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the history of cannabis And why it's illegal

Updated: Feb 26

It seems like with the wave of popularity surrounding CBD and medical cannabis that it would be a new discovery, but in fact, cannabis as medicine has been around for millennia.

CBD, short for Cannabidiol, is a compound found in cannabis, both in the hemp plant and the marijuana plant, with the difference between the two being the level of THC. CBD from hemp is more common due to the fact that hemp is 100% legal at the federal level. But why was a plant that can be used for anything from textiles to bioplastics to biofuel to medicine illegal to begin with?


History of Cannabis in Ancient Civilization

Cannabis has a long and fascinating history and has been used throughout the ages for a range of things. This includes hemp's industrial use for things such as clothes, rope and paper, as well as cannabis for religious purposes in religious rituals and ceremonies. However, the medicinal use of cannabis has also been prevalent through history.


Mongolia & Siberia - 12,000BC

Evidence shows that Cannabis was being harvested as early as 12,000BC and archeologists believe it is one of the first plants to be grown and harvested during the birth of agriculture.


China - 2737BC

The first person documented as using cannabis for medicinal qualities was Emprorer Shen Neng, who brewed CBD tea to treat the pain he was experiencing from his Gout and Rheumatism. It was also used at that time to treat Malaria, and as an unexpected benefit, was found to improve memory/brain function. As the growing therapeutic properties of cannabis were noted, it became a popular ingredient in a wide range of ancient Chinese medicinal remedies. A historical Chinese book known as the Shu King which dates back to 2300BC, and is known as the most ancient historical writing to exist in China, documents the use of cannabis for treating a wide variety of painful ailments. By 140AD the Chinese had begun mixing cannabis with wine in a mixture used for anesthesia to be taken before undergoing surgery. Chinese medicine centers largely around creating balance within, such as with the concept of yin and yang, so naturally cannabis, which helps the Endocannabinoid System reinstate the state of homeostasis or balance, is still widely used in Traditional Chinese medicine and is considered one of the "50 Fundamental Herbs".


India - 2000BC

In India, Cannabis was used in religious ceremonies and rituals. It is thought to possibly be one of the long lost ingredients in an ancient drink used in these religious ceremonies called Soma. It was also used in a drink called Bhang which is prepared during the festival of Holi. Once the healing properties of Bhang were discovered, it was also used for its medicinal purposes as well.


Egypt - 2000BC

The use of Cannabis for medicinal purposes is depicted on ancient Egyptian scrolls dating back to 2000BC. The Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II who ruled from 1279-1213BC is known to have encouraged the use of Cannabis for all his people for its healing properties. He was so convinced of its useful qualities that cannabis oils were found to be entombed with his body. Egyptians used Cannabis to treat inflammation, pain from childbirth, cataracts and eye pain, as well as as a suppository to treat hemorrhoids among other things.


Greece - 200BC

In Ancient Greece Cannabis was used to treat battle wounds for both humans and horses, as well as for a range ailments including inflammation, edema and burn relief. They also used it in steam baths as pain relief for soldiers injured in battle.


Rome - 77AD

In Rome cannabis was used for originally used to treat general pain and by 140AD they had discovered how to treat conditions such as stomach pains, headaches and dehydration using cannabis.


As you can see, cannabis has been used as medicine by many civilizations throughout history. However, it wasn't known that CBD was likely the compound responsible for many of the healing properties touted through the ages. Now that we have that knowledge, it's important to change the laws to allow modern researchers to legally explore all the possible uses of CBD and Cannabis as medicine.


History of the Science behind Medicinal Cannabis

The modern scientific study of cannabis can be traced back to 1839 when Irish physician and medical researcher William B. O'Shaughnessy published a controversial study investigating cannabis' therapeutic properties, namely its use as an anesthetic. Other researchers began studying the plant and considering its possible medical applications.


CBD is Discovered

100 years later in the 1930's, a Harvard trained chemist named Roger Adams discovered and extracted CBD from the cannabis plant for the first time. He also discovered another lesser known cannabinoid called Cannabinol or CBN, which as it turns out is not a natural cannabinoid, but oxidized THC. These discoveries brought the medical value of cannabis back into the spotlight and are responsible for the eventual discovery and extraction of Tetrahydrocannabinol or THC.


The chemical structure of CBD was discovered by Dr Mechoulam (known as the Godfather of CBD), in the mid 1960's and later the isolation and structure of THC as well. His research team made the first discovery that CBD could be used to treat epilepsy in mice and rats. THC has some of the same anti-epileptic properties but the dose required causes too much psychoactivity vs. CBD which has no intoxicating side effects, even when taken in extremely high doses.


Discovery of Cannabinoid Receptors and the Endocannabinoid System

In the mid 1980's, Alyn Howlett discovered the cannabinoid receptor known as CB1, and in 1993 the receptor CB2 was discovered. These are the receptors within the body that endocannabinoids (Anandaminde and 2-AG, cannabinoids naturally produced by the body) and phytocannabinoids (cannabinoids extracted from the cannabis plant) bind to to initiate the Endocannabinoid System. The Endocannabinoid System itself was discovered in the process of studying the metabolic pathways of endo and phyto cannabinoids. Read more about the Endocannabinoid System and how it interacts with the cannabis plant in our blog "All About CBD"


Scientific Funding for Cannabis Research

To date there is not a lot of funding behind scientific studies of cannabis which means that the required research falls far behind the interest. In fact, most government funding for cannabis studies has been to try to prove that it has negative effects on the body including that it has addictive properties. This has backfired as many of those studies have in fact shown that cannabis is neither dangerous nor addictive and in fact has a positive effect on a huge list of medical conditions.


Decriminalization and Legalization

As studies began showing the important therapeutic applications of CBD, and how it interacts with the systems in the body, individual states began considering the legalization or at least decriminalization of cannabis.


  • The first decriminalization of cannabis occurred in Oregon in 1973 which made cannabis related offenses only a violation.

  • Alaska and Maine followed in the same decade.

  • New Mexico legalized cannabis for medical research in 1978 under the Controlled Substances Therapeutic Research Act. This allowed researchers to obtain cannabis for the scientific purpose of studying Cannabis for cancer, but only cannabis supplied by The National Institute of Drug Abuse.

  • 1996 California legalized medical marijuana under the Compassionate Use Act.

  • 2012 Colorado and Washington made cannabis use completely legal.

  • The 2018 Farm Bill which legalized the growing of low THC hemp (containing less than 0.3% THC) was passed. This made CBD essentially legal since legalizing hemp but keeping CBD illegal would be like legalizing orange trees but making orange juice illegal.

As of 2022, 18 states have legalized recreational cannabis use for adults, and 36 states have legalized cannabis for medical use. CBD with less than 0.3% THC is now legal in all 50 states.


Cannabis and The Law

So if CBD and Cannabis have been scientifically proven to treat such a wide range of ailments, and has been used so extensively throughout the history of human existance, why is it illegal?


The first Cannabis law

The first law regarding the legality of growing cannabis is probably not what you would expect. In Jamestown Virginia in 1619 King James I royally decreed that all American colonists must grow 100 Indian hemp plants for export to England to help the cause.

Cannabis plants grew everywhere, hemp used for clothing and rope, and cannabis extracts were widely available as an over the counter item in most pharmacies for a range of medical uses.


Anti-Cannabis Ideology Rooted in Racism

With the Mexican Revolution of 1910, Mexican refugees began crossing the US border and flooding the workforce. They brought with them their traditional ingestion method of smoking cannabis. Racism and wide frustration at Mexicans taking over Americans' jobs by accepting lower pay made lawmakers and the general public prejudice against Mexican immigrants. Campaigns to denigrate them led to a propaganda campaign largely centered around their use of cannabis, with lawmakers pushing for a nationwide cannabis prohibition. Police reports that it incited violent crimes, aroused a "lust for blood" and gave users "superhuman strength" along with rumors that Mexicans were distributing it to school-age children ran rampant. A country-wide fear of cannabis was born.


Harry Anslinger's War on Drugs

As the studies of Cannabis as medicine started to increase in the early 1900's, one would think that the government would be interested in funding research into such a potentially helpful treatment option. In fact, it was the opposite.


The majority of laws that make cannabis illegal to this day can be traced back to Harry J. Anslinger. Anslinger was appointed in 1930 as the founding commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, what would eventually become the DEA, and is famous for the original "War on Drugs".


In the early days of his appointment in this position, which lasted for 32 years, he was recorded as saying essentially that Cannabis was not a big deal and that reports that it caused people to become violent were nonsense. However, his stance on Cannabis changed once the alcohol prohibition ended and he realized that enforcing laws on the remaining "street" drugs would not be enough to sustain the office he had been tasked with running.


He began a zealous propaganda campaign for the prohibition of cannabis, determined to show the importance of his bureau by ridding the world of cannabis. His most famous piece of propaganda is the film "Reefer Madness" which was intended as a cautionary tale that the use of cannabis would cause unsuspecting teenagers to become wildly addicted, violent, murderous, psychotic, and eventually experience a descent into madness. By enforcing harsh penalties for cannabis related offenses, demonizing racial and immigrant groups who he claimed were the primary users of cannabis, and even vilifying jazz music, which he called satanic, he sought to put an end to cannabis use for good.


"Negro entertainers with their jazz and swing music are declared an outgrowth of marijuana use which possesses white women to tap their feet." - Harry J. Anslinger

Anslinger consulted with 30 scientists on the safety of cannabis and of the 30, presented to the public only the opinion of the one single scientist who agreed with his point that cannabis was a dangerous drug. The other 29 told him that cannabis was not at all dangerous. However, the press ran with this sensationalized news, alongside Anslinger's statement that Marijuana was "the most dangerous drug in the history of mankind", and his job suddenly got easier.


"You smoke a joint and you're likely to kill your brother." Harry J. Anslinger

Racism was such a strong component of his war on drugs that even the word cannabis was traded out for the word Marijuana or Marihuana in an effort to attribute the drug to Mexican immigrants. Following his media campaign which spread across the country, the era of "Reefer Madness" came to a head when The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was enacted. This act made possessing or selling cannabis prohibited. Under this law, any one using hemp for industrial or medical reasons must pay a tax of $1 per ounce. Anyone using it for an unregistered transaction must pay $100 per ounce. Those who failed to comply were fined or jailed for tax evasion. This was a blow to the medical community and their studies of cannabis for medical purposes due largely to the regulatory requirements required to obtain cannabis for research, but also fear of Anslinger who would threaten, intimate and abuse physicians who did not agree with his aggressive stance on cannabis.


Nixon vs. the Hippies

The Marijuana Tax Act was eventually struck down in 1969 and replaced by President Nixon with the Controlled Substance Act of 1970. This law made if federally illegal and classified cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug, meaning it had no medicinal value and had a high likelihood of addiction. Other drugs with a Schedule 1 designation include LSD and Heroin. Compare this to the fact that drugs with a lesser Schedule 2 designation include Meth and and Cocaine. This comes down to the fact that Nixon was threatened by the hippies of the 60's who's drug of choice was Cannabis.


As an outspoken anti-war community, hippies were one of Nixon's biggest enemies. He made a point of associating hippies with cannabis use because what better way to silence them than to outlaw something so closely tied to their identities. He couldn't make being anti-war illegal, but he could make cannabis illegal. This made it easy to arrest their leaders, raid their homes. break up their meetings and vilify them to the public.


Nixon's Schedule 1 designation for cannabis was meant to be temporary, pending a review from a group he himself appointed, but when in 1972 they unanimously recommended decriminalization of cannabis, he ignored them and rejected their decision.


Cannabis is still a schedule 1 drug

To this day, cannabis is classified as a Schedule 1 drug which makes it nearly impossible for scientists to move forward with cannabis research, or for those who desperately need cannabis for their medical conditions to obtain it without fear of legal repercussions.


With the promising studies happening elsewhere in the world showing the incredible medicinal benefits of Cannabis and CBD, hopefully the US will change it's archaic stance on medical marijuana and move towards treating many common debilitating or devastating conditions with something that is, in contract to Anslinger's opinion, probably one of the safest medicines known to humans.


As our water soluble nano CBD Powder is made from hemp and 100% THC-Free, it is legal in all 50 states. Find out more about it and shop HERE.


If you are interested in a free one-on-one phone consultation with The Healing Project to discuss how you can help heal your dog with the proven medicinal science of Cannabis, click here to schedule your appointment online.


No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor, veterinarian or other qualified clinician and is for informational purposes only.