Cannabis, Mary Jane, Marijuana….where did it come from?

Cannabis became popular in the US during the 1960s for its euphoric effect and the fact that using a substance besides alcohol was very counter-culture as a reaction to the button down sobriety of the 1950s. It was something that college and high school kids could do that their parents didn’t really know about. The introduction of marijuana to the United States took place almost 100 years ago, but the plant was common to the rest of the world long before that.

What is Cannabis?

Cannabis Sativa, Cannabis Sativa L, and Cannabis Indica, all come from the same cannabis plant. There are two principle chemicals within the plant that are used in modern products: THC and CBD. THC gives the user a euphoric “high” feeling and CBD is primarily used to manage pain without a euphoric high. The Cannabis plant comes from a family of plants called Cannabaceae. The plant is native to central Asia. It is a flowering variety (other varieties don’t flower) and it is the flower that THC and CBD are derived from. When the plant is grown, the flower is used to reproduce the plant and those flowers are harvested and dried. Once dry, the flower can be smoked or used in cooking. It can also be used to create oils, tinctures, and concentrates.

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An Ancient Plant

Cannabis use has been documented in ancient China as far back as 2720 BC but its use is confirmed as soon as 500 BC when physicians burnt the seeds and leaves for a curative effect. Doctors have used to cure nausea, cholera, and to encourage appetite. There are even modern pharmaceuticals that are derived from the plant for those very effects. The plant was in use for medical purposes across the ancient Mediterranean cultures. The plant’s use for hemp also became common. Its fibers are ideal for rope and cloth. Hashish, a concentrated form became popular with the advent of Islam in the 12th century because it was not prohibited like alcohol in the religion. The popularity of hemp continued into the modern period. In the early days of the American colonies, farmers were required to grow hemp for fiber purposes. Cannabis Sativa and its cousin Cannabis Sativa L is ideal because it grows quite quickly and with modern processing can be used for everything from fiber to oil.

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A Global Plant

Cannabis has been used all over the world. It was originally cultivated in central Asia and quickly spread throughout Africa and into Europe, China and eventually to the Americas. Much like other cross-cultural items like the flute or stringed instruments, Cannabis has been a substance enjoyed by cultures all over the world. We know about some of its ancient origins from plants that were preserved in ancient Egpyt and elsewhere. Almost all cultures have cultivated cannabis and used it for medicinal and recreational purposes, the latest ideas that cannabis is somehow bad for you or causes societal decay is a very modern, Anglo-saxon and protestant idea. It goes right along with the rest of the ideas about sober and chaste living that is common within protestant/Calvinist ideals. This cultural idea that the best life was one which did not include substances or substances in excessive amounts was what led to prohibition, especially in the United States in the early part of the 20th century.


Marijuana didn’t become popular recreationally in the United States until Mexican immigrants made it popular in the early 1900s. Mexican immigrants flowed into the southwest United States as a result of the Mexican revolution in 1910, and they brought cannabis with them as their favorite intoxicant. Its popularity with Mexican immigrants earned cannabis the name marijuana due to the racist attitudes towards immigrants at the time. Immigration would be all but banned by 1925. Sailors from the Caribbean brought cannabis up to New Orleans and port cities along the gulf coast around the same time, and it soon became a popular drug among the jazz clubs of the Big Easy. Because of that, it earned a reputation of being something for those engaging in the counter-culture of the jazz clubs, which also were popular hangouts for African-Americans. This would begin the racist attitudes towards cannabis that have persisted until today. Marijuana, like alcohol before it would be prohibited by 1931.

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Marijuana and Racism

The prohibition of cannabis quickly became popular due to a proper American institution: racism. Cannabis was primarily introduced in the United States in the early 1900s by mexican immigrants. Anti-immigrant attitudes, which often include ideas like immigrants bringing diseases and strange cultural ideas, fueled the idea that marijuana should be banned. This was despite the fact that cannabis sativa was already in common cough medicine and pain killers sold in stores.

Marijuana was banned in 1931 and the penalties for selling and consuming the plant would continue. Sentences for possession can be as long as 20 years. There are people sitting in prison today who sold or possessed a small amount of marijuana in the 80s or 90s are in prison today simply for using the plant that is often legal in some form around the country. Much of the advocacy around cannabis today is helping those people trapped in prison from those arcane laws.

The racism around cannabis continued throughout the 20th century. Communities of color often used the plant recreationally in the 1920s. In the 1960s, communities of color were also using the plant and were targeted its use, far more than white people who might use the plant recreationally as well. Cannabis was a large part of the budding drug culture of the 1960s which also included other exotic drugs like mescaline, LSD, and ether. When the war on drugs began under the Nixon administration, communities of color were unfairly targeted for enforcement. Even today, communities of color are still targeted for drug enforcement even though drug use is fairly even among demographics.

Legalization has been led by well-meaning people including people of color but the primary beneficiaries of cannabis legalization have been white people. So goes the modern saying, “There are black people sitting in jail for doing something that white people make millions off of now.” A big part of the war on drugs was targeting anti-Vietnam war protesters and communities of color. This crack-down of government enforcement that took various forms from 1972 onward, has imprisoned a generation of people and robbed their families of both time and lost income and wealth generating opportunities. The damage that has been done by the war on drugs is nearly incalculable.

Cannabis Today

Although there is still much work to be done on undoing the damage of the war on drugs and educating people on the fact that cannabis can be enjoyed safely, cannabis is growing in popularity and legislation for medicinal and recreational cannabis is spreading across the country. The variety, purity, and THC density of modern cannabis is impressive. The technology behind the industry is better than ever before and the variety of products has never been greater. The days of simply smoking some leaves or baking some brownies is quite over. Now, gummies, juices, snacks, concentrates, and more are available for consumers in select markets across the United States and Canada. Cannabis is excellent for pain management and CBD has allowed people to manage pain and relax without the euphoric high of THC. Cannabis is a billion dollar business and it’s here to stay.