Few plants in human history are as controversial as cannabis, commonly known as marijuana. While cannabis has been cultivated and used for thousands of years, it is illegal in many jurisdictions not only in the United States but around the globe. Indeed, cannabis was considered a prohibited substance in almost every country for the better part of the 20th century. The past few decades, however, have seen the tide turn. Not only have some countries decriminalized possession of marijuana, but many have also legalized it use to varying degrees. But where did marijuana come from? How did people use it in the past? How do people use it now? This research paper traces origins of marijuana, its traditional uses, its modern history, and its current uses.
The Origins of Marijuana
Marijuana has been cultivated for thousands of years. Some studies suggest that cannabis was grown and used as medicine as early as 3000 BCE. One study, for instance, found possible evidence of marijuana use in ancient Romania (Bridgeman and Abazia, 2017). However, it is possible that cannabis goes back further. Archaeological sites in Japan, Korea, and China all contain evidence of cannabis. These plants are believed to have been grown by these ancient cultures as a source of medicine, fabric, rope, and psychoactive agents (Clarke and Merlin, 2013; Stafford and Bigwood, 1992; Duvall, 2014). Cannabis was eventually used by the Greeks, Romans, Persians, Muslims, and Indians. As mentioned, the early uses of marijuana were chiefly medicinal; those in the field of healing and medicine used the plant to treat simple cases such as inflammation and nausea as well as complex ailments like malaria, depression, and gout. Records also show that it was also used as an anesthetic as well as a way to suppress sexual needs. Moreover, recent evidence unearthed also shows that some cultures have used the component of marijuana, THC, for their respective rituals and other religious ceremonies. These pieces of evidence indicate that cannabis was one of the earliest plants that humans learned to cultivate.
Over the centuries, the practice of growing and using cannabis spread across the world. By the Middle Ages, the plant was present all across Europe, Asia, and Africa and was widely considered as an herb for its medicinal properties. When the Europeans arrived in the Americas, early settlers brought cannabis with them and introduced it to the colonies. The marijuana plant was likely first brought by the Spanish in the late 1500s. History further shows that the plant thrived in North America, where the early colonies grew marijuana to use as hemp since its fiber can be used make rope and paper among other things. Plantations were subsequently established in colonial America and soon it also became a widely cultivated and utilized plant (History Channel, 2019). Like in the Old World, cannabis also spread across the Americas. By the 19th century, it was being used in both North America and South America in a variety of ways.
Prohibition of Marijuana
While marijuana has a long history in the United States and the rest of the world, it was eventually classified as a dangerous substance and eventually prohibited in the US. It is important to note, however, that the grounds for making marijuana illegal had roots in racial prejudice. During the early 20th century, the United States became the destination of thousands of Mexican immigrants fleeing the revolution in Mexico. Many of these immigrants used a plant called “marihuana.” The term was unfamiliar to Americans despite it being essentially cannabis. The immigrants were often unwelcome, and many were considered as disruptive simply for being different. Unfounded rumors claiming that marihuana precipitated criminal behavior eventually spread across the states, stoked as they were by sensationalist and untruthful media coverage that associated deviance with marijuana and marijuana with Mexicans (Burnett and Reiman, 2014).
With the public in fear of Mexican immigrants and their “marihuana”, it became easy for legislators and policymakers to gather popular support for laws that made the plant illegal, despite the fact that marijuana was already widely consumed by Americans themselves under a different name. A series of laws were passed as early as the 1930s. In 1932, the Uniform Narcotic Drug Act was signed into law, followed by the Marihuana Tax Act in 1937. Both laws set restrictions in the trade and consumption of cannabis. In 1970, the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act was passed, thus making cannabis an illegal substance. Federal law now classified cannabis as a Schedule I drug, which means it is considered as a substance that offers no medical uses along with a high potential for abuse (US Drug Enforcement Administration [DEA]).
Marijuana: A New Age of Acceptance
Though marijuana was prohibited for the better part of the 20th century, extensive research has yielded a wealth of evidence that helped overturn the stigma against the plant. The change owes its roots to the rediscovery of marijuana’s medicinal properties. Numerous studies found that marijuana can be used to alleviate symptoms of a variety of health conditions including epilepsy, HIV-AIDS, cancer, and pain among others. Naturally, the abundance of research findings that reveal the medicinal properties of cannabis led to calls for legalizing medical marijuana. Today, the medical purposes of marijuana are firmly established facts backed by numerous and conclusive studies. The uses of marijuana, however, are not confined to the healthcare sphere. More and more people are using marijuana for recreation. This in turn resulted in further calls to make marijuana legal. In 2012, the states of Washington and Colorado legalized marijuana, the first states in the US to do so. A few other states have followed since. Today, a total of 36 states have legalized the plant for medical use while 15 states have legalized cannabis use for recreation (Berke et al., 2021).
Modern Uses of Marijuana
Marijuana is currently used for two major reasons: medical and recreational. As the term itself suggests, medical marijuana is primarily used for the treatment of medical conditions. Studies show that marijuana can be used to treat pain and anxiety. One study involving over 4,000 participants found that regular use of marijuana helped ease various levels of pain and anxiety (O’Connell & Bou-Matar, 2007). Another major study involving around 1,700 subjects showed that marijuana can be used to treat many types of mild to moderate pain including acute and chronic pain (Reinarman et al., 2011). Researchers also believe that marijuana can serve as a substitute for pain relievers that have a high potential for dependence. Two main compounds in cannabis, namely tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), have been identified as the source of its beneficial effect on pain and anxiety. Apart from these conditions, marijuana is also widely used to treat anorexia typically found in patients with HIV-AIDS and cancer. Muscle wasting is a common symptom of these conditions, yet marijuana has been shown to increase appetite among and prevent the severe wasting of muscle tissue in patients. The other major use of marijuana is for recreational purposes. People who take marijuana in small doses regularly report feeling rested and relaxed due to the plant (O’Connell & Bou-Matar, 2007). It is important to note that there is significant overlap between medical marijuana and recreational marijuana. In particular, many users of the plant consider its effect as both medical and recreational in that it helps relieve pain and anxiety as well as bring recreational properties.
Despite all the progress achieved in debunking long-standing prejudices against marijuana, there remains significant concern over its negative effects. In particular, many still believe that the substance puts users at risk for dependence and other health conditions. Studies on the relationship between marijuana and drug abuse, for instance, consistently yield findings that suggest potential for abuse and untoward effects. Some studies also suggest that regular use of cannabis may result in increased tolerance to the substance. This in turn can lead to high levels of dependence that could lead to disruptions in daily life. For example, the National Institute on Drug Abuse [NIDA] reported that around 30% of users may be suffering from cannabis use disorder (NIDA, 2020).
Given the findings from extensive research, it can be said that the legalization of marijuana for medical and recreational purposes is a step in the right direction. For thousands of years, this plant has been used for healing in many cultures and civilizations. As more studies are conducted, researchers are expanding society’s knowledge of this plant and removing the stain that has marred its reputation along the way. With that being said, caution should also be exercised. Like many other substances, marijuana has both good and bad effects. If society is to harness these benefits and mitigate these drawbacks, it must not reduce the conversation to whether it should be completely prohibited or fully legalized; instead, its task is to strike a balance through well-thought out policies that ensure people can access cannabis’ benefits while being protected by adequate regulation and standards.
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