From widespread use to complete prohibition – to coming back around full circle to being commonly accepted, cannabis has had a very special history as a medicinal and recreational substance. A plant that once lined the shelves of pharmacies became prohibited and illegal, and some 100 years later has made a return to shelves. 

In a modern world where marijuana is now legal in many countries, it’s hard to believe that for a long time, it was categorized together with opiates as being among the most dangerous substances in the world. There are places in the world where it’s still like this, and using cannabis or being caught in possession of it can land you in prison.

Nobody actually knows what all the controversy is about and why some nations can agree on a legal marijuana model while others want no part in it. But one thing is for certain: the journey from prohibition to legalization has been turbulent and has changed the way that the world perceives medicine, drugs, and everything in between.

Paper and medicine

The USA used to be one of the biggest producers of hemp in the world during the 1800s. It was agriculturally and industrially an extremely important plant, as it produced the fibers necessary to produce rope for ships, sails, paper, and even medicine. It had so many uses that for a long time, governments wanted their citizens to grow hemp on their behalf. 

It was completely commonplace for doctors to prescribe cannabis preparations to their patients for all kinds of ailments – from pain to melancholy. Hashish candies were advertised in Vanity Fair in 1862, saying they were a cure for melancholy and a “pleasurable stimulant”. Everybody knew that cannabis made you feel good. At the same time, it provided a versatile commercial product for the government and a material for making important equipment such as ropes.

Overall, smoking cannabis was virtually unheard of in the USA at this point, and it was consumed exclusively through herbal tinctures and edible preparations. It wasn’t until the 20th century and the Mexican revolution that anybody in the USA heard anything about smoking weed, and this intermingling of race and drugs began the 100 year prohibition of the world’s most used recreational substance.

The Mexican revolution and marihuana

The Mexican revolution took place in the early decades of the 1900s, and many made their way across the border to US soil. The Americans didn’t like this, and propaganda campaigns soon started associating Mexicans with weed. This is what the Mexicans called the plant and the term was largely unknown in the USA before this. The association between immigrants and smoking weed became a tool for the government to portray immigrants as a menace, and the slow journey to prohibition started.

Some argue that the US government prohibited cannabis as a way to legally target immigrants. States outlawing cannabis allowed for Mexicans to be arrested essentially. But it isn’t clear why the Americans started outlawing hemp along with it. Some historians believe that this is because the tree paper industry wanted a one-up on hemp, and the only way to beat it was to make it illegal. 

By the 1930s, many states had outlawed marijuana and hemp, and the great depression was sneaking in. The loss of jobs and wealth triggered further racism towards Mexicans and cannabis, and it wasn’t long before a widespread prohibition was taking place. The world simply followed suit, with the USA being the economic and political powerhouse of the world at that time. By the time the second half of the 20th century had rolled around, weed was virtually illegal everywhere in the world.

The 1960s, the hippie era, and the war on drugs

The hippie era was upon the world, and there was a sudden rise in the use of cannabis and other psychedelic plants – in the USA at least. The attitude around marijuana relaxed, and more and more people were growing and using it. It was a lush time for the transport of cannabis and hashish around the world and it became cool to smuggle hashish from India and Morocco to parts of the Western world. 

Needless to say, Richard Nixon wasn’t a fan of this blooming culture of cannabis use, and in the 1970s the “War on Drugs” was declared. Drugs were deemed “public enemy number one”, and many Americans were incarcerated for using drugs. This theme continued on for over 30 years, and there’s no knowing just how many peoples’ lives and livelihoods were lost to the war on drugs.  

The criminalization of cannabis led to the incarceration of people all over the world, being treated as one of the most dangerous substances in the world. This wreaked havoc on society and on drug users of all kinds, with this kind of prisoner becoming the overwhelming majority of the prison population.

Drug law reform, Amsterdam, the USA, and now

The fight for drug law reform continues to this day as many see the incarceration of drug users as a misuse of the law and a waste of public resources. Amsterdam legalized marijuana in 1976, and virtually ever since then, tourists have flocked there to enjoy the freedom to use cannabis legally in coffeeshops. For a long time, Amsterdam was the focal point of worldwide cannabis use. 

In the year 2000, Portugal took what was arguably the most radical decision in drug law reform ever seen by the world – they decriminalized all drugs. Rather than incarcerating drug users, Portugal offered medical and psychological support to those found with recreational or personal amounts of drugs  – this included marijuana. 

In 2006, California became the first state in the USA to legalize cannabis. The world frenzied over this decision, and it too became a cannabis capital of the world and remains this way until today. Once California legalized medicinal cannabis, the floodgates had officially opened – weed was making its way back into society. Many states followed suit, and today, 40 states have legalized the use of medicinal cannabis and 23 states for recreational use. 

Since then, cannabis has been legalized in Canada, Georgia, Luxembourg, Malta, Mexico, South Africa, Uruguay, and Thailand. Many countries are in the thick of reforming their drug laws, and it probably won’t be long before it’s more common for weed to be legal than illegal.

Commerce and freedom

Places like Amsterdam were able to capitalize early on the industry that weed is. It is one of the biggest and fastest growing industries around the world. Whether legal or illegal, people love using cannabis, and there’s somewhat of a love affair between humans and marijuana. Needless to say, this created the perfect environment for a boost in tax revenue to governments and certainly a boost in tourism.

Weed is well and truly a part of society again, and in some places people don’t even blink when you mention the word. It’s so normal to use it that you probably smell it at every party, or are offered some when you go to visit friends.

The legalization of cannabis has also created a unique opportunity in the world of medical science, allowing for studies to take place on the benefits of using cannabis rather than focusing on the potential harms. We know more about cannabis and its medicinal applications now than we ever have, and people are enjoying the freedom to use cannabis as a medicine without imprisonment.

The world is in a unique time where it’s trying desperately to squeeze the marijuana square into the political circle. Our lives have been dramatically shaped by prohibition, and there are so many aspects of the law that are affected by it. From workplace laws to driving, almost every aspect of the law has to be tweaked to reintegrate the use of cannabis into the modern world.

Sera has been a cannabis writer for over 8 years and is a natural medicine enthusiast. With a bachelor degree in naturopathy, she is passionate about all things plants, botany, and writing.