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First recognized for its medicinal and textile purposes, cannabis has now evolved into countless strains that we can consume in seconds with the click of a button. (Can you imagine our ancestors vaping Girl Scout Cookies?) Cannabis continues to be an invaluable, multi-faceted tool – but, what is the history of weed?

Straight from the earth, the history of weed is likely to date back further than our existence. In ancient cultures, as far back as 2800 BC, cannabis was consumed to treat a vast array of health problems. People also realized they could turn hemp fiber into numerous textiles. It took some time to get the ball rolling, but now, humans have been sparking up and reaping the benefits of smoking cannabis for thousands of years.

From the history of hemp for textiles to the history of smoking weed, what happened in between? How did the U.S. go from requiring farmers to grow hemp to deeming the plant federally illegal? Let’s dive into one of the world’s greatest healers.

Cannabis Throughout History

So how did cannabis use expand across the globe? The first documented case of its use dates back to 2800 BC, when it was listed in Emperor Shen Nung’s (known as the father of Chinese medicine) pharmacopeia. Even without extensive scientific research available, consumers easily recognized the medicinal benefits of cannabis.

Generations before us mentioned therapeutic uses of weed in the texts of the Indian Hindus, Assyrians, Greeks, and Romans. These texts reported that cannabis treats various health ailments like arthritis, depression, inflammation, pain, lack of appetite, and asthma. 

Cannabis in Ancient China and Other Parts of Asia 

The history of cannabis Sativa originally began in Central and Southeast Asia. The common name for cannabis in China is Má which, in ancient texts, means numbness or anesthesia. A Chinese surgeon of the Han dynasty is said to have performed surgery using a mixture of wine and herbal extracts (which might have been marijuana) as an anesthetic. 

Researchers found that around 750 BC, ancient Chinese citizens were burning cannabis seeds in the graves of shamans. Researchers found that people adorned the shamans’ graves with cannabis selected by humans based on THC levels rather than weed merely gathered from the wild. This discovery led researchers to conclude that humans manipulated the cannabis plant to yield a potent THC content. 

The male cannabis plant parts, which are less psychoactive, had been removed. This seems to determine that people cultivated cannabis for its psychoactive properties even back then, not just as fiber for clothing or as food. Thus, this gives us insight into what could be the start of the history of smoking weed.

Cannabis in Ancient India

In India, the god Shiva was said to favor cannabis, which guided weed into a religious and spiritual role. Cannabis has been used for thousands of years in ayurvedic medicine to reduce pain, nausea, and anxiety, improve appetite and sleep, relax muscles, and create a feeling of euphoria. Additionally, some even thought the plant prolonged life. In 1000 BC, Indians curated a drink called Bhang that combined marijuana, milk, and other ingredients to use as an anti-phlegmatic and anesthetic. 

Cannabis in Ancient Egypt 

Around 1500 BC, Egyptians wrote in the Ebers papyrus about using cannabis as a topical for inflammation. The medicinal use of cannabis to treat the plague, glaucoma, and inflammation has been reported on Assyrian clay tablets in Egypt. 

Cannabis in Ancient Greek 

The ancient Greek historian Herodotus went into detail about the history of smoking weed. After a king’s burial, he described how Grecians would prepare small chambers closed with woolen blankets, crawl under the blankets, and throw hemp seeds on hot stones. This produced a “fragrant smoke.” (So, it sounds like they were definitely enjoying the psychoactive effects of cannabis.) 

The Ancient Greeks also used cannabis for inflammation, earaches, and swelling.

Cannabis in the Roman Empire

In the Roman Empire, the civilizations recorded the history of cannabis Sativa in books written by Pliny the Elder, Dioscorides, and Galen. (Galen was the only one who mentioned the ‘getting high’ aspect of weed.)

The books talked about the history of hemp for making ropes and nets, and the medicinal uses of cannabis. Galen’s book also says that consuming the seeds created “a feeling of warmth.” 

The First Golden Age of Medical Marijuana

In 1839, after living in India, Irish doctor Sir William Brooke O’Shaughnessy discovered that cannabis extracts could help lessen stomach pain and vomiting in people suffering from cholera. Then in the late 19th century, weed for medical purposes became widely accepted. 

Queen Victoria of the UK consumed cannabis for painful menses, and Empress Elisabeth of Austria took it for coughing and stimulating the appetite. Apparently, Empress Elisabeth was wary of medicines and liked cannabis’s natural properties.

In 1890, British physician J. Russel Reynolds summarized more than 30 years of experience with cannabis in the medical journal The Lancet. But consuming cannabis for medicinal purposes was still a bit challenging. Cannabis extracts were not consistent because researchers had not yet isolated the active ingredient THC. This happened in 1964. 

To create more predictability, Reynolds created the first cannabis tincture. Over time, pharmaceutical companies kicked cannabis to the curb for other sedative and analgesic drugs such as aspirin. (In this blog, we discuss the effects of NSAIDs.

History of Weed in the US

After traveling around the globe, cannabis eventually found its way to the United States. When talking about the history of cannabis Sativa, we can’t forget about the history of hemp. Hemp is a form of cannabis, but it contains very low levels of THC. Thus, it doesn’t get people high. 

LEARN MORE: What is Hemp?

Cannabis cultivation in America dates back to the early colonists, who grew hemp for textiles. The historical uses of hemp included making clothing, paper, sails, and rope

Origins of Hemp in the US

The history of hemp shows that it once was grown just like every other crop, with no stigma attached. It was so crucial to the development of the US that in 1619, Virginia passed a law that required all of the colonies to grow hemp. 

The US considered hemp a proper form of currency in Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. Between 1942 and 1945, farmers cultivated over 400,000 acres of hemp. George Washington noted in his diary that he was sowing hemp seeds. The production flourished until the Civil War when imports replaced cotton. 

The Mass Illegalization of Cannabis in the US

The US added marijuana to the U.S. Pharmacopeia as a treatment for opioid withdrawal, pain, appetite stimulation, and nausea relief in 1850. By the late 1800s, people began selling cannabis extracts in pharmacies and doctors’ offices throughout Europe and the United States. Cannabis was a potent ingredient in many over-the-counter products.

The history of smoking weed and consuming it for recreational purposes was uncommon in the United States until Mexican immigrants introduced it during the first few decades of the twentieth century. This, in turn, created anti-Mexican xenophobia in the United States. 

Political and racial factors, as well as how the media portrayed marijuana consumers, led to the criminalization of marijuana in the United States. 

Cannabis in the US

  • 1906: Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act which affected the availability of medical marijuana.
  • 1914 – 1925: Twenty-six states passed laws prohibiting marijuana.
  • 1930s: The Great Depression resulted in job loss for many Americans. This increased anti-Mexican xenophobia as many Americans worried that Mexican immigrants would take their jobs. 
  • 1936: Motion Picture Ventures released the film Reefer Madness which demonized cannabis as a highly addictive drug that caused mental disorders and violence. Major political players heavily stigmatized the plant as something harmful.
  • 1937: Lawmakers introduced the Marijuana Tax Act, which criminalized all cannabis besides hemp used for industrial purposes. People continued to grow industrial hemp throughout World War II.
  • 1942: Legislation removed marijuana from the U.S. Pharmacopeia and it began to lose its medicinal credibility.
  • 1960s: Weed regained popularity among the “hippie”-like counterculture, anti-war activists, and the youth.
  • 1971: President Nixon declared that drug abuse was “public enemy number one.” This statement riled up the public and began a systemic war. This initiative, the war on drugs, was made up of drug policies that focused on eradicating drugs from the nation and incarcerating those who use them. As part of the war on drugs, Lawmakers introduced the Controlled Substance Act, which lists cannabis as having ‘no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse,’ classifying it as a Schedule 1 drug.
  • 1996: California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana through the Compassionate Use Act. 
  • 2014: Colorado became the first state to permit dispensaries to sell recreational marijuana.

To this day, Cannabis is still illegal under U.S. federal law. Thankfully, most U.S. states have legalized medical marijuana, with many states now allowing recreational use as well. We are finally getting back to our roots in the history of cannabis Sativa, its accessibility, and its place in medicine. 

Smoke Weed Like Your Ancestors with Elevate Holistics

The history of weed is a beautiful recollection of using the earth’s natural medicines to treat our physical, mental, and spiritual ailments. Before the development of chemical-based pharmaceuticals, people didn’t consider consuming cannabis to treat these ailments eccentric or “wacky.” It was simply the standard in medicine. Let’s get back to that.

Would you like to treat yourself naturally? Return to effective ancient practices? Elevate Holistics is here to help you get your medical marijuana card through a 100% online, simple process. We will connect you with a certified cannabis physician over video chat and take you from there. 

Book an easy appointment to get your MMJ card with Elevate Holistics. New to cannabis? Add on our Cannabis Nurse consultation when booking, or consider our other helpful services to help you live your best life.

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About the author

Michael Lawal is a seasoned content writer with specialized expertise in the medical cannabis industry. With a background that blends journalism and health sciences, Michael has a knack for translating complex medical cannabis research into accessible and engaging content. His writing portfolio showcases a range of work from informative articles and research summaries to patient education materials. Committed to raising awareness about the benefits and responsible use of medical cannabis, Michael's work is a valuable resource for both consumers and professionals in the field.
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