Why cannabis is illegal and why opinions are changing

July 13, 2022 | Category : Cannabis Knowledge | Posted By : Deon Maas

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Looking around us today, it is difficult to believe that less than 100 years ago cannabis and hemp were regarded as part of mainstream society, sold in pharmacies and in some cases required by law to be grown. Then the mood around it changed leading to prohibition world-wide. Deon Maas looks at this history, why cannabis is illegal and why history is changing now. 

A short history of cannabis usage

Two thousand seven hundred years ago a Jushi priest in Northwest China used cannabis for religious purposes. We know this because when his tomb was discovered they also found 789 grams of marijuana in a leather basket, presumably for him to enjoy in the afterlife. The cannabis had a high THC content which means that this is the oldest documentation of cannabis as a pharmacologically active agent. 

The earliest evidence of cannabis smoking has been found in the 2,500-year-old tombs of Jirzankal Cemetery in Western China, where cannabis residue was found in burners with charred pebbles, possibly used during funeral rituals. 

Hashish was widely used throughout the Middle East and parts of Asia after about 800 AD. Its rise in popularity corresponded with the spread of Islam in the region. The Quran forbids the use of alcohol and some other intoxicating substances but does not specifically prohibit cannabis. 

The Yamnaya people are highly significant to the wild cannabis within ancient Europe. This ancient tribe may have been responsible for cannabis making its way through European countries. Stretching from the Caspian Sea to Kazakhstan, the Yamnaya tribe was the leading force behind European cannabis roots

An ancient Greek historian named Herodotus described the Scythians—a large group of Iranian nomads in Central Asia—inhaling the smoke from smoldering cannabis seeds and flowers to get high. 

We also know that hemp was one of the first plants ancient humans turned into textile fibre more than 10,000 years ago. Hemp cloth is believed to be one of the oldest examples of human industry. A remnant of hemp cloth found in modern Iran dates back to 8,000 BC and it’ is proof that the people of ancient Mesopotamia used hemp for the textile industry. 

To quote the Swiss academic, Luca Fumagalli: “The reason you call it weed is because it grows anywhere”. 

The spreading of the gospel

Hemp has been a traditional food source in Europe for thousands of years. All parts of the plant were consumed. Hemp seeds, leaves, flowers and extracts are all traditional food ingredients and food supplements that have been part of the diet for centuries. In the pre-industrial era hemp oil was one the most consumed vegetable oils in the human diet. In fact, one of the oldest cookbooks, De Honesta Voluptate Et Valetudine, published in 1475 by Bartolommeo de Sacchi Platina, shows a recipe of a health drink of cannabis nectar.  

However, the crop was most popular in temperate regions for its ideal characteristics to make textile and cordage fibre. 

In Medieval Europe, hemp was used across the length and breadth of the continent. Hemp cloth was much more common than linen in a lot of areas. Hemp paper was also used widely. The main use of hemp in medieval Europe was not for medicine but its use in industry and warfare. Ships used hemp for everything from their ropes to their sails. The ships of the great European navies of the period needed two things: hemp and wood and they had it both in plentiful supply. 

Needless to say that hemp travelled with the colonisers to wherever they went, which brings us to the reason why cannabis was made illegal. 

Cannabis arrives in America

Historically, hemp was a vital crop for North America and even in the early 1600s it was the law of the land to grow it. Early settlers produced hemp for various applications such as oil, clothing, sailcloth and rope. Cannabis appeared on the ten dollar bill as late as 1900. George Washington grew hemp at Mount Vernon as one of his three primary crops. 

Anglo-Americans and Europeans have known about marijuana’s medicinal benefits since at least the 1830s. Around that time, Sir William Brooke O’Shaughnessy, an Irish doctor studying in India, documented that cannabis extracts could ease cholera symptoms like stomach pain and vomiting. By the late 19th century, Americans and Europeans could buy cannabis extracts in pharmacies and doctors’ offices to help with stomach aches, migraines, inflammation, insomnia, and other ailments. 

As early as 1853, recreational cannabis was listed as a “fashionable narcotic”. By the 1880s, oriental-style hashish parlours were flourishing alongside opium dens, to the point that one could be found in every major city on the American east coast. It was estimated there were around 500 such establishments in New York City alone. 

Increased restrictions and labelling of cannabis as a poison began in many states from 1906 onward, and outright prohibitions began in the 1920s. By the mid-1930s cannabis was regulated as a drug in every American state. 

This triggered a whole movement. 

One source of tensions in the western and southwestern states was the influx of Mexicans to the U.S. following the 1910 Mexican Revolution. Many Mexicans also smoked marijuana to relax. It was also seen as a cheaper alternative to alcohol, due to Prohibition (which went into effect nationally in 1920). Later in the 1920s, negative tensions grew between the small farms and the large farms that used cheaper Mexican labour. Shortly afterwards, the Great Depression came which increased tensions as jobs and resources became more scarce. Because of that, the passage of the initial laws is often described as a product of racism. 

So, when the media began to play on the fears that the public had about these new citizens by falsely spreading claims about the “disruptive Mexicans” with their dangerous native behaviours including marihuana use, the rest of the nation did not know that this “marihuana” was a plant they already had in their medicine cabinets.  

The use of cannabis and other drugs came under increasing scrutiny after the formation of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) in 1930, headed by Harry J. Anslinger as part of the government’s broader push to outlaw all recreational drugs. 

Anslinger claimed cannabis caused people to commit violent crimes and act irrationally and overly sexual.  Anslinger claimed that the majority of pot smokers were minorities, including African Americans, and that marijuana had a negative effect on these “degenerate races,” such as inducing violence or causing insanity.  Perhaps even more worrisome to Anslinger was pot’s supposed threat to white women’s virtue. He believed that smoking pot would result in their having sex with black men. 

This act came just a year after the film Reefer Madness warned parents that drug dealers would invite their teenagers to jazz parties and get them hooked on “reefer.”  

The attack on cannabis came from other sides as well. 

Andrew Mellon was the Secretary of the Treasury as well as the wealthiest man in America. He recently invested heavily in a new material called nylon. He considered nylon’s success to depend on replacing hemp. 

The last nail in the coffin of cannabis and hemp was the end of the Second World War and the establishment of the United Nations. With Europe in tatters the US became a superpower and used this position to influence the UN’s Commission on Narcotic Drugs. If it was good enough for America, the rest of the world should follow suit. So cannabis was deemed dangerous and with little therapeutic benefits. This classification wasn’t scientifically based, but rather leaned on common knowledge and superstitions. Yet, it still stands, and this is basically how cannabis became illegal in most of the world.  

The United Nations’ Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs is a treaty signed by 186 UN parties, unifying all past international treaties on narcotic drugs. It also lists cannabis as a Schedule 4 drug, the most severe classification, basically positioning it next to heroin as a “particularly dangerous drug with little or no therapeutic value,” prohibiting any recreational use and drastically limiting medicinal use. This decision drastically shifted both the perception of cannabis as a valid remedy and its availability globally. The treaty was signed on March 30, 1961. 

Why opinions are changing 

First it had to get worse 

As we all know, banning something completely, is rarely completely successful. We also know that it takes certain people, usually those who institutes a ban, a bit longer to find that out. 

As the USA as a super power gained strength their laws, through the United Nations, got implemented all over the world, even though it teetered on the ridiculous some times. President Nixon deputised a pill laden Elvis Presley as an anti-narcotic agent for the FBI, the CIA got bust smuggling cocaine into America to fund their support for the right wing contras in Nicaragua and in the process started the crack cocaine epidemic that destroyed much of their inner cities in the Eighties and Nancy Reagan added a thirteenth step to the 12-step programme by launching her Just Say No campaign. Mandatory sentencing laws determined that if you were busted with a joint for the third time, you faced a minimum jail sentence of twenty years. 

The laws had a ripple effect in the rest of the world. Nepal had to close down their government sponsored Freak Street to prevent hippies from buying legal cannabis, farmers in Italy, Spain and Portugal had to destroy their hemp fields that they have been growing for generations and started growing less profitable crops that depleted the agricultural ground quicker. 

One would have hoped to be able to claim that sanity finally prevailed and it is possible to say so, but there is a lot more to the decision and a lot of it has to do with the zeitgeist and with money. 

The role medicine played 

It all started with medical research in the 1990’s proving that cannabis does have medicinal benefits. Over the years peer reviewed research has shown that cannabis helps in lowering blood pressure, reduce inflammation, preventing relapse in drug and alcohol addiction, treating anxiety disorders, treating gastrointestinal disorders, preventing seizures and fighting cancer. 

People who were not intent on getting stoned but getting healthy started using it, this started changing the perspective.  Research at the National Library of Medicine has shown that a decrease in religious affiliation, a decline in punitiveness, and a shift in media framing all contributed to changing attitudes. Currently more than 50% of North Americans and Western Europeans support the legalisation of cannabis. 

Social media rears its head 

With the arrival of the internet in the 1990’s and social media ten years later, it became easier for causes to become world-wide phenomena. Whereas in the past a few people who felt the same about change had no way to communicate to the masses, the world wide web started connecting all these people into one mass movement. 

The problem with causes in a capitalist system is that it costs money. Climate change means someone will be making less money on their investment. Moving the world to be less reliant on oil means that petro-chemical companies will show less of a profit. Not only for the company itself but also its investors and because of their power they represent a strong lobby politically contributing to election campaigns. Preventing deforestation in the Amazon not only influences powerful meat farmers but also big multi-nationals like McDonalds. 

In steps cannabis, one of the few causes where people can make money rather than lose it. Decriminalisation and legalisation mean companies can make money from it, contribute to political campaigns and also generate huge new tax revenues for countries. 

People realise that hemp growing has benefits 

There is also a reason why hemp has been grown successfully for thousands of years – it’s easy to grow, depletes the agricultural ground less than a lot of other crops, uses less water and actually absorbs certain impurities in the ground.  

So firstly the war on drugs showed no signs of being won by governments. If anything it built strong criminal cartels that lead to violence and because it was illegal, no tax could be levied on it meaning that governments lost out on a huge income. 

Science also played a big role. As the move to more natural drugs started gaining momentum, people started remembering grandma’s “herbal” tea that helped her relax, sleep and get rid of those pesky pains.   

With laws being relaxed in some American states and Portugal and Uruguay taking the lead, other countries started taking note. 

The hysteria of Reefer Madness slowly got replaced by logical thinking. It took almost a century to get to that point, but the big change in thinking has all started happening since the Nineties. 

Extra income for governments 

The developing world, always looking for an extra source of income, started seeing the potential. In Africa, even though domestic laws in a country like Zimbabwe still has a jail sentence of ten years for being caught with a joint, they started seeing the potential of growing cannabis for the European medicinal market (read our country report about Zimbabwe here). In their broken economy with a collapsed monetary system and on a serious sanctions list, this was a way of generating a new income stream. 

It also serves to create job opportunities in these countries that traditionally has high unemployment. In some cases, like Morocco, it also helps locals who live in areas like the Riff mountains where no other crop grows. All of this is making it easier for governments to step by step legalise growing cannabis 

Africa was the continent that acted the quickest in legalising the growing of medicinal cannabis with nine countries having legalised it in the past five years. 

The liberal approach that understands that legal also means control 

The more forward-thinking countries also realise two other things: Legalisation will guarantee quality and make sure that no dangerous pesticides are used. Legalisation also serves as a barrier to prevent people who are too young to smoke, easy access.   

The last decade has seen innovative breakthroughs by leaps and bounds that will change how we develop, grow, and use cannabis. 


One thing that is pushing this industry upwards is a rise in cannabis technology, which serves better harvests, associates customers and marijuana businesses, guarantees quality safety guidelines, and offers a wide range of choices for cannabis consumption. 

Today, we can see that there are not just a pile of farming and security technologies used for growing cannabis, but additionally there are different tools like seed to sales compliance software that guarantees not just quality but check and balances that improves the quality to the standard of being acceptable for medicinal use – the pharmaceutical industry’s high standards have upped production, quality and laws.  

The marijuana industry has swayed investors around the world, and obviously, their currency has been utilised appropriately. The rising interest for cannabis has supported the utilisation of new and cutting edge technologies while cultivating the plants. 

It is important to use the cannabis technology market when cultivating to quicken the harvest time and work on the quality to match the customer’s requirements. This makes it simpler for organizations to produce quality products. 

With each innovation, there are new methods of extracting and planting CBD. The use of these innovations in the medicinal marijuana business provides the separation of medical compounds from marijuana elements. Cannabis goes through tests prior to being passed on through the end product to guarantee quality and product safety. 

Seed-to-sale platforms connect almost every aspect of the cannabis industry, from tracking the plants during growth and production to comprehensive client databases, automated prescription management, their own e-commerce sites and most importantly data on quality assurance and compliance. 

The United Nations decides it’s okay 

Paving the way for global medical research, the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs voted in December 2020 to remove cannabis from Schedule IV of their drug classification list. 

So, most countries are starting to weigh up the high cost of prohibition with over-crowded jails and law enforcement that is prevented from doing their real job at a very high cost against the income that growing can generate in tax money. 

In the end the answer to this question is easy to see. Cannabis is one of the few issues of the moment that does not polarise and it also cuts across the political divide.