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The History of Cannabis Use: A Timeline

The History of Cannabis Use: A Timeline

Cannabis, also known as marijuana, has a long and complex history. This plant has been used for various purposes throughout human history. From its use in ancient rituals to its current status as a hot topic for debate, the journey of cannabis is as fascinating as it is controversial. Let’s take a trip down the timeline of cannabis and cannabis use:

5000 BC: The Beginning

Cannabis PlantsArchaeologists believe that the use of cannabis dates back to around 5000 BC. In ancient China, cannabis was used for medicinal purposes and as a staple food source. The Chinese emperor Shen-Nung, often regarded as the father of Chinese medicine, wrote about the therapeutic benefits of cannabis in his pharmacopeia, “The Great Herbal.”1

2000 – 1400 BC: The Spread

Cannabis use spread to India, where it was used in religious ceremonies and for medicinal purposes. The Atharva Veda, one of the sacred texts of Hinduism, mentions cannabis as one of the “five sacred plants.”2

700 – 600 BC: The Scythians

The Scythians, a large group of Iranian nomads, were known to use cannabis in steam baths. Herodotus, a Greek historian, documented this in his works. These accounts are some of the earliest written references to the intoxicating effects of cannabis.3

AD 70: Ancient Rome

In ancient Rome, medical texts written by Dioscorides mention the use of cannabis to treat ailments like earaches and edema (swelling).4

1000 AD: The Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages in Europe, cannabis was used as a medicinal herb across monasteries. It was also used for making ropes, textiles and paper.

1500 – 1700s: The Age of Discovery

During the Age of Discovery, cannabis was brought to the Americas. Hemp (a type of cannabis plant) was grown on many colonial farms and was a major export.

1800s: Western Medicine

Cannabis entered Western medicine in the 19th century. It was introduced by W.B. O’Shaughnessy, an Irish doctor working in India. He found that cannabis extracts could help lessen stomach pain and vomiting in people suffering from cholera.5

Early 1900s: The Prohibition Era

In the early 20th century, with the rise of the temperance movement and the Prohibition era, cannabis began to be seen in a negative light. Numerous states in the U.S. started to outlaw cannabis.

1937: The Marijuana Tax Act

The U.S. federal government passed the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937, which effectively criminalized marijuana. This was largely due to a smear campaign against marijuana led by Harry J. Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.6

1960s – 70s: The Counterculture Movement

During the counterculture movement of the 1960s and 70s, marijuana use became associated with rebellion and the rejection of mainstream values. Despite its illegal status, marijuana use skyrocketed during this period.

1996: Medical Marijuana Legalization

California became the first U.S. state to legalize medical marijuana with the passing of Proposition 215 in 1996. This marked a significant shift in cannabis policy.

2012: Recreational Use Legalization

Cannabis UseIn the United States, Washington and Colorado became trailblazers in cannabis legalization, becoming the first states to legalize recreational marijuana in 2012. This significant policy shift sparked a trend, and since then, many other states have followed suit.

Meanwhile, north of the border, the conversation around cannabis was also evolving. While Canada didn’t legalize recreational cannabis in 2012, the country was making strides towards this goal. By 2018, Canada became only the second country in the world after Uruguay to federally legalize the recreational use of cannabis. This landmark decision allowed for the sale, possession, and non-medical use of cannabis by adults.

The impact of this policy change has been profound. Research indicates an increase in use among Canadians older than 25 following legalization. However, the social consequences remain largely unknown and are the subject of ongoing study.

The history of cannabis use and its legalization is a dynamic and complex narrative, reflecting changing societal attitudes and understanding of this plant. As we continue to explore the potential benefits and risks of cannabis, it’s clear that our relationship with this plant will continue to evolve.



  • Russo, E. B. (2007). History of cannabis and its preparations in saga, science, and sobriquet. Chemistry & Biodiversity, 4(8), 1614-1648.
  • Booth, M. (2015). Cannabis: A History. Picador.
  • Herodotus. (1972). Histories. Penguin Classics.
  • Dioscorides, P. (2000). De Materia Medica. Ibidis Press.
  • O’Shaughnessy, W. B. (1838-1840). On the preparations of the Indian hemp, or Gunjah: Cannabis indica.
  • Bonnie, R. J., & Whitebread, C. H. (1974). The Marijuana Conviction: A History of Marijuana Prohibition in the United States. University Press of Virginia.
  • Pacula, R. L., & Sevigny, E. L. (2014). Natural experiments in a complex and dynamic environment: the need for a measured assessment of the evidence. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 33(1), 232-235.
  • “Legal history of cannabis in Canada”. Wikipedia. Retrieved from
  • “The impact of cannabis legalization for recreational use in Canada”. Frontiers in Psychiatry. Retrieved from



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