A Brief History of Cannabis

April 20 is a date revered by modern-day pot smokers. But the hemp plant has long been a mainstay, rooted in ancient societies. It’s considered one of the first agricultural crops cultivated. As early as 12,000 years ago, humans found much purpose in the plant—utilitarian and otherwise. It was known that fibers of hemp were strong enough for pottery, rope, clothing and blankets. And by the time Rome was built, it is believed entire economies were hemp-driven. Perhaps because of its versatility, the sturdy plant was bred selectively until two similar but genetically different plants became available: one for fiber and one for medicinal purposes.

Chinese Emperor Shen Neng authorized the earliest recorded prescription of cannabis in 2,737 B.C. Chinese legends equate cannabis use with magic and amazement that stem from the plant’s resins, seeds and leaves. It was believed to eliminate pain, whether chronic or during surgery. Used in wine, meal preparation or dried and smoked, the culture valued the power of this newer type of hemp.

As its usage spread throughout the Old World, it became an important part of many religious rites, a main ingredient in popular food and drink and an aphrodisiac. But even then, overuse brought social condemnation and warnings of harmful side effects.

Cannabis arrived in the Americas during the 16th century (possibly through the slave trade). It was quickly embraced. Colonists cultivated the plants for practical uses such as sails and cloth for clothing; the Virginia Assembly even passed a law requiring all farmers to grow hemp and the plant was considered legal tender in three states. In the 19th century, cannabis became an approved medicine and was sold in U.S. pharmacies as a fix for anything ailing citizens. Following the Mexican Revolution however, the recreational use of the plant was revived and things turned again. In the 1920s, social mores had deemed alcohol and marijuana use a danger to moral society. And by 1931, 29 states outlawed the plant as a drug.

While libations were ultimately woven back into the fabric of high society, marijuana remained on the fringe and was labeled a Schedule 1 drug under the Controlled Substance Act of 1970. Today, the tides appear to be turning again. Ongoing studies suggest that marijuana (in one form or another) alleviates symptoms of Crohn’s disease, arthritis, glaucoma and multiple sclerosis. It’s also been shown to reduce pain associated with cancer and migraines.

Medical use is legal in 32 states and recreational use is legal in a handful of others, with many more planning to open the door to legalization soon. In New York, regulators have loosened restrictions on medical marijuana use, but the future of legalization for recreational use is uncertain. For now, possession of marijuana in New York is a crime, the punishment of which is dependent on the amount of possession, intent to distribute and the number of times the crime has been committed by an individual. That’s not to say the rules won’t change. Gov. Andrew Cuomo indicated earlier this year that he plans to support the state’s decriminalization of possessing small amounts of marijuana.