How familiar are you with the cannabis timeline? Humans have been using hemp and cannabis for centuries. No … make that for millennia.

Of course, no one can state with even remote certainty when the cultivation of hemp originated, though some estimates say 10,000 years ago. The plant’s fibers are versatile and durable, making it a valuable crop.

According to, the website of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Museum, in Arlington, Va., “One of the first fiber plants to be cultivated, prior to the widespread use of cotton, hemp has been referenced to originate in Central Asia.”

Scientist Carl Sagan said in a footnote to his 1977 book The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence that the hemp plant might deserve a lot more credit than it receives.

A friend of his had spent time among the Mbuti pygmies of the then-Belgian Congo. Sagan wrote of his friend’s observations:

“… for such activities as the patient stalking and hunting of mammals and fish, they (the Mbuti) prepare themselves through marijuana intoxication, which helps to make the long waits … at least moderately tolerable. Ganja is, he says, their only cultivated crop. It would be wryly interesting if in human history the cultivation of marijuana led generally to the invention of agriculture, and thereby to civilization” (italics added).

cannabis timeline

Photomicrographs of ancient cannabis. (A) Photograph of the whole cannabis sample being transferred in laminar flow hood. (B) Photomicrograph of leaf fragment at low power displaying non-glandular and amber sessile glandular trichomes. Note retention of chlorophyll and green colour, scale bar=100 μm. (C) Higher power photomicrograph of a single sessile glandular trichome. At least 4 of its 8 secretory cells are clearly visible on the right, and the scar of attachment to the stype cells in the centre, scale bar=25 μm. (D) Low power photomicrograph of a cannabis achene (‘seed’) including the base with a non-concave scar of attachment visible, scale bar=1 mm. / Courtesy

When did recreational use begin?

The article says, “Near the head and foot of the shaman’s bier lay a large leather basket and wooden bowl filled with 789 g (grams) of vegetative matter, initially thought to be Coriandrum sativum (coriander), but which … proved to be Cannabis sativa … this cannabis was psychoactive and probably cultivated for medicinal or divinatory purposes.”

Lead author Ethan B. Russo concludes, “To our knowledge, these investigations provide the oldest documentation of cannabis as a pharmacologically active agent.”

Almost 425 years of history

The cannabis timeline covering from 1600 to 1996 has been excerpted from‘s “Busted: America’s War on Marijuana.” The timeline from 1997-2016 was excerpted from “10,000-year History of Marijuana Use in the World,” courtesy of

Cannabis Timeline


Domestic production of hemp encouraged – American production of hemp was encouraged by the government … for the production of rope, sails and clothing. (Marijuana is the mixture of dried, shredded flowers and leaves that comes from the hemp plant.)

In 1619, the Virginia Assembly passed legislation requiring every farmer to grow hemp. Hemp was allowed to be exchanged as legal tender in Pennsylvania, Virginia and Maryland.

Domestic production flourished until after the Civil War, when imports and other domestic materials replaced hemp for many purposes. In the late 19th century, marijuana became a popular ingredient in many medicinal products and was sold openly in public pharmacies.


The Pure Food and Drug Act required labeling of any cannabis contained in over-the-counter remedies.


Mexican immigrants introduce recreational use of marijuana leaf – After the Mexican Revolution of 1910, Mexican immigrants flooded into the U.S., introducing to American culture the recreational use of marijuana. The drug became associated with the immigrants, and the fear and prejudice about the Spanish-speaking newcomers became associated with marijuana. Anti-drug campaigners warned against the encroaching “Marijuana Menace,” and terrible crimes were attributed to marijuana and the Mexicans who used it.


Fear of marijuana – During the Great Depression, massive unemployment increased public resentment and fear of Mexican immigrants, escalating public and governmental concern about the problem of marijuana. … research linked the use of marijuana with violence, crime and other socially deviant behaviors, primarily committed by “racially inferior” or underclass communities. By 1931, 29 states had outlawed marijuana.


Creation of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) – Harry J. Anslinger was the first commissioner of the FBN and remained in that post until 1962.


Uniform State Narcotic Act – Concern about the rising use of marijuana, and research linking its use with crime and other social problems, created pressure on the federal government to take action. Rather than promoting federal legislation, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics strongly encouraged state governments to accept responsibility for control of the problem by adopting the Uniform State Narcotic Act.


Propaganda film “Reefer Madness” was produced by French director Louis Gasnier. The Motion Pictures Association of America, composed of the major Hollywood studios, banned the showing of any narcotics in films.


After a lurid national propaganda campaign against the “evil weed,” Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act. The statute effectively criminalized marijuana, restricting possession of the drug to individuals who paid an excise tax for certain authorized medical and industrial uses.


La Guardia Report finds marijuana less dangerous – New York Academy of Medicine issued an extensively researched report declaring that, contrary to earlier research and popular belief, use of marijuana did not induce violence, insanity or sex crimes, or lead to addiction or other drug use.


During World War II, imports of hemp and other materials crucial for producing marine cordage, parachutes and other military necessities became scarce. In response, the U.S. Department of Agriculture launched its “Hemp for Victory” program, encouraging farmers to plant hemp by giving out seeds and granting draft deferments to those who would stay home and grow hemp. By 1943, American farmers registered in the program harvested 375,000 acres of hemp.


Stricter sentencing laws – Enactment of federal laws (Boggs Act, 1952; Narcotics Control Act, 1956) which set mandatory sentences for drug-related offenses, including marijuana.

A first-offense marijuana possession carried a minimum sentence of two to 10 years, with a fine of up to $20,000.


Marijuana use popular in counterculture – A changing political and cultural climate was reflected in more lenient attitudes towards marijuana. Use of the drug became widespread in the white upper-middle class. Reports commissioned by Presidents Kennedy and Johnson found that marijuana use did not induce violence or lead to use of heavier drugs. Policy towards marijuana began to involve considerations of treatment as well as criminal penalties.


Creation of the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs – This was a merger of FBN (Federal Bureau of Narcotics) and the Bureau of Dangerous Drugs of the Food and Drug Administration.


Repeal of most mandatory minimum sentences – Congress repealed most of the mandatory penalties for drug-related offenses. It was widely acknowledged that the mandatory minimum sentences of the 1950s had done nothing to eliminate the drug culture that embraced marijuana use throughout the 1960s, and that the minimum sentences imposed were often unduly harsh.

Marijuana differentiated from other drugs – The Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act categorized marijuana separately from other narcotics and eliminated mandatory federal sentences for possession of small amounts.

National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) founded


The bipartisan Shafer Commission, appointed by President Nixon at the direction of Congress, considered laws regarding marijuana and determined that personal use of marijuana should be decriminalized. Nixon rejected the recommendation, but over the course of the 1970s, 11 states decriminalized marijuana and most others reduced their penalties.


Creation of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) – Merger of the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNND) and the Office of Drug Abuse Law Enforcement (ODALE).


“High Times” founded.


Beginning of parents’ movement against marijuana – A nationwide movement emerged of conservative parents’ groups lobbying for stricter regulation of marijuana and the prevention of drug use by teenagers. Some of these groups became quite powerful and, with the support of the DEA and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), were instrumental in affecting public attitudes, which led to the 1980s War on Drugs.


Anti-Drug Abuse Act – President Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, instituting mandatory sentences for drug-related crimes. … the new law raised federal penalties for marijuana possession and dealing, basing the penalties on the amount of the drug involved. Possession of 100 marijuana plants received the same penalty as possession of 100 grams of heroin. A later amendment to the Anti-Drug Abuse Act established a “three strikes and you’re out” policy, requiring life sentences for repeat drug offenders, and providing for the death penalty for “drug kingpins.”


President George H.W. Bush declares a new War on Drugs.


Medical use legalized in California – California voters passed Proposition 215, allowing for the sale and medical use of marijuana for patients with AIDS, cancer, and other serious and painful diseases. This law stands in tension with federal laws prohibiting possession of marijuana.


The American Office of National Drug Control Policy commissioned the Institute of Medicine (IOM) to conduct a comprehensive study of the medical efficacy of cannabis therapeutics. The IOM concluded that cannabis is a safe and effective medicine, patients should have access, and the government should expand avenues for research and drug development. The federal government ignored its findings and refused to act on its recommendations.


In direct contradiction to the IOM recommendations, President Bill Clinton, continuing the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush War on Drugs era, began a campaign to arrest and prosecute medical-cannabis patients, and their providers, in California and elsewhere.


Hawaii and North Dakota unsuccessfully attempted to legalize hemp farming. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration reclassifies dronabinol as a Schedule III drug, making the medication easier to prescribe; marijuana itself, however, continues to be listed Schedule I as having “no accepted medical use.”


Legalization initiative in Alaska fails.


British Home Secretary David Blunkett proposes relaxing the classification of cannabis from a Class B to Class C. Canada adopts federal laws in support of medical marijuana. By 2003, Canada becomes the first country in the world to approve medical marijuana nationwide.


Under President George W. Bush, the U.S. federal government intensified its War on Drugs, targeting patients as well as doctors across the state of California.


Marc Emery, a Canadian citizen and the largest distributor of marijuana seeds into the United States from about 1995 through July 2005, was on the FBI’s wanted list for years and was eventually indicted by the U.S. DEA. (He was extradited from Canada for trial in the U.S. in May 2010.)


President Barack Obama made steps toward ending the unsuccessful 20-year War on Drugs initiated during the Reagan administration by stating that individual drug use is a public health issue and should be treated as such. Under his guidance, the U.S. Justice Department announced that federal prosecutors will no longer pursue medical-marijuana users and distributors who comply with state laws.


Marc Emery of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, was sentenced in September in a U.S. District Court in Seattle to five years in prison and four years of supervised release for “conspiracy to manufacture marijuana”; i.e., selling marijuana seeds. (He was released on July 10, 2014, and transported back to Canada.)


Proposition 19, to legalize marijuana in California, is placed back on the ballet (officially named the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010). Voter polls at the time suggested that the proposition had about 50 percent population support and would likely win or lose by a margin of only 2 percent.

October 2010

Weeks before the Nov. 2 California election on Proposition 19, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said federal authorities would continue to enforce U.S. laws that say the drug is illegal, even if voters approve the initiative. He stated “We will vigorously enforce the (Controlled Substances Act) against those individuals and organizations that possess, manufacture or distribute marijuana for recreational use.”

November 2010

California’s Proposition 19 was defeated; 53.6 percent voted “no.” This would have legalized various marijuana-related activities in California, allowing local governments to regulate these activities, permitting local governments to impose and collect marijuana-related fees and taxes, and authorizing various criminal and civil penalties.

November 2012

Colorado and Washington state legalize cannabis for recreational use; promises are made to the people that these new initiatives will have no impact on medical marijuana in those states. The country of Uruguay legalizes cannabis for recreational use. The U.S. District of Columbia decriminalizes personal use and possession of cannabis.

July 07, 2014

Cannabis City becomes Seattle’s first legal marijuana shop for over-the-counter purchases and recreational use. This generates worldwide media attention and a serious discussion over the legalization of marijuana and a possible end to America’s War on Drugs. The first purchase, by Deb Green a 65-year-old marathon-running grandmother from Ballard, is part of the collection of the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle.

November 2014

Alaska and Oregon legalize cannabis for recreational use; California, Nevada, Arizona, Hawaii and Massachusetts all begin to draft legalization legislation.

July 24, 2015

With the passage of Senate Bill 5052, Washington-state medical marijuana comes fully under the control of the newly renamed Washington Liquor and Cannabis Board (LCB).

November 8, 2016

Florida, North Dakota and Arkansas vote to approve medical cannabis. As of now, 28 states have legalized medical cannabis. California and Massachusetts voters approved legalizing, regulating and taxing recreational marijuana for adult use. Once those laws take effect, it will bring the total, nationwide, to seven states where adults can use marijuana for other than medical reasons.

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