To celebrate the upcoming 50th anniversary of the international cannabis holiday known simply as “420,” our friends at O.pen are sharing the real story behind 420, including the history of cannabis in the United States. Join us in exploring how marijuana even came to America, some notable activists, and how marijuana has influenced politics and pop culture, all leading up to the real story behind the famous 420 holiday.


To begin our journey, we’re going all the way back to the very beginning of cannabis’ history in America. Today, we’re going to answer the following questions:


  • When did cannabis first come to America?
  • How were cannabis and hemp used?
  • How was America introduced to medicinal and recreational use of marijuana?
  • When and why did cannabis become illegal?


If you want to learn even more about the history of cannabis in the United States, check out O.pen’s blog The History of 420 to follow the ‘highs’ and lows of marijuana’s history, as well as some fun ways you can celebrate 420 at home this year. 


Hemp Beginnings


The Spanish brought cannabis plants to the new world in the mid-1500s with the intention to grow hemp as a crop. Hemp provided a reliable and renewable resource for strong fibers that could be used for clothes, bags, and most importantly, for the rigging needed on ships. 

Hemp ropes retain durability despite wet and salty environments, naturally resists decay, and are adaptable to cultivation in various conditions. These qualities made cannabis an important crop for Imperialist and sea-faring cultures. More than 120,000 pounds of hemp rope were used to make the rigging for America’s oldest naval ship the U.S.S. Constitution, also known as “Old Ironsides.” Ship captains were ordered to widely disseminate hemp seeds to help make hemp fibers accessible for repairing sails and rigging. 




By the mid-1600s, hemp had become an essential part of the New England colonies’ economy. In 1619, Virginia passed a law that actually required every farmer to grow hemp, and was even used as legal tender in Pennsylvania, Virginia and Maryland. While most was exported to England in the form of ropes, cloth, canvas, sacks, and paper. Speaking of paper - the first drafts of the Declaration of Independence were written on hemp paper. 

Around the same time, Brazil’s first African slaves brought cannabis plants with them to the sugar plantations. The slaves were allowed to plant cannabis between rows of sugarcane, and to smoke the leaves between harvests. 

These cannabis plants, while from the same foliage family, were a psychoactive variety of cannabis from the plants already being farmed by Brazil’s neighbors to the north. While hemp cultivated for fiber contains small amounts of THC and other cannabinoids, it’s usually not enough to generate any noticeable effects. For early America, hemp’s main purpose was a commercial cash crop. 

This doesn’t mean that cannabis’ medicinal and intoxicating qualities were unknown in British America. In 1621, English scholar and clergyman Robert Burton listed marijuana as a treatment for ‘melancholia’ or depression.

By 1840, cannabis based medicines could be found in U.S. pharmacies, and from 1850 - 1937 marijuana was widely available throughout the U.S. as a medicinal drug, easily purchasable over the counter at pharmacies and general stores. In 1906, the Pure Food & Drug Act required that labels of over-the-counter medicines clearly state whether they contained cannabis or not. 

During the Industrial Revolution towards the end of the 19th century, steam ships began to replace sailing ships and the need for hemp began to wane. By 1890, cotton replaced hemp as America’s major cash crop. Since hemp cultivated for its fibers does not contain the same chemical or psychoactive cannabinoids, there wasn’t much use for hemp farming at the time. 

Yet around this time another way to use cannabis was making its way into America.


Growing Popularity in the 1910s


Popular books such as Arabian Nights and The Count of Monte Cristo detailed the hashish highs common in the Middle and Far East, which started the trend of cannabis experimentation among intellectuals during the mid-19th century.

This freedom of curiosity, though, wasn’t enjoyed by working class people until groups of migrant workers introduced cannabis to the common laborer. Immigrants to the Southwest fled the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1911, bringing cannabis plants with them, along with the popularization of recreational cannabis use. Cannabis was growing off the farm and beyond the druggist’s apothecary, as everyday workers used marijuana as a means to unwind at the end of an arduous workday.



The Roaring Weedies of the 1920s


In the 1920s, recreational cannabis was growing as a fine companion in the underground party scene becoming just as popular in the speakeasy as whisky in a teacup. In fact, The Volstead Act of 1920 raised the price of alcohol in the U.S., making marijuana an even more attractive alternative.  “In some respects, the [widespread] use of marijuana may have been an ironic and unintentional outcome of Prohibition.” - Barney Warf, Professor at University of Kansas.



Jazz Joints and Outlawed Medicine


Recreational marijuana use soon spread from the speakeasies to the jazz clubs, and was particularly popular among the black jazz community and ‘hepsters.’ Famous jazz singer Cab Calloway even wrote a hit tune about a comical conversation with someone high, Reefer Man. Famous singer Louis Armstrong was another lifelong fan of the herb, which he called “gage".

Another motive was that it created the opportunity to target marginalized social and ethnic groups, since recreational marijuana was being used most among Mexican and Black communities. Post-prohibitionists painted cannabis (and the people who used it) as a threat to a country already crippled by the recent Great Depression. A number of dubious research papers linked cannabis consumption with violence, crime, and other socially deviant behaviors, primarily committed by “racially inferior” and “underclass” communities. By 1931, 29 states had outlawed marijuana and in 1937 the Marijuana Tax Act was passed, in essence making the cannabis plant illegal in the United States. 

In 1936, the propaganda film Reefer Madness was released in a further effort to undermine public opinion of cannabis. The fictionalized story tells the tale of three drug dealers that corrupt innocent teenagers with “reefer cigarettes,” luring them to their demise through wild parties and Jazz music. Now viewed as a humorous caricature of propaganda film, Reefer Madness nonetheless evidences the dichotomy of cannabis culture during the 1930s. 

In less than a century, cannabis went from being a respectable crop, a widely available medicine, and a popular tonic to completely illegal.

Stay tuned for the next blog in this series when we’ll discuss some notable activists for access to medical cannabis and how they helped shape marijuana’s history. 


To learn even more about the history of marijuana in the USA, check out Open’s blog. You’ll also find a step-by-step guide for a fun and safe 420 holiday so you and your crew can be prepared to celebrate.