A Brief History of Cannabis: From Prohibition to Legalization

A full history of cannabis and its impact on humanity could fill many, many library shelves. But the important thing to remember is this – this is a plant with a long, cherished background. It’s been embraced by cultures in almost every corner of the world and has been used in everything from medicine to manufacturing.



So, given that cannabis has been with us for so much of recorded history, how and why did it become illegal? How could something with so many practical applications and such widespread use around the world become so vilified?


To answer that question, we need to look at what was happening in North America in the early 20th Century.


How Cannabis Was Criminalized in the 20th Century


Worldwide history:


Cannabis has its roots in Asia (China, Pakistan, Afghanistan), but the plant has been grown and cultivated all over the world – the name “Hindu Kush” comes from the mountain range of the same name and “Ganja” (the Caribbean term for cannabis) is believed to have come from the Sanskrit name “Ganjika”.


The name “Indica” is a reference to this cannabis variation’s origins near the Indian subcontinent, and it has thrived in mountainous regions from Afghanistan to Nepal.


“Sativa” comes from the Latin word for “cultivated”, and “Ruderalis” comes from the Latin word “rudera” for “rubble, broken stone or lump”. Ruderal plants are ones that rapidly colonize waste grounds and are the first to spring up out of these areas, growing “out of the rubble”.


Hemp cultivation has existed in North America since the 17th Century, being used in everything from lamp fuel to rope.


Smokable cannabis, on the other hand, was not always a common phenomenon. This method of consumption had its roots in the fallout of the Mexican Revolution when many of the refugees began crossing the border to the U.S. to escape the conflict.


These refugees brought cannabis to North America (referred to by the migrants as “marihuana”). During this time, there was also an influx of Caribbean immigrants to the U.S. (many of whom also had a cultural habit of cannabis smoking) in places like New Orleans.


In response to public pressure and rising misconceptions of the effects of cannabis, the drug was criminalized through the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, passed by the U.S. Congress.


Meanwhile, in Canada, cannabis had been officially restricted since 1923 under the Narcotics Drug Act Amendment Bill following successful legislation to ban cocaine and opium in the years prior. But it wasn’t until the 1930s when the first arrests and seizures took place, and cultivation was outlawed under the Opium and Narcotic Drug Act of 1938.


By the late 1960s, pot use had proliferated in North America. Much of this was driven by students on college campuses and the growing counter-culture movement that had sought to normalize it.




In 1969, the Marihuana Tax Act was deemed unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. This led Congress to pass the Controlled Substances Act, classifying cannabis as a Schedule I narcotic. Under the Nixon administration in 1973, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) was created, and the War on Drugs in America was underway.


Fighting Back: Cannabis Advocacy And Decriminalization Attempts


With the Controlled Substances Act and the Drug Enforcement Agency in place, cannabis activists began fighting back.


In response to the War on Drugs, a number of organizations were formed with the goal of educating the public and pushing for drug law reform. The earliest of these organizations was the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).


During this time, there were also moves to take action at the state level. Throughout the 1970s, a number of individual states moved to decriminalize possession in defiance of the Nixon administration.




All of this came to a head in the 1980s under Ronald Reagan. Fueled in part by the crack epidemic, the anti-drug pushback was in full swing. This was the era of Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign and DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) – a time in which public attitudes toward drugs (with little distinctions made) were at an all-time negative.


Mass incarcerations, many of which were for minor drug offences, reached an all-time high, with the U.S. prison population effectively doubling over the course of the decade.


The Medical Marijuana Movements


Despite all of this anti-drug hysteria, the public’s attitude experienced a profound shift in the decades that followed – and one of the major reasons was the rise of medical marijuana.


While research into the medical applications of cannabis had been happening for decades, it wasn’t until the 90’s that advocates began getting the message out to the public. California was the first to act, passing Proposition 215 to approve the use of medical marijuana.


A number of states soon followed. In Canada (which had been through its own anti-drug hysteria), a ruling by the Canadian Court of Appeal found that the prohibition on cannabis for medical purposes was unconstitutional.


In 2001, the Marihuana Medical Access Regulations Act was issued by Health Canada, effectively making Canada the first country to legalize medical marijuana.


The recognition that this could be a powerful, life-changing medicine went a long way to help normalize its use. And it was a movement that ultimately helped pave the way for full legalization.


Legalization: A New Era For Cannabis


The passing of Proposition 215 in California set off a domino effect in America. By the early 2010s, a number of individual states had taken huge steps in either decriminalizing cannabis or outright legalizing it for medical use. But despite these gains, full legalization had still been out of reach.


That all changed in 2012 – following successful ballot initiatives, Colorado and Washington (both of which had already approved medical marijuana) fully legalized cannabis for recreational use.


The impact of these initiatives was absolutely massive. For the first time since the prohibition era began, consumers in these jurisdictions now had full access to cannabis, with the beginnings of the recreational industry springing up in both states.


But most importantly, it served as tangible proof that full legalization wasn’t just a pipe dream. Alaska, DC and Oregon followed in 2014, and by 2016 California, Nevada, Maine and


Massachusetts all did the same.


In 2018, Canada officially became the second country to embrace full legalization. With the passing of The Cannabis Act, the cultivation, possession and sale of the plant became legal in all ten provinces and three territories.




As of 2021, we now find ourselves at a historic moment in a new world. We now live in a time when 38 million Canadians have safe, legal access to cannabis. Although it technically remains illegal federally, one in three Americans live in a state with recreational pot, and over 60% of the country has access for medical purposes.


And it’s not just in North America that we’ve seen these moves take place. While Canada gets a lot of credit for its 2018 decision, Uruguay was technically the first country to officially go fully legal in 2013.


The majority of Europe now has legalized medical marijuana, and many of these states have either decriminalized recreational use or taken serious steps to reduce the severity of punishments.


In 2018, South Africa and Georgia also legalized cannabis for private use.


In Latin America, serious steps have been taken to liberalize drug laws, with the majority of countries having medical marijuana programs and many fast becoming major exporters of the product.


Perhaps the biggest move in the last few years has come from Mexico – in 2021, the country’s Supreme Court officially decriminalized recreational pot. The ruling would allow for individuals to apply for permits to cultivate and consume their own cannabis.


And while we still have a ways to go, it’s safe to say that the era of prohibition is fast becoming a distant memory.

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