Despite weed’s descent into illegal status during the past century, humans have used marijuana for a variety of reasons for millennia. There’s no exact source pinpointing the first bong hit that took place in antiquity. But the first recordings of cannabis’s psychoactive effects go all the way back to China in 2737 B.C.
But even before folks started to get high smoking pot, the non-psychoactive version of Cannabis sativa, or hemp, played a role in one civilization — specifically in ancient China, dating back to 10,000 B.C. Archaeological evidence of hemp use includes broken pottery bearing imprints of hemp rope and bits of hemp cloth found near Chinese burial chambers, all dating back as far as the Chou Dynasty (around 1046 to 256 B.C.E.).
In addition to growing hemp for food, the non-psychoactive branch of Cannabis sativa was ironically used for purposes of warfare. Its strength and resilience proved useful for making bowstrings.
How Cannabis Spread Around The World
But in 2737 B.C., the Chinese Emperor Shen-Nung, the Father of Chinese Medicine, found that Cannabis sativa, or “ma,” could be used to treat a variety of illness like gout, rheumatism, and malaria, to name a few. The good doctor warned that the treatment produced interesting side effects — those very psychoactive properties that many nowadays seek out. But its medicinal properties, like its anesthetic function, outweighed the trippy visions.
From China, pot spread both eastward and westward in 2000 B.C. It made its way to Korea around 2000 B.C., and then South Asia by way of the Aryans, a group of individuals who spoke an ancient Indo-European language. Afterwards, the plant spread through the rest of the country, where it was used both recreationally and medicinally.
At the same time as cannabis spread from China to South Asia, the plant spread westward to the Middle East, likely at the hands of the nomadic Scythian people. But it also spread to to regions that would become modern-day Ukraine and Russia. Meanwhile, Germanic tribes and Anglo-Saxons helped further the spread of cannabis to Germany and Britain.
After having made its way through Asia, Europe, and Africa over several centuries, it was thanks to the Spaniards that marijuana finally made its way to the New World — specifically Chile — during the 16th century. Up in what would become North America, the English brought cannabis when colonists settled in Jamestown during the 17th century. There, alongside tobacco, marijuana flourished as a major crop, highly valued for its fibers. Even George Washington, our nation’s first president, grew the stuff up in Mount Vernon.
The Modern History Of Marijuana In The U.S.
Between the 19th and early 20th centuries, cannabis use in the United States was largely confined to the medical arena. During Prohibition in the 1920s, cannabis was seen as an alternative to booze for its intoxicating effects. It was commonly smoked in speakeasy-like dens, known as “tea pads.” But in the 1930s, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics campaigned against marijuana usage as a dangerous addictive substance, leading to cult classics like “Reefer Madness,” and portrayals of the substance as a gateway to harder narcotics. In 1937, the Marihuana Tax Act made possession and sale of marijuana illegal albeit in a roundabout manner, by restricting it to those who had paid an excise tax. After pot was co-opted by the counterculture movement of the ‘60s, the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970 classified marijuana as a Schedule I drug, officially outlawing the sale, possession, and usage of the substance.
Over the past few decades, cannabis’s status as illegal has slowly seen a recession, at least stateside; first in terms of medical usage, and more recently in terms of recreational possession and sale. Only time will tell how long until we join arms with the Netherlands in legalizing the substance altogether.