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The History of Marijuana | A Historical Timeline to Explain

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The history of marijuana is believed to originate in Central Asia where it was used for various medicinal, spiritual, and recreational purposes across a wide range of cultures.[1] Despite this widespread use, drug policies in the early 20th century led to criminalization and stigmatization of marijuana within the U.S.[2] 

In recent years, there has been a shift in attitudes and policies surrounding marijuana use, as more states legalize recreational use of the drug. In addition to marijuana’s emerging use as a medicinal drug, more widespread acceptance of the drug has occurred. 

Still, marijuana abuse can have significant effects on lives. Regular misuse can lead to marijuana addiction as well as other negative repercussions, such as respiratory issues, lack of motivation, and reduced immunity. 

How Did Marijuana Use Evolve Into What We Know Today?

Marijuana — the parts of the cannabis plant that are high in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) — has a long history, dating back hundreds of years. 

Marijuana’s Roots

Originating in Central Asia, it was first cultivated for medicinal, textile, and nutritional use before being incorporated into traditional medicines of early civilizations as a therapeutic agent.[1] Marijuana also held religious or spiritual significance in certain cultures.[3] As trade and exploration expanded around the world, marijuana use spread to new continents.

In modern times, concerns over the psychoactive effects and perceived social toxicity of marijuana caused many governments to ban the drug. They put restrictions in place that barred people from growing, selling, or using the plant in any form.

Marijuana Today

The past decade has seen a shift in views of marijuana. Attitudes have changed due to rising awareness and research into marijuana’s medicinal applications.[4] Some nations have revisited its legal status and either decriminalized or legalized all cannabis products for medicinal use, if not recreational use as well.[5]

In the U.S., though the federal government still classifies the drug as a Schedule I substance, 38 states and three territories have legalized the drug for medical purposes and 23 states have legalized marijuana for the purposes of recreational use for adults ages 21 and over.[6] 

Historical Timeline of Marijuana

Here is a historical timeline of marijuana’s history:[1,7-10]

2737 BCE

It is believed that Chinese Emperor Shen Nung was the first to write about the medicinal properties of cannabis in 2737 BCE, making this one of the earliest recorded mentions of its use. Cannabis was often employed therapeutically and seen as an invaluable herbal remedy.

1500 BCE

Cannabis was mentioned in the Atharvaveda, a sacred text of ancient India. Referred to as “sacred grass” or “source of happiness,” cannabis holds a significant place in Indian culture and religious practices.

500 BCE–500 CE

Cannabis cultivation and use spread across Asia, reaching India, Persia, and the Middle East. During this time, its use became integrated into various aspects of society, serving as medicine, a source of fiber, and a recreational diversion.

1000–1700 CE

Cannabis arrived in Africa. It became part of traditional medicine and religious ceremonies due to its healing properties and ability to connect people with the spiritual realm.

1619

Cannabis arrived in North America with the Jamestown settlers in Virginia who were required to grow hemp (a strain of cannabis) as a crop used to make rope, clothing, and paper. Hemp fiber was integral for the development of the young American colonies.

1839

Irish physician William B. O’Shaughnessy published a study on the medicinal uses of cannabis, introducing its therapeutic potential to the Western medical community. His research helped to establish cannabis as a recognized medicine in the Western world.

Late 19th–early 20th Century

Marijuana began to face increasing restrictions worldwide, as anti-drug sentiment and racial prejudice contributed to its criminalization.

1930s–1940s

Anti-marijuana propaganda campaigns, such as the infamous film Reefer Madness, intensified public fears about marijuana and its effects. The campaigns depicted exaggerated and often fictionalized scenarios of cannabis use, leading to madness and criminal behavior. These efforts fuel public sentiment against the plant and contribute to its demonization.

1960s

The counterculture movement of the 1960s embraced marijuana use as a symbol of rebellion against societal norms. The use of marijuana became prevalent among young people who challenged the established social and political order. During this period, there was an increase in recreational marijuana consumption and an increased call for its decriminalization by some segments of the population.

1996

California was the first U.S. state to legalize medical marijuana use with Proposition 215, more commonly known as the Compassionate Use Act. This legislation gave patients with specific medical conditions access to marijuana with a doctor’s approval, signaling a profound shift in legal policy regarding the drug.

2012

Colorado and Washington were the first states to legalize recreational cannabis use for adults with the passing of Amendment 64 in Colorado and Initiative 502 in Washington. These statutes allowed for both the purchase and possession of marijuana for recreational use. Other state governments watched carefully as this unfolded, noting the increase in tax revenue that resulted from the legislation.

Present

The trend toward legalization and decriminalization of marijuana continues to spread across the country. More states (and countries) are adopting permissive laws regarding the cultivation, possession, sale, and use of marijuana. 

Medical & Recreational Changes to Marijuana Law in the U.S.

The law is continually evolving when it comes to the growing, sale, possession, and use of marijuana in the U.S. In the states where it is legal, laws continue to change regarding how cannabis-based businesses should be structured, monitored, and taxed.[11] 

Medicinal Marijuana Legalization

Since its initial introduction into popular use in the U.S. during World War I, medicinal cannabis use has gained momentum due to advocacy groups’ support.[12] Patients with certain chronic disorders that are believed to benefit from use of marijuana became strong advocates for its therapeutic potential as well. 

California was at the forefront of this effort with Proposition 215, a law that legalized medical marijuana use for qualifying conditions.[13] This set a precedent that other states eventually followed as they created similar programs. 

Today, more than 75% of states have legalized medical marijuana for the purposes of  treating disorders like chronic pain, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, and cancer.[5]

Recreational Marijuana Legalization

Following the perceived success of medical marijuana legalization, efforts toward recreational legalization of the drug gained steam. 

Colorado and Washington made history when they became the first states to legalize recreational use through voter initiatives in 2012.[14] These historic moves demonstrated how marijuana legalization could extend beyond medical use. 

Since then, several more states have legalized or decriminalized recreational marijuana to varying degrees for adults over the age of 21. This move has been linked with increased tax revenue, new job opportunities, and a way to regulate marijuana markets as well as new problems that need solutions, such as increased rates of drugged driving.[15] 

Regulatory Framework & Challenges

As marijuana has been legalized for either medical or recreational use, its regulation has become a big focus of new laws. Each state has established their own set of rules regarding cultivation, distribution, and consumption that include the following:[16] 

  • Possession limits
  • Home cultivation rights
  • Licensing restrictions for businesses that specialize in cannabis farming
  • Taxation rates 
  • Public consumption restrictions

Despite changes at the state level, marijuana remains illegal under federal law. This creates inconsistencies, creating challenges in enforcement. Some examples include difficulty accessing banking services and financial services for cannabis businesses as well as interstate commerce restrictions and potential blocks against research opportunities.[17]

The Future of Marijuana

There are ongoing debates surrounding marijuana’s social, economic, and health implications. While marijuana may have potential medicinal benefits, its abuse can significantly harm individuals and communities. 

If marijuana is misused and abused, evidence-based addiction treatment can help people to address addiction and learn skills to avoid future misuse.

Updated January 11, 2024
Resources
  1. Cannabis in Chinese medicine: Are some traditional indications referenced in ancient literature related to cannabinoids? Brand EJ, Zhao Z. Frontiers in Pharmacology. 2017;8(108).
  2. Cannabis use, attitudes, and legal status in the U.S.: A review. Carliner H, Brown QL, Sarvet AL, Hasin DS. Preventive Medicine. 2017;104:13-23.
  3. Religious involvement and marijuana use for medical and recreational purposes. Burdette AM, Webb NS, Hill TD, Haynes SH, Ford JA. Journal of Drug Issues. 2018;48(3):421-434.
  4. Marijuana as a medicine? The science behind the controversy. Mack A, Joy J. National Academies Press. Published 2000. Accessed December 27, 2023.
  5. State medical cannabis laws. National Conference of State Legislatures. Published June 22, 2023. Accessed December 27, 2023.
  6. Factbox: U.S. states where recreational marijuana is legal. Reuters. Published June 1, 2023. Accessed December 27, 2023.
  7. Rig veda, book five, translation by Ralph T.H. Griffith. Kent State University. Accessed December 27, 2023.
  8. Oldest evidence of marijuana use discovered in 2500-year-old cemetery in peaks of western China. Lawler A. Science. Published June 12, 2019. Accessed December 27, 2023.
  9. History of cannabis and the endocannabinoid system. Crocq MA. Cannabinoids. 2020;22(3):223-228.
  10. Marijuana legalization in WA state: Impact on racial disparities in criminal justice marijuana legalization in Washington state: Monitoring the impact on racial disparities in criminal justice. Firth C. University of Washington Alcohol & Drug Abuse Institute. Published June 2018. Accessed December 27, 2023.
  11. The legalization of cannabinoid products and standardizing cannabis-drug development in the United States: a brief report. Marcu J. Cannabinoids. 2020;22(3):289-293.
  12. Medicinal cannabis: Policy, patients, and providers. Ryan JE, McCabe SE, Boyd CJ. Policy, Politics, & Nursing Practice. 2021;22(2):152715442198960.
  13. Proposition 215: De facto legalization of pot and the shortcomings of direct democracy. Vitiello M. University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform. 1998;31(3):707-776.
  14. Cannabis overview. Hartman M. National Conference of State Legislatures. Published May 31, 2022. Accessed December 27, 2023.
  15. The impact of recreational cannabis legalization on cannabis use and associated outcomes: A systematic review. Farrelly KN, Wardell JD, Marsden E, et al. Substance Abuse: Research and Treatment. 2023;17:117822182311720-117822182311720.
  16. Legal cannabis laws, home cultivation, and use of edible cannabis products: A growing relationship? Borodovsky JT, Budney AJ. International Journal of Drug Policy. 2017;50:102-110.
  17. Cannabis banking: A clash between federal and state laws. Miron J, Anthony N. Cato Institute. Published May 27, 2022. Accessed December 27, 2023.
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