A History of Weed, Part I: Ancient Roots, Modern Prohibitions
February 3rd, 2022
Written by Zack Ruskin
If you’ve ever wanted to learn the full history of cannabis, your timeline starts here with the first in our four-part series.
What was the name of the first human to ever smoke weed? Sadly, we’ll never know. When it comes to the history of cannabis, the truth is that many of the details we’d love to learn about were never written down. In some ways, this is simply the byproduct of any event which happened so long ago – we’re talking thousands and thousands of years here – but there is also the element of prohibition that long hovered over the heads of many involved with cannabis to consider.
Bearing this caveat in mind, one date that is often cited in timelines charting the origins of cannabis use is 2800 BC. It was at this time, the story goes, that an ancient emperor by the name of Shen Nung — a figure regarded as “the father of Chinese medicine” — recorded multiple medicinal uses for cannabis in his famed pharmacopeia. It certainly makes for a convenient starting point in attempting to chart the history of cannabis, but unfortunately, there is valid reason to believe that Nung may actually be more myth than man.
Regardless, Central Asia is seen as the birthplace from which cannabis then found its way to Africa, Europe, and, eventually, North America. Given Asia’s pivotal role along the spice trading routes, human migration is the vehicle by which cannabis began to flower around the globe.
Prior to its use as a medicine, hemp fiber had already been discovered to be a valuable resource for making clothing, rope, paper and more. Unlike the cannabis cultivated and sold at dispensaries in legal markets today, these early hemp plants featured very small amounts of THC. Popular as a fast-growing plant that requires little effort to cultivate, hemp was widely grown throughout colonial America, with England outright mandating that farmers in these colonies cultivate the plant as part of their operations.
But before we walk the long, strange path that is the history of cannabis in the U.S., let’s first take a closer look at how it got here.
COMING TO AMERICA
Before England’s King James I issued a royal decree ordering every colonist in what would eventually become the United States to grow hemp, a Spanish conquistador named Pedro Cuadrado is believed to have introduced the plant to what is now Mexico. Unfortunately, by 1550, government officials in Mexico were already angling to restrict hemp cultivation over concerns that locals were attempting to get high with it.
Though we have frustratingly little hard evidence, it was almost certainly these revelations about THC (then unnamed and unknown) that inspired the breeding of cannabis plants which could yield higher amounts of it.
Likewise, in the Middle East, the advent of hashish dates to 800 A.D., which assuredly inspired the curiosities of travelers who encountered the substance or tried it from travelers in kind. In many ways, it was informal word of mouth along with the physical dispersal of seeds to lands near and far that together tell the story of the first age of cannabis.
As far as scientific discoveries go, the 1700s were ripe with important revelations. In 1753, a Swiss botanist named Carl Linneaus discovered Cannabis sativa, followed by the discovery of cannabis indica in 1785 by the French naturalist Jean Baptist Lamarack. Though far less popular, it is only to fair to note that a third species of the plant — Cannabis Ruderalis — was eventually discovered by a Russian botanist named Dmitrij Erastovich Janischewsky in 1924.
All the while, attitudes in the U.S. concerning cannabis were a combination of indifferent and welcoming, if uninformed. Indeed, if you are under the impression that weed has always been illegal in America, you may be surprised to learn that mandatory sentences for drug offenses weren’t introduced in this country until 1951.
PRELUDES TO PROHIBITION
Starting around 1850 and lasting up until the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, cannabis was more or less “widely used throughout [the] United States as a medicinal drug and could easily be purchased in pharmacies and general stores.”
Already popular in Mexico, a large exodus of immigrants left their homeland for the U.S. in the wake of the Mexican Revolution of 1910 and brought their unusual habit of consuming cannabis recreationally with them to the states. Though the practice itself offered no evidence of the so-called “Reefer Madness” that would soon become a popular propaganda tool in demonizing cannabis to the public, politicians opposed to immigration recognized marijuana’s potential as a convenient scapegoat in manifesting animosity towards Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans.
Similarly, nefarious plans were concocted as a means of oppressing Black Americans too, especially those participating in the then-blossoming jazz music scene. Establishing a pattern that tragically continues to repeat to this day, the idea of prohibiting cannabis as a proxy for policies designed to oppress minority populations seemed to spread like wildfire.
California was the first to act, outlawing the plant in 1913 by amending the state’s Poison Act to also include cannabis. Similar prohibitions were soon also established in Utah, Texas, and New Mexico. By the early 1930s, a total of 29 states had laws banning cannabis on the books. That set the stage for the 1936 debut of the aforementioned (and immortally infamous) anti-weed film “Reefer Madness.” Recognized today as a cult comedy masquerading as a farcically inaccurate public service announcement, at the time, “Reefer Madness” did its job in helping to convince Congress that it needed to pass the Marihuana Tax Act in 1937.
Because the federal government did not, at the time, possess the powers necessary to outright ban cannabis (that would come later with the Controlled Substances Act of 1965), Congress instead opted to levy a tax so staggering that no one would be able to afford it.
The architect of this legislation was a man named Harry J. Anslinger. But as we’ll see in next week’s installment of our month-long survey of cannabis history, Anslinger was just getting started.
Read our blog post, How to Roll the Perfect Joint.
Zack is a freelance cannabis and culture reporter. He served as San Francisco Weekly's "Pacific Highs" columnist for six years, covering local equity programs, Bay Area cannabis news, and interviewing everyone from Willie Nelson to Rep. Barbara Lee. His other bylines include the San Francisco Chronicle, Leafly, California Leaf Magazine, The Nib, Vanity Fair, KQED, and Variety. Follow him on Twitter: @zackruskin.