Humanity’s love for cannabis goes back a long, long fucking time.
In fact, the nomads probably carried cannabis seeds with them before they invented the farm. The seeds are a great snack, and since the plant grows pretty fast, they would be a helpful source of fiber for fishing lines, nets and traps if you were camping around for a few months. It seems like early humans carried cannabis around everywhere we went. This is the best explanation for how the plant quickly traveled from southeast Asia up into the Afghani mountains. The nomads created the split into Narrow Leaf and Broad Leaf versions thousands of years ago.
When humans decided to finally stop wandering and start planting farms, cannabis was one of the first plants popped into the ground. Right next to the wheat and the peas.
As humans started recognizing the therapeutic benefits of plants, we started organizing plants into food and medicine. Cannabis was among the first plants recognized for its medicinal value. The earliest books of herbal medicine coming from China revere cannabis – or “má” in Chinese. Vikings and Medieval Europeans used cannabis for weight loss, gout, urinary infections and labor pains during birth. In pretty much every corner of the world, from China to India to Europe, every part of the cannabis plant from the roots to the flowers were used for medicine.
Humans used cannabis for a variety of purposes for thousands of years, but we didn’t realize it’s psychoactive potential until around 700 BCE. The Scythians seem to be the first humans to smoke cannabis. As part of their funeral ritual, they would set up tents with red-hot stones inside. They’d put cannabis on the hot stones, and then they would “howl in their joy at the vapor-baths,” according to Herodotus’ account in Histories.
An American O.G. Crop
This plant has been with humans all over the world for pretty much all of modern history. Just focusing on the United States, and the history here, cannabis goes back to our day one. The very first settlers brought cannabis with flax and wheat for the very first farms. The fibers of cannabis plants were critical for England’s Navy. They were the biggest navy in the history of the world, so they needed a lot of cannabis fibers for sails, ropes and uniforms. Some of the colonies were taxed for not growing cannabis.
Cannabis was a staple of early American agriculture. Up until the civil war, cannabis popularity was up there with cotton across the South. Even after the Civil War decimated the South’s agrarian economy, cannabis was still an important crop. In fact, images of harvesting cannabis were printed on $10 bills in the early 20th century – and the actual bills were made of hemp paper.
Everything was going great, until it wasn’t. In 1937, Congress passed the Marihuana Tax Act and triggered the era of cannabis prohibition.
The Dark Ages
So what the hell happened? How did we quickly turn our back on a plant humans loved for over ten thousand years?
The truth is a little confusing. Some people point to racism. Jazz music was born from the Black community. Many jazz musicians were notorious for smoking cannabis. Some historians believe the rising popularity of jazz music increased the popularity of recreational cannabis. Many religious conservatives at the time were scared of drug use and risque dancing in jazz. They lined up against it. By the way, the dancing was far from scandalous. Those religious freaks would have physically exploded if they lived to witness Juvenile popularize backing asses up in the late 90s.
There was also a migration from Mexico occurring at the same time. These migrants brought a habit of smoking Marijuana with them. The religious white dudes that wanted to keep their country a religious and white place didn’t like this. They supported laws that would make it easier to jail up these immigrants and jazz fans.
That’s one theory.
The other factor in play was money. Hard to find a pivotal moment in American history that’s not tied to finances. There was some medicinal use of cannabis prior to the 1930s, but the majority of cannabis was grown for fiber. The long, tall, relatively easy-to-grow stems created long strands of strong fiber. These fibers were used for everything from clothes and paper to ropes and sails. Cannabis fiber was more popular than cotton fiber. This was great for the farmers, but the industrial revolution was seeking to disrupt our dependence on plant fibers. They’d recently developed synthetic fibers like polyester, but were struggling to break into the market. If they could stop the cannabis farmers from growing their crops, they could swoop in with an attractive alternative. This created an economic incentive to support the outcrays of the consertive folks.
Lobbyists argued that society needed to be protected from recreational drug use. Cannabis was becoming too popular among the youth. It must be stopped. Hemp farmers didn’t like this idea. Back then, hemp – cannabis grown for fiber not THC – looked a lot like cannabis grown for recreational and medicinal purposes. The farmers were concerned their crops would be confused for the drug. The lobbyists didn’t disagree, and with new synthetic fibers available, the lobbyists simply recommend hemp also be included. Navigating the legal structure for outlawing the plant was tricky. They were forced to get creative and use taxation to create the necessary pressure for squaching production. The Marihuana Tax Act starved off cannabis and forced the farmers to switch crops.
Everything was going great for the synthetic fiber producers and conservitve freaks until World War II. When the war struck, the US government realized it fucked up. They all of sudden need a colossal amount of those hemp fibers for their uniforms, parachutes, ropes and sails. They became so desperate that they secretly funded companies to illegally grow, harvest and process hemp in the midwest. They poured millions of dollars into these businesses as they knowingly violated the law. How fucking silly is that? Some people hoped the demand spike from the war would make society realize they needed cannabis back in the rotation, but the movement never took off. After the war, all the farms shut down.
The Cannabis Comeback
For the next seven decades, cannabis was chased underground. Small-scale cannabis farms dotted the west coast in the 60s and 70s, but by the 80s, massive investments against the war on drugs funded raids on these farms.
Cannabis growers were forced to move inside. They embraced the Broad Leaf cultivars and hydroponic rigs. They started cross breeding to maximize the amount of THC produced in the plant while keeping the plants small and compact. These experiments revealed the plant’s versatility. Growers discovered an almost endless combination of cultivars. They could mix combinations for different color flowers. They could increase THC potency. They could even influence the psychoactive experience by growing for different aromas – aka terpenes – that aromatically altered the effects of being high.
Prohibition unlocked a new potential in an ancient plant.
The Government poured money and resources into fighting against the plant, but it was never enough to break our thousands-of-years old relationship with cannabis.
By the late 90s, a growing segment of society was growing skeptical of the prohibition. California legalized the medical use of cannabis in 1996. This triggered more support for decriminalizing the plant. Researchers came forward with credible science supporting its medicinal value. Momentum to end the prohibition started to swell.
The Farm Bill Act of 2018 was the biggest leap forward for Cannabis. While still considered a Schedule 1 drug by the federal government – which means a drug with high abuse potential and no medical benefit (what a joke) – the Farm Bill Act legalized growing hemp across the United States and created legal coverage to sell hemp-derived compounds like CBD.
Also published on Medium.