George Washington holding cannabis leave

The Plant’s Significant Cultural History

Cannabis has played a significant cultural role throughout history with diverse applications in industry, medicine, and spirituality. Its use dates back to at least 2800 B.C. in China where its fiber was made into clothing, paper, and rope, and its seeds were used as food. It was also utilized as an anesthetic and pain reliever. Cannabis use quickly spread to other cultures and similar use patterns were documented around the same time in India, Greece, Egypt, and Persia. By the Middle Ages, cannabis use was also prevalent in Europe, particularly in monasteries and apothecaries.

Spanish and Portuguese colonizers introduced cannabis to the Americas where it was adopted by indigenous populations for spiritual and recreational purposes. The plant played an important role in early U.S. history with many founding fathers actively cultivating it on their farms. George Washington wrote about its many uses and The Declaration of Independence was written on cannabis paper. Its use in medicine was so widespread by 1850 that it was included in United States Pharmacopeia.

Perceptions changed in the 20th century when the U.S. government began to restrict and eventually criminalize cannabis use due to concerns over addiction and misuse. The 1937 Marihuana Tax Act effectively criminalizing cannabis at the federal level. Then, the 1970 Controlled Substances Act classified cannabis as a Schedule I substance alongside heroin and LSD as substances that were considered to have no medical value and high potential for abuse. The "War on Drugs" intensified these efforts in the 1980s with increased funding for law enforcement agencies and harsher penalties for drug offenses.

The discovery of the endocannabinoid system in the 1990s led to a resurgence of interest in the plant’s potential therapeutic benefits. This sparked the legalization movement with California legalizing medical cannabis in 1996 and other states following suit. Despite remaining illegal under federal law in the United States, the trend towards legalization and acceptance continues to grow globally, with countries like Canada, Uruguay, and several European nations recently legalizing cannabis for medical and/or recreational use.