Cannabis: A Background and History

Here we will cover a brief background and historical synopsis of cannabis for your education and entertainment. If you’re into history and weed, get ready, because this is the article for you. So light up that fatty, pack that bowl, hit your blunt, or whatever else you gotta do to get your mind right – and get ready to learn.

*NOTE* – I will not be discussing any current social or political implications associated with marijuana or its uses – only background and history.

What Exactly is Cannabis?

For those who don’t know (and for those who just enjoy learning), cannabis is a plant used for centuries by man-kind in various modalities. Commonly referred to as marijuana – it is more specifically known for its psycho-active and medical properties and has been used for such qualities, and others, for thousands of years (stick a pin in this, we’ll get back to it).

There are three recognized species of cannabis: sativa, indica, and ruderalis – each displaying unique sets of physical and chemical properties that affect how the plant grows, smells, tastes (smokes), and what uses they are suitable for. Within these species, there are tens of thousands of strains, both genetically pure (100% sativa, indica, or ruderalis), as well as those of mixed gene lines (hybrids). Hybrid strains are….exactly that – a strain whose parents come from different species within the cannabis genus. A male of one strain will be crossed with a female of another, in an attempt to create an offspring (seed) with characteristics of both. The main physical differences between the two primary species utilized are presented in the graphic below. Ruderalis is only generally crossed in an effort to change the photo-period required to induce flowering and will be discussed at a later time.


(Amy Phung/Leafly)¹

Within the plant itself, the leaves, stems, and flower buds are the most commonly utilized aspects. They can be used in food, tinctures, teas, or dried and smoked. In doing so, most users are often seeking interaction with the chemical compound Δ9 – tetrahydrocannabinol – or more simply: THC.
Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol-from-tosylate-xtal-3D-balls(THC’s chemical structure)

THC is the primary psychoactive constituent but only one of the many compounds believed to bring about the desired effects associated with marijuana use. These effects can range from relaxation, creative inspiration, easement of pain, euphoria, and stress relief to nausea reduction, appetite stimulation, seizure reduction, and even cancer treatments. On the negative side, NIDA (National Institute on Drug Abuse) has reported an increased risk for certain psychiatric disorders such as anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, and potential substance abuse ² (with long-term use).

In essence, it’s a plant utilized recreationally and/or medicinally to relieve certain  conditions. There are non-medicinal forms of the plant – often designated in modern times as hemp. Hemp is often used industrially/agriculturally to make things such as paper, rope, cloth, ethanol, etc., as it lacks any significant volume of THC, and can be grown with high efficiency and turn-over. In some cases, hemp is also grown and harvested for cannabidiol (CBD) content – another chemical constituent with medicinal, but non-psychoactive properties. CBD is the second-most commonly occurring natural cannabinoid and is thought to have mediating effects on THC in vivo.

In the Beginning….

Now that we have a basic understanding of what marijuana is and some of its uses, let’s step back and take a gander at a bit of the history (for brevity’s sake I’ll try to really only cover the important bits – there’s literally a few millennia worth of history).

According to “Cannabis and Cannabinoids: Pharmacology, Toxicology and Therapeutic Potential”, cannabis likely originated in either central Asia, near the Tian Shan mountains, or near the Altai mountains ³. Cultivated first in China as early as 6000 B.C. (Erowid, 2017)4, and then India, cannabis has been used by man-kind for millennia. Usage was largely dependent on the culture cultivating it. Some used it for the highly nutritious seeds and strong textile fibers the plant is capable of producing. Others used it primarily for its psychoactive properties. For the purpose of this article, it is this use that we will follow and detail primarily, although cannabis’ role as an agricultural crop can not and should not be understated.

A Plant of 1000 Chemicals, Defined by One…

Part of the plant’s appeal in modern times is the wide array of chemical profiles (cannabinoids and terpenes), almost all of which include significant amounts of THC, available to both growers and users alike. Modern drug cannabis (gene) lines can be traced back to the wild, naturally occurring hemp plants of east Asia, Russia, and parts of the Mediterranean. As the plant spread, cultivators began selectively breeding the plants/strains that displayed greater THC content. In particular, gene pool lines originating in South Asia were spread to Africa, Sumatra, and eventually to the equatorial new world where they were adopted and improved upon as a psychoactive plant, achieving THC levels of about 5-10% of the plant’s dry weight³. Today, by comparison, many of the strains produced are capable of having a THC content that comprises upwards of 25-30% of the plant’s dry weight. Such is the effect of selective breeding and modernized growing techniques on the plant’s gene expression.

America’s Past and Present Dealings with Cannabis

“Modern” America has certainly had a tumultuous past with cannabis. It is currently labelled as a Schedule 1 drug under federal classifications (meaning they deem it to have a high addictive potential and little to no medicinal value). This is a direct result of highly exaggerated and often flat-out inaccurate smear campaigns launched into the public beginning around the 1920s. At this point in time the recreational, smoked drug became associated with Mexican immigrants, and the powers that be jumped on anti-immigration sentiments to fuel marijuana prohibition 5. The plant was labelled as dangerous to children and society at large by propaganda and films such as Reefer Madness and, by the 1930s cannabis was prohibited in 24 states 5. In 1937, Congress passed The Marihuana Tax Act which made illegal the buying, selling, bartering, or giving away of cannabis without paying a “transfer” tax 4, 5. This was the first federal law attempting to regulate cannabis commerce in the United States and was subsequently declared unconstitutional in 1969 as a result of the court case The U.S. vs Timothy Leary 4. In the early 1970s, the Nixon-appointed Shafer Commision urged the government to roll back regulations on the use of cannabis. These recommendations were largely ignored by the government at the time, although some states did decriminalize possession of small amounts of cannabis and medical research did continue 7.  In 1975, the FDA established the Compassionate Use Program 4. This program expanded the use of “investigational drugs, biologics or medical devices outside the clinical trial setting for treatment purposes” and is still in place today 6.

Just as it seemed as if cannabis was gaining legal traction on a larger scale, the Reagan administration of the 1980s began its hard-hitting “War on Drugs” – of which cannabis was considered to be public enemy no. 1 by the administration 7. In its wake, youth-based educational programs (D.A.R.E) sprung up and proponents of the movement pointed to decreases in use among youth/adolescents as a major success. Reagan’s war on drugs also led to a significant increase in prison populations, placing financial strain on cities and governments short of money and space for newly classified criminals. Critics of the war on drugs used this as evidence that focus should be placed on treating addiction/abuse and not on incarceration 7. Concurrently, proponents of cannabis use argued that it was effective in treating certain conditions such as glaucoma and chronic nausea from cancer treatments 7. Cannabis use also became extremely popular among AIDS patients 7, leading to the passage of the nation’s first medical marijuana law in California circa 1996 (allowed for the use of marijuana with the prescription of a doctor) 4, 7. Two years later, Oregon, Washington, and Alaska follow suit 7.

As of today, cannabis is legal (either medicinally or recreationally) in 47 of the 50 states and three of five US territories. The federal government, states of Idaho, Nebraska, and South Dakota, as well as the American Somoa and Virgin Island territories continue to maintain laws against the use of cannabis in all situations 8. If you have any questions regarding the legality of cannabis in your state or territory, please consult your specific state or territorial policies/laws.

In conclusion…

There you have it – a basic working knowledge surrounding the plant, what it is, what it’s used for, and how we as an American society have interacted with the plant over the last 100 years or so. Hopefully, as cannabis continues to grow in its role in society, so will our knowledge of it on a scientific and sociological level. Just try not to forget it 😉 … Happy Highs!


1 – Rahn, Bailey. “Indica vs Sativa: What’s the Difference Between Cannabis Types?” Leafly, 20 Sept. 2018,
2 – NIDA. “Marijuana.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, 25 Jun. 2018, Accessed 18 Oct. 2018.
3 – Grotenhermen, Franjo, and Ethan Russo. “Cannabis and Cannabinoids.” Google Books, Haworth   Integrative Healing Press,     id=JvIyVk2IL_sC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false.
4 – “Cannabis Timeline.” Erowid Cannabis Vault : Timeline, Erowid, 2 Oct. 1999,
5 – Ghose, Tia. “Marijuana: Facts About Cannabis.” LiveScience, Purch, 18 May 2017,
6 – Office of the Commissioner. “Expanded Access .” U S Food and Drug Administration Home Page,     Office of the Commissioner, 19 June 2018,
7 – Mapes, Jeff. “Marijuana Legalization: The Rise of a Drug from Outlaw Status to Retail   Shelves.”,, 9 Nov. 2014,
8 -“Legality of Cannabis by U.S. Jurisdiction.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 17 Oct. 2018,