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History of Cannabis: An Exploration from Ancient Times to the Modern Era

Jordan McKenzie

Written by: Jordan McKenzie

Updated on December 14, 2023

History of Cannabis

Cannabis is an interesting, intriguing, and wonderful plant. It has also had a storied history in the United States and around the world. While cannabis plants have been used for medicine since ancient times, political and economic forces drove it to become a “dangerous drug” and classified it accordingly. For years, marijuana possession and use were illegal across the board.

Today, that story is much different. Social acceptance of marijuana, along with continued exploration of its medical benefits and the lack of “danger” that was originally purported to exist with this substance, is changing attitudes. More importantly, they’re changing the laws.

From Ancient Chinese medicine to modern cannabis tinctures and supplements, to the recreational enjoyment of marijuana, there’s a lot of back and forth that’s been covered over the centuries. Check out a quick timeline below, and then read on for a full detailed history.

Timelines of Cannabis History

Year Event
2900 BC Ancient Chinese medicinal use of marijuana
1000 BC Ancient Indian use of medicinal marijuana
70 AD Marijuana listed in Roman medical texts
800-900 AD Cannabis documented in Arabian medical documents
1600s Hemp was an important crop to early settlers in America. In 1619, Virginia passed a law requiring all farmers to grow hemp and some even used it in place of cash as legal tender.
1850 Marijuana was added to U.S. Pharmacopeia.
1900-1930 Marijuana was widely used as an ingredient in medications. At the same time, illegal recreational use soared.
1936 All states have made marijuana illegal; Reefer Madness is released.
1937 The Marijuana Tax Act is passed.
1942 Marijuana was removed from U.S. Pharmacopeia.
1952 The Boggs Act created strict punishments for drug offenses, including marijuana.
1960s-1970s Marijuana grew in popularity with counterculture, arrests continue to rise with the crackdown on distribution and use.
1980s-1990s The dangers of marijuana were revisited by parents and educators, and the “Just Say No” and the DARE programs were created.
1996 California becomes the first state to recognize legal medical marijuana.
2012 18 states now have medical marijuana laws. Colorado and Washington legalize recreational marijuana use for adults 21+.
2023 8 states have decriminalized marijuana, and 23 states have recreational use laws on the books, along with D.C. and three U.S. territories.

Origins and Early Use of Cannabis

The origin of cannabis isn’t really known. It’s been recorded as being used in ancient medicine in several cultures, dating back to thousands of years BC. The Chinese, Indians, and indigenous cultures in the Americas used cannabis for medicine, spiritual purposes, and more.

Although they didn’t have the technology to know that this plant was filled with cannabinoids that the body can use to help with various processes, they knew the important part: marijuana worked as an effective option for treating a host of symptoms and conditions. Even the ancient Greeks and Romans used cannabis for various purposes, and other cultures have seen it throughout their history, as well.

In the United States, cannabis was first seen in the form of hemp by early settlers. In fact, in 1619, Virginia passed a law that every farmer had to grow hemp to keep up with demand. By 1850, it had been added to the list of drugs acceptable for use for various conditions in the U.S. and it remained largely untouched until the 20th century.

As the 1900s dawned, cannabis continued to be used in a variety of medicines. However, by the 1930s, the increasing illegal recreational use and other political and cultural concerns had states outlawing marijuana and treating it the same as drugs like LSD and heroin. This continued through the 1950s, but the 1960s and 70s saw a changing of the tides

Cannabis and the Endocannabinoid System

What we didn’t know centuries ago was the reason that cannabis worked to treat a variety of different health conditions. The body has an endocannabinoid system, which is responsible for assisting with various functions and providing support to systems. This cell-signaling system was first identified in the 1990s by researchers who were exploring THC, the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis.
Studies are ongoing to try to fully understand the endocannabinoid system and how it functions in the body. However, it is known that this system can assist with regulating things like:

  • Sleep
  • Pain
  • Mood
  • Appetite
  • Memory
  • Fertility and reproduction

Everyone has an ECS, or endocannabinoid system. It involves three main components: receptors, enzymes, and endocannabinoids. When you introduce cannabis into the body, these receptors pick it up and signal to the body that it’s time to act. In the form of CBD, you get relief from the symptoms without the psychoactive “high.” When you add THC, the active cannabinoid in marijuana, that’s where the high comes in.

This has several physical and psychological effects on the body, which lead to the benefits like pain relief, appetite and mood support, and so forth. As we continue to learn more about this system and how it works, as well as how cannabis use can support it, the case for medical marijuana will continue to be solidified.

Global Spread and Cultural Influence of Cannabis

Across Africa, Europe, and the Americas, the global spread of cannabis culture has been vast. This plant was originally discovered and used by many ancient cultures and indigenous peoples. As an herbal medicine, this plant dates to 500 BC in some parts of Asia, but the Chinese have been using it since 2900 BC. As the plant and its uses evolved, it was introduced into Africa, Europe, and then the Americas.

Hemp is a great plant that has several uses, both functional and medicinal. It grows quickly and is easy to cultivate, and people have been using it as ancient medicine for centuries. In the United States, the history is a little shorter.

In the 1600s, as early settlers came to the New World, hemp became an essential element for their daily functions. They used it for clothing, rope, paper, and other items, while the seeds were consumed as a food source. This fast-growing crop was a big one in the U.S. during this time.

What started as a medical solution for many cultures quickly evolved into a social and cultural element. Mexican immigrants are the ones who brought the height of illegal marijuana to the U.S. in the early 1900s, creating the counterculture that the substance is known for. Cannabis developed a strong connection to music and art communities, with the Beatniks and 1920s jazz communities taking to the plant like a duck to water.

There was more cultural acceptance of marijuana use in the 1960s and 70s, as hippie culture and the counterculture movement continued to thrive.

Cannabis Research and Regulations in the 20th Century

As the War on Drugs settled down and switched gears to focus on hard drugs like heroin, cocaine, LSD, and others, marijuana was left to be questioned. Research into the original medicinal uses of the plant created a renewed interest in legalized use in the 20th century. Although the later part of the century saw a huge push in anti-drug propaganda, it also saw cannabis falling out of that designated group.

In 1996, California was the first state to legalize cannabis for medical use. By the turn of the 21st century, a handful of other states had followed suit. This is due largely to the research that has been conducted on cannabis, including its implications for medical care and the support of various mental and physical ailments.

Cannabis was made wholly illegal in the 1930s and criminalized with huge penalties. Since then, many people have found themselves in jail for simple possession, sometimes facing dozens of years behind bars for having small amounts of the plant on their person.

As the stigma surrounding cannabis continued to decline and social acceptance climbed, there was a growing push for decriminalization. The thought was that if cannabis has medical uses, it shouldn’t be a crime to have or use it. While states would have a way to go before making this a legal substance, baby steps were better than nothing.

In 2012, Colorado and Washington made history by becoming the first two states to have legal recreational marijuana laws in place. Not long after, other states followed suit. Today, there are a total of 23 states that have legalized recreational marijuana, and more are likely going to do so within the next few years.

Medical History of Cannabis

For those who aren’t counting, that’s close to 6,000 years of medical cannabis history. From the ancient remedies of the Chinese and their declaration that it is an effective medicine to modern cannabis products, the plant has come a long way. Many cultures still use cannabis for medicinal and spiritual purposes around the world, despite laws and the illegalization of the substance.

It should be noted that the addition of cannabis in the 1850s proved that it had medicinal purposes. The U.S. openly recognized that this substance could offer healing potential and it was used in several medications as a result. However, that quickly turned when the war on illegal drugs started heating up and the bureaucrats needed somewhere to direct their energy when prohibition ended.

Today, there are dozens of uses for medicinal cannabis, including for support with serious and terminal conditions like cancer, Alzheimer’s, and others.

Evolution of Social Perceptions of Cannabis

The biggest catalyst for change with cannabis was the evolution of social perceptions of the drug. As a people, we went from seeing the medicinal and functional value of hemp and cannabis to proclaiming that weed was a “gateway drug,” even earning the nickname of the “Devil’s Lettuce,” among others.

Weed is no longer demonized like it once was by the majority. There are still people who feel this plant is a dangerous substance, but they are quickly becoming the minority. Today, most people feel that cannabis is “not a danger” and it’s widely accepted for both medical and recreational use.

Cannabis and Economic Development

In July 2023, Michigan reported a record-breaking $276 million in recreational and medical cannabis sales. This is a far cry from the black-market world of decades past, and an indicator of just how much power marijuana may have in the economy. As more states legalize cannabis, the benefits and tax implications are clear.

The black market used to be the main source of cannabis revenue. It was once, and still may be, a billion-dollar trade that affects countries around the world. However, as more states and countries see the value of legal marijuana, the black market is starting to suffer. It’s likely that even with full legalization, the black market will still exist, but it is not nearly as profitable as it used to be.


Cannabis had a rough transition for a few decades, spending the better part of the 20th century in turmoil as the U.S. attempted to outlaw it along with other “dangerous drugs.” However, the medicinal uses of cannabis cannot be ignored. Dating back to ancient times, cannabis has been a source of relief for everything from pain to stomach ailments and beyond. It’s no wonder that modern society has become more accepting as marijuana takes its rightful place as a plant with potential, not a dangerous drug.

Jordan McKenzie
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