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HIGH TIMES: A Brief Overview of Marijuana’s Trajectory

Marijuana is not a novelty, y’all. So maybe you think, okay, my granddad used to smoke it. But it goes further than that. And by further, I mean about a dozen millennia. And here is a brief –way too brief—overview of its fascinating travels. A report published close to 5 years ago by geography and environment scientist Barney Warf, after his studies on prehistoric hunter-gatherer sites, determined that cannabis has been used since before recorded history.

It originated in Central Asia –Mongolia and Siberia. It was later used in China and transported in ships to other continents. We know this now because archaeologists have found remains of it in Siberian and Chinese burial mounds as old as 3000 BCE. That means cannabis has been around and used by humans for over 12,000 years. From China it was transported to Korea and later to India, where it became part of traditional Indian pharmacopeia widely used to relieve stress and anxiety. Scientists report, then, that cannabis was widely known since ancient times as an anesthetic, a stress-reliever, as well as for its psychoactive ingredients.

Cannabis was transported by nomad tribes to the Middle East. From there it was taken, still by nomadic peoples, to Russia, Eastern Europe, and Germany. There are documented instances of it being known by Vikings—Cannabis seeds have been found in the remains of Viking ships—and used for childbirth and other types of pain in medieval Germany. Germanic tribes invaded Britain in the 5th century and took the herb to the Isles and from there, it is believed, it reached Africa and South American in the 19th century, although there are some who argue that it was known in these regions before that.

For instance, in the early 17th century, the Virginia Assembly pushed the production of hemp for rope and sails and in 1619, legislation was passed requiring that all farmers grow hemp. In fact, the product became legal tender in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia for a time. In the 19th century, hemp became replaced by other imported materials, but marijuana had by then become a popular medicinal product sold openly in apothecaries and pharmacies.

Differences began to be made between the strains of Cannabis Sativa and Cannabis Sativa L—the latter denominated with an “L” to identify it as the strain catalogued by botanist Carl Linnaeus. Cannabis Sativa L is really a related subspecies of marijuana that lacks the psychoactive ingredient that makes marijuana a drug. Amazingly, U.S. legislation never acknowledged the difference between both strains, and both began to be outlawed in the country, starting with Utah in 1915. By the early 1930s, both strains were outlawed in 29 states and in 1937, the Marijuana Tax Act placed cannabis regulation under the Drug Enforcement Agency, criminalizing its possession, cultivation and sales in the whole nation.

Today, Cannabis remains classified as a Schedule I controlled substance by the federal government, even though marijuana has been used legally and safely during most of its history as a natural pain reliever and known throughout many historic periods and cultures worldwide. In other words, its criminalization in the 20th century is an “historical anomaly”, in Barney Warf’s words.

Further Reading:


“Marijuana’s History: How One Plant Spread through The World” (2017). By Agata Blasczak-Boxe. In Live

“High Points: An Historical Geography of Cannabis” (2014). By Barney Warf. In Geographical Review.


Cannabis, A History (2015). By Martin Booth.

Grass Roots: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Marijuana in America (2017). By Emily Dufton.

Grassroots: A History of Cannabis in the American West (2017). By Nick Johnson.

Marihuana: The First Twelve Thousand Years (1980, 2013). By E. L. Abel.

The History of Medical Cannabis (2016). By Robert D. Mooney.

About the Author:

Trudy Mercadal, Ph.D

New Orleans born with a Latina background, I am a writer, social historian & cultural studies researcher with a doctorate in Comparative Studies. My focus on community and popular culture. Main interests are the ways in which people express identity through arts—such as music, graffiti, and magazines—and their consuming practices, that is, the what (and how) they buy, ingest, eat, and wear. In my personal life, I am a dedicated urban mini-farmer and, also, a certified cheese maker who makes a truly kick-ass grilled cheese sandwich.

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