Today cannabis trading, use and cultivation is still prohibited under the laws of the majority of countries in the world. It would be surprising for some to learn that this was not always the case.

The use of cannabis by humans goes back to at least five thousand years to the earliest human civilizations. Humans probably discovered wild cannabis plants growing in Central Asia and Western China. Humans then used it as a herb, medicine and hallucinogen including for religious ceremonies either by smoking, brewing it as a tea or chewing on the seeds. It quickly became widespread and was documented to be used by Indian Hindus, Assyrians, Greeks, Romans and Chinese.

The first recorded case of its use dates back to 2800 BC, when it was listed in the Emperor Shen Nung’s pharmacopoeia or a medicine textbook. In 1000 BC Indians created a medicinal drink called bhang, a mixture of marijuana, milk, and other ingredients, and used it as an anti-phlegmatic and anesthetic. It is still found in India today.

Bhang

Cannabis use had spread throughout the Middle East and Europe throughout the following centuries. The first recorded prohibition of cannabis was by Soudoun Sheikouni, the emir of the Joneima in Arabia, probably due to religious reasons and rumours it was used as a poison by assassins. It also caused concern among Europeans. After his invasion of Egypt, Napoleon Bonaparte banned cannabis use among his soldiers because he was concerned it would negatively affect the skill of his troops.

When the British Empire transported Indian indentured workers throughout the empire their cannabis use spread along with them. Concerned about the use led to the banning of cannabis in several British colonies like Mauritius and Singapore even though a study by the British concluded that moderate use brought no ill effects. Following the signing of the International Opium Convention in 1912 which later included a ban on cannabis, the UK banned all uses of Cannabis in 1928.

Before the twentieth century in the United States, Cannabis, like opiates and cocaine, was widely available at local drug stores in liquid form and as a refined product, hashish. Cannabis was also a common ingredient in turn-of-the-century patent medicines, over-the-counter concoctions brewed to proprietary formulas. Hashish Candy was advertised in magazines as a treatment for nervousness and gloominess and was a pleasurable stimulant.

American druggists were familiar with hashish and other preparations of cannabis and a medicinal ingredient. Marijuana plants were grown to make rope and ship rigging. Smoking marijuana was not common among Americans until immigrants from a revolution in Mexico brought along the practice. Fearing these immigrants, baseless and racially tinged rumours about cannabis started spreading that it caused violent and homicidal behaviour. Anti-drug campaigners warned against the encroaching “Marijuana Menace” and “Locoweed” in newspapers and magazines.

From their success in pushing through alcohol prohibition in the 1920s, many states governments across the US expanded on this with laws prohibiting drugs including cannabis. Following this trend, Harry J. Anslinger, head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics advocated for a law totally prohibiting cannabis throughout the whole country, despite the objections of the majority of pharmacists drug industry representatives from the American Medical Association.

To bolster his claim he often misattributed violent crimes and murders to the use of marijuana together with racist claims about Mexicans and Blacks were influencing White Americans to smoke marijuana as well.

In 1937 the Marihuana Tax Act regulated the drug by requiring dealers to pay a transfer tax and prohibiting it outside of medical and industrial use. Failure to pay the tax or unauthorized use of cannabis could be punished with a $2000 fine or fine years in prison. Anslinger favored strict legal penalties against the use of cannabis and other narcotics and discredited medical research that suggested otherwise.

Henry Anslinger, famous American drug prohibitionist.

Marijuana would see increased popularity in the 1960s when many college students and youth embraced the counter culture and anti-establishment movement. Despite it being illegal, many people were eager to try marijuana because they sought a “good buzz”.

Partly in response to this trend and promising to bring back  “law and order” President Nixon in 1971 announced the “War on Drugs” and drug abuse to be public enemy number one. Earlier in 1970 the US Congress passed the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act, which placed marijuana in the most restrictive category of drugs having no permissible use in medical practice. It was classed in the same category as ecstasy and heroin.

Penalties for some kinds of drug violations were loosened and the power given to law enforcement was expanded to crack down on drug trafficking and included no-knock and late-night search warrants. The US extended the crackdown on drugs to other countries, an prominent example being helping police in Mexico go after powerful and dangerous drug cartels.

Malaysia’s drug and substance prohibition laws have been heavily influenced if not copied from the British during it’s colonization of Malaya and is one of the harshest in the world. The possession,exportation and importation of Schedule 1 and 2 drugs including cannabis under the Dangerous Drugs Act 1952 are prohibited.

A rather infamous part of this act is that anyone found guilty of possessing more than 200 grams of cannabis would be given the mandatory death penalty . Those found guilty of possession with a smaller amount would receive at least a 3 year jail sentence and 6 slashes of the cane and drug trafficking carries a life sentence. There is discussion about abolishing the death penalty after outrage over the death penalty for Shahfary Sabri for drug trafficking in 2018.

Cannabis bricks seized by Malaysian police.


From historical evidence and testimony, the causes for cannabis prohibition were most often social and cultural with racial and class discrimination being involved more often than not. The personal partisan beliefs of politicians and law enforcement officials on many occasions in the past have set the rules on the prohibition of drugs including cannabis without convincing merit or evidence if there was any. Mass arrests and incarcerations from harsh drug prohibition laws only have led to the lost and ruining of countless lives and lost economic opportunity. Rarely was the advice of medical experts heeded and understood.

In the past decade major progress has been made on changing the perception on cannabis that was created during the time of Anslinger and prohibitionists who had less than benevolent motives for their decisions. Further effort is needed from educators, organizations and governments to learn from the mistakes of the past and communicate accurate scientific representation about the use of medical and recreational cannabis to the public. Spreading awareness to people we know on our own effort as well is a good start.

Sources:
Tackett, Brittany. “History of Marijuana.” American Addiction Centers Recovery.org, 13 Dec 2021, https://recovery.org/marijuana/history/

Sraders, Anne. “History of Marijuana: Origins and Legalization.” TheStreet, 18 Feb 2020, https://www.thestreet.com/markets/history-of-marijuana-14718715 .

Chasteen, John. Getting High: Marijuana through the Ages. Rowman & Littlefield, 2016.

Timeline of cannabis law. Wikipedia, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_cannabis_law

Tikkanen, Amy. “Why Is Marijuana Illegal in the U.S.?”. Encyclopedia Britannica, Invalid Date, https://www.britannica.com/story/why-is-marijuana-illegal-in-the-us Accessed 26 January 2022.

Siff, Stephen. “The Illegalization of Marijuana: A Brief History”. OSU.EDU, May 2014, https://origins.osu.edu/article/illegalization-marijuana-brief-history?language_content_entity=en

Little, Becky. “Why the US Made Marijuana Illegal”. History, 31 Aug 2018, https://www.history.com/news/why-the-u-s-made-marijuana-illegal

Marijuana Timeline. PBS, https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/dope/etc/cron.html

Lee, Martin. “Marijuana for the Masses”. Project CBD, 27 June 2018, https://www.projectcbd.org/cannabis-culture-history/marijuana-masses-medical-cannabis-history-in-the-60s