The extraordinary history of marijuana is so expansive, spanning thousands of years over much of the world’s geography, that a timeline would hardly do it justice.
A single straight line fails in the face of the pervasive competition for political hegemony, the lure of economic profit, and the multiple intersections of culture, science, agriculture, and medicine. Instead, to borrow one of the notations of molecular biology, a helix—with its downward spiraling strands and many lateral connections—can better illustrate the numerous factors that have influenced how the plant’s history—a chronicle of discovery, obsolescence, and rediscovery—has evolved.
The first spiraling strand would represent marijuana’s history as a medicine. Although historians believe the plant’s healing powers were recognized as early as the 28th century B.C., Chinese writings from the first century provide the first documentation of the plant’s therapeutic potential: a description of a concoction of wine and cannabis as a means of inducing anesthesia.
By the 17th and 18th centuries, some Western medical texts mention the plant’s antibiotic and analgesic properties and its effectiveness in the treatment of depression, cough, jaundice, inflammation, tumors, deposits in the joints, venereal disease, and incontinence of urine. In the early 1900s, the first marijuana-related pharmaceutical products hit the market. The Squibb Company sold a product containing morphine and cannabis under the trade name Chlorodyne, and Parke Davis marketed a variety of cannabis formulations as Casadein, Colic Mixture, Veterinary, and Utravol. In all, there were approximately 30 pharmaceutical cannabis preparations in the 1930s. By 1941, however, they had disappeared from the shelves of American pharmacies, replaced by alternatives that didn’t have marijuana’s short shelf life, were injectable, or were more effective.
It was marijuana’s surging popularity among young people in the 1960s that led to a fortuitous observation: Cancer patients who smoked marijuana prior to their chemotherapy treatments anecdotally reported to their physicians that they experienced far less nausea and vomiting and sometimes none at all. A 1975 article in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that THC is an effective anti-nausea therapy.
But patients interested in using the drug faced a formidable problem: Marijuana was listed in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act. As such, it could not be prescribed by physicians and could not be dispensed by pharmacies. In 1977, a young cancer patient named Lynn Pierson lobbied the New Mexico Legislature to exploit a provision in federal law that otherwise prohibited the drug’s medical use. Marijuana could be administered, according to that provision, but only in the context of an FDA-approved clinical trial, with patients serving as subjects. By 1981, similar medical marijuana research laws were enacted in 31 states. Then, in 1996, California became the first of what now has become 23 states to legalize medical-marijuana possession when authorized by a physician, with no research involvement being necessary.
In addition to medicinal uses, marijuana has also been integral to a number of key scientific advances. In 1964, a leap in the understanding of how marijuana works was made possible by the seminal work of two Israeli chemists, Yehiel Gaoni and Raphael Mechoulam, who developed a way to isolate and synthesize delta-9-THC, the principal psychoactive component in cannabis. This opened the door to testing the compound pharmacologically, and scientists have subsequently learned of the body’s naturally occurring endocannabinoid system made up of structures in the central and peripheral nervous systems that help regulate processes of the body, such as appetite, pain, mood, and memory. Today, the pace of leading-edge research with compounds in the cannabis plant is accelerating. It is likely that the plant’s medical potential soon will be acknowledged through the rescheduling of marijuana in the Controlled Substances Act.
The second of the spiraling strands in this imagined graphic illustration of marijuana’s history represents the plant’s commercial use in the manufacture of products — including textiles, paper, paints, clothing, plastics, cosmetics, and foodstuffs—from its fiber. At least a thousand years before the birth of Christ, the Chinese cultivated a variety of cannabis commonly known as hemp, and Chinese warriors used the fibers to make strong bowstrings, which were more durable than the bamboo versions they had been using. In 1611, cannabis was planted in Jamestown, Virginia, by order of the king.
By 1850, cannabis was grown on more than 8,000 plantations, making it the third largest American crop — exceeded only by cotton and tobacco. Hemp was cultivated in America until the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act was passed in an effort to eradicate marijuana grown for recreational uses; the side effect was that it effectively regulated the marijuana agriculture industry out of existence. With no domestic supply, U.S. retailers and manufacturers began importing hemp fiber, hemp seeds, and hempseed oil from nations where commercial harvesting is permitted. A total ban on hemp production was enacted in the late 1950s. The ban exists to this day, with one exception: A 2014 farm bill authorizing colleges and universities to grow industrial hemp for research if it is permitted in their states. Early this year, nine states had enacted such laws, and an additional 11 had bills pending before their legislatures. We may see hemp again become a major American agricultural product.
The third spiraling strand of our helix represents the history of marijuana as, of course, an intoxicant. In the second century, wealthy Romans served to their guests a confectionary treat containing cannabis. An Arab legend has it that the intoxicating effects of hashish were discovered by an ascetic monk in 1155. Europeans were using cannabis recreationally as early as the 1500s. In the early and mid-1800s, young writers, poets, and artists in France (Charles Baudelaire, Alexandre Dumas, Gérard de Nerval, Victor Hugo, Eugène Delacroix, Théophile Gautier, to name a few) were fascinated by marijuana’s potential in enhancing creativity. John Greenleaf Whittier was one of the first American writers to deal with the subject when he published The Hashish in 1854. Fitz Hugh Ludlow’s The Hasheesh Eater: Being Passages from the Life of a Pythagorean soon followed in 1857.
The use of cannabis as an intoxicant began to take hold in America in the early 1900s. Introduced by Mexican farm laborers and American sailors who had discovered the drug while abroad, marijuana smoking became popular, particularly among jazz musicians and younger writers and artists, and the drug gradually found its way along the jazz circuit to many of the country’s largest cities.
Cab Calloway’s 1933 rendition of “The Reefer Man” in Paramount Pictures’ International House became a classic: “Man, what’s the matter with that cat there? Must be full of reefer. Full of reefer? Yeah man. You mean that cat’s high? Sailing, Sailing.” Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong was a life-long smoker, telling a friend, “It makes you feel good, man, makes you forget all the bad things that happen to a Negro.”
Fears—based in part on racism—that marijuana use led to crime, violence, and insanity fueled a movement in the U.S. to prohibit growing and possessing the drug. Beginning in California in 1915, state after state enacted such legislation, and, by 1937, when the Congress passed the Marihuana Tax Act, all of the states had done so.
The 1960s and 1970s witnessed an explosion of marijuana’s popularity in both urban and rural America and across racial and ethnic populations. Smoking pot became a glue that joined various constituencies in opposing the war in Vietnam, challenging conventional mores, and advocating social justice to undo long-standing racial and gender inequities. Along with surging use came surging arrests, soon followed by the beginning of a movement to reform marijuana laws.
NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, was started by a young public-interest lawyer in 1970. NORML’s objectives were given a substantial boost when, in 1972, the members of the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse—following two years of intense study—unanimously called for decriminalizing adult possession of marijuana for personal use. The belief was that the draconian penalties then on the books were causing distrust of valid public health warnings about drug dangers.
The commission recommended that growing, selling, and possessing marijuana in large amounts remain criminal offenses, while small-scale possession by adults would not. A growing momentum of liberalizing marijuana policy ground to a halt in the late 1970s, however—likely the result of a shift to the right in American politics and a push-back by concerned parents as the paraphernalia industry and pro-drug magazines appeared to tailor their marketing to youth.
Marijuana policy in the 1990s and 2000s again focused on passing medical-marijuana legislation. With the movement’s successes, public attitudes concerning outright legalization of the drug rapidly shifted. In 1970, 12 percent of participants in a Gallup Poll said marijuana should be made legal; by 2011, 50 percent held that belief. Additionally, many people began to acknowledge that marijuana prohibition had failed. Surveys of young people made it evident that marijuana was readily available to many teens despite its illegality. Other nations had enacted policies that tolerated an illicit marijuana economy, and calls for full legalization began increasing in the U.S.
The 2012 election began what has become a sea change in marijuana policy. In both Washington and Colorado, voters approved measures that created a legal marijuana market for each state. Licenses would be issued to growers and retailers as well as to those who processed marijuana into foods, beverages, and other products. The market would be regulated: Quality controls would be required, plants would be tracked “from seed to sale,” restrictions would be imposed to protect young people, there’d be penalties for driving high, and products would be required to be accurately labeled. The market would also be taxed. In fact, Washington’s law earmarked a sizable percentage of the excise taxes to pay for science-based public education about the drug.
In the months following the election, many expected the Department of Justice to intervene with the states’ decisions since marijuana remained illegal under federal law. The hammer, however, did not fall. As long as the states met enforcement policies preventing distribution to minors, blocking the flow of revenue to criminals, and avoiding public-health harms, the DOJ would not act to prevent legalization.
Even with this swelling swath of law reform, many Americans remain woefully uneducated about marijuana. Hyperbole and propaganda—advocacy tools of both prohibitionists and reformers—led to confusion about the science of marijuana and its effects in popular understanding. Improving societal knowledge about the drug will be the next battlefield for the country. We can and must do a much more effective job in educating both young people and adults about what’s known and what remains uncertain. For example, it appears very likely that the early initiation and subsequent heavy use of marijuana use by teens raises the risk of impaired brain development. At the same time, initiation and occasional use at a later age does not appear to be harmful. Will we be able to construct public education messages that convey both of these findings?
I’ve been involved with marijuana for more than 45 years. I’ve been a researcher, a scholar of the drug, a therapist, an activist, and both a casual and a compulsive user, and, throughout, marijuana has retained its fascination. Along the way, my ideas and beliefs about marijuana have evolved. They continue to do so. And so will America’s, as we meet somewhere in the middle between those who view the drug as a weapon of mass destruction and those who view it as a harmless source of pleasure and relief.
One of the attractions of myths, I suspect, is their simplicity, and the marijuana myth is no different. I’m sometimes asked if marijuana is “good” or “bad,” as if hardly anything in this world could easily be distilled down to such polar absolutes. Usually the questioner is looking for a certain and short answer to what, in their mind, ought to be a black or white issue. It is just not that simple. The resulting answer, still yet to be found, may be a shade of green.