The history of marijuana dates back to ancient times. It was described in a Chinese medical reference traditionally considered to date from 2737 B.C. Its use spread from China to India and then to Africa, and it reached Europe as early as A.D. 500. The focus was on its powers as a medication for rheumatism, gout, malaria, and oddly enough, absent-mindedness. Mention was made of the intoxicating properties, but the medicinal value was considered more important.
Ancient Egypt, India, and Persia all made medical use of cannabis more than 2,000 years ago. British herbalists in the seventeenth century noted its medicinal properties, but it did not become widely used in British medicine until the mid-nineteenth century. In 1890, Queen Victoria’s personal physician, Sir Russell Reynolds, wrote in the first issue of The Lancet, “When pure and administered carefully, [it is] one of the most valuable medicines we possess.”
William O’Shaughnessy, a British East India Company surgeon who studied its use while posted in India, expanded western understanding of its range of applications and championed its use upon his return to Britain in 1841 and election to the Royal Society, the scientific advisory body to the British government. Between 1840 and 1900, European and American medical journals published more than 100 articles on the therapeutic applications of cannabis, known then as Cannabis Indica or Indian hemp. Common indications for its use in the nineteenth century included muscle spasms, menstrual cramps, rheumatism, and the convulsions of tetanus, rabies, and epilepsy; it was also used to promote uterine contractions in childbirth, and as a sedative to induce sleep.
The History of Marijuana in America
In 1545 the Spanish brought marijuana to the New World. The English introduced it in Jamestown in 1611 where it became a major commercial crop alongside tobacco and was grown as a source of fiber.
By 1890, hemp had been replaced by cotton as a major cash crop in southern states. Some patent medicines during this era contained marijuana, but it was a small percentage compared to the number containing opium or cocaine. It was in the 1920s that marijuana began to catch on. Some historians say its emergence was brought about by prohibition. Its recreational use was restricted to jazz musicians and people in show business. “Reefer songs” became the rage of the jazz world. Marijuana clubs, called tea pads, sprang up in every major city. These marijuana establishments were tolerated by the authorities because marijuana was not illegal and patrons showed no evidence of making a nuisance of themselves or disturbing the community. Marijuana was not considered a social threat.
Marijuana was listed in the United States Pharmacopeia from 1850 until 1942 and was prescribed for various conditions including labor pains, nausea, and rheumatism. Its use as an intoxicant was also commonplace from the 1850s to the 1930s. A campaign conducted in the 1930s by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Narcotics (now the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs) sought to portray marijuana as a powerful, addicting substance that would lead users into narcotics addiction. It is still considered a “gateway” drug by some authorities. In the 1950s it was an accessory of the beat generation; in the 1960s it was used by college students and “hippies” and became a symbol of rebellion against authority.
The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 classified marijuana along with heroin and LSD as a Schedule I drug, i.e., having the relatively highest abuse potential and no accepted medical use. Most marijuana at that time came from Mexico, but in 1975 the Mexican government agreed to eradicate the crop by spraying it with the herbicide paraquat, raising fears of toxic side effects. Colombia then became the main supplier. The “zero tolerance” climate of the Reagan and Bush administrations resulted in passage of strict laws and mandatory sentences for possession of marijuana and in heightened vigilance against smuggling at the southern borders. The “war on drugs” thus brought with it a shift from reliance on imported supplies to domestic cultivation (particularly in Hawaii and California). Beginning in 1982 the Drug Enforcement Administration turned increased attention to marijuana farms in the United States, and there was a shift to the indoor growing of plants specially developed for small size and high yield. After over a decade of decreasing use, marijuana smoking began an upward trend once more in the early 1990s, especially among teenagers.
The federal government has resisted restoring cannabis to its place in the US Pharmacopeia. Yet its own research studies acknowledges that the “use of cannabis for purposes of healing predates recorded history” and that it was included in “the fifteenth century BC Chinese Pharmacopeia, the Rh-Ya.”
The American Medical Association opposed the first federal law restricting legal access to cannabis with an article in its leading journal. Their representative, Dr. William C. Woodward, testified to Congress that “The American Medical Association knows of no evidence that marihuana is a dangerous drug,” and that any prohibition “loses sight of the fact that future investigation may show that there are substantial medical uses for Cannabis.”
Public opinion is strongly in favor of ending the prohibition of medical cannabis and has been for some time. Every national poll conducted over the past two decades shows a substantial majority in support. An ABC News/Washington Post poll in October 2010 found that 81% of Americans say doctors should be allowed to prescribe marijuana for medical purposes. In 2004, the 35 million-member American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) released a national poll of older Americans showing 72% of seniors agreed that adults should be allowed to legally use marijuana for medical purposes if a physician recommends it. Every national poll for more than a decade has found similar super-majorities of support.
The refusal of the federal government to act on this widespread public support has meant that advocates have had to turn to the states for action. Currently, laws that effectively remove state-level criminal penalties for growing and/or possessing medical cannabis are in place in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, and the District of Columbia. Maryland has reduced the criminal penalty for medical use to a maximum $100 fine. Thirty-six states have symbolic medical cannabis laws that support medical cannabis but do not provide patients with legal protection under state law.
Since the first state medical cannabis law was passed in 1996 by California voter initiative, 21 states and the District of Columbia have removed criminal penalties for their citizens who use cannabis on the advice of a physician and established means of distributing it. Ten of those states plus the District of Columbia established their medical cannabis laws through a ballot initiative, while the legislatures in 11 other states have enacted similar bills. As of January 2014, New York is poised to start a limited medical cannabis program under the Executive Order of Gov. Andrew Cuomo using federal supplies. Currently, nearly 40% of the U.S. population resides in a state that permits medical use, and medical cannabis legislation is introduced in more states every year.