As the world turns and begins to break down decades-old stigmas about cannabis and the stereotypes of those who enjoy it, it’s easy to forget that our relationship with marijuana is not a new one. In fact, humans have been relying on the cannabis plant for centuries.
Hemp, a subspecies of cannabis (Cannabis sativa L.), is actually believed to be the very first plant cultivated by humans. Our ancient ancestors used cannabis for everything—its fibers made for excellent ropes, clothing, and bowstrings, it was used medicinally and in food, and its psychoactive effects were enjoyed in religious ceremonies, as well as for recreational use.
Indigenous to Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent, in regions now known as Mongolia and southern Siberia, ancient cultures are known to have relied on the plant as herbal remedies. Some researchers believe that our ancestors may have known about the psychoactive properties in cannabis. Early hemp plants most likely contained very low levels of THC, so ancient cultures could have cultivated varieties of the plants to produce higher levels of THC to be used in religious ceremonies or healing practices.
Archaeologists know that the cultural use of cannabis extends as far back to 3,000 B.C. due to burned cannabis seeds found in Siberian kurgan burial mounds. What’s more, the tombs of nobles buried in around 2,500 B.C. in the Xinjiang region of China and Siberia contained large amounts of mummified marijuana high in THC.
Medicinal uses of marijuana also extend far back in human history. The first recorded use of marijuana for medicine dates to 4,000 B.C where it was used as an anesthetic for surgeries.
In 2,000 B.C., coastal Chinese farmers brought the cannabis plant to Korea. Between 1,000 and 2,000 B.C., the Aryans invaded the South Asian subcontinent and brought along cannabis. The plant became popular in India where it was regarded as one of the “five kingdoms of herbs” that would release users from anxiety.
Around the same time, the plant migrated to the Middle East. Researchers predict it was used by the Scythians, a group of Indo-European nomads, who then brought cannabis into Ukraine and southeast Russia as they began occupying territories. Cannabis made its way to Germany by way of Germanic tribes. In the 5th century, during the Anglo-Saxon invasions, the plant soon found its way into Britain.
Remains of Vikings ships from the mid-9th century contained cannabis seeds, indicating that the plant was prevalent in their culture as well. Their nomadic nature also helps to explain the rapid movement of cannabis across the globe.
Cannabis eventually made its way to the United States in the 20th century by way of Mexico during the Mexican Revolution of 1910. The plant was introduced to South America after traveling through Africa during the 19th century.
From its arrival in the United States, cannabis came with many prejudices, many of which were tied to racial tensions. The media often connected immigrants to cannabis use, making vague and inaccurate connections between using the substance to criminals, murderers, and child predators.
In 1915, only a few short years after cannabis entered the U.S., Utah became the first state to outlaw the plant. Sixteen years later in 1931, it became illegal in 1931. The widespread push to outlaw cannabis came at the hands of Harry Aslingler, the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN). Coming into power in 1930, he started the effort to make cannabis illegal in every state. Seven years later, the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act made cannabis the Drug Enforcement Agency’s (DEA) responsibility and criminalized the possession of the plant.