Marijuana has been a major part of the human experience since before the dawn of history. The ancients used it in sacred rituals, to treat disease, and to ease the often-brutal conditions of early human society.
Did you know William Shakespeare toked weed from a pipe? Did you know Napoleon and his soldiers used hashish? Did you know we’ve been toking joints for a century?
Cannabis history is full of surprises. Here are a few of the oddities that pepper the centuries.
1. Queen Victoria used cannabis as medicine
Britain’s longest-serving monarch used cannabis to treat her painful menstrual cramps. That made her the first widely known patient of medical pot.
She has also been a longtime inspiration to female tokers and weed activists. One of the most admired and powerful women in history, Queen Victoria gave marijuana a respectable face. Just as she drove the styles and mores of the Victorian Era, the queen put cannabis in the international spotlight.
2. Marijuana was legal in the late ‘60s
Congress first banned pot in 1937 with the Marihuana Tax Act. The courts upheld the law for decades, until the Supreme Court overturned it in 1969.
The case was Leary v. United States. Timothy Leary, the famous psychedelic researcher and professor, was arrested when he crossed the Mexican border into Texas with a woman who had a small amount of pot hidden in her underwear.
Leary took the blame for the drugs and was sentenced to 30 years in federal prison under the Tax Act. He appealed, arguing the law forced marijuana users to provide evidence against themselves when applying for a tax stamp.
In a major decision, the Supreme Court overturned the law. And for the next year, weed was essentially legal at the federal level – though not under state laws. That period of grace ended when Congress enacted the Controlled Substances Act of 1970.
3. The feds encouraged Americans to grow weed
The cannabis plant has long been used for hemp, a fibrous material with no psychoactive properties that is an excellent source of rope, paper, cloth, and other materials.
Hemp was a critical part of the war effort in the 1940s. It was needed by every branch of the military during World War II.
The federal government not only encouraged home hemp gardens, it made a propaganda movie pushing the plant’s benefits. The campaign – and the movie – were titled Hemp for Victory.
For years after the war, the feds denied any such film ever existed. Then a group of activists, including marijuana advocate Jack Herer and actress Mia Farrow, found two remaining VHS tapes containing the film and gave them to the Library of Congress.
4. Early settlers were forced to grow pot
Historians believe Christopher Columbus brought hemp with him during his maiden voyage to the Americas in 1492. His were the first cannabis plants to arrive in the New World.
Other pioneers followed suit, including the residents of England’s first permanent settlement in America. In 1619, during the early years of the Jamestown Settlement in Virginia, town leaders ordered every settler to grow hemp. The colonists depended on the plant as a means of survival.
Hemp quickly became a major cash crop in North America, with cultivation spreading across the continent. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew fields of weed, though it wasn’t commonly used as a drug in the United States until the early 20th century.
5. An American introduced MMJ to the world
Robert Randall, who died in 2001, was known as the father of the medical marijuana movement, both in America and around the globe. Randall had glaucoma, and he started smoking weed to treat it.
In the mid-‘70s, Randall was arrested by federal authorities and charged with illegal possession. At trial, he used the common law doctrine of necessity to refute the charges. To everyone’s surprise, he succeeded.
In response, the feds started a medical weed program in the late ‘70s. Randall was the first patient, though few people were ultimately admitted.
By the early 1990s, it became clear AIDS patients intended to apply for medical pot. The bigotry surrounding the disease was still rife, and President George H.W. Bush ordered the program closed. Just one or two patients remain, though they still receive monthly shipments of joints.