From ancient times to the present, marijuana – also known as “cannabis,” for the plant from which it comes – has been a source both of public intrigue and aversion, medical promise and fear-laden headlines. Few drugs can claim as many faces as marijuana has worn across the years, evincing a “disturbing case of multiple personality disorder,” as one journalist has put it. And it would seem, based on a brief survey of its history, that marijuana lays claim to a divided legacy.
From Ancient China to Medieval Europe
Some historians believe marijuana use goes back 12,000 years, making cannabis one of the world’s oldest cultivated crops. “[Marijuana] likely flourished in the nutrient-rich dump sites of prehistoric hunters and gatherers,” wrote Dr. Barney Warf, a professor of geography at the University of Kansas, in a 2014 report.
Archaeological evidence vouches for a historical record that is at least 4,000 years old. If dating methods are accurate, charred cannabis seeds discovered at an ancient burial site in present-day Romania are as old as 3000 B.C., with the implication that ancient people in then Central and South Asia (where cannabis is indigenous) were by then already inhaling cannabis smoke. The relatively recent finding of a leather basket filled with cannabis leaf seeds and fragments, next to a 2,500 to 2,800-year-old mummified shaman in China’s northwestern Xinjiang Province, gives more weight to this conclusion.
Not much later (by 2737 B.C.), the ancient Chinese were experimenting with the plant’s medicinal potential, according to writings by the emperor Shen Nung. The plant’s psychoactive properties were salutary for conditions like rheumatism, gout, malaria and – of all things – absent-mindedness, according to the emperor. It’s believed that even before this time, as early as 4000 B.C., the herb was being used in surgery as an anesthetic.
With the emphasis of the medicinal value of cannabis by the Chinese, news of the plant’s intoxicating properties (mainly relaxation and a mild euphoria) soon traveled to India and Nepal, and between 2000 and 1400 B.C., parts of the Middle East and Africa, where cannabis soon became an object of recreational use.
Around this time and leading up to it, the ancient Assyrians were using cannabis in religious and ceremonial practices, because of the trance-like side effects produced by the burning of the plant’s flowers. The contemporary word “cannabis” may in fact originate from the Assyrians’ name for the plant, which is gunubu, meaning “way to produce smoke.”
In the Arab world, cannabis provided Muslims with a happy alternative to alcohol, which was strictly prohibited by the Koran. It was the Muslims who invented hashish, whose popularity spread quickly throughout twelfth-century Persia (Iran) and North Africa. Hashish or “hash” contains high levels of the psychoactive agent THC and is thus a more potent form of cannabis than marijuana. Hashish comes from compressing the dried resin of cannabis flowers into balls, cakes or sticks, which in turn can be broken off, placed in pipes and smoked.
Marijuana likely first reached Europe from the Middle East, via a nomadic Indo-European tribe known as the Scythians, who occupied southeast Russia and the Ukraine sometime between the ninth century B.C. and the fourth century A.D. Ensuing raids of Europe by Anglo-Saxon barbarians in the fifth century A.D. soon brought cannabis to Great Britain. Cannabis seeds have also been found in the ruins of Viking ships dating back to ninth century A.D.
Over the next centuries, marijuana would undergo an even more impressive migration, traveling through Africa to South America, and eventually reaching North America.
From Shakespearean England to the American Frontier
Even England’s most famous poet and playwright, William Shakespeare, may have enjoyed at least a joint or two while writing his sonnets in the sixteenth century. Results of a chemical analysis published in the South African Journal of Science show that pipes dug up from the garden of Shakespeare’s home contain clear traces of cannabis. This discovery came after speculation as to the “noted weed” mentioned in Sonnet 76 and the “journey in my head” in Sonnet 27.
Not long before Shakespeare was writing his possibly pot-laced sonnets, around 1545, marijuana had arrived in the New World, thanks to the Spanish. By 1611, in Jamestown, Virginia, English colonists were tilling cannabis as a major commercial crop alongside tobacco, primarily for its use as a fiber in the form of “hemp.” The first American law pertaining to marijuana, passed by the Virginia Assembly in 1619, required that every farmer grow it.
Derived from a different subspecies of the cannabis plant, hemp is a non-psychoactive form of cannabis whose fibers were used to manufacture a variety of products, from sails, riggings and the caulking of wooden ships, to oil, cloth and fuel. Cotton would eventually replace hemp as a major cash crop in southern states by the late nineteenth century.
After Shakespeare, marijuana went on to receive more obvious literary recognition elsewhere, in the form of the French poet Charles Baudelaire’s Les paradis artificiels and the American author Fitz Hugh Ludlow’s The Hasheesh Eater. By the late nineteenth century, John Gregory Bourke, a captain in the U.S. army and a prolific writer, was cataloguing the manifold uses of the substance “mariguan” by Mexican newcomers to the Rio Grande region of Texas. “Marijuan” was used to treat asthma, expedite delivery, and ward off witches. It was also used as a love potion and for added effect along with cigars and mescal (an alcoholic beverage not unlike teqila). With much vitriol, Bourke compared the drug to hasheesh, “one of the greatest curses of the East,” citing reports that marijuana users “become maniacs and are apt to commit all sorts of acts of violence and murder.
Bourke’s reports of marijuana’s allegedly terrifying effects may sound hysterical to contemporary ears, but by the early twentieth century, they were frequent. One explanation for this association of marijuana with mania, violence and murder may be the racist, anti-immigrant sentiments that began to brew in response to a wave of Mexican immigration. The 1910 revolution in Mexico sparked a flood of immigration to America’s Southwest, with the result that Mexicans’ most popular drug of choice came under fierce scrutiny. The “killer weed” marijuana was said to incite violent crimes, give its users “superhuman strength,” and, in the hands of its foreign users, taint innocent school children.
Whereas earlier the term “cannabis” was almost exclusively used, now the term “marijuana” became the norm, as if to underscore the drug’s Mexican roots. “Marijuana” is derived from Spanish, but the real origins of the term remain steeped in mystery. Competing theories trace the word’s roots to any of three different continents.
And whereas before, references to pot usually concerned the medical use of cannabis or its role as an industrial textile – in the latter half of the nineteenth century, for instance, marijuana was openly sold in pharmacies and an ingredient in patent medicines and alcohol-based tinctures, as a cure for migraines, rheumatism and insomnia – the early 1900s began to see fear-inducing headlines like this one in The Los Angeles Times: “Delirium or death: terrible effects produced by certain plants and weeds grown in Mexico.” A similar headline appeared in The New York Times: “Mexican, Crazed by Marijuana, Runs Amuck With Butcher Knife.”
Mexicans may have borne the brunt of American xenophobia, but they were not the only group to be blamed for “The Marijuana Menace,” which now represented social deviance and the “inferior” brown races. Hindus were guilty, too, apparently: “Within the last year we in California have been getting a large influx of Hindoos and they have in turn started quite a demand for cannabis indica,” wrote one member of California’s State Board of Pharmacy in 1911. “They are a very undesirable lot and the habit is growing in California very fast; the fear is now that it is not being confined to the Hindoos alone but that they are initiating our whites into this habit.”
Racially charged allegations regarding marijuana use didn’t stop there. Sailors and West Indian immigrants, who introduced the practice of smoking marijuana to port cities along the Gulf of Mexico, were also dubiously credited with spreading the marijuana contagion. New Orleans newspaper articles linked the drug to a whole “underworld” inhabited by prostitutes, morally perverse whites, African Americans and jazz musicians. Louis Armstrong, a lifelong proponent of the drug he called “gage,” was arrested in California in 1930 and issued a six-month suspended sentence for pot possession. In the 1950s, he would pen a letter to President Eisenhower singing pot’s praises and urging its legalization.
Reports of marijuana-induced violence read much like this article appearing in The Chicago Tribune:
“Not long ago a man who had smoken a marihuana cigarette attacked and killed a policeman and badly wounded three others; six policemen were needed to disarm him and march him to the police station where he had to be put into a straight jacket. Such occurrences are frequent…People who smoke marihuana finally lose their mind and never recover it, but their brains dry up and they die, most of times suddenly.”
Whether such allegations about the effects of marijuana were factually true or not remains in dispute. Scholars like Isaac Campos, who authored the book Home Grown: Marijuana and the Origins of Mexico’s War on Drugs, have concluded that there was at least some truth to links between marijuana and violence during this period, the racially charged associations notwithstanding. Campos cites Mexican headlines from the time that contained similar reports of pot eliciting violence. He contends that a number of pharmacological, psychological and cultural influences could have made the experience of a stoner in the early twentieth century much different from that of a stoner today, so that heightened aggression and violent tendencies certainly may have been within the realm of experience.
Twentieth-Century America to the Present
The early twentieth century witnessed an increasing trend, globally, of cracking down on the sale and use of marijuana, with America’s capitol taking the lead. In 1906, the first restrictions on the sale of cannabis were imposed in the District of Columbia, followed by similar regulations in a growing number of U.S. states. South Africa outlawed marijuana in 1911, with Jamaica following suit in 1913, and the United Kingdom and New Zealand in the 1920s. Canada criminalized cannabis in the Opium and Drug Act of 1923.
In the U.S., the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 prohibited the production of hemp (in addition to cannabis). Some scholars view this law as the direct result of the powerful lobbying interests of business barons like Andrew Mellon, William Randolph Hearst and the DuPonts, who may have seen hemp as a direct threat to their financial empires.
With the formation of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1930 and the appointment of Harry J. Anslinger to head the agency, marijuana became the focus of a greater push to outlaw all recreational drugs. Anslinger’s testimonies in Congressional hearings in 1937 led to the first federal restrictions on marijuana and contributed to perceptions that marijuana was a powerful “gateway” drug – the implication being that using marijuana only opened the door to experimentation with other more addictive, more dangerous drugs.
Anslinger was a poster boy for the dangers of marijuana: “No one knows, when he places a marijuana cigarette to his lips, whether he will become a philosopher, a joyous reveler in a musical heaven, a mad insensate, a calm philosopher, or a murderer,” he wrote in a 1937 article titled “Marijuana: Assassin of Youth.”
Accompanying propaganda initiatives, like the movie “Reefer Madness,” portrayed young adult stoners’ descent into hell. Not very popular in its own time, the movie enjoyed resurrected interest in the 1970s from the very people it was seeking to reach with its anti-marijuana message.
Such prohibition efforts didn’t stop marijuana from serving as an accessory to the post-World War II “Beat Generation,” whose authors included Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Nor did it dissuade college students and other elements of the 1970s hippy counterculture from recreational use of the drug – this despite the imposition of the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, which put marijuana in the same class as heroin and LSD, as a Schedule I drug having the highest potential for abuse and no accepted medical use.
In the 1980s, “zero tolerance,” “just say no,” and “the war on drugs” became mantras of the Reagan and Bush administrations. These accompanied tough mandatory sentencing for the possession of marijuana and attempts to weed out border smugglers and marijuana farms. Marijuana use dipped during this decade, but only temporarily: the 1990’s saw an upward trend in use, especially among teenagers. The political climate remained nonetheless hostile towards the recreational use of marijuana – as encapsulated by President Bill Clinton’s insistence, in his 1992 campaign, that he “didn’t inhale.”
Today, the political tides have begun to change in favor of the regulated use of marijuana. Said to ease nausea and stimulate appetites in cancer and AIDS patients, marijuana is now readily available in medical marijuana dispensaries, thanks to laws legalizing its medical use in 23 states and the District of Columbia. Four of these states – Alaska, Oregon, Colorado and Washington – have also legalized the recreational use of marijuana, even while marijuana use remains a federal offense.
This relaxation of state laws accompanies growing support for marijuana among the American public. A slim majority of Americans (53 percent) now believe marijuana should be legal, according to the Pew Research Center, and nearly half of all Americans (49 percent) say they’ve tried marijuana. Not surprisingly, marijuana has been ranked the most used illicit substance in the United States, according to the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, with 18.9 million Americans aged 12 or older having used pot in the last month