History of Marijuana: Origins, Use, Effects, and More!

Marijuana, often called weed or cannabis, has been around for thousands of years for various purposes, including medicine, relaxation, and spiritual rituals.

The Origins and Discovery of Marijuana

Despite popular belief, Marijuana is not native to North America. It originally came from Central and South Asia. The exact “who” behind the discovery of marijuana is a bit harder to pin down because its use predates written history, but it’s known that ancient civilizations in these regions were among the first to recognize its properties. Weed, or cannabis, as we more formally know it, was discovered (or, more accurately, began to be utilized by humans) thousands of years ago.

Marijuana is not an indigenous plant to North America. It was brought to this continent through human cannabis cultivation and trade. Historically, cannabis plants are indigenous to Central and South Asia, where they have been used for millennia. Archaeological evidence suggests that these regions were home to the earliest known use of cannabis for medicinal, spiritual, and recreational purposes.

Cannabis seeds have been found in archaeological sites, pointing to the ancient use of cannabis. These seeds, along with the cannabis plants themselves, reveal a long history of cannabis cultivation in these areas. The cannabis plant, specifically the varieties known as Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica, has a rich history of marijuana usage. The psychoactive properties of the cannabis plant were well known in these ancient cultures, which utilized the plant for its medicinal properties as well as for recreational use.

The journey of cannabis to North America was brought about by human migration, trade, and the global spread of agricultural practices. As people moved and traded, cannabis seeds were among the goods that traveled across continents. This domestic cultivation eventually led to the establishment of marijuana farms in regions where the cannabis plant was not naturally found, including North America.

The use of cannabis in ancient times was widespread, with evidence of cannabis use for medicinal purposes dating back to ancient civilizations in what is now China, India, and the Middle East.

These regions, along with Central Asia, played crucial roles in the history of cannabis. Cannabis was valued not only for its psychoactive compound but also for hemp, a non-psychoactive variety used for making rope, cloth, and other materials. This dual purpose contributed to the widespread use of cannabis in many countries.

The Use of Marijuana/Cannabis

The applications of Marijuana have ranged from medicinal and spiritual, to recreational purposes across different cultures and civilizations. The cannabis sativa plant, in particular, has been central to these practices, given its psychoactive and therapeutic properties.

The use of cannabis for medical marijuana purposes is perhaps one of its most ancient applications, with various cultures recognizing its ability to alleviate pain and other symptoms, including depression.

Ancient Times and Early Marijuana Use

In ancient civilizations, the use of cannabis was widespread and documented in various ways. In China, cannabis was used for its medicinal uses, with the Chinese Emperor Shen Nung reportedly discovering its healing properties as early as 2737 BC. He is said to have been prescribed cannabis for a variety of conditions, from rheumatism to poor memory. This shows an early understanding of cannabis’ therapeutic properties and its accepted medical use.

In India, cannabis was valued for both its medicinal and spiritual applications. Ancient texts highlight cannabis as a component of religious rituals, where it was used to induce states of trance or to facilitate communication with the divine. This spiritual use of cannabis often involved the smoking of marijuana, highlighting an early recognition of its psychoactive effects.

Egypt is another civilization where cannabis played a role, especially in the medicinal sphere. Cannabis was used to treat eye problems, among other conditions. The Ebers Papyrus, an ancient Egyptian medical text, mentions the use of cannabis and suggests that ancient Egyptians were aware of cannabis’ healing potential, especially when applied in pill form or as an ointment.

READ MORE: Ancient Egypt Timeline: Predynastic Period Until the Persian Conquest

The First Person to Smoke Weed

It’s likely that the discovery of marijuana was accidental. Given cannabis’ ancient origins and its early use in civilizations across Central Asia, the Middle East, and beyond, pinpointing the first individual to smoke marijuana is impossible.

Early humans often experimented with various plants to determine their potential food, medicinal, or spiritual value. Cannabis, with its distinctive aroma when burned, might have caught the attention of ancient peoples during ritualistic or domestic fires. Inhalation of the smoke would have led to the realization of its psychoactive effects, encouraging further experimentation.

The use of cannabis in a form that involves smoking could have evolved from these initial encounters. Cultures around the world developed various methods for cannabis consumption, but smoking might have become favored for its immediate effects. This method of consumption allowed for the direct inhalation of cannabis smoke, facilitating a quicker onset of its psychoactive effects compared to other methods, such as ingestion.

Over time, smoking cannabis became a part of many cultures’ spiritual, recreational, and medicinal practices, each developing unique traditions and methods around its use.

Medical Use

The history of marijuana for medicinal use stretches back thousands of years, with ancient texts from China and India documenting its applications for various ailments. In ancient China, marijuana was used as an anesthetic during surgery, as well as to treat conditions like malaria, constipation, and rheumatic pains. These early applications highlighted marijuana’s therapeutic properties, with Chinese Emperor Shen Nung, often considered one of the fathers of Chinese medicine, reputedly advocating for its medicinal benefits. This tradition of medicinal use of cannabis laid the groundwork for its later adoption in other cultures.

READ MORE: Ancient Chinese Inventions

In India, marijuana was used not only for its psychoactive properties in spiritual rituals but also for its medicinal benefits. It was prescribed to relieve pain, such as headaches and toothaches, and to treat conditions like insomnia and gastrointestinal disorders. This dual-purpose use of cannabis underscores the ancient understanding of its versatile nature. The Ayurvedic texts of India, some of the oldest medical texts in the world, detail the use of cannabis to treat a variety of conditions, indicating a long history of medicinal marijuana use in the subcontinent.

The transition of marijuana into Western medicine occurred in the 19th and early 20th centuries when European and American physicians began prescribing it for similar ailments as those recognized in ancient texts, such as pain relief and asthma, and to mitigate the symptoms of glaucoma. Cannabis was included in the United States Pharmacopeia for the first time in 1850, marking its official acceptance into Western medicine.

However, the perception of marijuana began to shift in the early 20th century, leading to the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 in the United States, which heavily regulated its use and began the era of cannabis prohibition, significantly impacting its medicinal use.

The shift in perception over time has been influenced by various factors, including the marijuana tax act, changing social attitudes, and concerns over drug abuse. This led to a decline in medical marijuana use in the mid-20th century, as federal law and the federal government imposed stricter controls. However, recent decades have seen a resurgence in the interest and acceptance of marijuana for medicinal use, spurred by a growing body of research and anecdotal evidence supporting its benefits in treating conditions such as chronic pain, epilepsy, and the side effects of chemotherapy in AIDS patients.


Throughout history, marijuana has been consumed in various forms. The most ancient form of consumption was likely through smoking marijuana, a method that has persisted into the modern era. Ancient peoples would have smoked cannabis using simple pipes or by adding cannabis leaves to fires during religious or healing ceremonies, inhaling the smoke to achieve its psychoactive effects.

Vaporizing, while a relatively modern method compared to smoking, has its roots in ancient practices of heating cannabis without burning it. This method has gained popularity in recent years as a healthier alternative to smoking, allowing users to inhale marijuana vapor without the harmful byproducts of combustion. Vaporizers heat cannabis to a temperature that releases its active ingredients but does not ignite the plant material.

Edibles represent another ancient form of marijuana use, where cannabis is infused into food or drink. Historical accounts suggest that ancient Indians and Middle Eastern cultures included cannabis in recipes for religious rituals and medicinal purposes. Today, edibles have evolved into a sophisticated market offering, ranging from baked goods to gummies, designed for both recreational and medicinal use.

Extracts and oils, including hash oil, are concentrated forms of marijuana that have been used for centuries. Traditional methods of extraction, such as pressing and resin collection, have been modernized to produce highly potent cannabis concentrates. These concentrates are used both medically and recreationally, appreciated for their purity and potency.

Lastly, the medicinal use of marijuana has seen innovations such as tinctures and topical applications. Tinctures, alcohol-based cannabis extracts, have been used since the 19th century for their ease of dosing and administration. Topical applications, such as creams and balms infused with cannabis, target localized pain and inflammation without the psychoactive effects associated with other forms of consumption.

Effects of Marijuana on the Body

Marijuana interacts with the body primarily through the endocannabinoid system, a complex network of receptors found throughout the brain and body. This system plays a crucial role in regulating various physiological processes, including mood, memory, appetite, and pain sensation. The active compounds in marijuana, particularly THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), bind to cannabinoid receptors in the brain and body, producing a range of effects.

Short-term effects of marijuana use can vary widely among individuals but often include altered senses, such as a heightened sense of taste, sight, and hearing, mood changes ranging from euphoria to relaxation, impaired body movement, and difficulty with thinking and problem-solving. Some users also experience altered time perception and increased appetite, commonly known as the “munchies.”

Long-term effects of marijuana on the body can be more concerning, especially with frequent and heavy use. Research suggests that long-term marijuana use can lead to changes in brain development, particularly in adolescents whose brains are still developing. These changes may affect memory, learning, and attention span. Additionally, there is evidence to suggest that prolonged use can impact mental health, contributing to an increased risk of conditions such as anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia in susceptible individuals.

Physical health can also be affected over time, with studies indicating potential impacts on lung health from smoking marijuana, similar to tobacco. While marijuana smoke contains many of the same toxins and carcinogens as tobacco smoke, the link between marijuana smoking and lung cancer remains unclear. However, chronic bronchitis and other lung problems are more clearly associated with marijuana smoke due to the inhalation of burnt plant matter.

Production, Distribution, and Trade

The cultivation practices of marijuana have evolved significantly over centuries, from simple farming techniques to sophisticated indoor and outdoor horticultural methods. Ancient cultivation primarily focused on outdoor farming of the hemp plant for its fiber, seeds, and oil, with less emphasis on maximizing THC content. This industrial hemp was widely used for textiles, rope, and other materials. Over time, especially with the recognition of marijuana’s psychoactive effects, cultivation practices shifted to also include strains of cannabis with higher THC levels for medical and recreational use.

Globalization has had a profound impact on the distribution and trade of marijuana. Historically, the Silk Road and maritime trade routes played crucial roles in spreading cannabis use and cultivation. These ancient trade networks facilitated the exchange of goods, ideas, and cultural practices, including cannabis cultivation, across continents. Indian hemp, for instance, found its way to the Middle East and Africa, where it was adopted for both medicinal purposes and recreational use.

The introduction of cannabis to the Western Hemisphere is a prime example of the impact of global trade. European hemp was initially brought over for its utility as a fiber, but the psychoactive variety of cannabis soon followed. The Spanish imported cannabis to the Americas for hemp production, but it wasn’t long before the marijuana’s other uses were recognized and integrated into local cultures.

While illegal trade routes still exist, legal production and distribution channels have expanded in countries and states where marijuana has been legalized for medical or recreational use. This has led to a growing industry that includes everything from boutique cannabis strains to mass-produced medical marijuana products.

Becoming Illegal

Marijuana became illegal in the United States with the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act in 1937. This act marked the beginning of the end of legal marijuana use and cultivation in the U.S. and set a precedent for global cannabis prohibition. The reasons behind the criminalization of marijuana are complex, involving a mix of sociopolitical, economic, and racial factors.

In the early 20th century, marijuana was associated with Mexican immigrants and African American jazz musicians, leading to racialized fears and stereotypes. These societal fears were capitalized on by politicians and media, painting marijuana as a dangerous drug that led to crime, violence, and other social ills. Economic factors also played a role, as industries that competed with hemp products saw marijuana prohibition as a way to eliminate a rival.

Globally, similar measures to criminalize marijuana were adopted, often influenced by U.S. policy and pressure. The international community gradually embraced marijuana prohibition, with many countries enacting their own laws against cannabis cultivation, sale, and use. This led to the global war on drugs, a campaign of drug prohibition, military intervention, and aid to countries involved in drug production and trafficking.

In recent years, however, there has been a significant shift towards marijuana legalization, driven by a reevaluation of cannabis’s dangers compared to its potential benefits, especially for medical purposes. States across the U.S. and countries around the world are adopting more lenient policies, recognizing the therapeutic benefits of medical marijuana and the impracticality and cost of enforcing marijuana prohibition.

Ongoing research into marijuana’s effects on the body and its interactions with cannabinoid receptors is uncovering a range of potential therapeutic benefits. These include pain relief, control of nausea and vomiting, reduction of intraocular pressure, and possible neuroprotective effects.

Wrapping It Up

Marijuana has significantly influenced cultures around the world, impacting art, music, spirituality, and social practices.

Its role in creativity and expression can be seen in various movements, particularly in music genres like reggae, jazz, and rock, where it became a symbol of rebellion, freedom, and inspiration. Spiritually, marijuana has been used in rituals and ceremonies to enhance meditation, introspection, and connection to the divine.

It continues to travel on that tangent.

READ MORE: Who Invented Rock And Roll? The History and Origin of Rock ‘n’ Roll


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