A Timeline of Cannabis History in the United States
February is both Black History Month and Marijuana Awareness Month, and interestingly enough, the two histories are completely intertwined with one another. Cannabis has had a turbulent history both in the world and within our own nation, interlaced with the history of African Americans. Even though black history happens every day and over 400 years of history can't be crammed into the shortest month of the year, it's still important to take the time to explore and honor the role that black people have played in shaping US history. One such area to explore is cannabis history since the two are permanently tied together.
Here's everything you need to know about the history of cannabis and how black history has helped shape the cannabis industry we see today.
A Timeline of Cannabis History in the United States
Cannabis has a very long history sprawling back thousands of years. In fact, it has been used medicinally on almost every continent for most of our documented time here on earth. Below, we've outlined the major developments in cannabis use, prohibition, and legalization.
The first known use of cannabis was in ancient China around 2737 BC when Emporer Shen Neng documented his use of cannabis for the treatment of everything from rheumatism, malaria, gout, and even memory loss. Through the years, history documented that cannabis use spread from China throughout Asia, the Middle East, Africa, India, and eventually into the west indies and western cultures. Doctors from this time period were prescribing cannabis for everything from aches and pains to childbirth and VD.
Cannabis was used as medicine through most cultures as normal until around the 13th century. Cannabis was cultivated in central Asia and eventually made its way to Southeast Asia, India, and Arab countries. Meanwhile, Arabic merchants were traveling with cannabis and bringing it to Africa where it was then introduced to the African kingdoms. Cannabis, then called "dagga", was used and grown for medicinal reasons. However, historical records indicate that indentured laborers and servants (AKA, slaves) from India had been using cannabis for a few hundred years before this introduction was made and widespread through African communities. Slave owners had been using cannabis to keep slaves passive and compliant and fit for work.
The Transatlantic Slave trade began in the 15th century as new technologies made it easier to get around via ships. With the ability to ship things across great distances came the slave trade. Portugal and the British Empire along with many other European countries started dealing in the slave trade, kidnapping African, Indian, and Asian people to use as slaves and servants across the Atlantic ocean by first bringing them back to Europe. Meanwhile, Colombus was making his way across the Atlantic to "re-discover" North America after Lief Erickson and Spanish conquistadors who had landed in the US far before him.
Since cannabis had been used historically by slave owners to keep slaves pacified and fit for work, these people brought their cannabis with them. After years like this, the slave trade is largely responsible for the global spread and dissemination of cannabis across the world.
The first colony was founded in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607. The settlers there were ordered to grow hemp by the king himself. In fact, George Washington himself was a hemp farmer by trade. In the meantime, lots of scientific studies were being published by American doctors on the many medicinal uses of cannabis. Many published studies outlined cannabis use to treat inflammation, incontinence, and venereal disease. In fact, you were able to buy cannabis extracts at most pharmacies here in the states until around 1914.
On the 4th of July, 1776 the US declared its independence from British rule. Commercial and agricultural industries revved up, creating a huge demand for laborers and eventually the slave trade. However, during this time, hemp was one of the sole economic drivers of American economics along with iron, timber, and stone. It was being used to manufacture everything from rope to paper and textiles and was much easier to cultivate and process than timber.
The transatlantic slave trade began in the 15th century, though the United States didn't get involved until the 19th century. As industry sped up and wealth was gained, a demand was created in the United States for slaves. That said, the British military began moving thousands of indentured Indian laborers and African slaves through the Caribbean.
While Americans had been cultivating and using hemp, cannabis use entered the United States via the slave trade, Caribbean sailors, and Creole immigrants arriving in New Orleans. Black and brown people were consuming cannabis flowers and concentrated hashish recreationally. However, white Americans during this time saw black and brown people as well as slaves doing it and convinced themselves that if they didn't abstain from using it, they wouldn't be respectable in the community. Cannabis was used by slaves, not slave owners historically, and so many looked down upon it.
However, in 1893 25% of Americans from all over the country attended the Worlds Fair in Chicago. About 23 years after slavery was abolished, the event was held to spread ideas and technologies. Every state had its own booth, though booths were also run by people from other countries, such as Turkey and China. The Turkish booth saw great attendance from white Americans as it allowed them to go sample hashish and pipes at the event. While cannabis use was looked down upon, it was still widely used across all races, ethnicities, and social levels.
Regardless, all of the hemp and cannabis cultivated during the time of slavery was grown, cared for, and harvested by black slaves from West Africa. Kentucky was Americas largest hemp industry and drove the economy in early America at the hands of Virginia and Kentucky slave masters. This was steady until the Civil War forced a decline in slave labor when slavery was abolished in 1865. It bounced back though since ex-slave owners took up indentured servitude which was exactly like slavery only it involved money.
in 1910, the US started seeing an influx of immigrants from Mexico who were escaping the violence caused by the Mexican Revolution in their home country, and along with them, they brought more recreational cannabis use. In the 1920s, jazz and swing music made almost entirely by black people became popular, and was largely tied in with recreational cannabis use. To combat these congregations, alcohol prohibition came into play, but lawmakers saw that speakeasys and underground music scenes including jazz and swing were still thriving.
The rhetoric was still in place that cannabis was a drug for people of color. Further, the politicians in power were archaic. So when alcohol prohibition failed in the 20s, they pushed for cannabis prohibition in the 30s. Tons of anti-cannabis propaganda was released against cannabis, spearheaded by Harry Anslinger. Anslinger was head of the U.S. Treasury Department's Federal Bureau of Narcotics during the presidencies of Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy, until 1962 and is highly involved with the war on drugs.
The 1930s is when cannabis use started to become really iffy. Propaganda was spreading at a rapid rate to protect states in the logging and paper industries as well as to create social inequities. In fact, the propaganda was so aggressive that it encouraged the city of Chicago to outlaw cannabis use in 1931, several years before it was made illegal on a federal level or in other states.
It wasn't an economic issue or a "protect the kids" issue, though. It was born in racism against black Americans and Mexican immigrants and pushed by politicians and the media. On the evening news every night, people were being arrested for cannabis use and newscasters were preaching that only criminals smoked cannabis, pointing fingers at Hispanics and black Americans.
During this time, Anslinger made a scientifically false claim that cannabis caused violence (saying basically that people who used it were more likely to rape white women and kill people) and connected it to black people and Mexicans. He associated fear with Mexican immigrants who helped make cannabis popular in the US and also pushed a narrative that cannabis use made black people "forget their place" in society. He also tied it to jazz and swing music, claiming that these black forms of music were associated with satanism, violence, and inter-race mixing.
“There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz, and swing result from marijuana usage. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and others.” – Harry Anslinger
Meanwhile, films like Reefer Madness were horrifying audiences while Anslinger's racist rhetoric and media heads pushed the country to make using cannabis use illegal in 1937.
With the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 signed by Franklin D. Roosevelt, cannabis use was outlawed in the US. It was portrayed as a gateway drug to harder drugs and as something that only criminals and degenerates used. The law made cannabis illegal except for medical uses but it made it nearly impossible for doctors to prescribe it. This continued until the 60s, which were liberating.
The US was involved with foreign wars, peaceful protests, and the hippie movement. Drugs like LSD were also becoming popular in a counterculture movement started by psychologist Timothy Leary, who encouraged American students to “turn on, tune in, and drop out." to escape society's problems. While cannabis use was down in their parents, it was skyrocketing in teenagers and young adults. At the same time, the Black Panther movement was developing in California, and frankly, it scared the hell out of the politicians who worked so hard to keep the civil rights movement at bay.
Fast forward to 1971 when Nixon officially launched the War on Drugs. People were getting arrested for cannabis use left and right, and this is still the case today. People were importing cannabis from places like Colombia, and the seizures by police during this time were very interesting to scientists and university students all over the country. For example, The Natural Center for Natural Products Research at the University of Mississippi began researching cannabis samples taken from police raids all over the country and found that cannabis was basically completely safe with a ton of potential medicinal uses.
Due to the sheer amount of cannabis research being conducted, lots of pro-cannabis agencies like High Times were born in the 70s, including NORML, which promoted the reform of cannabis laws and started a grass-roots effort to legalize cannabis for medical uses at state and local levels. In 1978, Chicago (who was the first to criminalize weed) became the first to decriminalize it. However, they left it up to the police departments to work out the details, so it never came to fruition.
At this time, with so much research out there there was a lot of confusion as to why the country made cannabis illegal in the first place. We didn't find out till later that the War on Drugs was a policy specifically used to target black and hippie communities when John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s chief domestic advisor in 1968 came forward in 1994.
"The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. Do you understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did.” - John Ehrlicman, 1994
The War on Drugs was a policy specifically designed to target black and anti-war communities. This same level of thinking was applied to the civil rights movement and the black panther movement. Peaceful protests were broken up with violence and corruption at the legal levels led to further oppression while cannabis use continued to be demonized.
Things didn't get better in the 1980s, either. The War on Drugs started by Nixon was intensified during the Reagan administration after the introduction of crack-cocaine to the city of Detroit, which was predominantly black. In 1984, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act was signed into law raising federal penalties for cannabis possession, use, and selling based on the quantity you had. Possession of 100 marijuana plants received the same penalty as possession of 100 grams of heroin. What's even worse is that the law was later amended to include a "three strikes and you're out" policy, making it mandatory to serve a life sentence in prison for repeat offenders and providing the death penalty for "drug kingpins".
This law devastated so many US communities both integrally and economically. In fact, a 2010 study conducted by the ACLU found that more than half of all of the drug arrests made in the US were for cannabis possession. Even more shockingly. black people were found to be four times more likely to be arrested than white people even though both parties consume cannabis at an equal rate.
Continuing this trend, President George Bush declared a new War on Drugs in a nationally televised speech in 1989. The 80s were cracking down on drugs harder than any administration before them, again, spearheaded by the rhetoric developed by Harry Anslinger and popularized by the administrations through the 1960s.
The War on Drugs policy created an industrial prison complex of privatized prisons fueled by funneling hundreds of thousands of black and brown people into jails for mere cannabis possession. Even today, there are still thousands of people of color sitting in jails for a drug that has been legalized in most US states at this point.
In Colorado, for example, prohibition is over and consumption is equal across racial lines, but black people still face arrest at a 10x higher rate than white people. Even though cannabis arrests in Colorado are down in general, there is still a distinct racial disparity that needs to be addressed.
Things started to take a turn for the better in the 1990s, though. States were finding that drug rehabilitation and education were reducing the use and spread of drugs as more and more research and books were being published about the medicinal uses of cannabis. The public opinion was shifting again like it was in the 60s and 70s when things were reaching a boiling point.
With that in mind, California became the first US state to legalize cannabis for medical uses. Back in the 80s, activists in San Francisco were pushing to reform the laws on cannabis in their state. They were successful in 1996 when voters passed Proposition 215, which allowed for the sale and medical use of cannabis for patients with AIDS, cancer, glaucoma, terminal illness, and other serious and painful diseases.
Later, in 1998 Oregon, Alaska, Maine, and Washington all legalized medical cannabis through ballot measures.
After California shocked the country by going against the federal government's laws, the world began turning its attention to all the different ways cannabis can be used, concentrated, and grown. Several books were published elaborating on BHO extractions in a closed-loop system, which led to the first waxes and shatters.
In 2003, a Canadian dispensary called Da Kine developed and sold the very first budder wax product, and in 2005 Canadian Budderking discussed making shatter using BHO extraction using a book published in the 90s. He also debuted the very first dab rig for using the budder wax. Finally, around 2009, the internet begins pushing for cannabis reform using cultivation forums and spreading information on dabs, and creating high-quality solvent-based hash oils made using solvent-based extractions.
Meanwhile, states like Hawaii and Colorado along with many others launched their own medical cannabis programs.
In the 2010s, cannabis use became more and more favorable, leaving behind a lot of the archaic ideals put in place in the 1930s, though many of the social injustices are still rampant even today. Concentrates were becoming more widespread by 2010, though a big shift in legalization occurred in 2012 when Colorado and Washington legalized recreational adult-use cannabis.
These laws included a heavy tax on cannabis sales and made cannabis a popular choice for both increased state revenues as well as people who wanted the right to use cannabis without having to worry about legal persecution. More and more states continued to follow suit and legalize weed for both medical and recreational uses, which is why the 2010s are considered the decade of cannabis legalization.
More and more studies were published to showcase the many therapeutic uses of cannabis as medicine for lesser-known ailments like PTSD and mental health issues which were largely ignored in medicine until the early 90s. This decade also saw lots of progress in both agriculture and extract sciences, allowing live resin and live rosin along with other BHO products to hit the scene. Reform continued to spread as many states with compassionate care cannabis programs sought to change who had access to cannabis and more specifics on commerce in each state.
These days, cannabis is available for medicinal or recreational use in almost every US state and it's changing the lives of thousands of patients every day. People with medical conditions have access to the therapeutic value of cannabis, though the recreational side is bringing in funding for things like roads and schools. Further, the collective cannabis industry is set to outpace alcohol, bringing in billions of dollars every year and creating thousands of new jobs.
While we're on the other side of prohibition at this point, there is still a lot to consider as we move forward and more states welcome legal cannabis use. If history has shown us anything about cannabis, it's that it's been weaponized against people of color for almost 100 years. With that said, it's up to us to bring restorative justice to the industry. The War on Drugs has decimated black and brown communities, so it's more important than ever to push for social equity solutions, making it easier to get a footing in this predominantly white-owned industry. While many new states are passing laws to recognize the systemic disparities and to recognize the history, there are still a few roadblocks in place. But if we acknowledge the past and look to the future, small steps in the right direction are still steps in the right direction.
“Black history is cannabis history. Black history is the United States history. The good, the bad and the ugly are all permanently interlaced. So when we celebrate hemps’ legalization or pop fireworks on July 4th, we also need to acknowledge in the same breath that black people’s literal blood, sweat, and tears are behind those celebrations.” - DM Blunted