Where Did Cannabis Originate?

Updated September 19, 2022


  • Cannabis Began in Central Asia
  • The First Cannabis and the Three Original Types
  • Evidence of Early Use
  • Cannabis’s Spread to Europe
  • Spreading Outside of Europe
  • Cannabis in the United States
  • Personal Use by Leaders
  • Racism and Cannabis in the United States
  • A Closer Look at Medical Marijuana’s Origins
  • CBD for Medicinal Purposes
  • The Legality of Cannabis in the United States
  • The 1937 Marijuana Tax Act
  • Cultural Phenomena Criticized Cannabis
  • Controlled Substances Act of 1970
  • Harsher Regulations and Enforcement
  • Pushes Toward Legal Cannabis
  • Current Legal Status
  • Conclusion

Today, cannabis is a frequently discussed issue, with topics ranging from legalization to its numerous benefits. Few people stop to contemplate the origins of cannabis. When did people start using cannabis and what were their original goals? How has our use of cannabis changed over the years? Who was the first group of people to use cannabis? The answers to all these questions can provide insight into where cannabis originated, giving us some important perspective on our current use and perceptions of the plant.

Cannabis Began in Central Asia

Experts believe that cannabis evolved in Central Asia, specifically on the steppes in the area that is currently southern Siberia and Mongolia. The plant is actually among the oldest crops that humans cultivated, with evidence showing its use as early as 12,000 years ago. Experts believe that the early cannabis plant likely grew best in the dumpsites of our prehistoric hunter and gatherer ancestors, as these locations were rich in nutrients.

The First Cannabis and the Three Original Types

There is even evidence of cannabis plants that are far older than this first estimated cultivation. Scientists are reasonably certain that the Hindu Kush mountain region first naturally grew the early cannabis plant around 2.3 million years ago. From there, the genus split, with small pockets evolving slightly differently. Cannabis indica evolved in Southwestern Asia while cannabis sativa grew in the Caucasus Mountains and the Balkans and cannabis ruderalis grew in Siberia. The first of these, the cannabis sativa, led to the hemp most people are familiar with.

The sativa plant in Western Asia and Eastern European was mostly used for hemp fiber and seed oil. In Southeastern Asia, cannabis indica was bred to have stronger psychoactive properties. Here, it was a spiritual aid since the cultures already had plenty of crops to serve purposes like fiber and food. The cannabis ruderalis in Siberia was essentially a weed. It is a wild species of cannabis that was rarely bred but somehow has surprisingly high CBD levels.

Going back to the cannabis sativa, this plant is among the first plants that humans cultivated. The flowers, fibers, and seeds were all used for purposes like paper, rope, and clothing. Some Bible scholars even feel that the “holy herb” mentioned in the book is cannabis indica since it was common in the area and people were aware of its psychoactive effects.

Evidence of Early Use

Researchers found hemp cord used in pottery within an ancient village, with experts dating it to at least 8000 B.C., if not earlier. Scientists have found burned cannabis seeds in Siberia’s kurgan burial mounds. These are from around 3000 B.C. There is also evidence of mummified psychoactive marijuana in noble tombs from around 2500 B.C. in both Siberia and the Xinjiang Chinese region. There is also documentation of its use as a recreational herb in both China and India around 2800 B.C.

An early pipe at the Hash Marihuana & Hemp Museum in Barcelona, Spain
An early pipe at the Hash Marihuana & Hemp Museum in Barcelona, Spain

That is not the oldest indication of cannabis use in China, however. Ancient Chinese used both psychoactive marijuana and hemp fairly widely. The earliest recorded use of cannabis for medicinal purposes was in 4000 B.C. In this case, it was used during surgery as an anesthetic. Stories even link it to Chinese Emperor Shen Neng around 2737 B.C. Of course, there is still scholarly debate as to whether Shen Nung is even a real person.

Burials are a good source of information regarding cannabis and its adoption. Japanese tombs from 8000 B.C. have included cannabis. There is also an Egyptian mummy from around 1070 B.C. that had trace quantities of THC in its bones, soft tissues, and bones thanks to preservation. A Caucasian shaman buried around 700 B.C. in the Yanghai Tombs in China, and his burial included a large quantity of cannabis sativa, including indications of domestication. There are also Scythian burials from 500 B.C. with wild cannabis seeds in a pouch.

As early as around 2000 B.C., possibly sooner, coastal Chinese farmers brought cannabis to Korea. The plant reached the subcontinent of South Asia sometime around 2000 B.C. to 1000 B.C. This coincided with the invasion of the Aryans. From there, cannabis went on to be popular in India, helping to relieve anxiety. Experts are in agreement that by 500 B.C., people in Asia commonly used marijuana. Cultures that used it included ancient Romans and Greeks, Persians, Muslims, and Indians. Herodotus wrote about the popularity of cannabis steam baths in 440 B.C. An ancient Persian religious text, Zendavesta, calls bhang the “good narcotic,” indicating the use of cannabis in that culture.

Most of these early uses of marijuana, however, were mostly medical. Some cultures also used marijuana in religious ceremonies or rituals, thanks to the psychoactive properties of THC.

Cannabis’s Spread to Europe

Around 2000 B.C. to 1400 B.C. cannabis spread to the Middle East. Historians believe the Scythians used it there. This group of people then likely brought it to the areas they occupied, including southeast Russia as well as Ukraine. Islam’s spread also contributed to the spread of cannabis in the Middle East as well as portions of Asia. This is because the Quran explicitly forbade using certain intoxicating substances, including alcohol. It did not specifically outlaw cannabis, so Muslims could continue to use the substance.

Later on, Germanic tribes brought cannabis to Germany. Once in Germany, the Anglo-Saxon invasions during the 5th century spread marijuana to Britain. There is also evidence of cannabis seeds in Viking ships from the mid-9th century. The first evidence of imported hemp rope in England, however, goes all the way back to 100 A.D.

Spreading Outside of Europe

Throughout the following centuries, cannabis continued to spread. It reached Africa around 700 A.D. and spread throughout the continent in the 1100s and 1400s. By the 19th century, it reached South America. From there, cannabis was able to spread north to North America.

Cannabis in the United States

The use of cannabis is closely intertwined with that of hemp, but hemp has a longer history in the United States than cannabis. Sources indicate that early colonists in America actively grew hemp for rope and textiles. The Spanish likely brought the hemp plant to North America during the late 1500s. The mid-1500s is also when African slaves brought cannabis with them to Brazil. There, they had permission to grow marijuana for smoking.

During the early 1600s, farmers in Virginia, Connecticut, and Massachusetts had to grow hemp. It is important to note that this hemp was very different from the cannabis that spread from Mexico in the early 1900s. These hemp plants used by the colonists had extremely low THC levels, meaning they caused no or almost no psychoactive effects. It was not used for recreation but to make products like paper or rope. The hemp fibers were particularly strong and widely used for ships’ rigging. Even George Washington and Thomas Jefferson likely used their plantations to grow hemp, among other crops.

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

The use of cannabis for recreational use, however, came much later. Recreational marijuana only made it to the United States during the early 20th century. It first reached the Southwest via Mexico thanks to immigrants leaving the Mexican Revolution in 1910 and 1911.

Personal Use by Leaders

Thanks to various pieces of personal correspondence, experts know that former Presidents James Madison, James Monroe, and Thomas Jefferson all seem to have smoked hashish. So did Mary Todd Lincoln and Benjamin Franklin.

Racism and Cannabis in the United States

Because of the cannabis coming from Mexico, experts believe that the early prejudice in the United States against cannabis was actually based on racism. Experts indicate that the arguments against cannabis at this time were hiding racist fears, which reactionary newspapers encouraged. In addition to the blame Mexicans faced for smoking cannabis, they also faced other unfounded accusations, like property crimes and murderous sprees.

Even the use of specific words to describe the plant had racial undertones. Throughout the 19th century, most people used the term cannabis for the plant. That anti-Mexican sentiment during the early 20th century, however, led to an increase in the use of the term marijuana. Many aimed to give the term a negative connotation and paint Mexicans as drug users.

Mexicans were not the only immigrants with a reputation for smoking marijuana at this time, something which furthered racism. West Indian immigrants and sailors spread cannabis throughout the Gulf of Mexico’s port cities. Newspapers in New Orleans tried to directly link cannabis use to jazz musicians, prostitutes, African Americans, and “underworld” whites. Some historians argue that prohibition helped spread marijuana, but mostly those in show business and jazz smoked it at the time.

Even now with a significantly smaller degree of racial tensions, minorities continue to bear the legal burden of smoking marijuana. Minorities tend to be arrested for cannabis use much more frequently than whites.

Experts agree that these racial undertones regarding marijuana use are what led to the drive toward federal regulation.

A Closer Look at Medical Marijuana’s Origins

As previously mentioned, there are records from as long ago as 4000 B.C. of Chinese doctors using medical marijuana as an aesthetic. There is recorded use of it by Emperor Shen Neng in 2737 B.C.E. and cannabis is in the first pharmacopeia in the east, from 200 A.D. The spread of medical marijuana in Western civilizations, however, was much more recent.

Experts believe that most other cultures that used cannabis early on in the plant’s history did so for medicinal reasons. It was used as a treatment for nausea, gout, depression, inflammation, and malaria. Some people took it to suppress sexual desires and surgeons used it as an anesthetic. Pliny the Elder, a Roman historian, wrote Naturalis Historia in 79 A.D. and mentioned the practice of boiling cannabis root in water to treat acute pain, cramps, and gout.

Irish doctor Sir William Brooke O’Shaughnessy was studying in India during the 1830s. He discovered that using cannabis extracts was able to reduce certain symptoms of cholera, specifically vomiting and stomach pain. This led to a dramatic spread in the use of cannabis, especially for medical purposes. By the end of the 1800s, you could find cannabis extracts in the United States and Europe in doctors’ offices and pharmacies. These were marketed to treat ailments like stomach problems. In fact, cannabis was part of the United States Pharmacopeia between 1850 and 1914, used to treat rheumatism, labor pain, and nausea.

Queen Victoria used it to treat menstrual cramps and her physician, Sir Joshua Reynolds, wrote about its medicinal benefits in 1890. In 1892, when Sir William Osler wrote the first Internal Medicine textbook, he suggested cannabis as the best treatment for those suffering from migraines.

Much more recently, scientists noticed that THC is responsible for many of the plant’s medicinal properties. THC is the psychoactive component of cannabis but also interacts with portions of our brains that relate to hunger and nausea, resolving issues with them. In fact, there are two FDA-approved drugs that include THC. These are Syndros and Marinol and treat loss of appetite from AIDS and nausea from chemotherapy.

CBD for Medicinal Purposes

In recent years, cannabidiol (CBD), the non-psychoactive part of marijuana, has risen in favor for its medicinal purposes. CBD is linked to relief of depression and anxiety. Because CBD does not have any psychoactive effects, it faces more social acceptance than THC and the cannabis plant as a whole. The FDA approved the very first drug based on CBD in 2018. This came in the form of Epidiolex for epilepsy. Advocates hope it will lead to more FDA approvals of CBD-based drugs.

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 gave the Drug Enforcement Agency regulatory control of cannabis. In other words, possessing marijuana became illegal across the entire United States. This act further included an excise tax on possession, sale, and transfer of hemp products. This meant that the plant could only be used for industrial purposes.

That tax was incredibly high, to the point that it would strongly deter people from using cannabis, even for medical reasons. As fewer people bought medical cannabis, it became nearly impossible to find. Doctors and proponents of legalized cannabis today indicate that this stigma still continues, although to a lesser degree.

Lawmakers were serious about the act and arrested Samuel Caldwell, a 58-year-old farmer, just one day after the Act was passed. He was the first person to be prosecuted under it and his sentence was four years with hard labor for selling marijuana.

The Marijuana Tax Act did not completely outlaw the production of industrial hemp. This version of the cannabis plant was grown throughout WWII in the United States. In fact, officials encouraged domestic hemp cultivation since the Philippines had previously been the country’s source of imported hemp but the country was under control of the Japanese forces. Sources indicate that the most recent hemp fields in the United States were planted in Wisconsin in 1957.

Cultural Phenomena Criticized Cannabis

It became incredibly common for cultural phenomena to criticize the use of marijuana and paint it as dangerous. Most notably, the movie “Reefer Madness” came out in 1936. It only served to worsen fears that cannabis would cause corruption and lead to sex and crimes.

Controlled Substances Act of 1970

President Nixon signed the Controlled Substance Act of 1970. This law was part of his famous “War on Drugs.” It was this law that listed cannabis as Schedule I. The United States federal government continues to include marijuana in the list of Schedule I controlled substances today. As a Schedule I substance, the government believes there is a significant potential for addiction and abuse. This also indicates the government does not say there is any safe level for using marijuana nor any medical uses accepted. This is the same status that LSD and heroin have.

Given the evidence to the contrary, many oppose the current status of cannabis. Many doctors and non-medical professionals today believe that marijuana has strong medical potential, but this act still gets in the way. Since cannabis is a Schedule I substance, doctors are afraid to use or suggest it, even in states that allow for medical marijuana or recreational use. Doctors who did recommend it could face consequences like no longer receiving their federal grants due to the federal illegality of marijuana.

Harsher Regulations and Enforcement

Starting around 1982, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration started to pay closer attention to marijuana farms in the country. This was also the same time when the potency of this domesticated marijuana increased. In fact, the potency doubled from 1979 to 1985.

Two years after the act went into place, the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse or the Shafer Commission shared a report that suggested partial prohibition. It suggested reduced penalties for those who only possessed small quantities. This report was ignored by government officials, including Nixon, despite its use of statistics and research.

California was the first state that legalized medical marijuana with its Compassionate Use Act of 1996. This act let those with chronic or severe illnesses get a medical marijuana license. Eventually, 29 states, Washington, D.C., and the territories of Puerto Rico and Guam all legalized medical marijuana.

Federal law in the United States still makes cannabis illegal. Many individual states, however, allow adults to use marijuana for recreational purposes. Colorado and Washington began this trend in 2012. As of June of this year, 11 states (and the District of Columbia) had legalized marijuana for medical use. Another 22 have legalized medical marijuana. The remaining 17 do not have any broad laws related to marijuana legalization.

Today, there are even cannabis IPOs. The first marijuana IPO to take place in the United States was Tilray, a Canadian company. This company started trading July 19, 2018, on the Nasdaq at $23 and ran up to an all-time high of $214 on September 18, 2018.


Cannabis has been a part of human culture and cultivation for thousands of years. Evidence shows it likely originated in Asia and people have been using it since at least 8000 B.C., if not earlier. Over the years, attitudes and uses have changed, with the current trend working toward legalization.