The History of Cannabis
Updated: May 12, 2019
Marijuana, also known as cannabis or pot, has a long history of human use. Most ancient cultures didn’t grow the plant to get high, but as herbal medicine, likely starting in Asia around 500 BC.
The history of cannabis cultivation in America dates back to the early colonists, who grew hemp for textiles and rope. Political and racial factors in the 20th century led to the criminalization of marijuana in the United States, though its legal status is changing in many places.
The cannabis or hemp plant originally evolved in Central Asia before people introduced the plant into Africa, Europe, and eventually the Americas. Hemp fiber was used to make clothing, paper, sails and rope, and its seeds were used as food.
In the 1830s, Sir William Brooke O’Shaughnessy, an Irish doctor studying in India, found that cannabis extracts could help lessen stomach pain and vomiting in people suffering from cholera.
By the late 1800s, cannabis extracts were sold in pharmacies and doctors’ offices throughout Europe and the United States to treat stomach problems and other ailments.
Scientists later discovered that THC was the source of marijuana’s medicinal properties. As the psychoactive compound responsible for marijuana’s mind-altering effects, THC also interacts with areas of the brain that are able to lessen nausea and promote hunger.
In fact, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved two drugs with THC that are prescribed in pill form (Marinol and Syndros) to treat nausea caused by cancer chemotherapy and loss of appetite in AIDs patients.
Legalization of Cannabis
As part of the “War on Drugs,” the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, signed into law by President Richard Nixon, repealed the Marijuana Tax Act and listed marijuana as a Schedule I drug—along with heroin, LSD and ecstasy—with no medical uses and a high potential for abuse.
In 1972, a report from the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse (also known as the Shafer Commission) released a report titled “Marijuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding.” The report recommended “partial prohibition” and lower penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana. Nixon and other government officials, however, ignored the report’s findings.
California, in the Compassionate Use Act of 1996, became the first state to legalize marijuana for medicinal use by people with severe or chronic illnesses. Washington, D.C., 29 states and the U.S. territories of Guam and Puerto Rico allow the use of cannabis for limited medical purposes.
As of January 2018, nine states and Washington, D.C., have legalized marijuana for recreational use. Colorado and Washington became the first states to do so in 2012. Adults also can light up without a doctor’s prescription in Alaska, California, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Vermont and Oregon.
Cannabis is still illegal under U.S. federal law, however, and the evolving legal status of marijuana is a subject of ongoing controversy in the United States and around the world.
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