The cannabis plant is known by many names: Pot, Mary Jane, Weed and plain old ‘Marijuana’ to name but four. Its use as a medical treatment is a hotly debated topic. Opponents claim it offers no therapeutic value but stand by killer opioids. Its defenders point to a litany of studies which outline that marijuana helps ease symptoms of conditions ranging from Arthritis to PTSD.
At the time of writing, marijuana was legal for recreational use in eight American states and legal for medical use in 29 states plus D.C. What you may not be aware of is cannabis’ incredibly long history.
The Early History of Cannabis
Its first use is commonly attributed to a Chinese Emperor named Fu Hsi almost 5,000 years ago. Cannabis became a popular medicine in China about 200 years later when Emperor Shen Nung apparently discovered the plant’s healing properties. However, there is evidence that prehistoric peoples used marijuana some 12,000 years ago. The ancient Egyptians possibly used it in around 1200 BC while it made its way to the Middle East approximately 500 years later.
Cannabis spread to Europe by the second century BC and was widely used by the Greeks as a remedy for edema, inflammation, and earache. A Chinese compendium of drug recipes, written in 1 AD, recommended cannabis for over 100 ailments including malaria and rheumatism!
One of the first controversies surrounding the plant took place circa 900 AD when an Arab physician by the name of Ibn Wahshiyah claimed marijuana was a ‘lethal poison.’ Nonetheless, it was used across the Arab world at this time to treat a host of conditions. By the 16th century, practically every herbalist worth his salt had hemp in his medicine cabinet. There is strong evidence that even William Shakespeare enjoyed a toke or twenty!
Cannabis Comes to North America
The plant was spread to the New World by the Spanish in 1545 while English settlers brought it to Jamestown in 1611. As marijuana is a fast-growing plant which is easy to cultivate and has an array of uses, it quickly spread throughout colonial America and in Spanish missions in the Southwest of the country. Within a couple of decades of its arrival, farmers in colonies in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Virginia were required to grow it.
It is important to note that these early plants had low levels of psychoactive THC. That being said, it is likely that earlier cultures were well aware of THC’s effects (even if they didn’t know precisely what it was) and they would cultivate special crops that were high in the compound. These strains would be used for healing or in religious ceremonies.
Patriots who hate marijuana, look away now! George Washington grew hemp at Mount Vernon according to his own diaries while Thomas Jefferson grew it at Monticello. If it is good enough for these two legends, it should be good enough for the rest of us!
Cannabis Becomes Mainstream
While marijuana didn’t become ‘big’ in the United States until the 20th century, it was still used as a medical remedy by some physicians. However, it was reintroduced into British medicine by William O’Shaughnessy in 1842. Its popularity grew in Britain and its colonies during the 19th century, and Queen Victoria apparently used it to ease her period pains. Cannabis became mainstream in the West by the middle of the 19th century as a French physician called Jacques-Joseph Moreau found that the plant helped with insomnia, headaches, and appetite.
The plant was listed in the U.S. Pharmacopeia in 1850 and remained there until 1942. It was prescribed for numerous conditions including cholera, rabies, typhus, dysentery, and insanity. Its popularity declined somewhat in the United States by the 1890s as cotton replaced hemp as the main cash crop.
In June 1906, the Wiley Act, also known as the Food and Drugs Act, required the labeling of medicine which included cannabis. While it made a comeback of sorts in the 1920s, probably due to prohibition, it was already making enemies throughout the country.
Cannabis Becomes Illegal in Most of the United States
The 1910s was an era where Americans demanded a reduction in the vice and squalor that had apparently consumed society. As well as ultimately banning alcohol, states turned their attention to prostitution, gambling, oral sex and prizefighting but marijuana didn’t escape their notice.
Massachusetts became the first state to outlaw cannabis in 1911, and it was quickly followed by Wyoming, Indiana, and Maine in 1913, New York City in 1914, Vermont and Utah in 1915, and Nevada and Colorado in 1917. Democrat Francis B. Harrison introduced a trio of bills in 1913 designed to control the domestic production of opium so it could only be imported or exported for medicinal use. President Wilson signed all three measures into law in 1915 where they became the Harrison Act.
Despite the fact that American pharmaceutical farms were growing up to 60,000 pounds of marijuana annually by 1918, several more states passed anti-marijuana laws in the 1920s including Iowa in 1923 and Nebraska in 1927. During the 1930s, the term ‘marijuana’ was preferred to cannabis and hemp in the U.S.
The War on Marijuana
You could say that the war on marijuana began in 1930 when Harry Jacob Anslinger, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics’ commissioner, made it his mission to have the drug banned nationally because it allegedly caused insanity and criminality. Newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst used the power of the media to start denouncing marijuana, and in 1936, the Bureau of Narcotics urged federal action against the plant.
By the end of the year, virtually every state had enacted laws to regulate the drug and the 1936 movie, Reefer Madness, depicted marijuana as a life-threatening narcotic. The 1937 Marijuana Tax Act led to a significant reduction in marijuana prescriptions and in the same year, Samuel Caldwell became the first person to be jailed for selling marijuana.
Despite the LaGuardia Report of 1944 which suggested that marijuana was less dangerous than initially thought, the drug was under constant attack over the next few decades. The 1951 Boggs Act imposed a mandatory minimum of two years in prison for possessing marijuana. The 1956 Narcotics Control Act was an even stricter version with sentences of up to 10 years and a fine of $20,000 just for buying weed.
In 1964, Doctor Raphael Mechoulam identified the main psychoactive component of cannabis, THC. From 1968, the University of Mississippi became the nation’s official marijuana grower with the weed grown for research and analysis. Although the UK Wootton Report in January 1969 outlined that marijuana was less dangerous than alcohol and other drugs, the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) of 1970 in the United States determined that cannabis was a drug with no accepted medical use. As such, it was classified as a Schedule I drug, the most dangerous kind.
Marijuana in the Modern Era – Limited Acceptance
Things heated up in the 1970s when President Nixon declared war on drugs in 1971. The 1972 Shafer Commission recommended the decriminalization of marijuana, but it remained a Schedule I drug. Robert Randall famously escaped prison time as he proved that his possession of marijuana was a medical necessity. In 1978, New Mexico became the first state to recognize the medicinal value of marijuana.
A synthetic version of THC, Marinol, was tested on cancer patients in 1980 and was approved by the FDA in 1985 for the treatment of anorexia. The cannabinoid receptor system was discovered in 1990 and helped scientists understand the pharmacological effects of marijuana.
While attempts to get marijuana reclassified as a Schedule II drug failed in the 1990s, it gained acceptance in parts of America. California became the first state to legalize it for medicinal use after a vote on Proposition 215 on November 5, 1996. It was a historic day, and Oregon, Washington, and Alaska followed suit within two years.
Studies throughout the 21st century have shown that marijuana has a range of uses and by 2004, nine states had legalized it for medicinal use. Calls for the legalization of the plant have persisted to this day and on April 19, 2017, West Virginia became the 29th state (plus D.C.) to legalize marijuana for medical use.
What Does the Future Hold For Marijuana?
Today, marijuana is still classified as a Schedule I drug and the penalties for possession in the 21 states where it is illegal range from mild to severe. Despite growing pressure, and the fact that an estimated 30 million Americans smoke weed regularly, the federal government is holding firm.
Over 60% of the nation’s population now lives in a state where marijuana is legal for medicinal purposes and over one-third have access to weed for recreational use. Furthermore, states such as Texas, Idaho, Mississippi, and South Dakota all have medicinal or recreational initiatives planned in the next 18 months or so.
The big issue appears to the presidency of Donald Trump and the appointment of Jeff Sessions as Attorney General. Both men have backward viewpoints about a lot of things, including marijuana, and they could halt the progress the plant is making. If the nation can survive the next few years, the future could be bright under a more progressive administration.
In New Jersey, marijuana could be made legal after the departure of Chris Christie as governor in 2018. Legalization would potentially provide a $300 million boost to the state’s economy. We are cautiously optimistic that more states will make marijuana legal both for recreational and medicinal purposes in the next decade as studies continue to show that weed is good!