular during that period.

The New War on Drugs and Drug Use

The use of marijuana for recreational purposes became quite prominent at the beginning of the  20th century, and as a result, new legislation was passed as a way to reduce cannabis use and deter youths from smoking weed. After the passing of the Controlled Substances Act, the Drug Enforcement Administration (D.E.A.) was established in 1973 as an institution that would help control, prevent, and combat illegal drug use. Further anti-drug campaigns followed as cocaine became the most abused drug in the US, and these anti-drug campaigns and programs weren’t very effective in preventing the use of drugs among youths.

History of Marijuana Legalization: When Was Weed Legalized?

Marijuana still isn’t legalized on a federal level, however, 36 US states have already legalized it for medicinal use, and 18 US states have legalized marijuana for recreational use. However, marijuana becoming a legal drug was unlikely just 50 years ago.

Research and Medicine

The first step towards legalizing marijuana was probably the research of an Irish doctor who studied in India called Sir William Brooke O’Shaughnessy. By researching cannabis extracts, he figured out that using marijuana helped to lessen stomach pain and vomiting in cholera patients. This eventually led to cannabis extracts being sold in pharmacies all over Europe and the US as a treatment for stomach problems and other medical conditions.

Further research showed that apart from having psychoactive properties, one of weed’s main cannabinoids, THC, also had medicinal properties. In fact, THC interacts with parts of the brain responsible for promoting hunger and lessening nausea. This eventually led to more research on the medicinal benefits of THC.

The First FDA-Approved Drug

As a result of further research, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the drug  Marinol (dronabinol) back in 1985 for the treatment of nausea. This medication is made from a synthetic form of THC and has been used ever since.

Around this period, AIDS became a common condition that spread across the world like wildfire. This condition caused a lot of patients to have problems with nausea and a loss of appetite, and some people believed that the legalization of medical marijuana could be beneficial for the treatment of these patients. 

In 1988, the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) reviewed the possibility of legalizing medical cannabis and removing its classification as a Schedule I drug, although the proposal was rejected.

Marijuana Regulations

Even though weed is illegal on a federal level in the US, more and more Americans are pro-legalization, especially for legalizing marijuana for medical purposes. According to a statistical analysis done by Statista in 2021, 61% of the adult population is in favor of legalizing marijuana which is an increase from 2003, when only 34% of Americans were in favor of legalization. Just 32% are against legalization in 2021, which is a significant decrease from the 64% who were against legalization in 2003.

Currently, the US cannabis market is controlled by the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institute on Drug Abuse which protect the consumers by regularly testing new products that appear on the cannabis market and regulating the legalization of new drugs. 

The Legalization of Medical Purpose Marijuana

A lot of US states have changed their policies with regard to marijuana in the past 25 years even though the federal status remains unchanged for both medical and recreational use of cannabis. The first state that legalized the use of medical marijuana was California back in 1996. After California, a lot of US states followed in its footsteps. 

This eventually led to the passing of the 2018 Farm Bill which legalized the cultivation and use of the industrial hemp plant that contains less than 0.3% of THC. The same year the first CBD-derived medicine was also approved by the FDA as awareness of the medical properties of marijuana increased. Nowadays, medical marijuana can be purchased in local dispensaries with a valid medical marijuana ID in 36 US states. Users can select from a wide variety of strains that are used to treat a lot of medical conditions, including chronic pain, epilepsy, decreased appetite, nausea, and others.

On the other hand, back in 2014, Washington and Colorado became the first states to legalize recreational medical marijuana, followed by Alaska, Oregon, and Washington D.C which all voted in favor of some regulation of recreational cannabis. Today, a total of 18 US states have legalized the recreational use of marijuana.

Frequently Asked Questions

Did Native Americans Smoke Weed?

It’s known that Native Americans smoked tobacco and introduced it to European colonists back in the 16th century, although they were exposed to cannabis through the European colonists. According to some resources, the Spanish brought cannabis to North America, and probably to the Native Americans as well. Similar to how Native Asians, Europeans, and Africans smoked cannabis, so did the Native Americans.

Where Is Marijuana Native To?

According to cannabis fossil pollen studies, the cannabis plant originally grew in open treeless habitats called step in the Northeastern Tibetan Plateau, most likely in China and Siberia. Initially, these plants were cultivated to be used as food, to make textiles for clothes, linens, and shoes, as well as to make paper, sails, and ropes. Even though these early hemp plants didn’t contain high levels of THC, through evolution and cross-breeding, these plants were used to cultivate all of the strains that we have on the cannabis market today. 

A passionate advocate for the benefits of cannabis. Fraser Horton, who has a background in botany and a strong love of nature, has spent years researching how cannabis affects the body and mind. He established Leaf Nation in 2020, where he has devoted himself to educating people about the legalisation of marijuana and its safe and responsible use. Fraser is committed to highlighting cannabis’ potential for improving wellness and working to dispel the stigma associated with its use.


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