Medically Reviewed by
Jason Crawford

Article Last Updated on December 27, 2022

Throughout the thousands of years that cannabis has grown, people have identified three major species that contain different levels of cannabinoids:

  • Cannabis Sativa – classified by Carl Linnaeus in 1753;
  • Cannabis Indica – classified by Jean-Baptiste Lamark in 1785;
  • Cannabis Ruderalis – classified in 1924 by D. E. Janischevisky.

Regardless of when these cannabis species were identified, weed has been used for hundreds of years, ever since the times of ancient civilizations. But have you ever wondered exactly how long the marijuana crop has been around? We’ll give you the answer to this question as we go through the history of weed cultivation and consumption below.

History of Marijuana and Its Origins

The hemp plant has a long history which dates back to ancient civilizations. This plant is native to Central Asia from where it eventually spread to Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and finally the Americas. According to research, the oldest evidence on the use of marijuana dates back 2500 years ago, and some sources claim that people have been using it long before that.

As a species, marijuana has existed for about 28 million years and throughout these years it has evolved into the plant we use for medical and recreational purposes today. Marijuana is a close relative to the hops plant, a plant that grows wild across Central Asia to this day, and a main component in beer. This is also the native place of marijuana.

Ancient Civilizations and How They Used Weed

About 4000 years ago, Chinese farmers on the territory of Central Asia started to grow the hemp plant for the production of fiber in order to make rope, paper, and clothing. So let’s see how the use of marijuana spread to other neighboring civilizations and how they used this versatile crop.

Ancient Chinese Civilization

As we’ve mentioned above, one of the earliest users of cannabis was the population of Ancient China. There are different records about when exactly the Chinese first mentioned marijuana. Some sources claim that the earliest records date back to 2900 BC and the mythical Chinese Emperor Fu Xi who said “Má” (marijiana) was a balance between yin and yang. Another source claims that around 2700 BC the Father of Chinese medicine, the Chinese Emperor Shen Nung, discovered weed’s medicinal properties. The use of cannabis as medical marijuana was definitely introduced in the Chinese Pharmacopeia for the treatment of a lot of medical conditions including malaria, rheumatism, and others around the 15th century BC.

Ancient Egypt

The cannabis plant was also popular among the Egyptians who used it to treat hemorrhoids, glaucoma, inflammation, and other conditions. Their use of the plant for medical purposes has been referenced in a lot of papyri manuscripts dating back to ancient times. The ancient Egyptians also used the hemp plant to produce fabrics to make clothes and ropes.

Ancient India

According to available records, marijuana was also used in Ancient India. This plant was used by these ancient civilizations to make Bhang, a drink made from milk and cannabis which was used medicinally as an anesthetic and also to treat several certain conditions. The cannabis plant was also used as a treatment for leprosy, as well as a sleep aid.

The Scythians

According to Greek historian Herodotus, the Scythians were known for their recreational use of cannabis. Moreover, they’re known as the people who brought weed from Europe to the Middle East around 500 BC. Herodotus also wrote that Scythians used cannabis as an intoxicant and combined it with opium to give them an advantage on the battlefield.

The Middle East

After marijuana was brought to the Middle East, people started to consume it quite often for recreational purposes. In fact, after 800 AD, hashish use became more prevalent in the Middle East with the spread of Islam. This may be due to the fact that alcohol use is forbidden in the Quran, however, cannabis isn’t mentioned so people were using it freely.

Cannabis in North America

From Europe, cannabis was brought to North America by the Spanish in the late 1500s. During the colonial period, settlers brought the hemp plant to Virginia to use for making ropes, clothes, and food. From there, the use of cannabis only increased and cannabis became a valuable production resource, especially in Virginia.

According to his diary, even George Washington cultivated the hemp plant. The farming diary had entries for hemp cultivation for about 30 years, and he also writes about the medicinal use of cannabis and his appreciation for it. In other entries, he also talks about growing cannabis with high levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

Cannabis in the 19th Century

Once the effects of cannabis became known, weed was added to the United States Pharmacopeia due to its benefits in treating conditions such as alcoholism, cholera, headaches, insomnia, opiate addiction, lack of appetite, and other conditions. As a result, the medical use of cannabis became more popular.

Cannabis in the 20th Century

During the 1900s, cannabis was mostly used for medicinal purposes, but that all changed during the Mexican Revolution. It’s believed that when Mexican immigrants came to America, they brought their recreational use of marijuana with them from Mexico. Before that period, smoking marijuana wasn’t as common in American culture. As recreational use of cannabis was increasing, the policies for cannabis cultivation and cannabis use slowly started to change.

The Marijuana Tax Act

The use of marijuana was starting to get a lot of opposition by government officials and some were louder than others. The first major supporter of the prohibition of cannabis was Harry J. Anslinger who was head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. He started to share his anti-cannabis propaganda which ultimately led to the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937. As an attempt of the federal government to regulate cannabis production and distribution, this act increased the tax for prospective cannabis cultivators, buyers, and sellers, and ultimately led to the reduction in cannabis production and prescriptions for medical marijuana.

Reefer Madness

As the anti-cannabis propaganda was spreading, the movie Reefer Madness came out at the peak of it. The movie first came out in 1936 under the name Tell Your Children and it was made by a small church group, but it was quickly renamed Reefer Madness by director and producer Dwain Esper and became a classic during this era. Made to deter youths from drug use, this movie claimed that continuous consumption would make teenagers promiscuous, and eventually drive them mad.

Despite the propaganda against recreational use and even the medicinal use of weed, the hemp plant was widely used throughout World War II. The industrial production of hemp was even encouraged and it was used by the United States to make rope, uniforms, canvas, and other essentials. The use of hemp during the war efforts was even documented in a 1942 short film called Hemp for Victory which promoted hemps as a necessary crop to win the war.

The War on Drugs

A part of the history of marijuana is the campaign against the illegal use of drugs and drug abuse in 1971 called the “War on Drugs.” This campaign made by president Nixon eventually led to the making of the Controlled Substances Act which essentially classified marijuana as a Schedule I drug. According to the Act, cannabis was classified together with ecstasy, heroin, and LSD, meaning that it had no medical uses, but rather a high potential for abuse. Despite these efforts to enforce strict marijuana laws, several US states such as Oregon, Maine, and Alaska decriminalized marijuana.

First FDA-Approved Drug Containing Cannabinoids

How the government viewed marijuana slowly started to change after the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the use of one specific drug for medical purposes. In 1985, Marinol, a drug made using the synthetic form of THC (the psychoactive cannabinoid), finally got approved by the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) and the FDA. Marinol (Dronabinol) became legal to use for the treatment of nausea and vomiting associated with cancer chemotherapy.

Medical Marijuana and Legalization

Marijuana laws continue to change in many US states, even though cannabis is still illegal under federal law. The first US state to legalize medical marijuana was California in 1996 followed by Maine, Colorado, Nevada, and others. On the other hand, recreational marijuana was legalized in 2012 in Washington and Colorado, and more states have also legalized it in the last 9 years.

Moreover, the cultivation and use of hemp became legal in the US with the passing of the 2018 Farm Bill. According to the Bill, products made from industrial hemp plants that have a THC content lower than 0.3% can legally be sold in the US. Moreover, there is an increase in states where you can purchase medical marijuana from legal dispensaries with a valid medical marijuana card.

How Long Has Marijuana Been Around?

If we look at the whole history of marijuana use in the world, we realise that the culture of using the weed plant has been with us for generations. The earliest use of cannabis dates back to the ancient Chinese, Egyptian, and Indian civilizations which started to use weed between 2900 BC  and 2000 BC. However, the cannabis plant has been growing for over 28 million years and has adapted to harsh growing conditions and managed to thrive so we could use it to our benefit for years to come.

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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