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Use in Ancient Times

Medicinal use of cannabis dates back at least 5,000 years. Cannabis was said to have been an ingredient in a holy anointing oil referenced in the original Hebrew version of Exodus. The Ancient Egyptians reportedly used cannabis to treat glaucoma as well as general inflammation. Chinese Emperor Fu Hsi called cannabis a popular medicine in 2,900 BC, and the Chinese had identified more than 100 medicinal uses for cannabis by 100 AD.

In 1,000 BC, the Indians created a drink called bhang, a mixture of cannabis, milk, and other ingredients, and used it as an anti-phlegmatic and anesthetic. This drink is still used in India today. Ancient Indians may have also used cannabis as a purported cure for leprosy and dysentery as well as to cure fever, encourage sleep, and improve judgment and cognition. It was also thought to prolong life.


Cannabis also has a long history of spiritual use in India. It is said that the Hindu god Shiva rested under a cannabis plant and ate its leaves following a family argument. Shiva is referred to as the Lord of Bhang. The Vedas, a collection of ancient scriptures, refer to cannabis as an herb to release people from anxiety. One story in the Vedas describes a drop of heavenly nectar falling on the earth and becoming the cannabis plant.


Other ancient cultures also used cannabis. The Ancient Greeks used it for inflammation, earaches, and swelling. In his Histories, Greek historian Herodotus described cannabis being smoked for spiritual, emotional, and sometimes recreational purposes. He discussed groups coming together and smoking, stating that the people smoking cannabis would "howl with pleasure."

In 70 AD, Roman medical texts listed it as a cure for earache and as a way to suppress sexual desire. The Romans also boiled the roots of the plant and used them as a treatment for gout, arthritis, and generalized pain. The Arabians used it from 800 AD to 900 AD for migraines, pain, and syphilis.

The English also documented many medicinal uses of cannabis for ailments, such as:

  • Menstrual cramps.

  • Convulsions.

  • Rheumatism.

  • Gout.

  • Joint pain.

  • Muscles spasms.

  • Insomnia and sleep problems.

  • Childbirth (to promote uterine contractions)

History of Use in the United States


  • 1600s: In the 17th century, the production of hemp-a variety of the cannabis plant-was highly encouraged to make clothing, rope, and sails. In 1619, the Virginia Assembly passed legislation requiring that all farmers grow hemp. Some states even traded hemp as legal tender.

  • 1700s: George Washington was interested in farming hemp. But he also questioned the potential medicinal uses of marijuana in his journals in 1765.

  • 1840: Cannabis became widely accepted in mainstream medicine and was an ingredient in many over-the-counter products.

  • 1850: Cannabis was added to the U.S. Pharmacopeia. It was used as a treatment for opioid withdrawal, pain, appetite stimulation, and relief of nausea and vomiting.

  • 1906: The Food and Drug Act required that any product containing cannabis be labeled appropriately.

  • 1900-1930: For 3 decades, cannabis was an ingredient in a variety of medications. It was marketed as a painkiller but was also used for sedation and to treat muscle spasms. However, during this same time period, Mexican immigrants introduced recreational use of cannabis. Because the drug became associated with the Mexican immigrants, people began to fear the drug, with anti-drug campaigners referring to it as the "Mexican Menace."

  • 1914-1925: Twenty-six states passed laws prohibiting cannabis. These laws passed readily and easily with little to no public outcry or political debate.

  • 1930s: The Great Depression resulted in job loss for many Americans. This created more fear and stigmatization of Mexican immigrants as many Americans worried they would take away their jobs. This lead to more public concern over the dangers of cannabis. The media began to report that research showed that cannabis use was linked to crime and violence. At the same time, Harry Anslinger, commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, began a campaign to criminalize marijuana, claiming that it led to insanity. As a result of his efforts, by 1936, all states had some form of cannabis regulation laws.

  • 1936: The film Reefer Madness was released. It depicted marijuana as a drug that could lead to violence, rape, suicide, and psychosis.

  • 1937: The Marijuana Tax Act was passed, which restricted marijuana use to only those that could pay a heavy excise tax for specific authorized industrial and medical uses.

  • 1942: Cannabis was removed from the U.S. Pharmacopoeia and doctors began to discredit cannabis as not having any medicinal use.

  • 1944: The New York Academy of Medicine published a report stating that marijuana was only a mild intoxicant. Harry Anslinger responded to this report with a solicited article in the American Journal of Psychiatrythat attempted to attack and discredit the information they had previously published.

  • 1960s: Cannabis gained popularity among the counterculture, who considered it a harmless high. Its use was popular among college students, free-spirited Beats, anti-war activists, hippies, and other youth. President John F. Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon Johnson commissioned reports that found that marijuana did not induce violence or lead to the use of other more dangerous drugs.

  • 1965-1970: Cannabis arrests on the state level increased tenfold as authorities began to crack down on cannabis use and distribution.

  • 1970: Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act, which placed cannabis as a Schedule I drug, along with LSD and heroin. According to the act, cannabis had no medicinal value and a high potential for abuse, giving it harsher criminal penalties. This law made it difficult for doctors and scientists to study cannabis and its many uses.

  • 1970s: Despite federal efforts to strengthen enforcement of strict cannabis laws, states such as Oregon, Maine, and Alaska decriminalized cannabis.

  • 1972: The Shafer Committee recommended that personal use of cannabis be decriminalized. But President Richard Nixon ignored their recommendation.

  • 1976: The parents movement against cannabis began, as more and more parents feared the drug and sought to prevent use in teens. Their efforts were strengthened by the Drug Enforcement Administration and the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

  • 1980s-90s: The public opinion of marijuana shifted back to it being dangerous, as many considered it a gateway drug to harder drugs such as cocaine and heroin.

  • 1982: First Lady Nancy Reagan started the "Just Say No" campaign.

  • 1983: The Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program was established, which brought police officers into schools to discuss the dangers of drug abuse. Funding and use of this program was later cut back as research showed that it did not lead to decreased drug use in youth.

  • 1986: President Ronald Reagan signed The Anti-Drug Abuse Act. This law raised cannabis penalties and created mandatory sentences, many of which equated marijuana with heroin.

  • 1989: President George H.W. Bush declared a "New War on Drugs" and continued anti-cannabis campaigns.

  • 1996: California voters approved Proposition 215, which legalized cannabis for medicinal use at the state level.

  • 1998-1999: The Clinton administration spent $25 million on television campaigns that placed anti-drug messages in primetime TV shows.


Current Use in the 21st Century

Cannabis remains illegal under federal law in the United States. But state cannabis laws are continuing to change. More than 20 states now permit the sale of cannabis for medicinal use, whether inhaled or consumed via other methods, or given in a prescription drug. Currently, 2 FDA medications on the market, Marinol (dronabinol) and Cesamet (nabilone), are synthetic cannabinoids used to treat nausea or neuropathic pain. Other drugs in clinical testing include Epidelix for childhood seizures and Sativex for cancer pain.


In 2014, Colorado became the first state to legalize cannabis for recreational use, with Washington, California, and Alaska following shortly after. California, Massachusetts, Washington, D.C., and Nevada have also recently legalized it for recreational use . However, because cannabis remains illegal under federal law, it is not only difficult to conduct scientific research on its medicinal benefits, but dispensaries also run the risk of being shut down by the Drug Enforcement Administration.


Public opinion of cannabis has also changed considerably since it first became illegal, as more and more Americans are becoming pro-legalization. A recent poll revealed that 49% of Americans felt that cannabis should be legal for both medicinal and recreational use. Another 37% agreed that it should be legal for medicinal purposes only, leaving only 14% of those polled feeling it should remain illegal. Cannabis legalization will continue to be a controversial subject in the coming years and will likely be a major player in the 2020 election.