the history of cannabis

The History of Cannabis

Cannabis use dates back to as early as 2700 BCE, where the Chinese Emperor Shen Nung drank it as a tea for its medicinal properties. Over the years, historical evidence of cannabis usage was found in many other countries, and the major application was as medicine. In the 1200’s BCE, Egyptian’s used it to treat Glaucoma, inflammation and enemas. Indians used it in around 1000 BCE as an anesthetic. There are even records from the Middle East, Ancient Greece and Rome, all dating before or in the early common era [1]. ​

Cannabis made its way to North America in 1611 CE with the Jamestown settlers, a colony in Virginia, where it was commonly known as hemp [2]. Hemp fiber became an important export and in 1619, the Jamestown settlers were required to grow hemp. Centuries later, hemp was still very important and refusing to grow hemp was against the law in many parts of America [3]. Both Thomas Jefferson and George Washington grew hemp on their plantations.Research into cannabis first stemmed from Dr. William B. O’Shaughnessy, who published a study in 1839, which investigated the plants medicinal effects [4]. This study was the first of its kind for cannabis, and was very controversial at the time of its publication. However, it opened the doors for other researchers to enter the field and begin taking a closer look at this plant. It wasn’t until 1940 when the first cannabinoid was discovered by Dr. Robert S. Cahn, CBN (cannabinol) [5]. Just two years later, Dr. Roger Adams successfully isolated a cannabinoid for the first time and it was CBD (cannabidiol). Dr. Adams is also responsible for the discovery of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol).

Another early scientist of note was Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, who in the 1980’s conducted a study on the treatment of epilepsy with the use of CBD. After treating eight individuals for four months with CBD, he found that half stopped having seizures, while the other half experienced a great reduction in the frequency of their seizures [6]. Today, a study like this would have been seen as an amazing break through. However, when his paper was published it was not advertised as such due to the stigma around cannabis. With all the positive history towards cannabis, both in use as a medicine, and as a fiber, what changed?

The use of cannabis for its medicinal properties, for rope and other fibers was widespread in the early twentieth century. However, the recreational use was not. Smoking cannabis in a joint or in a pipe was popularized by Mexican immigrants, which resulted in a negative response within the U.S., probably affected by the xenophobia experienced at the time [7]. Between 1914-1925, twenty-six states had passed laws prohibiting the plant. With the alcohol prohibition in effect from 1920, opiates and drugs were now the new focus. The use of the media was crucial as they sensationalized stories of drug users and the danger of their addictive effects. To constantly find new ways to portray these stories, the media began associating violent crimes such as murder with cannabis, rather than basing the reasons for the crime on evidence and facts [7]. The release of propaganda such as the movie Reefer Madness in 1936, only added fuel to already concerned individuals about the so-called dangers of cannabis.

With all the negative press in the twentieth century, what changed that made cannabis so popular today? Its increase in popularity can be attributed to people who began to share their own personal experiences with cannabis. Stories, like that of Charlotte Figi, began to shift people’s perspectives towards cannabis. CBD managed to reduce Charlotte’s epileptic seizures from her having 300 a week, to only 2-3 a month [8]. This is not the first instance where cannabis, and specifically CBD, has been seen to help with epileptic seizures, remember the study conducted by Dr. Mechoulam in the 1980’s? What frustrates many, is the time that could have been spent towards more research on the plant, but was wasted due to its criminalization. Now, with it being legalized in various countries, the research is trying to catch up.

The full medical potential of cannabis is unknown. One thing that is clear in the field, we have barely scratched the surface of this plant. With cannabinoids still being discovered, this is only the beginning of the journey.


  1. Mack A, Joy J. Marijuana as Medicine? The Science Behind the Controversy. National Centre for Biotechnology Information. 2000. (Accessed on Oct 21, 2019).
  2. Deitch R. Hemp – American History Revisited. New York City: Algora Publishing. 2003.
  3. Herdon G.M. Hemp in Colonial Virginia. Agricultural History. 1963.
  4. Houlihan B. Sir. William Brooke O’Shaughnessy – Medical Cannabis Pioneer. Medium. 2016. (Accessed on Oct 24, 2019).
  5. Cadena A. The History of CBD: A Brief Overview. Medium. 2019. (Accessed on Oct 24, 2019).
  6. Mechoulam R. Chronic administration of cannabidiol to healthy volunteers and epileptic patients. National Library of Medicine. 1980.
  7. Siff S. The Illegalization of Marijuana: A Brief History. Origins; Current Events in Historical Perspective. 2014. (Accessed on Oct 28, 2019).
  8. Young S. Marijuana stops child’s severe seizures. CNN. 2013. (Accessed on Oct 24, 2019).

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