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Where Did Cannabis Originate?

Updated January 7, 2023

Cannabis has been used for recreational and medicinal purposes for centuries, with records dating back to 4000 B.C. in China. It is thought to have originated in Central Asia and was one of the first crops cultivated by humans. It spread to various parts of the world, including Europe, Africa, and the Americas.

Central Asian Roots

Chinese Emperor Shen Neng is purported to have used cannabis
Chinese Emperor Shen Neng is purported to have used cannabis

Cannabis is believed to have originated in Central Asia, specifically in the steppes of southern Siberia and Mongolia. It is one of the oldest crops cultivated by humans, with evidence of its use dating back to 12,000 years ago. Anthropologists speculate that early cannabis plants likely thrived in the dump sites of our prehistoric hunter-gatherer ancestors, as these sites were rich in nutrients.

The Three Original Types of Cannabis

The first known cultivation of cannabis is thought to have occurred around 12,000 years ago in Central Asia. However, evidence suggests that cannabis plants existed much earlier than this, with scientists estimating that the Hindu Kush mountain range near the Afghanistan and Pakistan border was the first region to naturally grow the plant around 2.3 million years ago. From this region, the plant evolved and spread to different areas, resulting in the three main subspecies of cannabis: indica, sativa, and ruderalis.

Cannabis indica evolved in Southwestern Asia, while cannabis sativa grew in the Caucasus Mountains and the Balkan Peninsula. Cannabis ruderalis, a subspecies with lower THC and higher CBD content, grew in Siberia and other parts of Russia.

Cannabis sativa was among the first plants cultivated by humans, primarily for its hemp fibers and seed oil. Its flowers, fibers, and seeds were used to make paper, rope, and clothing. In Southeastern Asia, cannabis indica was bred for its stronger psychoactive properties and was used primarily as a spiritual aid. Some scholars believe that the "holy herb" mentioned in the Bible was cannabis indica.

Evidence of Early Cannabis Use

An early marijuana pipe made with shells
An early marijuana pipe made with shells

Cannabis has a long and storied history, with evidence of its use dating back to at least 8000 B.C. In an ancient village in modern-day Taiwan, researchers found hemp cord used in pottery, and burned cannabis seeds were found in Siberia's kurgan burial mounds from around 3000 B.C. Mummified psychoactive marijuana has also been found in noble tombs in Siberia and China dating back to 2500 B.C. Documentation of its use as a recreational herb in China and India has been discovered, dating back to 2800 B.C.

The earliest recorded use of cannabis for medicinal purposes was in 4000 B.C. by the ancient Chinese, who used it as an anesthetic during surgery. It's also linked to Chinese Emperor Shen Neng around 2737 B.C., although there is debate over whether Shen Nung is a real person.

Cannabis has been found in a number of ancient burials. Japanese tombs from 8000 B.C. have included cannabis, and there is evidence of THC in the bones and tissues of an Egyptian mummy from around 1070 B.C. A shaman buried in the Yanghai Tombs in China around 700 B.C. was buried with a large quantity of cannabis sativa, indicating its domestication. Scythian burials from 500 B.C. have also been found with wild cannabis seeds in a pouch.

Cannabis was brought to Korea by Chinese farmers as early as 2000 B.C., and it reached the subcontinent of South Asia between 2000 B.C. and 1000 B.C., coinciding with the invasion of the Aryans. It became popular in India for its ability to relieve anxiety. By 500 B.C., cannabis was commonly used in many cultures, including ancient Rome and Greece, Persia, Islam, and India. Its use in steam baths was mentioned by Herodotus in 440 B.C., and the Persian religious text Zendavesta refers to it as the "good narcotic."

Most early uses of cannabis were for medicinal purposes, but some cultures also used it in religious ceremonies or rituals due to the psychoactive properties of THC.

Cannabis Spread to Europe

Cannabis is thought to have spread to the Middle East around 2000 B.C. to 1400 B.C., where it was used by the Scythians. The Scythians then likely brought it to the areas they occupied, including southeast Russia and Ukraine. The spread of Islam also contributed to the spread of cannabis in the Middle East and parts of Asia, as the Quran forbade the use of certain intoxicating substances, but did not specifically mention cannabis.

Germanic tribes later brought cannabis to Germany, and its use spread to Britain through Anglo-Saxon invasions in the 5th century. There is also evidence of cannabis seeds on Viking ships from the mid-9th century. The first evidence of imported hemp rope in England dates back to 100 A.D.

Spreading Outside of Europe

Throughout the centuries, cannabis continued its spread. It reached Africa around 700 A.D. and spread throughout the continent in the 1100s and 1400s. By the 19th century, it had reached South America and subsequently spread to North America.

Cannabis in the United States

The use of cannabis is closely linked to that of hemp, but hemp has a longer history in the United States than cannabis. Early American colonists grew hemp for rope and textiles, likely brought to North America by Spanish settlers in the late 1500s. African slaves brought cannabis to Brazil in the mid-1500s, where they were permitted to grow it to smoke.

During the early 1600s, farmers in Virginia, Connecticut, and Massachusetts were required to grow hemp. It is important to note that this hemp was different from the cannabis that spread from Mexico in the early 1900s. These hemp plants had extremely low THC levels, meaning they had no or almost no psychoactive effects. They were used to make products like paper and rope, and their strong fibers were used for ships' rigging. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson may have grown hemp on their plantations, among other crops.

A hemp display at the Hash Marihuana & Hemp Museum (Barcelona, Spain)
A hemp display at the Hash Marihuana & Hemp Museum (Barcelona, Spain)

Recreational marijuana only arrived in the United States during the early 20th century. It first reached the Southwest via Mexico, brought by immigrants fleeing the Mexican Revolution in 1910 and 1911.

Personal Use by Leaders

According to various pieces of personal correspondence, former Presidents James Madison, James Monroe, and Thomas Jefferson all smoked hashish. Mary Todd Lincoln and Benjamin Franklin were also known to have smoked it.

CBD for Medicinal Purposes

Cannabidiol (CBD), the non-psychoactive part of marijuana, has gained popularity in recent years for its potential medicinal benefits, particularly in the relief of depression and anxiety. Unlike THC, the psychoactive component of cannabis, CBD does not produce any psychoactive effects, which has contributed to its increased acceptance in society. In 2018, the FDA approved the first drug based on CBD, called Epidiolex, for the treatment of epilepsy. This approval has given hope to advocates of CBD-based treatments, who hope it will pave the way for more FDA approvals in the future.

The Legality of Cannabis in the United States

Utah was the first state to outlaw cannabis, doing so in 1915. As of 1931, 29 states had already made it illegal. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics was established in 1930 with Harry Aslinger as its first commissioner. Aslinger worked hard to make cannabis illegal across the country. This led to the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act.

The 1937 Marijuana Tax Act

The Marijuana Tax Act of 1957 was a federal law that gave the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) regulatory control over cannabis, making the possession of marijuana illegal across the United States. The Act also imposed an excise tax on the possession, sale, and transfer of hemp products, which meant that the plant could only be used for industrial purposes. The tax was so high that it effectively discouraged people from using cannabis, even for medical purposes. This led to a scarcity of medical cannabis and contributed to the ongoing stigma against the plant.

One day after the Act was passed, a 58-year-old farmer named Samuel Caldwell was arrested and became the first person to be prosecuted under the Act. He was sentenced to four years of hard labor for selling marijuana.

Despite the Act, the production of industrial hemp was not completely banned and was grown in the United States during World War II. The most recent hemp fields in the country were planted in Wisconsin in 1957.

Cultural Phenomena Criticized Cannabis

The use of marijuana has often been criticized and portrayed as dangerous in popular culture. One notable example is the 1936 film "Reefer Madness," which perpetuated the fear that cannabis would cause corruption and lead to sex and crimes.

Controlled Substances Act of 1970

The Controlled Substances Act of 1970, signed by President Nixon, is a federal law that classifies marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance, along with drugs such as LSD and heroin. This classification indicates that the federal government considers marijuana to have a high potential for abuse and addiction, and does not recognize any safe level of use or any accepted medical uses.

Despite evidence to the contrary, many doctors and other professionals believe that marijuana has strong medical potential, but the Schedule I classification hinders its use, even in states where medical or recreational marijuana is legal. Doctors who recommend marijuana may face consequences, such as losing federal grants, due to the drug's federal illegality.

Harsher Regulations and Enforcement

In the early 1980s, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) began to focus on marijuana farms in the country, as the potency of domestically grown marijuana increased.

In 1972, two years after the Controlled Substances Act was passed, the Shafer Commission, also known as the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse, released a report recommending partial prohibition of marijuana, including reduced penalties for possession of small amounts. Even with the report's use of statistics and research, it was ignored by government officials, including President Nixon.

In 1996, California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana with the Compassionate Use Act, which allowed individuals with chronic or severe illnesses to obtain a medical marijuana license. Since then, 29 states, Washington, D.C., and the territories of Puerto Rico and Guam have also legalized medical marijuana.

The push for legal marijuana has continued to grow, with more and more states considering or implementing legalization.

The legal status of cannabis in the United States varies by state. At the federal level, marijuana is still classified as a Schedule I controlled substance, which means that it is considered to have a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use. However, many states have legalized marijuana for medical or recreational use.

As of December 2022, 15 states and Washington, D.C. have legalized marijuana for recreational use, and 36 states have legalized medical marijuana. It is important to note that the federal government's classification of marijuana as a Schedule I substance means that even in states where marijuana is legal, there may be conflicts between federal and state laws.


The origins of cannabis can be traced back thousands of years to ancient civilizations in Asia and the Middle East. Throughout history, the plant has been used for a variety of purposes, including for its fiber, seeds, and psychoactive effects. Despite its longstanding use, the legal status of cannabis has fluctuated, with periods of strict prohibition and more recent movements towards legalization.

Today, the debate over the legalization of marijuana continues, with some states allowing for its medical or recreational use, while it remains illegal at the federal level.

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