Cannabis History 101: An Overview of the World’s Favorite Weed

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Cannabis has a long and rich history. Uses for the plant have been traced back thousands of years. The cannabis plant is a hardy, versatile plant both in where it can be grown and what it can be used for when cultivated. At the same time, cannabis has been the subject of misinformation – both deliberate and unintentional. This has resulted in a somewhat shady history when researching the origins of cannabis use.

It’s believed the cannabis plant originated in Central Asia, specifically in Mongolia and southern Siberia. The Huang He River valley, the Hindu Kush mountains, South Asia, and Afghanistan are also cited as the birthplace of cannabis, depending on who you ask. While the plant’s true origin may be hazy, it’s perfectly clear what spread the plant worldwide: human domestication.

Written and archaeobotanical evidence dates the plant’s use over the past 12,000 years or so, making it one of “humanity’s oldest cultivated crops.” It’s interesting to note that during its history, marijuana has often been an unregulated and completely legal plant. The fact that it has recently become an issue of legal debate is an anomaly in the plant’s history.

The Beginnings of Cannabis

When discussing the long and rich history of cannabis, it’s important to distinguish what’s what. There is more than one plant at stake when we talk about cannabis.

  • Cannabis Sativa – THC rich strain used for medical and recreational use. Known for its uplifting or invigorating effects.
  • Cannabis Indica – THC rich strain used for medical and recreational use. Known for its calming and sedating effects.
  • Cannabis Ruderalis – Strain low in THC used for cross breeding autostrains of both Indica and Sativa plants.
  • Cannabis Sativa L. – Strain without THC (or with levels so low they are not of any use) known primarily as Hemp. Used in the production of everything from paper and clothing to fuel and building materials.

These different strains of the same plant have caused some confusion on what cannabis is, and the different ways in which cultures have come to use and cherish it.

Various forms of burned cannabis as well as written records trace the plant’s use to at least 4,000 B.C. Evidence of burned cannabis seeds have been found in Kurgan burial mounds in Sibera as well as tombs of noble people in the Xinjiang region of China.

Ancient China seems to be the region which has the longest recorded use of the plant in both its psychoactive and industrial states. There are records indicating it was used in surgery and medical procedures as early as 4,000 B.C. Other records indicate it was used by the Chinese Emperor Shen Nung around 2,700 B.C. This part of the historical record is in a gray area, however, since some say Shen Nung is a mythical figure. Myth or not, the stories say he used cannabis as a medicine so, even in the world of fantasy, cannabis crops up.

How Cannabis Migrated

With its use firmly established and widely known in China, coastal farmers were the first to take the plant abroad. They brought it with them to Korea around 2,000 B.C. From there it migrated to Southern Asia and India through invasions and nomadic migration. In India, cannabis became widely used and celebrated. It is celebrated in an ancient Sanskrit Vedic poem, called “Science of Charms” as one of “five kingdoms of herbs … which release us from anxiety.”

Once cannabis was being widely used, its migration to the Middle East was the natural next step. It’s believed the Scythians, a nomadic Indo-European group, is responsible for taking the plant into both the Middle East and throughout southern Russia as they occupied both areas.

Once cannabis entered the European continent, Germanic tribes brought it into Germany and, from there, it was no time before it cropped up throughout Europe and the British isles. Over the next few centuries, wherever people and industry went, cannabis followed. From Europe to Africa and South America, records of cannabis use trace the plant’s epic journey.

Cannabis was initially noticed in the United States at the start of the 20th Century. It is believed this is due, in part, to the Mexican Revolution of 1910. As people fled their war torn country, they brought with them whatever they could fit on their backs and, of course, some cannabis seeds. This connection to the Mexican Revolution would eventually be used against the plant.

Cannabis in the United States

The plant was first outlawed in 1915 in Utah. At that time, no differentiation was made between psychoactive Cannabis strains and the more industrial use hemp strain. Since initial legislation failed to recognize this difference, the law criminalized both forms of cannabis.

Somewhat ironically, this law would have worked against several of the country’s ‘Founding Fathers’. George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were all hemp farmers. Hemp was a huge crop in what would become the United States as of the early 1600s.

Shortly after the introduction of cannabis to the American landscape, politicians were using it to effectively push for stronger borders. Many lawmakers and politicians linked use of the drug to “property crimes, seducing children and engaging in murderous sprees.”

By 1931, cannabis was outlawed in nearly 30 states. Harry Aslinger, the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) and made it his mission to criminalize cannabis across the country.

The brutal depression of the 1930s left people feeling frightened and angry. For the first time, many people couldn’t find work or support their families. Resentment began to build and the government stoked the flames of fear by connecting Mexican immigrants to the ‘evil weed’.

In fact, it was around this time that the plant stopped being referred to as ‘cannabis’ and was called ‘marijuana’ in the mainstream press. Calling it Marijuana gave the drug a decidedly ‘Mexican’ or foreign feel.

In 1937, the Marijuana Tax Act made cannabis possession in any form a criminal act enforceable through the Drug Enforcement Agency.

Weed Becomes Public Enemy No. 1

While public use went underground, it didn’t stop. Over the next several decades, cannabis remained in the cross-hairs of a growing War On Drugs. In 1970, the Controlled Substances Act was passed which officially placed marijuana in the top tier of illegal drugs alongside heroin, LSD and ecstasy.

In order to be listed as a Schedule I substance, it must meet the following criteria

  • The drug or other substance has a high potential for abuse.
  • The drug or other substance has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.
  • There is a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or other substance under medical supervision.

(Source: Cornell Law School)

By placing cannabis in this category, the federal government officially launched its total prohibition. This crack down and demonization of cannabis would persist for several more decades.

The Evolution of Cannabis Culture

Of course, the minute you outlaw or ban anything, you’re going to create a whole subculture of people devoted to getting their hands on it. Since cannabis has such a long – and legal – history of use, the new laws didn’t diminish the public’s appetite for the plant.

While various government agencies worked to criminalize, demonize and erase marijuana from the American landscape, the public had very different ideas. References to weed began cropping up in music, film, television, magazines, comics and books.

As cannabis became a mainstay in entertainment, smoking weed became a subversive act. Simply lighting up was seen as a form of activism against The Establishment. Marijuana became something of a mascot for the growing counterculture of the 1960s.

Where before references to marijuana were masked in euphemisms and clever turns of phrase, popular entertainers like Cheech & Chong were blatant in their love of cannabis. As musicians, comedians and other entertainers began celebrating marijuana use, the public became increasingly uncomfortable with the extreme punishments for cannabis possession and use.

The 1980s saw a renewed energy in the War on Drugs thanks, in large part, to the crack epidemic that swept across the country. Since cannabis was still listed as a dangerous substance, many people caught up in the War on Drugs wound up being given life sentences for nonviolent offenses related to the cannabis industry.

Cannabis and Geopolitics

At the same time, a growing demand for weed began to shape parts of the country. Northern California, for example, became prime growing grounds thanks to its geographic isolation. As a result, Humboldt, Mendocino, and Trinity Counties eventually became known as the Emerald Triangle.

The Emerald Triangle grew into the largest cannabis-producing region of the United States. Because of the strict laws regarding cannabis, farmers developed their own form of vigilante justice. After all, they couldn’t call the cops over disputes.

Over time, criminal elements swelled in the area. In Humbolt county alone, things became so desperate that a large area became known as a place where people simply went missing. The area, locally known as Murder Mountain, became the focus of a Netflix documentary in 2016.

Unfortunately, recent moves to decriminalize and legalize marijuana haven’t solved the crime problem in the area. Geographically isolated and with a checkered history, the Emerald Triangle is holding on to its Wild West reputation. This is partly because of old school motives like tax evasion while others are capitalizing on the patchwork uncertainty of current cannabis legislation.

A pound of Emerald triangle marijuana that once sold for over $1,000 back in 2015 only gets around $300 today. The price has plummeted in states where weed is legal thanks to the flood of growers who have stepped up to fill demand. That same pound, meanwhile, could fetch $3,000 over in New York where laws aren’t so liberal and ‘California Weed’ carries extra cred. That price disparity makes cross-state sales – which are illegal federally – a tempting option for growers already used to operating outside of the law.

Photo by LexScope on Unsplash

The Future of Cannabis

The legality of cannabis is likely to come full circle to its original state. Historically, cannabis has been legal and profitable, making it a win-win for consumer and manufacturer – a rare combination.

Social attitudes about cannabis use have definitely become more accepting, especially as the scientific community finds more and more uses for the plant. From drugs that help patients improve appetite and stamina to options that treat depression and chronic pain, the cannabis plant is a robust and multi-faceted medicinal plant. Add to that fact that the industrial form of the plant can be used to manufacture clothes, building materials and a biodegradable alternative to plastic and cannabis is easily one of the most versatile medicinal plants in the world.

It’s impossible to know what the future holds for cannabis. If history has taught us anything, however, it’s that this amazing plant can withstand anything – including humanity.


High Points: An Historical Geography of Cannabis by Barney Warf

Ending Weed Prohibition Hasn’t Stopped Drug Crimes on The Atlantic

Murder Mountain on Netflix

Cornell Law School