With cannabis legal in a growing number of states, and public approval of consumption at nearly 50%, it’s easy to think, after a long campaign of demonization, that we’re finally entering a golden age. Truth be told, we may just be going back to the old normal. The real push to discredit cannabis didn’t get going until the 1930’s, and cannabis was still legal in some states until 1970. So, you might ask, if for thousands of years, the medicinal, spiritual and recreational uses of cannabis were accepted, how did its prohibition take over the world?

Let’s jump in the De Lorean and take a quick trip back in time to find out.

The first signs we see of cannabis come from seeds and plant residue found in burial mounds in central Asia, 5,000 years ago. The plant is believed to have originated there and spread by migrating tribes into south and east Asia. The first written mention of cannabis was in ancient China, where it was cited as a valued medicinal herb. References grow with time. Confucius talked about the benefits of cannabis. It appears repeatedly in the Vedas, one of the earliest sacred Indian texts. We see it in the Nile Valley, where it was used by ancient Egyptians in ceremonies honoring the dead. During his fasts, the Buddha was said to have subsisted on cannabis seeds and water alone. It was even mentioned in the Bible, as an ingredient in oils used for anointment.  

During the middle ages, medicinal cannabis was common in Europe, and hemp was a staple crop for fibers used in cloth production. In Muslim countries where alcohol was prohibited, hashish consumption became so popular, Imams tried to ban it. They failed miserably. In the sixteenth century, colonists took cannabis to the new world, and in the seventeenth century, Dutch traders brought hashish from the middle east to Amsterdam, where it quickly spread through Europe’s art communities as an aid to creativity. There’s some evidence that Shakespeare smoked weed.

In 19th century America, hemp was a common cash crop, and cannabis oil was widely used in herbal and patent medicines as a treatment for a host of ailments. Coming into the modern age, things looked very rosy for cannabis.  

And then they didn’t.

To promote a more scientific approach to medicine, the newly formed American Medical Association began a campaign to discredit patent and herbal remedies, cannabis among them.  

Jump forward a few decades. The medicinal use of cannabis was in decline, but hemp production was growing, and recreational marijuana consumption had spread from Mexican immigrants, through jazz musicians to the African-American community. During prohibition, some in mainstream white America began to use it as a substitute for alcohol. The tide might have turned back for cannabis, were it not for William Randolph Hearst, the publishing Czar. Hearst began a systematic campaign in his newspapers to discredit all forms of cannabis, tying it to racial fears and using the disparaging term “marijuana.”  Hearst used his wealth and influence to lobby the federal government, which eventually passed the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937. Encouraged by this negative publicity, the AMA succeeded in removing all mention of the positive uses of cannabis from medical texts by 1942.

In the fifties, the counter-culture discovered cannabis, and in the sixties recreational use exploded among the Baby Boom generation. Conservatives’ fears that “reefer madness” was consuming the youth of the country led to calls for a crackdown. Nixon pushed Congress to pass the Controlled Substances Act, which classified cannabis with heroin, cocaine and LSD, and made possession a federal offense. Reagan took it a step further, and called for an all-out war on drugs. Pressure was put on countries around the world to ban cannabis. Draconian laws were enforced, sending millions to prison for possession and low-level sales.

The pendulum began to swing back towards cannabis in the 1990’s. Media coverage moved from drug trafficking to questioning the value of the war on drugs, and the devastating impact of that campaign on human lives, especially people of color. With cannabis more a victim than a culprit, writers began to explore its positive uses.  By late in the decade, most media stories dealt with its medical benefits. Public attitudes towards cannabis followed suit. At the start of the 1990’s, only 20% favored legalization; in 2000 that had grown to 35%, and by 2012 more than half approved of some form of legalization.

In 1996 California took the bold step of legalizing medical marijuana. Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Washington followed shortly after. Then in 2012 Colorado and Washington did the unthinkable–they legalized recreational cannabis! Four years later, with the sky still intact, 10 states and the District of Columbia had legalized recreational cannabis, and some form of medical use was permitted in all but Idaho, Nebraska and South Dakota. In 2018 Canada joined Uruguay in full national legalization. While still illegal in most countries, many developed nations have decriminalized cannabis.

The movement to normalize cannabis has made great strides in a very short time: those who accept its use are now in the majority—70% see it as less risky than alcohol, 66% believe it should be legalized, and 56% think it’s socially acceptable to consume. As attitudes continue to evolve, we can only hope that national legalization—something we had during straight-laced Victorian times—will be returning soon.

Sources:  Wikipedia; You Tube/Lost History of Cannabis; Live Science; Market Watch