Humans and marijuana go back a long way. We’ve been using it as a drug, a medicine, an industrial tool, and much, much more for thousands of years. It has found its way into almost every society on Earth, and it has been used by countless historical greats.
Of course, some developments stand out from the rest. So here, briefly, is a list of some of the most momentous milestones in the history of pot.
Shen Nung: 2737 BCE
Shen Nung, so the story goes, was an early emperor of China and the man responsible for introducing medical marijuana to the world. In reality, he never even existed. But he’s an effective stand-in for what probably did happen.
What we know for sure is that a unified China coalesced in roughly the 3rd century BCE. Nung, on other hand, allegedly discovered medicinal weed more than 2,000 years before that time. So there never was a real Shen Nung.
But we also know that cannabis has been a part of alternative Chinese medicine for many centuries; the drug likely arrived there straight from its origins in the Himalayan Mountains. So whoever was responsible, weed made its way into traditional medicine a very long time ago – and we have the Chinese to thank for showing the rest of us how it’s done.
The Tattooed Mummy: 500 BCE
In 1993, a team of archaelogists discovered a well-preserved mummy buried in the permafrost of Siberia. The woman, who was covered in crude tattoos, became a topic of scientific fascination for the next 20 years.
After her discovery, researchers learned she had been buried with the remnants of cannabis. Then, last year, scientists reached a breakthrough conclusion: Not only did the woman use the weed, she used it to treat the breast cancer that ultimately killed her.
This discovery suggests marijuana has been a medical tool for many people over many generations – and likely a very effective one. It didn’t save her life, but it may have improved it substantially before she died.
The Jamestown Settlement: 1607
Pot plants first arrived in the Americas with Christopher Columbus, in 1492. But it wasn’t until the Jamestown Settlement of Virginia that cannabis truly found a foothold in the New World.
The first English colonists arrived in a completely unsettled Virginia in 1607 and founded the village of Jamestown. They were the first permanent white settlers north of Florida.
Shortly after the settlement took root, an order came down: The residents were all required to grow weed. It was one of the few useful crops that could be grown with relative ease and used as a form of currency.
Hemp was highly valuable to the colonists, though we don’t have any evidence they knew how to smoke the stuff. Without Jamestown, the plant might never have spread so far into the continent.
Harry Anslinger: 1937
Few men put as much effort into banning things as Harry Anslinger. Head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (predecessor to the DEA) for 32 years, he may be the real force behind the failed war on drugs.
Anslinger bears more responsibility than any other person for the prohibition of pot. He poured huge resources into a campaign to trick Americans into fearing the drug. And it worked: Marijuana was outlawed by the feds in 1937 – and stayed that way until California passed the first medical cannabis law in 1996.
Sadly, Anslinger’s real place in history is as a racist fear-monger. He sold the idea that marijuana was a drug of ethnic minorities, especially Mexican immigrants, and white Americans took the bait.
For what it’s worth, though, without Anslinger we wouldn’t have the reform movement. And without the reform movement, you can bet there wouldn’t be a new pot shop opening up two blocks from where you live.