It’s important, first of all, to differentiate between the different types of cannabis. There are four species within the genus. One is cannabis sativa L, and that’s what we call hemp. That’s what was grown in both the British colonies on the East Coast and by the French in Quebec. But hemp is less than one percent THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the compound that produces hallucinogenic effects, so you really can’t get stoned off of hemp. It’s fibers were used for bales and ropes and sometimes paper and the other species of cannabis are cannabis sativa (without the L), which is much higher in THC and has become much more potent over the years. Then there’s cannabis indica and … cannabis ruderalis, the last of which was discovered by a Russian scientist in 1923. But that one’s almost invisible.
The cannabis or hemp plant originally evolved in Central Asia and people introduced the plant into Africa, Europe and eventually the Americas. Herodotus described the Scythians—a group of Iranian nomads in Central Asia—inhaling the smoke from smoldering cannabis seeds and flowers to get high. Hashish (a purified form of cannabis smoked with a pipe) was widely used throughout the Middle East and parts of Asia after about 800 AD. Its rise in popularity corresponded with the spread of Islam in the region. The Quran forbid the use of alcohol and some other intoxicating substances, but did not specifically prohibit cannabis.
Marijuana, also known as cannabis or pot, has a long history of human use. Most ancient cultures didn’t grow the plant to get high, but as herbal medicine, likely starting in Asia around 500 BC. Hemp fiber was used to make clothing, paper, sails and rope, and its seeds were used as food.
There’s some evidence that ancient cultures knew about the psychoactive properties of the cannabis plant. Burned cannabis seeds have been found in the graves of shamans in China and Siberia from as early as 500 BC. They may have cultivated some varieties to produce higher levels of THC for use in religious ceremonies or healing practice.
In the 1830s, Sir William Brooke O’Shaughnessy, an Irish doctor studying in India, found that cannabis extracts could help lessen stomach pain and vomiting in people suffering from cholera. By the late 1800s, cannabis extracts were sold in pharmacies and doctors’ offices throughout Europe and the United States to treat stomach problems and other ailments.
Scientists later discovered that THC was the source of marijuana’s medicinal properties. As the psychoactive compound responsible for marijuana’s mind-altering effects, THC also interacts with areas of the brain that are able to lessen nausea and promote hunger.
In fact, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved two drugs with THC that are prescribed in pill form, Marinol and Syndros, to treat nausea caused by cancer chemotherapy and loss of appetite in AIDs patients.
Cannabis was being grown by the British East India company in Bengal and other parts of India. They encouraged its planting, taxed it heavily and exported it to Guyana, South Africa, and the Caribbean. Marijuana was brought to the Americas by the Portuguese, who took it to Brazil, and again by the British, who took it to Jamaica. In both cases, it was used to pacify slaves.
It was sold in company stores in Jamaica well up into the 20th century where slave-like conditions persisted in the sugar cane fields. It became part of Jamaican culture, and in other places it was grown and smoked from the slave-era on. There were [also] large Indian populations in the Caribbean. Indentured Indian workers who worked alongside blacks were probably another vehicle by which smokeable, recreational marijuana was brought into the Caribbean at the time.
From the early seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries, hemp could be found all over the American colonies and the fragile nation that emerged from them. Because it’s a fast-growing plant that’s easy to cultivate and has many uses, hemp was widely grown throughout colonial America and at Spanish missions in the Southwest.
As you can imagine, it was an important product in the New World as the American colonies were being established. In the early 1600s, the Virginia, Massachusetts and Connecticut colonies required farmers to grow hemp. Virginia passed a law requiring hemp to be grown on every farm in the colony. At the time, the crop was also considered a proper form of currency in Virginia, as well as Pennsylvania and Maryland. Prominent early sites of hemp cultivation included the Jamestown Colony and the Virginia farms of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
By the time Kentucky joined the union in 1792, the Bluegrass State was already the nation’s leading hemp producer. There, hemp was inextricably bound with the institution of slavery; not only did slaves perform the difficult and essential labor of harvesting and breaking the hemp crop, but the resulting rope and twine was used to tie bales of slave-produced cotton. The American hemp industry peaked before 1860 and declined with the loss of slave labor and the rise of metal baling clasps and new fiber crops after the Civil War. As new products were imported or developed to replace hemp—cotton was surely a welcome change to the itchy fibers of hemp shirts—the plant fell out of popularity.
But by the end of the Civil War, although the United States’ hemp production had passed its peak, a different version of the plant was on the rise. Marijuana was becoming an increasingly popular ingredient in medicines and tinctures.
Cannabis had made its way into the American pharmacopoeia by 1851, though its use in medicine was sporadic and ill-defined. Often referred to as “Indian hemp” or “cannabis indica,” most early cannabis drugs were imported from India via Britain. By the early 1900s, however, the US government began experimenting with the domestic production of certain imported drugs, including cannabis. Many of these agricultural experiments cropped up in the South, where the soil and climate were thought to be ideal for drug cultivation.
The drug use of cannabis reputedly started gaining traction in the U.S. in the 1910s after Mexican refugees brought marijuana with them as they fled the violence of the Mexican Revolution. But recent scholarship argues that the relationship between Mexicans and cannabis in the United States was far more nuanced than is typically suggested, and that its ultimate prohibition was driven by other factors in addition to racism. This scholarship also suggests that while Mexicans were clearly involved in the early American marijuana trade, their responsibility for “introducing” the practice of smoking marijuana was not as clear-cut as earlier works implied.
These Mexican roots of American smokeable cannabis are important, however, because it was known as a colored-people’s drug well into the 1960s. In the 1930s, it became popular among the hepsters, the black jazz community made up of “hep cats” like jazz singer Cab Calloway, who had a hit with his song “Reefer Man.”
In the 1930s, massive unemployment and social unrest during the Great Depression stoked resentment of Mexican immigrants and public fear of the “evil weed.” Prohibition was repealed in the middle of the Great Depression and straight-laced bureaucrats looking for another target turned their attention to marijuana, which, at the time, was mostly being used in the Mexican and black communities. They painted the drug—and the communities using it—as a threat to the already crippled country and began the process of banning it. Twenty-nine states had outlawed marijuana by 1931, and in 1937, the Marijuana Tax Act was passed, essentially making the plant illegal in the United States.
The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 was the first federal U.S. law to criminalize marijuana nationwide. The Act imposed an excise tax on the sale, possession or transfer of all hemp products, effectively criminalizing all but industrial uses of the plant.
Fifty-eight-year-old farmer Samuel Caldwell was the first person prosecuted under the Act. He was arrested for selling marijuana on October 2, 1937, just one day after the Act’s passage. Caldwell was sentenced to four years of hard labor.
In 1942, with the nation’s hemp supplies in the Pacific and Europe cut off by the Axis Powers when the Phillippines fell to Japan, the US found itself without a reliable source of rope and rigging for its Navy. In response, the government launched the Hemp for Victory program, propping up hemp prices and issuing thousands of licenses in accords with the Marijuana Tax Act. This was a stunning about-face that could only be rationalized in wartime: the government had spent the past six years urging farmers (and everyone else) to destroy all traces of cannabis; now it asked them to sow acre upon acre of it – 300,000 acres (about 120,000 hectares) in one year.
The Midwest would be the heart of wartime hemp production, but most of the seed would come from Kentucky and Tennessee. Iowa, which had no hemp acreage in 1942, set a goal of 60,000 acres by 1943. Indiana’s 1943 target was 20,000 acres, but Hoosiers only planted around 8,000 while Wisconsinites planted 31,000. After securing commitments from hundreds of local farmers, the US government built hemp processing plants in dozens of tiny towns across the rural Midwest. Unsurprisingly, the government found it far easier to grow hemp than eradicate it; the nation reportedly grew some 226,000 acres in 1943, making the Hemp for Victory campaign a resounding success.
In fact, the program was apparently too successful. The government had so much surplus hemp in 1943 that it had to pay American cord manufacturers to “absorb a portion of the domestic hemp supply.” As the end of the war drew near, the government tried to gradually reduce the nation’s hemp acreage and use every last bit of fiber it produced. However, having reaped the rewards of a humming wartime industry, many rural Midwesterners were not ready to watch hemp prices fall or see job-providing hemp plants shuttered. By 1944, War Hemp Industries, Inc. – the company that managed the government hemp plants during the war – expected “at least a moderate revival of the industry” and noted that “farmers and townsmen at 42 government hemp mill locations in the Midwest would welcome a return to a hemp growing program.” Company executives pointed to new machinery and production methods that would allow the US to “produce hemp cheaper than… any place else in the world.” In August 1945, veterans of the wartime hemp industry organized the American Fibers Industries, Inc., a cooperative dedicated to sustaining the industry in America. The group claimed hemp would bring $60 million in wages for “farmers, mill workers, and processors.”
Alas, the highly anticipated revival of the US hemp industry never happened. The government resumed hemp imports from Latin America and the Caribbean in 1944, and from the Philippines in 1945; meanwhile, domestic hemp prices collapsed with the removal of wartime price supports. And of course, there was the issue of all those hemp plants being possible sources of “marijuana.” In 1945, the US Treasury Department ordered Wisconsin hemp growers to “remove the leaves and flowers before sending their product to the mills.” Irate farmers protested, arguing that “such a process would not only injure the plant but would be so costly there would be no point in growing it.” To continue raising hemp profitably, the state’s farmers needed an exemption in the Marijuana Tax Act to allow “hemp to be transported tax-free to the mills”; they got no such modification, and the domestic hemp industry sputtered out.
In addition to illicit cultivators, authorities increasingly targeted so-called “wild marijuana.” This trend, which began after the tax act and would continue through the 1980s, was based on the largely incorrect assumption that any cannabis plants would or could be made to produce marijuana. Most of the “wild marijuana” authorities destroyed or worried about was either non-psychoactive hemp or feral varieties of marijuana that are far less potent than a cultivated plant. The Tax Act stipulated that producers of hemp birdseed must sterilize their product before it went to market, lest it sprout into harvestable “marijuana.” But in the three years prior to the Tax Act, the American oilseed industry imported some 193 million pounds of (unsterilized) hemp seed, ensuring that sterilization would not prevent birds and other wildlife from spreading hemp.
In 1972, a report from the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse (also known as the Shafer Commission) released a report titled “Marijuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding.” The report recommended “partial prohibition” and lower penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana. Nixon and other government officials, however, ignored the report’s findings.
By the late 1980s, ramped-up state and federal enforcement campaigns made growing pot outdoors extremely risky. Accordingly, the nation’s marijuana growers moved inside, to cultivation “labs” with grow lights and other sophisticated equipment. Reports of indoor growing become extremely numerous after 1989, and they describe cannabis being grown in basements, aquariums, apartments, and greenhouses.
California became the first state to re-legalize marijuana for medicinal use by people with severe or chronic illnesses in 1996. Washington, D.C., 29 states and the U.S. territories of Guam and Puerto Rico allow the use of cannabis for limited medical purposes.
As of June 2019, eleven states and Washington, D.C., have legalized marijuana for recreational use. Colorado and Washington became the first states to do so in 2012. Adults also can light up without a doctor’s prescription in Alaska, California, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, Vermont and Oregon.
Marijuana’s side effects—both mental and physical—are partly responsible for its checkered legal status. Short-term effects can include euphoria or other mood changes, heightened sensory perception and increased appetite.
While many people experience a pleasant “high” feeling after using marijuana, others may experience anxiety, fear or panic. Negative effects may be more common when a person uses too much marijuana, or the cannabis is unexpectedly potent.
The amount of THC in marijuana—the chemical responsible for the drug’s potency—has increased dramatically in recent decades. In the mid-1990s, the average THC content of confiscated weed was roughly 4 percent. By 2014, it was about 12 percent, with a few strains of pot containing THC levels as high as 37 percent.
Cannabis is still illegal under U.S. federal law, and the evolving legal status of marijuana is a subject of ongoing controversy in the United States and around the world.