The History of Marijuana in Society

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Marijuana comes from the plant cannabis sativa. For most of human history, cannabis was cultivated as a rich source of plant fiber called hemp, which is used to make products like rope, cloth and paper.[1]

It began its relationship with humans as a camp follower. Humans would gather the plants to use and throw away the leftovers (including some seeds) into the camp’s waste pile, which would be rich in nutrients, including manure. The plant would grow from the discarded seeds in a short time, humans would gather it, and carry it to their next camp to use again: farming at its earliest.

Over time, humans formed into permanent settlements that practiced agriculture. Hemp use became widespread, eventually flourishing across Asia, Europe and northern Africa.

Initially, most cannabis bore little resemblance to the drug we know today. Plants cultivated for fiber had minimal amounts of psychoactive chemicals like THC – smoking them would probably only result in a cough, not a high. However, some strains, selected for their mind- and body-altering properties, did contain enough of the chemical in order for the plant to be used in ancient medicine.

Records exist of its use in Chinese medicine as far back as 2700 BC, in Indian Ayurvedic medicine, and by Greek and Roman physicians like Galen and Pliny the Elder.[2] In Europe, however, medicinal use of cannabis faded with the ancients. The plant was instead prized as a fiber source because it grew as a weed: quickly, cheaply and available just about anywhere.

As the age of exploration blossomed and shipping became widespread, the demand for rope and sail canvas exploded. It was time for the American colonies to start producing the fiber.

Cannabis in America

Cannabis first arrived in the Americas when it was introduced to Chile in 1545, and to North America at Port Royal, Acadia in 1606.[3] By 1619, the demand for hemp had grown so high that the Virginia Assembly passed legislation requiring colonists to grow the crop.[4] As the colonies’ own shipping needs increased – along with a demand for cheaper, colony-grown cloth instead of expensive imports from Europe – so did the hemp industry. Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew hemp on their plantations, and Jefferson even invented a device to process hemp fibers in 1815.[5][6] Production continued strong for decades, with the 1850 census noting almost 7 million pounds of hemp harvested, mostly in Missouri and Kentucky.[7]

Meanwhile, Irish doctor William O’Shaughnessy learned about the plant’s medicinal properties at the Medical College of Calcutta.

[8] In 1860, the Ohio State Medical Society held the first American conference regarding the medical use of cannabis, which acted as an effective painkiller and sedative.[9]

However, other synthetic drugs soon replaced it once they became available:

  • Heroin in 1874[10]
  • Aspirin in 1899[11]
  • The first barbiturate, a type of sedative drug no longer widely used due to its dangerous side effects and the availability of safer alternatives, in 1904[12]

The Dawn of Marijuana Regulation

In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Pure Food and Drug Act, which began the federal government’s role in regulating the cleanliness and safety of food and drugs.[13] It required anyone selling cannabis to label the packaging with the name of the drug and the amount contained within.[14] Following this came the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914, which regulated opium and coca on a federal level, laying the framework for future anti-cannabis legislation.At this time, the fervor of the temperance movement was sweeping the nation. The movement blamed social ills like poverty, prostitution, and crime on a single source: alcohol. Today, we know that the relationship isn’t so simple, and that if anything, it runs in the opposite direction. Alcohol and drug abuse are often byproducts of life problems like stress and poverty, not their root cause. During the temperance movement, however, drunkenness was seen as not just a vice, but also an evil. Other intoxicating substances were tarred with the same brush. By 1905, over half of the states had passed anti-marijuana laws alongside legislation restricting or banning alcohol and tobacco.[15].

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Views of marijuana grew even dimmer after 1910, when the Mexican Revolution pushed nearly one million Mexican immigrants north into the United States.[16] They sparked a great deal of anti-Mexican sentiment, colored by the perception that Mexicans used marijuana recreationally. This racial tension was made worse by the high unemployment rates of the Great Depression as immigrants competed for jobs.[17] Racial associations with marijuana continued to deteriorate as the drug became popular among black jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong.[18]

“Here we have a drug that is not like opium. Opium has all of the good of Dr. Jekyll and all the evil of Mr. Hyde. This drug is entirely the monster Hyde, the harmful effect of which cannot be measured. […] Some people will fly into a delirious rage, and they are temporarily irresponsible and may commit violent crimes. […] It is dangerous to the mind and body, and particularly dangerous to the criminal type, because it releases all of the inhibitions.”- Harry Anslinger, 1937[19]

The Federal Bureau of Narcotics was formed in 1930, with Harry Anslinger at its head. Anslinger led a crusade against marijuana that led to the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937.[20] This effectively put an end to most of the United States’ hemp and marijuana production, save for a surge of hemp cultivation for fiber during World War II. Pro- and anti-marijuana propaganda was rife on both sides, ranging from the infamous film Reefer Madness in 1936[21] to Hemp for Victory in 1943.[22]

After the war, the 1950s saw legislation against marijuana continue to tighten with the Boggs Act of 1952 and the Narcotics Control Act of 1956. These set up mandatory sentences for marijuana-related offenses, as well as for offenses related to other drugs.[23] For possession alone, a first-time offender could receive a minimum sentence of two to 10 years along with a hefty fine costing as much as $20,000[24] (approximately $175,000 today).[25]

A New Era of Drug Use and a New Drug War

In the 1960s and 1970s, recreational marijuana use boomed.[26] Rising counterculture also popularized drugs like LSD, which many drug users assumed to be harmless – after all, some of the warnings about marijuana’s perils had turned out to be exaggeration or scare tactics, so perhaps claims that other drugs were dangerous were wrong as well.[27] Pro-marijuana publications like High Times were founded.

The year 1970 saw the passing of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act, which reduced penalties for marijuana-related offenses but made a wide range of drugs illegal.[28] Marijuana was placed into Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, meaning that it has a high potential for abuse and no known medical use.[29] In the same year, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) was founded.

Only a year later in 1971, President Richard Nixon declared a War on Drugs, stating that drug abuse was “public enemy number one.”[30] In 1973, he founded the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to organize the efforts of the various anti-drug agencies. One of its child agencies was the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) which, among other things, would become the only federally legal source for marijuana research in the United States.[31]By the 1980s, cocaine had surpassed marijuana as a top drug of concern, stirring up fresh anti-drug sentiment. First Lady Nancy Reagan first conceived of the Just Say No campaign in 1982, and in 1983, the D.A.R.E. program was founded.[32] Such programs, unfortunately, would prove often ineffective at reducing rates of drug use, and instead created a new generation of youth disillusioned by anti-drug messages.[33]

Medicine and Research

Meanwhile, the AIDS epidemic was rearing its head. Marijuana’s appetite-stimulating properties offered hope for people with AIDS suffering from nausea and loss of appetite, and support for legalization of medical marijuana grew.[34] The same benefits could also be extended to cancer patients on chemotherapy. In 1988, DEA Judge Francis Young held a hearing into the possibility of moving marijuana into Schedule II, which would permit limited medical use. He concluded:

“The evidence in this record clearly shows that marijuana has been accepted as capable of relieving the distress of great numbers of very ill people, and doing so with safety under medical supervision. It would be unreasonable, arbitrary, and capricious for the DEA to continue to stand between those sufferers and the benefits of this substance in light of the evidence in this record.”[35]

However, the DEA did not accept Young’s recommendation, and medical marijuana remained illegal – on a federal level. By 1996, public support for marijuana legalization had grown sufficient in California to pass a state initiative that permitted medical marijuana’s cultivation, distribution, and use.[36] In 1998, three other states joined California.

Thus began the state-federal battle over marijuana. As long as marijuana was illegal on the federal level, could states circumvent the law to create their own rules for medical patients? The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), DEA, and NIDA exist to keep Americans safe from untested substances and to regulate the legalization process of any new drug. However, many state voters felt that these organizations were obstructing legalization, and they were willing to defy federal law and vote in favor of legalizing medical marijuana at the state level. While this may be a faster path to widespread legalization, it carries its own risks. It creates the opportunity for sick people to become test subjects in a massive, uncontrolled social experiment. Desperate for treatment, many may be willing to try a drug whose effects are not yet fully understood.

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, federal agencies were reluctant to reschedule marijuana because there wasn’t sufficient scientific evidence to conclude that it had medical uses, and research into the drug’s potential medical uses couldn’t proceed while it was illegal. The research hit an obstacle with NIDA.

Unlike many other illegal drugs, which can be synthesized from legal precursors when researchers gain approval to run a study on them, marijuana is a plant and must be grown, which is itself illegal. For a research study on marijuana to be legal, it had to get its marijuana products from NIDA. Without NIDA’s approval, no research could proceed. The problem was, NIDA exists to investigate the harmful effects of drugs, not the medicinal ones.[37] This means that, by necessity, the NIDA-sanctioned research thus far has focused heavily on the drug’s negative properties.

Moving Toward Legalization

Bit by bit, the research came out: Although smoking marijuana carried its risks, the drug could help some people.[38] States that had legalized marijuana began to report back on the results of their social experiments: crime rates hadn’t jumped.[39] Public sentiment began to shift, reaching as far as the Department of Justice.

In 2009, the Department of Justice issued the Ogden Memo, which directed: “Priorities should not focus federal resources in your States on individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana.”[40]

Times have changed. In 1969, only 12 percent of Americans favored legalizing marijuana. By 2014, that number had grown to 54 percent.[41]

  • Fifty-nine percent of Democrats and 37 percent of Republicans favor legalization.[42]
  • Sixty-five percent of Millennials, 54 percent of Gen Xers, and 50 percent of Baby Boomers favor legalization.[43]
  • Four in 10 Americans today view marijuana as a gateway drug, compared to 6 in 10 in 1977.[44]
  • Forty-eight percent of adults today have tried marijuana, and 12 percent have used it within the past year.[45]
  • Of past-year users, 30 percent used marijuana for medical issues, 47 percent used it solely for fun, and 23 percent used it both for medical and recreational purposes.[46]
  • Seventy-seven percent of Americans say that they believe that marijuana has some legitimate medical uses.[47]

The attitudes of the temperance movement are a thing of the past. Sixty-seven percent of Americans said that the government should focus more on providing substance abuse treatment for people who abuse drugs like heroin and cocaine.[48] This suggests a growing acceptance of today’s understanding that addiction is a treatable disease.

Prior to the midterm elections of 2014, two states, Colorado and Washington legalized marijuana for recreational use. Meanwhile, pro-drug groups Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) and the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) accused the DEA of “impeding and rejecting science” as marijuana’s federal status remains unchanged for both recreational and medical use.[49]

The Department of Justice continued its hands-off approach, adding an update in 2013 that it wouldn’t challenge Colorado or Washington’s legalization laws.[50]

In November of 2014, voters in the states of Alaska, Oregon and the District of Columbia all voted to legalize recreational marijuana to some degree.

The rest of the country is waiting to see what happens. For now, marijuana remains illegal on a federal level, and both its potential medical benefits and its dangers remain unknown.


[1] Small, E. and Marcus, D. (September 13, 2014). “Hemp: A New Crop with New Uses for North America.” Purdue University Agriculture. Accessed September 13, 2014.

[2] Mack, A. and Joy, J. (2000). “Marijuana As Medicine?: The Science Beyond the Controversy.” The National Academies Press. Accessed September 13, 2014.

[3] Small, E. and Marcus, D. (September 13, 2014). “Hemp: A New Crop with New Uses for North America.” Purdue University Agriculture. Accessed September 13, 2014.

[4] “Marijuana Timeline.” (n/a) PBS KQED Frontline. Accessed September 13, 2014.

[5] Bell, J.R. (December 6, 2012). “A history of pot, from George Washington to legalizing ganja.” NBC News. Accessed September 13, 2014.

[6] “Hemp.” (N/a) Monticello and the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Accessed September 13, 2014.

[7] “The Seventh Census of the United States: 1850.” (1853). United States Census Bureau. Accessed September 13, 2014.

[8] Mack, A. and Joy, J. (2000). “Marijuana As Medicine?: The Science Beyond the Controversy.” The National Academies Press. Accessed September 13, 2014.

[9] Ibid.

[10] “Heroin.” (n/a). Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed September 13, 2014.

[11] “Felix Hoffmann.” (n/a) Bayer. Accessed September 13, 2014.

[12] López-Muñoz, F., Ucha-Udabe, R., and Alamo, C. (December 2005). “The history of barbiturates a century after their clinical introduction.” Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment. Accessed September 13, 2014.

[13] “About FDA: History.” (July 25, 2014). Food and Drug Administration. Accessed September 13, 2014.

[14] “Federal Food and Drugs Act of 1906.” (May 20, 2009). Food and Drug Administration. Accessed September 13, 2014.

[15] Cardinale, A. (January 14, 2014). “A Brief History of How Marijuana Became Illegal in the U.S.” Policy Mic. Accessed September 13, 2014.

[16] “Mexican Revolution and Immigration.” (n/a) PBS. Accessed September 13, 2014.

[17] “Marijuana Timeline.” (n/a) PBS KQED Frontline. Accessed September 13, 2014.

[18] Peele, S. (August 7, 2010). “Louis Armstrong: Genius and Drugs.” Psychology Today. Accessed September 13, 2014.

[19] “Taxation of Marihuana: Hearings Before the Committee On Ways and Means, House of Representatives, Seventy-Fifth Congress, First Session on H.R. 6385.” (1937). United States Government Printing Office. Accessed September 13, 2014.

[20] Small, E. and Marcus, D. (September 13, 2014). “Hemp: A New Crop with New Uses for North America.” Purdue University Agriculture. Accessed September 13, 2014.

[21] “Reefer Madness.” (n/a) IMDb. Accessed September 13, 2014.

[22] “Hemp for Victory.” (n/a) IMDb. Accessed September 13, 2014.

[23] “Marijuana Timeline.” (n/a) PBS KQED Frontline. Accessed September 13, 2014.

[24] Ibid.

[25] “CPI Inflation Calculator.” (n/a) United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. Accessed September 13, 2014.

[26] “Trends in Marijuana Incidence.” (June 16, 2008). Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Accessed September 13, 2014.

[27] Robinson, J. (July 2, 2002). “Decades of Drug Use: Data From the ’60s and ’70s.” Gallup. Accessed September 13, 2014.

[28] “Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970.” (October 27, 1970). United States Government Printing Office. Accessed September 13, 2014.

[29] “Lists of: Scheduling Actions, Controlled Substances, Regulated Chemicals.” (September 2014). U.S. Department of Justice Drug Enforcement Administration. Accessed September 13, 2014.

[30] “Timeline: America’s War on Drugs.” (April 2, 2007). NPR. Accessed September 13, 2014.

[31] “History of Marijuana as Medicine – 2900 BC to Present.” (August 13, 2013). Accessed September 13, 2014.

[32] Lilienfeld, S.O., and Arkowitz, H. (December 19, 2013). “Why “Just Say No” Doesn’t Work.” Scientific American. Accessed September 13, 2014.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Mack, A. and Joy, J. (2000). “Marijuana As Medicine?: The Science Beyond the Controversy.” The National Academies Press. Accessed September 13, 2014.

[35] “Opinion and Recommended Ruling, Findings of Fact, Conclusion of Law and Decision of Administrative Law Judge.” (September 6, 1988). U.S. Department of Justice Drug Enforcement Administration. Accessed September 13, 2014.

[36] “History of Marijuana as Medicine – 2900 BC to Present.” (August 13, 2013). Accessed September 13, 2014.

[37] Ferro, S. (April 18, 2013). “Why It’s So Hard For Scientists To Study Medical Marijuana.” Popular Science. Accessed September 13, 2014.

[38] “Cannabis and Cannabinoids: Human/Clinical Studies.” (May 13, 2014). National Cancer Institute. Accessed September 13, 2014.

[39] Morris, R.G., TenEyck, M., Barnes, J.C., and Kovandzic, T.V. (March 26, 2014). “The Effect of Medical Marijuana Laws on Crime: Evidence from State Panel Data, 1990-2006.” PLoS One. Accessed September 13, 2014.

[40] Ogden, D.W. “Memorandum For Selected United States Attorneys.” (October 19, 2009). U.S. Department of Justice. Accessed September 13, 2014.

[41] “Marijuana in America: Shifting Attitudes, Events and Laws.” (April 4, 2013). Pew Research Center. Accessed September 13, 2014.

[42] “America’s New Drug Policy Landscape.” (April 2, 2014). Pew Research Center. Accessed September 13, 2014.

[43] “Millennials Strongly Favor Legalization of Marijuana.” (April 4, 2013). Pew Research Center. Accessed September 13, 2014.

[44] “Fewer Americans View Marijuana as a ‘Gateway Drug;’ Most See Medical Benefits.” (April 4, 2013). Pew Research Center. Accessed September 13, 2014.

[45] “Who’s Used Marijuana and Why?.” (April 4, 2013). Pew Research Center. Accessed September 13, 2014.

[46] Ibid.

[47] “Fewer Americans View Marijuana as a ‘Gateway Drug;’ Most See Medical Benefits.” (April 4, 2013). Pew Research Center. Accessed September 13, 2014.

[48] “America’s New Drug Policy Landscape.” (April 2, 2014). Pew Research Center. Accessed September 13, 2014.

[49] “The DEA: Four Decades of Impeding And Rejecting Science.” (June 11, 2014). Drug Policy Alliance and MAPS. Accessed September 13, 2014.

[50] “Justice Department Announces Update to Marijuana Enforcement Policy.” (August 29, 2013). U.S. Department of Justice. Accessed September 13, 2014.

Image Citations

“Jefferson-peale” by Charles Willson Peale – Picture on Establishing a Federal Republic – Thomas Jefferson (Library of Congress Exhibition). Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons –

“Drug bottle containing cannabis”. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons –

See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“Appletons’ Hudson Henry – Half Moon” by unknown artist – Appletons’ Cyclopædia of American Biography, v. 3, 1892, p. 297.. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons –

George Cruikshank [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

“Louis Armstrong restored” by World-Telegram staff photographer – Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection.This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3c27236.

By Charles Raymond Macauley (1871 – 1934) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“Killerdrug”. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons –

“DEA badge C”. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons –

By White House Photographic Office [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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