The History of Marijuana: The Origin of Cannabis

By WeedWeek Aug 16, 2020

For thousands of years, the cannabis sativa plant has been cultivated by people around the world. Marijuana has been used as medicine for a range of ailments, and can deliver euphoric highs. But the history of humanity’s relationship with marijuana is a complicated one. This article will take a look at the origins of people’s love affair with marijuana and detail a brief history on the drug’s use in the United States.  

History of Marijuana: What Is Marijuana?   

Marijuana refers to the dried leaves and flowers of the cannabis sativa plant. Marijuana contains cannabinoids such as cannabidiol, or CBD, and tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, which produce a range of physical and psychological effects. Many CBD users believe it has medicinal value, while THC is one of the primary psychoactive cannabinoids in marijuana, and produces the feeling of being “high”. 

History of Marijuana  

Of course, it’s impossible to know who took that first toke. But archeological evidence suggests that marijuana has been used by people around the world for thousands of years. Indigenous to Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent, cannabis is thought to be one of the first plants to be cultivated by human beings, possibly beginning in the pre-Neolithic period. It’s likely that humans helped weed spread across continents, from Africa, Europe and finally the Americas, with migrating people bringing the plant along for the ride. 

What Was Marijuana Used For?   

In China during the Neolithic age, hemp was used as food and fibres, using the plant’s material to create fabrics and even paper. Being lower in THC concentrations than marijuana, ancient hemp was not used primarily for getting “high”, although it’s possible cannabis was being used for this purpose in places such as pre-Neolithic Japan. 

Marijuana has been used for its psychoactive properties in India for thousands of years.The Sanskrit word for hemp is ganga – a word widely used today in countries around the world, demonstrating the influence that cannabis culture in India continues to exert. Marijuana is also included into Hindu religion, where myths tell of Lord Shiva using the plant to improve meditation and for relaxation purposes.  

The History Of Marijuana In The United States

Below is a brief timeline of the history of marijuana in the United States. 

17th to 19th centuries: Industrial hemp production in the United States began in the 17th century. The plant was used to make rope, sails and other types of fabric. In the late 19th century, hemp became popular for use in various medicinal products. Hashish also began to become popular during the 19th century. 

1906: The 20th century saw big changes for cannabis in the United States. In 1906, the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed, requiring all cannabis products be labelled for over-the-counter sales.

First two decades of the 20th century: Mexican immigrants to the United States first introduced recreational use of marijuana. Prejudice soon followed, with anti-drug advocates attributing the so-called “Marijuana Menace” to Mexican immigrants. 

1930s: As the Great Depression increased unemployment, resentment towards all immigrants – including Mexicans – increased as well. Mexican people’s association with marijuana culture spurred a number of studies linking marijuana use to violence and crime. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) was established in 1930, and the Uniform State Narcotic Act was passed in 1932, placing responsibility for marijuana enforcement onto states.  

1936: The propaganda film “Reefer Madness” was released. 

1951: Federal laws were enacted that enforced stricter sentencing, including for first-time offenses.

1960s: With the advent of the flower-power movement, marijuana became popular among the white upper middle class. 

1970s: In 1971 the Controlled Substances Act became law. Cannabis is a schedule I controlled substance meaning that according to the U.S. government, it carries high risk and lacks medicinal value. 

1986: The Anti-Drug Abuse Act was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan. The law raised federal penalties for marijuana-related offenses. 

1989: President George H.W. Bush renewed the War on Drugs.

1990s: Marijuana began to be legalized in certain states for medical purposes.  

Popularization And The War On Drugs   

Particularly during the 1950s and the 1960’s, cultural movements in the United States emerged which prominently featured marijuana and helped popularize it within white middle class sectors of society. For example, the Beatniks were a literary movement that were against materialism, capitalism and racism, and avidly explored inner psychological realms through experimenting with marijuana. In the 1960s, the popularity of marijuana soared with the advent of the hippie movement which popularized marijuana along with several other psychoactive substances including LSD and magic mushrooms.

Though officially declared by President George Bush in 1989, the War on Drugs was initiated first in the 1970s with President Richard Nixon. The war on drugs refers to laws and policies which harshly and unfairly target people of color for drug-related offenses. Marijuana offenses were often mild in nature, including non-violent crimes, and resulted in unduly harsh punishments including long prison sentences and hefty fines. 

Liberalizing And Legalizing   

While important steps are being made towards total legalization of marijuana, as has already been accomplished in countries such as Canada, the United States still has a ways to go. Currently, marijuana is considered a Schedule 1 drug and is illegal at the federal level. Industrial hemp, on the other hand, is legal, as long as THC concentrations remain below 0.3%. States such as California and Colorado have entirely legalized marijuana for both recreational and medicinal purposes, while other states have legalized only medical cannabis.

Legislation that aims to undo the serious damage caused by the war on drugs is slowly gaining ground. The MORE Act of 2019 seeks to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level, and it contains provisions for restorative justice and helping impacted communities heal from decades of injustice. The MORE Act includes social equity programs, including a community reinvestment fund, providing small loans to socially and economically disadvantaged people who own cannabis companies. The act would also expunge minor weed-related offences and shorten sentences for convicted felons who are currently serving time for marijuana-related offences. 

A more bipartisan bill has also been proposed. Known as the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States (STATES) Act, this bill would enable states to enact and enforce their own laws regarding marijuana and exempt people and businesses from federal enforcement as long as they are in compliance with local laws. While better than nothing, many view the STATES Act as not doing enough to correct historic wrongs. 

Where Did The Name “Cannabis Sativa” Come From?   

The name cannabis sativa was proposed, and later standardized, by a man named Carl Linnaeus, who wrote the book Species Plantarum. The word cannabis was derived from the Greek word kannabis, meaning “hemp”. The word “sativa” means an organism that is cultivated. 

First Legalization Of Medical Marijuana   

In the United States, California was the first state to pass legislation to legalize medical marijuana. Through Proposition 215, the sale and use of medical marijuana was approved for people with terminal illnesses such as cancer and AIDS. Much of the impetus behind the proposition was to enable people suffering with chronic pain to have relief. 

First Legalization Of Recreational Marijuana   

On November 6, 2012, Colorado became the first state to legalize recreational marijuana with the passing of Colorado Amendment 64. The law allows for personal recreational use of marijuana for people over the age of 21. Commercial growing, sales and manufacturing of recreational marijuana use were also made legal, to be regulated in similar ways to alcohol. 


Humanity and the cannabis sativa plant have long been together, with a relationship going back thousands of years and spanning many continents. Although marijuana’s medical and recreational use remains controversial in many countries, including parts of the United States, it is also increasingly being accepted for its medicinal qualities and as a relatively harmless drug.