The History of Cannabis

A timeline of cannabis' origin dating back millions of years ago and how its evolved to our present day.

Cannabis History floating above a bed of green cannabis leaves with a white square framing the words

Cannabis and humans, it’s hard to think of a better pair. Homo Sapiens owe much of our success as a species to this useful weed plant and the many gifts it has given us. From its use as a food source to bowstrings, raw material to medical miracle, cannabis has been with us from the start. It’s like, our genetic destinies have been intertwined ever since the dawn of our species. Human domestication of cannabis has had a profound effect on the plants’ evolution and we continue to shape its genetics with our cultivation practices, policies and politics. 

The Origin of Cannabis 

To tell this story, we have to start from the beginning. Genomic research has found that cannabis and hops split from a common ancestor around 27.8 million years ago. It’s not until 19.6 million years that the first definitive cannabis pollen was found in the fossil record, with the Tibetan Plateau as the center of origin. This is long before the first humans, when our ancestors were still hanging out in trees. 

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A green valley within the Tibetan Plateau that is lush with mountains in the background

The first cannabis fossil records stem back to the Tibetan Plateau. Photo credit: Shutterstock

Genetic evidence points to cannabis already being able to produce THC long before humans showed up. It wasn’t until around 300,000 years ago the first Homo Sapiens appeared on the scene.

Out in the wild, Cannabis sativa really grows like a weed. It thrives in areas that have been disrupted, especially by humans. It’s been considered a “camp follower”, which means it literally followed us around from camp to camp in our primitive years. Cannabis seeds are high in nutrients, amino acids, plant based protein, and can be eaten raw. 

If you think of how many seeds just one bud can hold and the fact that un-crunched seeds can pass right through the digestive tract and still germinate, you begin to see how it could follow early humans around. 18,000 years ago we were spreading cannabis all over Eurasia, where new environments and human pressures for medicine and raw materials began shaping its genetics.  

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Cannabis in the East

The first human archaeological evidence shows up in Japan, 10,000 years ago in the form of hemp twine impressions on pottery. Then, in China along the ancient Silk Road trade routes, we found still smokable buds in a shamans tomb 2,700 years old, along with the wooden braziers used to smoke it. Burned cannabis residue is found caked on the inside of these primitive smoking devices. Research shows that this cannabis had a higher THC to CBD ratio than that of wild populations at the time. This means our ancient ancestors were definitely breeding and selecting their own “hype” strains. 

A traditionally Indian Sadu with orange attire and long brown hair with white beard

Sadus use cannabis for meditation. Photo credit: Shutterstock

Around 1200 BC in India, the ancient Hindu text, The Arhara Veda, mentions cannabis as one of the 5 sacred herbs. To this day, bhang, a mixture of cannabis flowers and leaves, is eaten for the Hindu festival of Holi. Sadus are Hindu Holy Men that have carried on the tradition of smoking cannabis and hash for meditative and religious purposes for time untold. 

War on Drugs

While some of our ancestors started selecting cannabis with higher THC, others started selecting and breeding cannabis for other traits, like fiber production and seed size. This is how we have hemp, which is low in THC but has very strong fibers, and the cultivars with high THC that we see today. It’s important to note that this is still classified as the same plant even though it has two totally separate uses. This lack of distinction was a key aspect in the political turmoil of the last century with cannabis prohibition and the War on Drugs.

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In the early 1900s cannabis had found its way into everyday life. Hemp fibers were commonly used for making ropes, clothes and building materials. Cannabis indica had made its way into tonics and tinctures for treating pain and insomnia. That all changed around the 1930’s when marijuana prohibition was used as a tool for law enforcement to subjugate minority groups, entertainers, and anyone the government felt threatened by. 

A black and white image of a man snickering and looking over his shoulder

A still frame from the movie Reefer Madness depicting a man going crazy after smoking cannabis.

Using an onslaught of racially motivated propaganda through newspapers, the Head of the Bureau of Narcotics, Henry Anslinger, convinced the American public cannabis would be the downfall of society. He demonized the weed and started cracking down on consumers. In fact, the term “marijuana” was coined to paint cannabis consumers in a bad light, it was a derogatory term that made cannabis criminal. 

The movie Reefer Madness was released in 1936 to reinforce the idea that cannabis would turn ordinary people into murderous criminals. This had a profound effect on the American psyche, and cannabis consumers were marginalized and oppressed.  

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In 1937, the Marihuana Tax Act was passed which required anyone growing Cannabis sativa to purchase tax stamps, which were not easy to come by. This included hemp until around 1942 when hemp cordage was needed for World War 2 and some tax stamps were issued to farms. Other than that, growing, possessing or consuming cannabis was illegal with a hefty jail sentence. 

The Cannabis Black Market 

As a result, the cannabis aficionados of the time had to start hiding their plants or start importing flower from other countries. In the 1930s and 40s most cannabis was just harvested off of wild plants growing in pastures and vacant lots. But law enforcement started to catch on and upped their eradication campaigns. Cannabis started getting harder to grow in the U.S.A, but the demand remained. So counties in South America stepped in to fill the void. By the 1960s, imported cannabis flower like Panama Red and Colombian Gold became common in the states. 

Many countries started to enact similar cannabis laws in the 1950s. Shortly after though, folks in The Netherlands started to exploit a legal loophole in their county’s laws. In 1967, the first “coffeeshop” in Amsterdam appeared called “Mellow Yellow”. Here you could enjoy a selection of fine craft grown cannabis along with coffee and a stroopwafel. 

Amsterdam coffee shop with a green, yellow, and red with orange balloons on the building.

Coffeeshops in Amsterdam were known for carrying some of the best seeds. Photo credit: Shutterstock

As more coffeeshops popped up, a culture of cannabis innovation was born. Competing coffeeshops began to hybridize strains and create new cultivars in an attempt to outdo each other. Cannabis from all over the world was then sought out and seeds were brought in, further pushing the hybridization efforts. 

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A similar situation was happening in Northern California and Colorado around the same time. During the 1970s the “back to the earth” hippy culture started to revive cannabis cultivation efforts state-wide. Returning troops from tours abroad brought back cannabis seeds from places like Vietnam, Cambodia and Afghanistan. New cultivars like Blueberry and Haze were created in California during this era.  

But, of course the government pushed back as demand for cannabis grew. During the 1980s, a new War on Drugs began and incarceration for nonviolent drug offenses like cannabis possession skyrocketed. This caused cannabis farmers to start taking their crops indoors. Using newly developed HID (High Intensity Discharge) lighting, it was possible to grow cannabis anywhere. 

Image of a green cannabis grow in flower under grow lights

Growers started moving their grows indoors during War on Drugs raids. Photo credit: Shutterstock

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Savvy growers perfected techniques for growing seedless “sensimilla” by only growing female plants and not allowing them to fertilize. Innovative breeders created new cultivars that were smaller and easier to grow inside with low ceilings. Using the hybrids of the 1970s as parents, new hybrids were created that finished flowering faster, yielded more, and had their own unique terpene profiles, not to mention higher potency. With the improvement of quality and its status as an illegal yet still highly sought after substance, cannabis prices soared. 

In the mid 1980s, the first cannabis seed banks began to sprout up in Amsterdam. These companies operated under a gray area in the laws, and started to ship seeds out discreetly to anyone who wanted them, worldwide. Eager and aspiring cannabis breeders then took these hybrids created by hybrids, and hybridized those. New cultivars were created, selected for even higher potency, effects and flavors. 

As the War on Drugs continued, its harmful effects on cannabis genetics started taking a toll. On the quest for the most pungent and flavorful aromas in cannabis, breeders had created strains whose smell was so strong that they became hard to hide. If you were growing Skunk #1, it was pretty hard to keep the stank under wraps, and your grow operation would probably be raided. In response, breeders then started to select and grow strains with less pungent odor, which resulted in the lost flavors and aromas. 

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To make things worse, the War on Drugs forced cannabis into a competitive black market. If a black market dealer was having trouble moving their product, they could easily just change the name to something more appealing. If someone purchased flower from them, found seeds in it, and grew them, they would unknowingly be growing a mislabeled strain. This caused the “great confusion” of cannabis genetics. It has had a huge impact on the cannabis we smoke today, where strain authenticity is almost impossible

Cannabis Legalization

As the pro-cannabis population again pushed back, activism and legalization efforts gained momentum. In the USA, a few states started implementing “medical marijuana” legislation. Qualified patients could then grow and possess cannabis, or have a caretaker help grow it for them. It wasn’t long after, in 2012, that Colorado became the first state to legalize cannabis and create a regulated market for its cultivation and distribution. 

A few glass jars with green cannabis nuggets inside.

Legalization is spreading throughout states in the nation and recreational cannabis is more available today. Photo credit: Shutterstock

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Soon many states followed suit. Cannabis could now be grown to fruition in large indoor facilities and greenhouses. Cannabis was celebrated in some states, and still criminalized in others. As dispensaries and cultivation companies competed in the market, cannabis genetics had another explosion and hybridized hybrids of hybridized hybrids were being further crossed with one another. 

Today’s flower potency can reach in the high 30% THC range. An entire plethora of colors, flavors, aromas, potency and effects is seen in today’s cannabis. During our long history together, we’ve bred and selected cannabis to help us out in our day to day lives. 

Conclusion

From hemp fibers for clothes to CBD isolate to help treat seizures, cannabis has kind of been the dog of the plant world for us. We’ve taken it from its place of origin, spread it around the world, bred it to help with our survival, and created distinct breeds. Cannabis truly is man’s best (plant) friend.

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