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Drugs & Health Blog

History of Cannabis, Part 2

This blog post is archived and is no longer being updated. For the latest content, please visit the main Drugs & Health Blog page.
The NIDA Blog Team

In Part 1, we showed how the cannabis (hemp) plant spread from Asia to other parts of the world thousands of years ago, mainly because of its usefulness as a fiber and a grain. But as in ancient times, today some people used it for healing and some used it as a recreational drug. Now we’ll look at cannabis in America from Colonial times until the start of the 20th century, and lay to rest one of the biggest myths about the history of this drug.

Did the Founding Fathers Smoke It?

The cannabis or hemp plant has been an important source of grain and fiber for thousands of years. It was brought to North and South America by European colonists in the 1500s. Hemp fiber was widely used for making sails, rope, clothing, paper, and other valuable commodities, and the growing of hemp was encouraged by the American colonies.

There is a popular story you might have heard that the Founding Fathers of our nation smoked hemp. You might even see Thomas Jefferson quoted as saying: "Some of my finest hours have been spent on my back veranda, smoking hemp and observing as far as my eye can see."

In fact, that quote is completely made up. None of his writings include it (or anything like it); it was falsely attributed to him—no doubt by a marijuana fan—in recent times, and it has lived a life of its own on the Internet along with lots of other made-up “facts.”

Jefferson, along with George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, did grow hemp on their farms, as did most people who owned land, but there’s no direct evidence they ever smoked it. The amount of the psychoactive (mind-altering) chemical THC in most hemp at the time was probably too low anyway to become intoxicated from it. When Colonial Americans smoked anything, it was mainly tobacco—the drug that was also a big part of America’s economy during those times.

Cannabis From the Druggist

Cannabis was not widely used recreationally in the United States until the 20th century, but in the 1800s it was used as a medicine. In the 1830s, an Irish doctor in India found that cannabis extracts (not the smoked kind) could lessen the terrible vomiting of people suffering from the often fatal disease cholera. His discovery spread, and by the late 1800s, cannabis extracts were commonly sold by American druggists (pharmacists) for ailments, including stomach problems.

Using cannabis extracts to treat digestive symptoms makes some sense, scientifically. We now know that THC is able to lessen nausea, as well as promote hunger, by interacting with areas of the brain that regulate those functions, like the brainstem and hypothalamus. Today, two FDA- approved THC-based drugs taken as pills are prescribed to treat the nausea caused by cancer chemotherapy and the loss of appetite that causes “wasting syndrome” in AIDS patients.

“Snake Oil”

But 19th-century doctors and druggists also touted cannabis extracts as beneficial for a long list of other problems, ranging from cough, fever, rheumatism, asthma, and diabetes to venereal (sexually transmitted) diseases, like gonorrhea.

This was still before modern medicine, when lots of herbal products (and even animal products like oil made from rattlesnakes) were sold as “cures” for every disease under the sun. These products were usually ineffective, occasionally harmful, and frequently (as with cannabis and opium extracts) even abused.   

In 1906, Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act, requiring that cannabis and other herbal products be accurately labeled. This was the beginning of laws regulating the sale of cannabis. In later years, some states passed more restrictive laws on cannabis-based medicines as more and more people realized that they could be habit-forming.

Stay tuned for the final installment of our History of Marijuana series, and find out how cannabis started to be called marijuana.

Comments posted to the Drugs & Health Blog are from the general public and may contain inaccurate information. They do not represent the views of NIDA or any other federal government entity.


Will use info to teach college class
Will use info to teach college class
Teach your class that whether they smoked it or not, if they were alive today, our founding fathers would be thrown in prison, and their farms and homes stolen by our government. Hemp, as the article pointed out, is very useful for making rope and cloth and such, with too little THC to make it worth smoking. SO WHY IS IT ILLEGAL? Have your college students ponder THAT!
Can't wait for the next part, I really enjoy reading these
I enjoyed reading about it but i enjoy smokeing it more because why drink and drive when you can smoke and fly ;)
A joke every now and then is alright.
what are the dangers of mariajuna

Hi Mackenzie.  Marijuana affects many parts of the brain, leading to problems stuyding, learning, or remembering things.  Marijuana can make you do things you wouldn't normally do, such as engage in risky sexual behavior.  In addition, marijuana can cause increased heart rate, breathing problems from the smoke, or increased risk of mental health problems.  Lastly, driving under the influence of marijuana is extremely dangerous because the drug can impair your balance, coordination, and reaction time.  

Not to the affect of alcohol right
Notice that the NIDA response didn't list one danger that all the drugs LEGALLY sold include: DEATH. They are right about danger to the lungs from inhaling smoke. But wait, why aren't edibles available? Because most Americans don't live in one of the four states where it's legally sold. So the policies of our own government are CAUSING harm to the lungs of millions of Americans. Well done! Dangers they failed to list: if you smoke or eat cannabis, you run the risk of laughing and having a good time! You also could reduce the amount of opioids required to cope with pain, which would HELP what the NIDA is calling the 'opioid epidemic'. And NO, sorry, you do NOT do sexual things that you wouldn't normally do just because you smoked some weed. It may make sex more fun (it does!). But don't believe all the fairy tales you hear from places like this. Some of what they say is true, some isn't. But they leave out gaping facts that don't serve their agenda. And I suspect that many posts, like this very one, will never see the light of day (censorship).
I just posted the next part but I doubt that the "brains" at the NIDA will actually let it be read. Why? Because it's TRUE.
Its interesting to see how cannabis (a controversial drug) extraction that resolved societies illness with stomach issues that allowed them to not only experience less of the symptoms like nausea and vomiting but promoted the person who was ill to have an actual appetite. I wonder if a majority of why there is such controversy with cannabis is because its mainly seen as a drug that is supposed to allow one to get high, although extractions that are not ones you smoke only help to lessen pain or in this case illness.
Cannabis is not a controversial drug. It's a naturally occurring PLANT, with controversial LAWS surrounding it. The reason the laws ARE controversial is that the plant, for adults without mental illnesses, is by and large HARMLESS, yet it's more restricted than OxyContin and Hydrocodone and other LEGAL opioids that cause 40-50 deaths of Americans every day! You're correct about the benefits of cannabis as well. It does help nausea and help people with their appetite. But so does Maalox and Tums and Rolaids and many other DRUGS that would be less necessary of weed was legal! In fact the benefits of cannabis are so extensive that this plant is illegal, not because it's bad for you, but because it is a major threat to wealthy drug companies, as well as the prison industry. How's THAT for American justice? When you can't figure out why something is happening and it makes no sense at all, I've learned that either LOVE or MONEY are the reason for the baffling irrational circumstance that you're trying to figure out. Ironically, MONEY is going to be the reason that weed will be legal very soon. Not because it's what best for Americans, not because the gov will admit that they made a HUGE blunder that cost a kings ransom and ruined countless lives. It will be legal because it's Americas #1 cash crop! And all that MONEY is going to Mexican drug lords and black market dealers now. Soon enough the gov will smell MONEY then suddenly they will announce that their cannabis policy has changed! .
I enjoyed reading this Article but how effective is the Cannabis used for medicine.
It's SO good that wealthy drug companies bribe (I mean lobby) policy makers, paying million$ of dollars for them to keep this naturally occurring plant illegal so that we, the people of America, are forced to buy the chemicals that these drug companies manufacture. And the worst thing that they can say about it is that George Washington didn't smoke it.
really good to read a very interesting piece about cannabis
I hope George washington and Thomas Jefferson did not smoke marijuana
Whether they did or not, if they were alive today, they would be arrested, thrown in prison and their homes and farms would be stolen by the gov.
Wow this is informative
If doctors prescribe it as good for you why cant people use it to feel good
Doctors don't prescribe it
Weed is bad/GOOD for you.....!!!!!!! <3
Yeh ;P
No citations, blah blah blah, people are deciding for themselves and the only snake oil salesman is NIDA. Legalize it and watch how the house of cards crumbles...
why be here if you know this stuff is bad
Because it ISN'T bad. What's BAD are policies that are forced on US citizens, not to protect them, but for the financial gain of a few of the right people. Marijuana is GOOD. Laws against marijuana are BAD. More and more people are starting to notice that the current system is CORRUPT and PERVERTED and DOES NOT represent the will of the people, which is the OPPOSITE of what The United States of America is SUPPOSED to stand for.
I once ate half a weed brownie and had the worst experience of my life. Within about 1.5 hours, I lost control of my body, fortunately I felt it coming and laid down. My heart was pounding and it felt like a heart attack and I couldn't breathe. Then within 10 minutes I was fine, until about 20 mins later when it was way worse. This time my significant other called 911. I passed out during the event, I could faintly hear him screaming and then nothing. I heard nothing It seemed like forever. He said I stopped breathing and he was blowing air into my chest. I starting struggling for breath two minutes later. It happened 2x more in the ambulance ride. They tried to say it was all in my "head" that I was causing my heart to race, but trust me as calm as I felt within 20 mins the wave of pounding heart came over me. The only thing that stopped me from passing out was the oxygen they gave me. it happened 4 more times in the hospital reducing down in intensity each time and the time was further apart. I also lost control of my right side multiple times- can only describe it as a parkinson like tremor. I thought I must have had a seizure. I will never again eat any edible. I cannot find any who had a similar experience, but others that night also lost bodily control. Several others threw up the brownie.
NEXT TIME READ THE LABEL!! Don't dose yourself with more than you can handle! Also, talk to the people selling it to get recommended strength and amounts to try, and stay UNDER your desired goal. You can always take another bite but once it kicks in, you're stuck! If you blindly eat it like a regular brownie you will get sick, just like if you ate way to much of ANYTHING, even regular brownies. Don't blame the product when you didn't do your homework. Thanks for sharing the effects of dosing recklessly. It can be a good example for other first timers using edibles.
whos reading this on april 20th???? XD
How to recover from marijauna effect, as it leads to problem in studying.....
Don't smoke it if you need to study! Easy.
Here's the rest of the story. After alcohol prohibition failed MISERABLY in the 1930's, a corrupt politician named Anslinger needed SOMETHING to replace alcohol. Marijuana was chosen, not because it's bad for humans, but so the Mexicans, who smoked the plant, could be arrested and thrown back across the border. Plus for him to keep his job there had to be SOMETHING to prohibit, so marijuana was a perfect fit! Fast forward to 1970: In 1970 MJ was temporarily placed in category 1 with the intention of conducting studies to determine how to categorize it. President Nixon then appointed The National Commission on Marijuana, which recommended decriminalizing MJ in 1972 but was his own commission was ignored. According to one of his aides, it has recently surfaced that Nixon has been quoted as saying that MJ was a great tool to control the N word, and the hippies. In 1988 the DEA's own administrative law judge Francis Young recommended marijuana's removal from category 1 and was ignored. Young said it would be "unreasonable, arbitrary and capricious for the DEA to continue to stand between suffering Americans and the medical benefits of MJ". With the president's own commission recommending the decriminalization of cannabis in 1972, and the DEA's own administrative law judge, Francis Young, recommending removal of cannabis from category 1 in 1988, what possible reason would the DEA have to keep cannabis in this very restricted category? (MONEY). Dec 2015: Congress declares that the DEA would announce whether they are removing cannabis from category 1 by June 30, 2016. Today is July 24 and STILL not a word from the DEA. Why is the enforcement branch of the government making this decision? Shouldn't it be the science based "experts" who decide how "harmful and addictive" cannabis is? If that's not a conflict of interest I don't know what is! Americans AREN'T as stupid as you're hoping. Soon it will be legal in all 50 states and you will STILL be clawing away, trying to keep this FAILED prohibition in place so your funding won't be jeopardized. If Washington, Franklin and Jefferson were alive today they would be thrown in prison for decades and their farms and property would be stolen by our government. What does that say about your policy on cannabis vs the health and well being of American citizens?
Richy, Could you please provide a list of references for your information in your post dated July 24, 2016. I am very interested in reading more of this history!!!
If marijuana has been along for so long why haven’t they found a way to remove THC from the drug and replace it with a less of an addiction.

Great question! Our Drug Facts page on marijuana contains more information that may help answer your question. Please check it out at