The history of marijuana goes back nearly 5,000 years, and through most of its history, weed was considered beneficial for both your physical and your mental health. That all changed around the beginning of the 20th century with a concentrated campaign of prohibition and criminalization. In just a few short years, pot acquired a reputation as the devil’s lettuce—a dangerous drug that could destroy lives and minds. Over the past few decades, the marijuana plant has rehabilitated its checkered reputation and begun its climb back to legitimacy. These pivotal moments in the history of cannabis are a brief timeline of weed’s fall from grace and restoration as an accepted medical and recreational substance.
The History of Cannabis: The First 5,000 Years
If you lived in China around 3000 BCE, there’s a good chance a healer might have prescribed cannabis to help you get through surgery or treat any number of other ills. Cannabis made its earliest appearances in Chinese medical references dating back to 2737 BCE. Its use spread throughout Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and eventually, the Americas. Our ancestors used weed to treat everything from earaches to depression. They valued it so highly that both the Romans and the British required its colonies to grow hemp, for both textile and medicinal uses.
That’s not to say that they didn’t also recognize and value its more pleasurable properties. Herodotus wrote about nomadic Asians smoking cannabis to get high around 425 BCE, and other cultures regularly used cannabis as part of their rituals, both social and religious. By the middle of the 1800s, cannabis was well-known and its use accepted throughout most of the world.
1830ish: O’Shaugnessy Discovers Pot Reduces Nausea
In the early 1830s, an Irish doctor studying in India discovered that cannabis extract could alleviate some of the most severe symptoms of cholera. Dr. William B. O’Shaugnessy was the first modern Western scientist to study the chemical composition of cannabis indica and is responsible for the introduction of cannabis to Western pharmacology. By the late 1800s, most apothecaries throughout the world and in the U.S. stocked a variety of cannabis extracts as remedies for a wide range of ailments. Unfortunately, weed’s reputation was about to take a sharp turn toward the bad side of town.
1936: Reefer Madness Smokes the Issue
While cannabis extracts were sold in pharmacies and regarded as “medicine,” the early 1900s saw a growing awareness in the U.S. of a different way of using pot—smoking reefer. The history of marijuana prohibition is one with racist/nationalist undertones and naked political ambition. In the wake of Prohibition, President Herbert Hoover created the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and appointed Harry Anslinger to head it up. Anslinger had spent the early years of his career chasing after rum runners, but the repeal of Prohibition put a serious crimp in his career prospects. The FBN offered him new horizons. Weed was an easy target for his ambitions to become a storied lawman. He made a conscious decision to demonize marijuana, telling lawmakers and the public that because it decreases inhibitions, it would promote violence and promiscuity.
Anslinger’s quest to criminalize cannabis got a huge boost from publishers like William Randolph Hearst, who waged a very public campaign against hemp and marijuana, and by a growing nationalist sentiment against Mexicans, who were seen by some as undercutting Americans for jobs during the Great Depression. The 1936 film, Reefer Madness, encapsulated all the fear-mongering around marijuana. By the mid-1930s, most states had passed laws making pot use illegal. With public sentiment firmly on the side of the angels, the ones wearing trench coats and federal badges, it was only a matter of time before Congress acted.
1937: The Marihuana Tax Act
Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. The new law made marijuana illegal except for medical uses —but it imposed stringent regulations and taxes on weed that made it almost impossible for most doctors to prescribe it. The law remained in effect until it was overturned in 1969, just in time for Nixon’s War on Drugs. Before that, though, recreational use of weed had spread from the artsy, counter-culture world of the jazz club to college campuses, thanks in part to the Beat writers.
1943: Jack Kerouac Gets Turned On
No history of cannabis could be complete without a nod to Jack Kerouac’s iconic 1957 novel, On the Road, and the entire Beat Generation. According to his wife, Kerouac first encountered pot in the company of jazz musician Lester Young. He and his fellow Beat writers introduced an entire generation to subversion, jazz, weed and rebellion. Recreational pot use became inextricably linked with rebellious youth, putting marijuana firmly in the sights of the upcoming war on drugs.
1971: Nixon Declares War on Drugs
In 1971, after the passage of the Controlled Substances Act, President Richard M. Nixon publicly declared the War on Drugs. Drug abuse, he told the nation, was the country’s number one public enemy. Against recommendations from his own commission, appointed to study the uses and dangers of weed, he classified pot as a Schedule 1 substance, with a high potential for abuse and no known medical use.
Almost immediately, a number of states moved to decriminalize pot again. By 1978, nearly one-third of all states had reduced penalties on possession of less than an ounce of marijuana. Unfortunately, that didn’t last long. As recreational pot use grew—and the age of those indulging dropped—parents campaigned to overturn permissive laws. On the federal level, First Lady Nancy Reagan took up the charge with her 1986 “Just Say No” campaign, and within just a few years, pot was once again a dangerous scourge bent on destroying the youth of America. Years later in 1994, a top Nixon advisor admitted that the criminalization of pot was no more than a cynical political ploy to destroy his perceived biggest political enemies: hippies and blacks.
1996: California Legalizes “Compassionate Use” of Weed
In the late 1980s, California led the way to ease the restrictions against cannabis use. In San Francisco, local activists succeeded in getting Proposition 215, an act protecting patients, caregivers and physicians who used cannabis for medical reasons, on the 1996 ballot. It passed on November 5, 1996, making California the first state in the nation to legalize marijuana for medical use. As of 2018, a total of 31 states allow medical marijuana use.
2012: Colorado and Washington Become First Recreational Weed States
In 2012, Colorado and Washington became the first states to make cannabis legal for adult recreational use. Both states included a heavy tax on the sales of pot, which made the referendums popular with those voting for increased state revenues as well as with those who wanted the right to use pot without fear of arrest and imprisonment. The victories touched off a series of other referendums, and by June 2018, a total of nine states and the District of Columbia had joined the ranks of recreational weed states.
In addition to states that have made cannabis legal for medical and recreational use, most states also allow the use of products containing CBD oil. As major corporations eye the growing market for cannabis consumables, more states will probably follow suit. The major fly in the (cannabis-infused!) ointment is the federal government, which still considers cannabis a Schedule 1 drug. That could change soon. Senators Cory Gardner (CO) and Elizabeth Warren (MA) have introduced a bill in the Senate that would give states the right to regulate the use and sale of cannabis within their own borders as they see fit, and make it illegal for the federal government to interfere with state cannabis laws.