Early History of Cannabis in the United States

The United States is a cannabis country, whether we consider it to be or not. It also has a complicated history which has led to a complicated stigma. The stereotypes of cannabis and its users include drug addicts, dangerous criminals, and just being plain lazy but that’s certainly not the case for most. At Local Joint, we want to acknowledge the history and the stigma that cannabis holds and how it has impacted people of color for decades. We are creating a blog series that will be breaking down different aspects of cannabis in the United States. We are not just focusing on the history of legalization, we’re going to talk about the negative effects and perpetuated stereotypes that negatively impact people of color. While cannabis legalization is happening all over the country, we want to take time to go through the past and highlight injustices that are associated with cannabis. One of our biggest missions is to not only educate our patients and customers about the medicinal benefits that the plant provides, but we also want to work to end the dangerous stigma surrounding it.

History of Cannabis in the United States: 1600s-1800s.

Cannabis has been used around the world for centuries. It originated in Central Asia and spread throughout the world. Cannabis has been used for medicinal, religious, and recreational use since its discovery. In the United States, both hemp and marijuana were cultivated and used for different purposes. Hemp and marijuana both derive from the cannabis plant; however, hemp does not contain psychoactive properties. While not as frequently used today, you can still find hemp products such as milk and cloth. Additionally, hemp can be smoked since it contains high levels of CBD.

There are many different versions of the history of how cannabis came to the United States. Because of this, it’s hard to determine exactly how long it’s been in the country. The earliest record of the plant in the Americas (North and South) dates back to 1545 in Chile and it was brought over by Spaniards. By 1611, Virginia started cultivating the plant for its fiber, but it’s unknown exactly how it got to New England between those 60+ years. 

During this time, England needed financial support from the colonies so in 1619, Virginia passed a law that required all farms to cultivate hemp plants. It was required to grow and export at least 100 plants per farm to send to England. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, hemp’s durability made it appealing for a multitude of uses including cloth, paper, rope, sails, and more, and it is believed that Betsy Ross’s original prototype of the American flag was made out of hemp fibers. Hemp was grown in many farms and because of the 1619 law, which kept farms producing hemp plants until the 1760s, even high profile figures like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had hemp plants on their properties. In the United States, hemp production was slower than the demand called for especially with the requirement of exporting plants to England; therefore, the U.S had to import hemp plants to keep up with the demand. 

In the 1800’s, the demand for hemp began to decline as the benefits of cotton for cloth grew. While hemp cultivation declined, marijuana cultivation began to rise. Marijuna contains the psychoactive property THC and in the 19th century and early 20th century, the United States started to develop medicine containing marijuana. In fact, in 1840, a variety of medicine containing marijuna was sold over the counter. By 1850, it was added to the U.S. Pharmacopeia to help with pain, appetite, relief of nausea, and even opioid addiction. Hashish candy was displayed and advertised in the 1860s as a way to cure nervousness and for decades, marijuana was used for medicine and was regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

In our next post, we will explore the negative shift in mindset toward marijuana and its users during the 1910s-1930s. This series is going to be an in depth exploration of the continual change in how the federal and state governments have regulated marijuna and the perception of the public toward cannabis and its users.