Marijuana has implanted itself within human culture for thousands of years. A psychoactive plant of the genus Cannabis, marijuana has long been prized for the intoxicating effects of its flowers. Cannabis has accompanied humanity on some of its greatest adventures (in the form of hempen ropes and sails on ocean-going vessels) as well as on our explorations of consciousness through its perception-altering power.


For much of human history, varietals of cannabis have been used not only for the psychoactive effect of the flowers of the female plant, but also for the fiber harvested from its stalks. Hemp provides durable fiber ideal for making ropes, sails, cloth, and paper; it’s been cultivated for 12,000 years the world over for these purposes. In fact, the derivation of the word “canvas” comes from the root word “cannabis.” Cannabis plants used for hemp production contain very low levels of THC, unlike psychotropic cousin marijuana. (For more on hemp, see here.)

Ancient Times

The ancients valued the medicinal properties of cannabis; indeed, it is one of the 50 “fundamental herbs” of traditional Chinese medicine, and was prescribed for many ailments.

Archaeologists sifting through the contents of bronze vessels from Scythian culture have found cannabis seeds, likely indicating that the Scythians—who lived in what is today’s Ukraine and southern Russia—used and cultivated the plant. The discoveries confirm the observations of historian Herodotus (440BC), that the ancient Scythians knew about the psychoactive properties of cannabis: “Now, there is a plant called cannabis, which grows in their land . . . .” writes Herodotus.

Well, the Scythians take the seeds of this cannabis . . . and throw the seeds onto the blazing-hot stones . . . When the seeds hit the stones, they produce smoke and give off a vapor such as no steam bath in Hellas could surpass. The Scythians howl, awed and elated by the vapor.

Since the seeds themselves contain no tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) or any of the other psychoactive cannabinoids, many of the seeds must have still been inside the seed bracts–which, it so happens, contain the heaviest concentrations of THC found in the entire plant.

Surviving texts from ancient India confirm that the psychoactive properties of cannabis were recognized there as well, and doctors used it for a variety of ailments including insomnia, headaches, gastrointestinal disorders, and pain. Marijuana was also used to relieve the pain of childbirth.

The tradition of marijuana use continued through the centuries in places like India, the Middle East, and throughout Africa. Today, it’s still not difficult to find communities in these regions where open cannabis use is tolerated.

Cannabis Comes to the Americas

When colonists settled the New World, cannabis came with them from the very beginning. Hemp seeds were part of their cargo, and the ropes, sails, and caulking of the Mayflower and other ships contained hemp fiber. Hemp was cultivated in New England by 1629. In fact, the American colonies were required by law to grow hemp because of its vital importance to shipping and industry.

Many of the Founding Fathers, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, grew hemp, and for a time after the Revolutionary War, farmers could pay taxes in hemp. Most paper during early colonial times, including the paper on which the Declaration of Independence was written, was made from hemp fiber. Betsy Ross’s first flag of the United States was made of hemp. And more than 120,000 pounds of hemp fiber was used to rig the 44-gun U.S.S. Constitution, “Old Ironsides,” America’s oldest Navy ship.

Cannabis Gets Culture

Marijuana, hemp’s close cousin, began to gain popularity among the world’s literati in the second half of the 19th century because of its psychoactive effects.

Fitz Hugh Ludlow acquainted the public with cannabis in his autobiographical book The Hasheesh Eater (1857). Ludlow explored altered states of consciousness provided by hashish and found cannabis to boost his creativity: “My pen glanced presently like lightning in the effort to keep neck and neck with my ideas,” he wrote. “At last, thought ran with such terrific speed that I could no longer write at all.”

Marijuana continued its association with the arts as the 20th century arrived, becoming particularly popular among jazz musicians, especially in the big-city bordellos where early jazz took root. Musicians prized it because, unlike alcohol, which dulled and incapacitated, cannabis’s influence seemed to enable them to hear and play music in more imaginative and pleasurable ways.

That all changed in Great Britain, the United States, and other parts of the world a decade or two later, as a perceived scourge of narcotic addiction led legislators to outlaw the plant. This perception was in large part based on newspapers’ realization that sensational coverage of this exotic new thrill could boost circulation. For example, in 1926 the New Orleans Morning Tribune ran a series of articles on the “growing menace” of marijuana.

Much of the media coverage traded heavily on the “otherness” of marijuana by playing up the race angle, emphasizing for instance that cannabis was more popular among African Americans and Hispanics than among whites. “Marijuana” (from a Mexican slang term for cannabis) was demonized and associated with madness and mayhem.

The Beginning of Marijuana Prohibition

One by one, America’s states passed laws against the supposed menace, with Massachusetts the first in 1911. Great Britain made cannabis illegal in 1928 after an Egyptian delegate at an international drug conference managed to convince most of the attendees that marijuana was a menace to society and “as dangerous as opium.”

The growing hysteria was also fueled by the release of the sensational movie Reefer Madness (also known as Tell Your Children) in 1936. The United States Congress passed a federal prohibition of marijuana in 1937.

Internal Revenue Service agents, or “Revenuers,” who’d gained fame busting up moonshiners’ stills and speakeasies during alcohol’s prohibition, got a new lease on life in the new Federal Bureau of Narcotics. One such former agent, Harry J. Anslinger, headed up the narcotics bureau in its mission to suppress marijuana. In hindsight, it could be said that much of the modern marijuana “problem” occurred after cannabis was prohibited.

After the prohibition of cannabis, the U.S. began to import coarse fibers from East India to replace its former domestic hemp supply, but World War II forced the cessation of such imports. Thus, the United States War Production Board was forced as a matter of national security to encourage and oversee the production of some 300,000 acres of hemp in Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa. The U.S. Department of Agriculture even produced a booklet entitled Hemp: A War Crop and a Hemp for Victory informational film encouraging farmers to grow the needed crop. This development must have been galling to pot prohibition architect Anslinger, who’d managed to have the term “cannabis” deleted from the official U.S. Pharmacopoeia and National Formulary the previous year.

In 1961, 180 countries signed the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs treaty, promising to keep illegal all “dangerous drugs,” including marijuana, bringing U.S.-style cannabis prohibition to much of the planet.

The Coming of the Hippies

Cannabis use remained the occupation of fringe groups around the world until the seed planted by the Beat culture (the community of disaffected artists, poets, and students of the 1950s) led to the blooming of the 1960s “Flower Power” generation. Luminaries such as poet Allen Ginsberg, who walked Manhattan streets with a “Pot Is Fun” poster, intrigued public consciousness with their pro-marijuana messages. Suddenly it seemed young people everywhere were using and apparently enjoying marijuana. Its ubiquity was particularly noticeable among that strange new cultural phenomenon, hippies.

Starting at the nexus of Haight and Ashbury in San Francisco and radiating outward, the hippies probably did more to both popularize and, arguably, marginalize cannabis than any other group in history.

hip pie noun

a person, especially of the late 1960s, who rejected established institutions and values and sought spontaneity, direct personal relations expressing love, and expanded consciousness, often expressed externally in the wearing of casual, folksy clothing and of beads, headbands, used garments, etc. Unabridged. Random House, Inc.

Pot Popularity Reaches New Highs in the 1970s

President Nixon brought together the Shafer Commission to recommend marijuana policy going forward, but was enraged when its members’ 1972 report, “Marihuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding,” suggested decriminalizing the herb. The commission boldly proclaimed “neither the marihuana user nor the drug itself can be said to constitute a danger to public safety.” Nixon roundly ignored the recommendations of his own commission and instead declared a War on Drugs, including cannabis, initiating federal policy that continues to this day.

But even with increased penalties, including lengthy prison terms, the popularity of the herb continued to rise for several more years. President Jimmy Carter endorsed decriminalization, famously telling Congress, “Penalties against possession of a drug should not be more damaging to an individual than the use of the drug itself; and where they are, they should be changed.”

With the advent of the Reagan years, more emphasis was placed on enforcing marijuana laws. Reagan himself deemed pot as “probably the most dangerous drug in America today” during the 1980 presidential campaign.

But at least two presidents since then have admitted they’ve tried the stuff themselves.

As the hippie era drew to a close, the new role models of open marijuana use became the Rastafarians, a sect based in Jamaica. The Rastafarians considered ganja (a term for cannabis of Hindi and Sanskrit origin) a sacramental plant. Reggae singers like Bob Marley and Peter Tosh did as much to popularize pot smoking in the 1970s as bands such as the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane had the preceding decade.

The Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church, a Rasta-related group based in Florida, also used marijuana as part of their worship. The Coptics, incidentally, allegedly headed up one of the biggest pot smuggling rings in the United States. Many church members were arrested while unloading 20 tons of marijuana from a boat off the coast of Maine in 1980.

Pot use by American high school students peaked in 1978 at 37.1 percent, followed by a period of decline. The slogan “Just Say No” caught on among anti-drug advocates, and the message apparently resonated with a subset of youth, since the rate of high school marijuana use fell every year from 1978 through 1993.

Hemp for Victory Redux

The biggest change to hit the marijuana movement in the 1980s was the advent of hemp advocacy, spearheaded by author Jack Herer. His book The Emperor Wears No Clothes is a history of hemp’s myriad uses and an account of the establishment’s war on pot.

Herer holds that cannabis provides the strongest, most durable, longest-lasting natural soft fiber on earth. And for at least 3,000 years prior to the U.S. marijuana prohibition and the U.N. Single Convention Narcotics Treaty, cannabis was the most widely used medicine for two-thirds of the world’s people. According to Herer, the petrochemical industry was involved in the marijuana prohibition of 1937 because this versatile plant represented a renewable source of paper, energy, food, textiles, and medicine; hence, a potential threat to profits.

While Herer’s discussion of hemp’s industrial uses turned heads and forever changed the considerations of the marijuana debate, the cannabis culture wars flared up on another front: that of the medicinal use of marijuana.

Rise of the Medical Marijuana Movement

Cannabis had been a valued part of both Eastern and Western pharmacopeias until it was banned. In fact, Dr. William C. Woodward, a representative of the American Medical Association, forcefully argued against outlawing the herb at the 1937 Congressional hearings which resulted in its illegality.

“I say the medicinal use of cannabis has nothing to do with cannabis or marijuana addiction,” Dr. Woodward told Congress, adding, “Future investigation may show that there are substantial medical uses for cannabis.”

The doctor’s words were borne out by subsequent research and the growing body of clinical and anecdotal evidence for marijuana’s effectiveness in alleviating the symptoms of many ailments led to the flowering of the medical marijuana movement.

The movement’s first big victory was the 1996 legalization of the medicinal use of marijuana by California voters. The voters of Oregon and Washington followed suit in 1998. By 2010, 15 states plus the District of Columbia had legalized the use of medical marijuana. In November 2010, Arizona voters approved the use of marijuana treatments for residents with specific medical conditions.

The legalization of medical marijuana nationwide in the United States appears likely as recent polls showed support exceeding 80 percent. Canada’s federal government legalized medical marijuana in 2001.

Legalization Vs Decriminalization

Legalization is the process of removing a law, or legal regulation, against something which is illegal, such as the repeal of prohibition. Decriminalization leaves prohibitory laws and regulations in place, but removes criminal charges and penalties.

Legalization for adult recreational use remains much more controversial, with just under half—46 percent—of Americans supporting the issue in 2010. This number has been creeping upward for years, however. If it continues at the same pace, legalization could be supported by a majority in the next five to ten years, especially since younger people favor it in much higher numbers.