If aliens were to visit Earth, they could be forgiven if they concluded marijuana was a new fad sweeping the world. The media are crowded with breathless stories examining the cannabis craze.
The reality is somewhat different, though. Weed has been with the human race for a very long time – much longer than we’re often led to believe. Slightly more people use marijuana now than in the past, but that may say more about modern perceptions than it does about pot’s place in history.
Cannabis grew naturally long before humans discovered it. It’s native to tropical regions in Central and South Asia, including India and Nepal, though it can be cultivated almost anywhere.
The first evidence of marijuana consumption dates to ancient Romania, about 5,000 years ago, though the drug was likely used much earlier. By comparison, people have been making and drinking alcohol for 10,000 years. Weed isn’t the world’s oldest recreational drug, but it’s close.
Archeologists have discovered evidence of cannabis use from ancient China, more than 2,500 years ago. And weed has been used in Hindu societies for thousands of years. The word “ganja” comes from “ganjika,” the Sanskrit word for pot.
Evidence of marijuana use peppers the historical record. Ancient Assyrians used it in the Middle East, calling it qunubu – the possible origin of the word “cannabis.”
The Greeks were the first to mention marijuana use in writing. Herotodus described the habits of the Scythians, who inhaled pot in “vapor baths.” Cannabis was popular in ancient Greece and Rome.
Marijuana eventually spread from antiquity to almost every corner of the globe, though it didn’t reach the Western Hemisphere until 1492, when Columbus brought it to the West Indies as a source of industrial hemp.
That’s how it was used, mostly, for the next 400 years. Hemp was grown throughout the Americas, but few farmers knew of its psychoactive properties. Some of the founding fathers, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, grew large amounts of hemp, but there’s no evidence they ever smoked the stuff.
Weed didn’t really break into the modern popular consciousness until the 19th century, when it began to appear in patent medicines sold throughout the United States. Cannabis tinctures were often mixed with alcohol, laudanum, heroin, or other drugs to treat everything from coughs and menstrual cramps to tuberculosis and night sweats.
Weed’s popularity as a recreational American drug took off in the early 20th century, when it spread across the Southwest United States. But pot soon became associated in the public mind with Mexican immigrants, and states started banning it out of racism.
The federal government piled on with the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, banning marijuana everywhere in the United States. As with bans on cocaine and opiates, race was the driving factor.
Cannabis prohibition soon spread around the globe. For years, there was nowhere on the planet where a person could smoke weed legally. Then, in the 1970s, Holland decriminalized the drug and Amsterdam became a stoner haven.
The medical marijuana movement scored its first major victory in California in 1996. More than 20 other states have followed suit, and even an increasing slice of the federal government is coming around to MMJ reform.
In 2012, Colorado and Washington State became the first places in the world to legalize and regulate recreational marijuana. The South American nation of Uruguay joined them soon after, and other places are likely to do the same in coming years, including Oregon and Alaska in November.
It has been millennia since humans first started using marijuana. But our entire orientation to the drug has changed more dramatically in the last few decades than it has in all of history. And it’s likely to keep changing, just as fast.