Cannabis: A History
From Ancient Herbal Remedy to “The Most Violence-Causing Drug in the History of Mankind”
Cannabis is believed to be one of the earliest cultivated plants in history, having been used for paper, cloth, rope, and medicine for millennia. While the legalization of this plant is just starting to become more widespread in America, our ancestors used this crop as a staple of daily life, dating well into the 20th Century.
In honor of hemp history week, we’ve put together a brief overview of the history of cannabis, from its Eastern roots to its cultivation and subsequent prohibition in North America. Click the image and read below to learn how we got where we are now.
Archeologists have determined that the earliest known hemp fabric found in ancient Mesopotamia dates back to 8,000 BC.
According to The Lushi, an unofficial history of China documenting the Sung dynasty (500 AD), hemp cultivation for fiber was recorded in China as early as the 28th Century B.C., when Emperor Shen Nung taught his people to cultivate hemp as material for clothes.
Cannabis is documented as a spiritual aid in the Atharvaveda, one of four ancient Hindu scriptures comprising the oldest Hindu text, where it’s praised for bringing joy and relieving anxiety.
King Henry VIII passed an act requiring all farmers to plant hemp or flax on every 1/4 of an acre for every 60 acres, or face a fine. During this period, hemp was a major crop used to make rope, sails, nets and other naval equipment.
Hemp farming began in the Quillota Valley, near the city of Santiago in Chile. Spanish conquistadors brought hemp from Spain to be cultivated in South America to make the ropes and sails needed to outfit their ships.
The first hemp crop was planted in North America by French botanist Louis Hebert in present day Nova Scotia.
Records show that hemp was brought to the Jamestown, Virginia settlement for fiber cultivation, by order of King James I.
Records show that Thomas Jefferson grew acres of hemp on his Monticello plantation to be used to make rope, sails and other textiles.
The cotton gin was invented by Eli Whitney, making it easier to process cotton. Traditionally, hemp was processed by hand–making it difficult to compete with cotton’s modern commercial production.
Kentucky, a major producer of industrial hemp, grew its largest crop at 40,000 tons of hemp. Hemp remained the state’s largest cash crop until 1915.
Around the time of the 1910 Mexican Revolution, as Mexican immigration to the United States increased, racist beliefs circulated, resulting in 29 states outlawing cannabis from 1916 to 1931.
“The prejudices and fears that greeted these peasant immigrants also extended to their traditional means of intoxication: smoking marijuana. Police officers in Texas claimed that marijuana incited violent crimes, aroused a ‘lust for blood,’ and gave its users ‘superhuman strength.’ Rumors spread that Mexicans were distributing this ‘killer weed’ to unsuspecting American schoolchildren.”
-Eric Schlosser, The Atlantic, August 1994 Issue
Harry J. Anslinger became the commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. His racist rhetoric single-handedly changed the public’s perception of cannabis in the United States, describing “marihuana” as “the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind.”
The propaganda film Reefer Madness was released, depicting marijuana as a drug that could lead to violence, rape, suicide, and psychosis.
The United States government passed the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 (drafted by Harry Anslinger). While it was originally intended to stop the use of the plant as a recreational drug, industrial hemp was caught up in anti-dope legislation, making importation and commercial production less economical.
Despite the official federal government’s stance on hemp and marijuana, the U.S. Army and the Dept of Agriculture jointly produced a 1942 film, “Hemp for Victory,” encouraging farmers to grow hemp for the country’s effort in World War II — particularly for textiles and rope, imports of which had been cut off by war. All related permits were canceled following the end of the war.
The Nixon Administration officially began its “War on Drugs” with the passing of The Controlled Substances Act (CSA) regulating the manufacture, possession, use and distribution of certain narcotics including marijuana (cannabis).The CSA outlines five “schedules” used to classify drugs based on their medical application and potential for abuse. Among the most dangerous, Schedule 1 drugs? Marijuana, LSD, heroin, and MDMA (ecstasy).
Former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter campaigned for president on a platform that included decriminalizing marijuana and ending federal criminal penalties for possession of up to one ounce of the drug. Congress ultimately ignored Carter’s support for decriminalization.
Medical marijuana was legalized in California, making it the first state in the country to legalize cannabis for medicinal use.
Colorado and Washington voters passed referendums legalizing marijuana for recreational use, although cannabis is still banned under federal law.
The 2018 Farm Bill was signed into law, removing hemp, defined as cannabis (Cannabis sativa L.) and derivatives of cannabis with extremely low concentrations of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) from the definition of marijuana in the Controlled Substances Act (CSA).
As we continue to learn more about the many uses of hemp as well as the medicinal and recreational benefits of cannabis, we can hopefully start to remove the lingering stigma from the propaganda and prohibition of the past 100 years. As we move towards legalization, it’s important to remember that many lives have been affected by the War on Drugs and archaic drug policies. As we celebrate each legalization across the country, thousands of prisoners remain incarcerated for non-violent cannabis charges.
We are proud to partner with Last Prisoner Project, a nonprofit coalition dedicated to bringing restorative justice to the cannabis industry. Please consider donating to their “Roll It Up for Justice” program when making a purchase with us. Thank you for helping rebuild the lives of those who have suffered from cannabis criminalization.