History of Medical Marijuana

History of Marijuana US Treasury Display
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As of January 2015, there are 23 states and districts in the US that have enacted laws to legalize medical marijuana. As the state count continues to grow, health professionals are discovering even more ways marijuana can effectively treat many medical conditions.

But the therapeutic use of cannabis is not a novel idea. The practice actually dates back nearly 5000 years when Chinese and Indian cultures first recognized the plant’s medicinal properties. Cannabis didn’t even make it over to the US until the 1700s in the form of hemp. And it wasn’t until the mid-1800s that marijuana actually became mainstream medicine throughout the west.

Below is a brief timeline of the history of medical marijuana and its journey to the United States. From its ancient beginnings to its innovative application today, cannabis spans centuries of invaluable medical use.

2700 BC

Chinese emperor Shen Nung discovers the healing qualities of cannabis. He recommends cannabis as a treatment for over 100 different ailments including malaria, rheumatism, absent-mindedness, and constipation.

1450 BC

The original Hebrew version of the book of Exodus in the Bible records a recipe for “holy anointing oil.” Priests extract six pounds of kaneh-bosem cannabis and other fragrant herbs into six quarts of olive oil.

1213 BC

Anthropologists found cannabis plant remnants on the mummy of Ramesses II, who died in 1213 BC. Stone inscriptions and papyrus text indicate Egyptians used cannabis as a sedative and as a cure for glaucoma.

1000 BC

In India, Bhang is a concoction made by mixing the dried cannabis leaves and flowers with milk. The drink acts as an anti-phlegmatic, fever reducer, and anesthetic for many maladies.

200 BC

Ancient Greeks use marijuana to relieve earaches, edema, and inflammation

70 AD

A Roman army doctor travels the Empire gathering and studying an assortment of medicinal plants. Among some of his samples is cannabis, which Romans used to treat earaches and curb sexual desire. He records his findings in a book entitled De Materia Medica, and it becomes one of the most influential medical texts for the next 150 years.


Muslim physicians follow Persian recommendations and use cannabis to suppress sexuality.


Jamestown Settlers bring cannabis to North America and farm hemp in their colonies. Because hemp is such a vital export, the British government awards bounties for its cultivation and imposes fines on settlers who choose not to grow the valuable crop.


George Washington grows hemp on his Mount Vernon plantation until 1775. According to his agricultural ledgers, Washington was interested in the plant’s medicinal properties and was breeding plants with high THC content.

Thomas Jefferson notes in his farming diaries that he harvests hemp at Monticello until 1824.


Medical marijuana goes mainstream when Western medical literature recommends the plant to treat various illnesses and discomforts. The US officially recognizes medical marijuana and adds it to the US Pharmacopeia.


The first legal medical marijuana dispensary opens in Edinburgh, Scotland.


President Roosevelt signs the Pure Food and Drug Act requiring the proper labeling of drugs containing cocaine, alcohol. Morphine, heroin, cannabis, and anything deemed “toxic.”


Cannabis prohibition begins when California passes the Poison Act, which criminalizes the possession of hemp and other cannabis products. Other states follow suit including Wyoming, Texas, Iowa, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Arkansas, and Nebraska.


Massachusetts is the first state to ban cannabis.


Colorado joins the ban on cannabis and outlaws the use of marijuana.


League of Nations signs a treaty restricting cannabis to scientific and medical use only.


American pharmaceutical companies manufacture and sell cannabis extracts as analgesics and sedatives. Around the same time, Harry J. Anslinger takes up office as the Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. He begins an aggressive campaign against marijuana use.


Because of his investments and interest in the lumber and paper industry, newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst attempts to bring down the competition: hemp. He prints slanderous and sensational stories about cannabis use in many of his publications.


Anti-drug propaganda film Reefer Madness is released to the American public. The film’s dramatic and exaggerated storyline intends to expose the dangers of marijuana use.


Going against the advice of The American Medical Association, Congress passes the Marijuana Tax Act, drafted by Anslinger. The law makes possession and transfer of cannabis a federal crime except within the medical industry, which is subject to an expensive excise tax.


Marijuana is removed from the US Pharmacopeia, deeming the drug no longer appropriate for medicinal use. Pharmacies clear their shelves of all marijuana or cannabis-infused drugs.


Congress passes the Boggs Act and Narcotics Control Act, resulting in stricter mandatory punishments and fines for first-offense possession convictions.


The first pro-marijuana lobbying group is formed: The US National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). That same year, Congress passes the Controlled Substances Act and includes marijuana as a Schedule I drug with a high possibility of abuse and no acceptable medical benefit.


President Richard Nixon declares a war on drugs and establishes the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) two years later.


NORML petitions Congress to reclassify marijuana as a Schedule II substance and the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse recommends decriminalizing marijuana. Congress rejects both requests.


Oregon becomes the first state to decriminalize marijuana.


In his presidential campaign, Jimmy Carter calls for the decriminalization of marijuana, wanting to eliminate mandatory jail sentences for individuals caught with minimal amounts of marijuana.

Simultaneously, the US Federal Government establishes the Compassionate Investigational New Drug Use Research Program to explore the medicinal use of cannabis. The program closes in 1992.


The DEA and FDA approve Marinol as a Schedule II drug to treat chemotherapy-induced nausea for cancer patients. In 1992, the DEA approves the drug to treat anorexia and weight loss.


Following the high-profile cocaine-related death of a University of Maryland basketball player, President Ronald Reagan signs the Anit-Drug Abuse Act. The act imposes stricter penalties for possession of marijuana and illegal drugs.


California voters pass Proposition 215, making the state the first to legalize medical marijuana for AIDS and cancer patients and for any individuals suffering from serious ailments. Nearly a dozen other states pass similar amendments.


Colorado’s longest standing dispensary group, MMJ America, opens its first dispensary in Denver.


The DEA raids on 11 California medical marijuana dispensaries in an attempt to determine how much marijuana they’re selling and who’s supplying it.


President Barrack Obama takes steps to end the 20-year war on drugs. He announces the Department of Justice will no longer prioritize the prosecution of legal medical marijuana patients and distributors as long as they abide by state laws.


Colorado takes the reins on overseeing medical marijuana regulations. House Bill 1284 provides the framework for dispensary guidelines and procedures. Senate Bill 109 protects the industry from fraud and abuse.


Research on states with legal medical marijuana indicates positive results. Studies show the number of fatal car accidents fell by 9% in states allowing medical marijuana. Additionally, they also show no increase in marijuana use by teenagers in those same states.


Colorado and Washington become the first states to legalize recreational marijuana.


A Gallup poll finds the majority of Americans, about 58%, favor the legalization of recreational marijuana use.


With a huge influx of states approving medical marijuana, the US Department of Justice approves banks and financial institutions to interact with legally state-licensed marijuana businesses.


As of January, 23 states allow the use of medical marijuana. These states include:

  • Alaska
  • Arizona
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • Washington, D.C.
  • Delaware
  • Hawaii
  • Illinois
  • Maine
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
  • Montana
  • Nevada
  • New Hampshire
  • New Jersey
  • New Mexico
  • New York
  • Oregon
  • Rhode Island
  • Vermont
  • Washington

For centuries, physicians have treated ailing and sick patients with cannabis. And use of the plant for its therapeutic and healing properties is just as prevalent today. As the medical marijuana industry continues to grow, so will the number of states that legalize the drug, whether for medical or recreational use.