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What comes to mind when you think about the history of cannabis? Unfortunately, there is a good chance that when you look back, as far as you can remember off the top of your head, cannabis has always been in prohibition. Or, in other words, you remember it always being illegal. This wasn’t always the case though! The history of cannabis, albeit very frustrating the last 100 years or so, is truly an incredible journey that is as robust as the cannabis plant itself… and the future is wide open!

Long Ago

  • 8,000+ BCE – Hemp was identified in what is now Taiwan in ancient pottery. This discovery in this era shows us that cannabis is one of the first and oldest agriculture crops.
  • 2,737 BCE – Emperor Shen Neng of China becomes the first person to record the use of cannabis as a medicine.
  • 1,500 BCE – Cannabis was cultivated in China for food and fiber, and Scythians cultivate to weave into fine hemp clothing.
  • 430 BCE – Reports of ritual and recreational use of cannabis by the Scythians.
  • 200 – The first pharmacopoeia of the east includes medical marijuana.
  • 900 – Cannabis use increases in Arabia as scholars debate the pros and cons of consuming hashish.
  • 1300 – Marijuana is found in pipes in Ethiopia suggesting cannabis has spread from Egypt to the rest of Africa.
  • 1533 – King Henry VIII fines farmers if they don’t grow hemp for industrial use.
  • 1616 – Settlers at Jamestown begin growing hemp due to its strong fibers and practical uses in rope, sails and clothing.


Founding fathers, in particular George Washington, grow their own hemp crops for industrial use. He grew many acres at Mount Vernon and according to records he would use it to repair large seine nets that he used for fishing along the Potomac River.


Other materials are imported and domesticated to replace hemp industrial products such as ropes, sails, clothing, paper, and oil. However, cannabis becomes popular in many medicines and medical products as it is sold in pharmacies.


Cannabis has a setback due to being lumped in the same category with other components found in patent medicine, many of which were dangerous to humans. Since there is not proper labeling and testing it’s basically impossible for consumers to know what ingredients are in what, and if they are beneficial or harmful to the body.


President Roosevelt signs the Pure Food and Drug Act into law, which requires the labeling of ingredients used in over- the-counter medicines. This has a strong negative impact on cannabis as it is labeled as poison if it’s non-medical.


A rough year for cannabis as the term “marihuana” is born. This was termed after the Mexican Revolution as many Mexican immigrants cross the border and enjoy the recreational use of cannabis. “Marihuana” becomes a popular word to use by anti-drug crusaders to incite fear by associating the word with “dangerous Mexicans” and the immigrant population.

“Controlling cannabis is seen as a way of institutionally enforcing prejudice, anger, and resentment toward the Spanish- speaking users of the plant. Just as regulating opium usage had helped authorities control Chinese immigrants in the Gold-Rush era, criminalizing cannabis becomes part of the effort to control Hispanic immigrants.” – Source: Green Flower


California becomes the first state to pass a State law prohibiting cannabis usage. The law is used by authorities to deport Hispanic immigrants easily. By 1930, 30 states have created similar anti-cannabis statutes. The same fear mongering is used in the eastern states, but against African Americans, in particular jazz musicians, who “use cannabis to take advantage of White women.”


The Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) is formed to regulate and criminalize all recreational drugs. This is where things get interesting. We see many large companies such as DuPont Chemical Company, numerous oil companies, and timber farm owners like William Randolph Hearst get onboard with the efforts. This is because they know the potential of cannabis, in particular industrial hemp, and the competition it would create against plastics, nylons, and traditional paper.

Unfortunately, William Randolph Hearst was a newspaper publisher and tycoon and used his 26 different newspapers to spread lies around the country about cannabis:

“Marihuana makes fiends of boys in thirty days.”

“Hashish goads users to bloodlust.”


The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 is passed in congress. Although they received many objections from the American Medical Association, the act is passed largely in part from lawmakers using Hearst’s fake headlines as facts and basis to do so.

This Act officially establishes the position of Drug Czar, as Harry J. Anslinger is appointed to the position. He is very anti- cannabis and makes claims that it causes violent crimes, irrational actions, and overly sexual behavior. He is very outspoken to the press and constantly taking shots at the plant. Interestingly enough, Anslinger’s uncle, Andrew Mellon, was President Hoover’s Treasury Secretary and the primary investor in DuPont Chemical Company…

The newly formed Federal Bureau of Narcotics, with Anslinger leading the way, produce many propaganda films spreading false claims and using racism and fear to convince the public of the dangers of cannabis.

The final blow comes on August 3rd when President Roosevelt signs a law into place that makes possession or transfer of cannabis illegal in the United States. Medical and industrial uses are still allowed, although now there is an excise tax on all sales of hemp. To make matters worse, a few years later in 1942, cannabis is removed from the US Pharmacopoeia completely.


Beatnik culture begins to emerge. Dressed in black clothes, complete with berets and turtlenecks, beatniks (called so for snapping their fingers to create a beat) love to frequent jazz shows and coffee shops. They’re known for their emotional poetry and for being “potheads.”


Highlighted by the Summer of Love in 1967, the 60’s prove to be a great push forward in cannabis culture. As the hippie scene starts to grow in San Francisco, cannabis users enjoy the sudden influx of the plant. Notorious biker gang, Hell’s Angels, and the returning Vietnam Vets, lead to not just more cannabis, but better cannabis. The returning soldiers would bring back very potent cannabis and in some cases upwards of a hundred pounds of hash oil. This was by far the strongest cannabis to make it to America at this point.



Nixon, Nixon, Nixon! In 1970 President Nixon signed the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act into law. This was another setback for cannabis as the new law establishes it as a Schedule 1 Substance with the likes of cocaine and heroin. Substances that are Schedule 1 mean they have no medical purposes and they have a high potential for abuse and addiction. To this day, cannabis is still considered to be a Schedule 1 Substance federally despite it being legalized in many states for medical and recreational purposes. On the bright side, The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) was founded.


In 1971, Nixon declared drug abuse “public enemy number one.” Following that statement up with “In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive.”


Come 1972, it looked like we were going to get some good news as Richard Nixon appointed the bipartisan Shafer Commission to consider marijuana laws. The Commission, who had studied cannabis for two years at this point, concluded that marijuana is not addictive, it is not a gateway drug, and it is not harmful mentally or physically. Or as NORML put it many years later, “A Congressionally mandated commission on US drug policy did something extraordinary: They told the truth about marijuana!”

Based on their findings, they determined that personal use of marijuana should be decriminalized! Great news, right? WRONG! Nixon rejected their determinations and findings saying to Shafer, “You’re enough of a pro to know that for you to come out with something that would run counter to what the Congress feels and what the country feels, and what we’re planning to do, would make your commission just look bad as hell.” Or in other words, bury your findings.


Nixon doubled down on his promises in 1973 when he signed a law into place that established the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). Their purpose was to fight against drug smuggling and the use of illegal substances in America and abroad.


Far out! High Times Magazine comes out with their first issue. The popular magazine was founded by Tom Forcade of the Underground Press Syndicate. It was meant to only be one issue and a spoof on Playboy in which cannabis is substituted for sex. The magazine was wildly popular and continued on to sell monthly issues. They’re celebrating their 45th anniversary this year! Not bad for something that started as a joke!


“When it comes to alcohol and drug abuse, just say no.” These were the words spoken by Nancy Reagan during an address to the nation. Soon after the speech, President Reagan signs the Anti-Drug Abuse Act into law. This comes with intense mandatory sentences for drug-related offenses. The law is later amended to include a three strikes and you’re out policy which means after three offenses for drugs you can end up in jail for life – no matter how minor the violation.


Despite being the first state to prohibit cannabis statewide back in 1913, California voters pass Proposition 125. This legalizes cannabis in the state for medical purposes. Victory! And in 1997 they open their first legal medical marijuana dispensary. Currently medical marijuana is legal in 33 different states!


Colorado and Washington become the first two states to legalize cannabis for adult recreational use. As of 2019, there are currently 10 states that allow marijuana for recreation. The map below shows the legalities for each state:




“Oh Canada!”more like “Oh Cannabis!” Canada becomes the second country (behind Uruguay) to fully legalize cannabis at the federal level. In October they started selling the marijuana and almost every dispensary sold out of all their products within the first few hours. The amount of sales really show that this is what the people want!

America also has positive momentum going as the 2018 Farm Bill is signed into law by President Trump. The bill makes hemp (must have less than .3% THC) nationally legal and recognized as an agricultural crop. This in return makes the other, non-psychoactive cannabinoids, like CBD, federally legal as well. Hemp, Hemp, Hooray!

The Future

Despite such a harsh history, it does appear like things are finally starting to move in the right direction. The passing of the 2018 Farm Bill is sure to increase the uses of industrial hemp, as well as allow for more research of the cannabinoids found within it. With almost half of the states now allowing medical marijuana, and 1/5 of the states passing laws for recreational use, it’s clear to see that the country is on the right track!

Now, more than ever, is a great time to get involved! Speak out! Share the history! Be an advocate for change! End prohibition once and for all!


If you have any specific questions about the history of cannabis or cannabis in general, click below to send us a message!


Doug Bench

Author Doug Bench

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