Medically Reviewed by
Jason Crawford

Article Last Updated on January 8, 2023

Weed’s history is a fascinating story because it represents the workings of nature and how one complex plant like the cannabis plant can evolve and survive over thousands of years, and still reach us today.

Therefore, in this article, we’ll talk about where weed came from, what makes it so unique, and touch upon its journey from its homeland to the rest of the world.

What Kind of Plant Is the Cannabis Plant?

The cannabis plant belongs to the family Cannabaceae, which is a large family of species grouped into different genera, including the Cannabis genus. The Humulus (hops) and Celtis (hackberries or nettle trees) genera are also classified in this family.

The Cannabis genus consists of three main Cannabis species that developed over time and they are: Cannabis Sativa, identified in 1753, Cannabis Indica, identified in 1785, and Cannabis Ruderalis which was identified in 1924. There is another subspecies of Cannabis Sativa called Cannabis Sativa L. and it refers to the hemp plant.

Unlike the other three, Cannabis Ruderalis isn’t cultivated for consumption because its overall cannabinoid content isn’t high enough to produce any notable effects. The hemp plant, on the other hand, is used for industrial purposes or for its CBD (cannabidiol) content, while Indicas and Sativas are used for both medicinal purposes and for the psychoactive properties of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol).

Even though the cannabis of the past wasn’t nearly as abundant in cannabinoids as the cannabis plants cultivated now, our ancestors were well aware of its potential, and that’s why they used it for medicinal, recreational, religious, industrial, and spiritual purposes. 

Ancient Civilizations and Their Use of Cannabis

The history of cannabis is a long one as weed is one of the oldest crops cultivated by humans. It’s thought to have been used for millennia – since at least the 3rd millennium BC, although there is some archeological evidence that hemp was used as early as the 5th millennium BC.

In Ancient China, cannabis was used for religious practices and medical purposes. The Chinese Emperor Shen Nung is said to have discovered the medical use of cannabis and recorded it in his medical encyclopedia called Pen Ts’ao.

Ancient Indian civilizations used cannabis to make Bhang, a drink made from cannabis, milk, and spices, which was used for medical purposes and in Hindu religious practices. Bhang is still consumed today in India as part of the annual spring festival of Holi.

Cannabis in the form of hashish was a big thing in the Ancient Middle East and it was commonly used for its recreational effects instead of alcohol because the Quran forbids the use of alcohol. Hashish was seen as a fit substitute as there was no mention of cannabis in the Quran.

Scythians, the ancient nomadic people that lived in the Eurasian territory of today’s southern Siberia, also consumed a lot of cannabis. There are records written by the Greek historian Herodotus about the Scythians describing their ritualistic smoking of cannabis.

Where Did Weed Come From? The Journey of Weed from Asia to America

We said that the history of marijuana use throughout space and time is a long one, but it had to start somewhere – and it started in the steppes of Central Asia and East Asia. It’s also where the earliest archeological evidence of recreational cannabis use was discovered in a 2,500-year-old cemetery. 

Over the years, marijuana spread across Asia, but it was the Scythians who played a significant role in its spread around the rest of the world because they lived north of the territory that would later become the Silk Road (a vast trade route connecting the East and West). Their territory was often invaded by other tribes and peoples, which over time resulted in the spread of cannabis.

Weed arrived in Europe when the Germanic tribes first brought it to Germany and then around the 5th century AD it was brought to Britain through the Anglo-Saxon invasions. From Europe, cannabis seeds spread to Africa, presumably brought by Arab or Indian traders, eventually reaching South America in the mid 16th century and North America in the 17th century.

During this time, In America, cannabis was used for industrial and medicinal purposes for the most part.

19th Century and the Rise of Medical Marijuana Use

The medical use of marijuana was especially prominent in the 19th century. Cannabis tinctures were freely prescribed for all kinds of ailments, such as headaches, insomnia, loss of appetite, neuralgia, and even alcoholism and opiate addiction.

At this point, the recreational use of weed was still not familiar and few used it for its psychoactive properties. For the general public, though, cannabis became widely accepted as a medicinal plant and was even added to the United States Pharmacopeia.

20th Century – Reefer Madness, and the War on Drugs

However, at the turn of the century, things began to change and recreational marijuana was soon introduced. 

It’s said that the Mexican immigrants, who were fleeing their country in the wake of the Mexican Revolution, were the ones who introduced smoking marijuana recreationally to the American general public. In fact, the word marihuana comes from Mexican Spanish, and prior to the Mexican immigrants coming to North America, weed was referred to as just cannabis.

Following this, the recreational use of marijuana spread quickly, especially during the prohibition period. However, legislative bodies didn’t like the spread of recreational marijuana, which led to the criminalization of marijuana use in 29 states. 

The government tried to spread fear about marijuana through various means, such as screening of the movie Reefer Madness in order to warn the youth of the consequences of using marijuana (which were majorly exaggerated).

On top of that, in 1937 Harry J. Anslinger, who was openly against drug use, imposed the Marijuana Tax Act which was the first attempt of the government to regulate the cultivation and use of cannabis. 

Fast-forward several decades later and things only got worse in terms of the legal status of marijuana. President Nixon’s War on Drugs 1971 campaign led to the infamous Marijuana Tax Act which is still active to this day and classifies cannabis as a Schedule I drug (along with heavier narcotics such as LSD, ecstasy, and heroin).

Cannabis In the Modern World – Legalization of Hemp, Medicinal Use, and Recreational Use

Despite still being illegal on a federal level, the legal status of cannabis has been slowly changing as more and more states are legalizing the medicinal and/or recreational use of cannabis. In these states, users can freely buy marijuana and other cannabis products from licensed dispensaries. 

The hemp plant was fully legalized in 2018 on a state level as long as the THC content stays below 0.3%. This change of laws led to significant growth of the hemp market as hemp has found many uses, not only industrial but also medicinal (due to its high CBD content).

Since then, the development of the cannabis market as well as the proposals for its legalization in more states have been underway. 


The marijuana plant has been through thick and thin, but one thing is certain – its history is very impressive. Cannabis has managed to become an important part of many civilizations throughout many millennia, and still reach us here, today. What else can we say, except that the long journey was worth it.

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.


The information presented on this page is provided as a public service to aid in education and is derived from sources believed to be reliable. Readers are responsible for making their own assessment of the topics discussed here. In no event shall Leaf Nation be held reliable for any injury, loss or damage that could happen if using or abusing drugs.