Medically Reviewed by
Jason Crawford

Article Last Updated on January 18, 2023

It’s a well-known fact that the history of cannabis is a long one. Marijuana has been used for a very long time – thousands, and even tens of thousands of years. Prior to the development of science, we didn’t know anything about the chemical properties of the marijuana plant, but our ancestors seemed to know a lot about its effects and used it quite often for various purposes. Only in recent decades or so are we finally beginning to learn the mysteries behind it.

However, the exact origins of the cannabis plant are not yet fully known. What’s known is that it’s related to hops and they both belong to the Cannabaceae family, cannabis being placed in the Cannabaceae family by the Austrian botanist Stephan Endlicher in 1873.

One piece of evidence that may offer some insight is a 2019 study published in the journal Vegetation History and Archaeobotany that suggests that the oldest Cannabis genus originated in China and was roughly 20 million years old. Then, according to the study, it dispersed in Europe approximately 6 million years ago, in Eastern China 1.2 million years ago, while in India it’s thought to have appeared 32,000 years ago.

So far, we have identified three different species that contain varying ratios of cannabinoids:

  • Cannabis sativa and Cannabis sativa L. (also known as hemp), classified by Carl Linnaeus in 1753;
  • Cannabis indica identified by Jean-Baptiste Lamark in 1785;
  • Cannabis ruderalis, the most recently identified species in 1924 by D. E. Janischevisky, though there is an ongoing debate about whether Ruderalis is its own species or a subspecies to Cannabis sativa.

Cannabis acquired its now universal name “marijuana” in the 1900s, while prior to that, it was just called by its original name – cannabis. The term “marijuana” itself originates from Mexican Spanish, more precisely called “marihuana.”

The History of Marijuana

Let’s see some of the most important and most interesting records on the use of marijuana throughout human history up until today.

Ancient Civilizations

Ancient Chinese Civilization

According to some records, the earliest mentions of marijuana originated in Ancient China. The earliest known record dates back to about 2900 BC when Fu Xi, a mythical Chinese Emperor (credited with bringing civilization to China), referenced “Má” as medicine which is balanced between yin and yang. Another record is from 2700 BC when the Chinese Emperor Shen Nung (deemed as the Father of Chinese medicine), is said to have discovered the medicinal properties of marijuana.

However, the earliest written reference on the use of cannabis as medical marijuana is found in the Chinese Pharmacopeia, also known as the Rh-Ya, dating around the 15th century BC. The Rh-Ya references the healing properties of “Má” which was used for over 100 medical conditions, including rheumatism, malaria, and absentmindedness. Later it was even used as an anesthetic which was made by combining weed resin and wine.

The Egyptians

Other ancient civilizations that have also used the cannabis plant for its medicinal benefits include the Egyptians. Marijuana use for medicinal purposes is referenced in many Ancient Egyptian papyri that suggest that the Egyptians used it to treat inflammation, hemorrhoids, and glaucoma. The hemp plant was also used for the production of more common items, like fabrics and ropes.

Ancient India

According to available records, marijuana was very widely used in Ancient India. Most notably, the Ancient Indian civilization used marijuana to make Bhang, which is a drink made from cannabis and milk for the treatment of various ailments and used as an anesthetic. Cannabis was also used as a treatment for leprosy, and people believed it could even sharpen the mind and induce sleep.

The Middle East

In the Middle East, hashish was very commonly used for recreational purposes after 800 AD. One interesting fact is that the use of hashish coincided with the spread of Islam in this region. Alcohol use was forbidden in the Quran, but in it, there was no specific mention of cannabis.

Coming to North America

Cannabis was brought to North America in the colonial period. In fact, it was the settlers that founded the colony of Jamestown, Virginia in 1611, that brought the hemp plant to North America. When the people discovered its properties, it became a valuable production resource to the point where those who didn’t cultivate it received penalties from the state of Virginia.

One very interesting fact is that George Washington was cultivating hemp for about 30 years. Some entries on George Washington’s farming diary point to the fact that he was growing hemp approximately from 1745 to 1775, and that he especially appreciated the medicinal use of cannabis. Other entries in his diary also reveal that he was growing cannabis with a high THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) content, or in other words, marijuana.

Mainstream Medicine

Following the slow discovery of the effects of marijuana, in the 19th century, it was discovered that marijuana could help with headaches, lack of sleep, and it could stimulate the appetite, which contributed to it gaining mainstream popularity in the West. Around 1850 it was added to the United States Pharmacopeia, in which it was listed as a treatment for numerous ailments, like neuralgia, typhus, cholera, alcoholism, opiate addiction, and others, and it was prescribed in tincture form. From then on, the medical use of cannabis continued to prosper.

Marijuana in the 20th Century

In the 1900s, marijuana was still primarily known and used for medicinal purposes. However, during this time, the Mexican Revolution was also taking place, and many immigrants came to America. It is said that they were the ones who introduced the recreational use of smoking marijuana to the American culture.

As the recreational use of cannabis was growing, it started to attract the attention of legislative bodies. The government policies started changing drastically and the cultivation of marijuana, as well as its use as an intoxicant or medicine, was subjected to newly-imposed taxes and laws.

One of the first laws was the Wiley Act, or the Pure Food and Drug Act passed in 1906, which required total transparency of product labels by listing all the active ingredients. In fact, this act paved the way for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Shortly after, many states started to outlaw cannabis with prohibition laws, one by one. 

This went parallel with the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act, signed by President Wilson in 1914 that imposed restrictions on opium and cocaine use and distribution, as addiction to opiates was a major problem at the time. This didn’t apply to marijuana directly, but it would model the drug regulations on a federal level, setting the foundation for the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937.

However, despite the attempts for imposing stricter measures, the use of marijuana was still spreading, especially following the prohibition of alcohol production and sale. Additionally, in the 1930s, physicians were still allowed to prescribe cannabis-based medications, and the demands were constantly increasing. At least two American pharmaceutical companies were selling hemp extract as medicine.

The Marijuana Tax Act

Despite everything, marijuana had fierce opponents among government officials. Harry J. Anslinger was a major supporter of the prohibition of drugs and started his own anti-drug campaign as the head of the newly-formed Federal Bureau of Narcotics

Anslinger is often considered as the root of America’s ban on cannabis. In 1937 he imposed the so-called Marijuana Tax Act and it was the first attempt of the federal government to regulate cannabis. It required registration and reporting of the cultivators, buyers, and sellers of marijuana. Following this act, the marijuana prescriptions started to decline.

Reefer Madness

The 1930s were a decade when jazz and swing were flourishing, and many musicians and artists embraced marijuana despite the restrictions. There were many songs written that referenced marijuana, like That Funny Reefer Man by Cab Calloway and Sweet Marihuana Brown by Benny Goodman.

Marijuana use was spreading and so were the cautionary tales. In 1936 a small church group financed the film Tell Your Children which was shown as a morality tale for drug use or how “reefer addiction” could compromise teenagers, make them promiscuous, and even drive them mad. The film was intended to terrify young viewers out of ever trying marijuana. Later, when it came into the hands of Dwain Esper, a director and producer of exploitation films, it got renamed Reefer Madness and became a cult classic.

The War on Drugs

One of the most famous hallmarks in the history of marijuana use is president Nixon’s 1971 campaign against the illegal use of drugs. He declared war on drugs which was followed by the Controlled Substances Act that revoked the Marijuana Tax Act and classified marijuana as a Schedule I drug, alongside LSD, heroin, and ecstasy, which meant that it had no medical uses and had a high potential for abuse.

The First FDA-Approved Drug

In 1985, after years of testing, Marinol was approved by the FDA and the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) for the treatment of nausea. Marinol is a synthetic form of THC, the primary psychoactive cannabinoid.

Cannabis Today – Medical Marijuana and Legalization

The state of cannabis today is constantly improving – more states in the US have either legalized it or decriminalized it, despite being technically illegal under federal law. The first state to legalize the use of medical marijuana was California in 1996. The first states that legalized recreational marijuana, on the other hand, were Washington and Colorado in 2012. One by one, many other states followed over the years.

With the 2018 Farm Bill, the cultivation and use of hemp were federally legalized, and in an increasing number of states, you can now obtain a medical marijuana card. The first CBD-derived medicine was approved by the FDA in 2018, and the awareness of the medicinal properties of marijuana is spreading, even though some cannabis products are still lacking proper safety regulations.

The cannabis market has never been more fruitful than now and shows signs of persistent improvement, as there are now many legal dispensaries where you can freely buy a selection of cannabis products.

States That Have Legalized Marijuana

As of 2021, states that have legalized or decriminalized the use of marijuana for both medical or recreational use are: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin, with the enactment pending for Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota until a future date.

Final Thoughts

Before marijuana became illegal for a number of decades, ancient civilizations had been using this plant for thousands of years. It’s clear that cannabis has been used for various purposes for a very long time and fortunately, it’s slowly finding its way back into mainstream use.

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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