Happy April 20! Today marijuana enthusiasts celebrate cannabis culture around the world. Also known as 4:20 or 4/20, learn about the history of marijuana and how this date became associated with it.
Marijuana is known by a lot of names, but some of the more common street names include pot, weed, grass, herb, Mary Jane, broccoli, reefer and green. Across the United States, states differ on their laws surrounding marijuana but federally, it is still under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970.
The Controlled Substances Act listed marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), legally categorizing it as a drug with “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse,” according to the DEA website. Other Schedule 1 drugs include heroin and methaqualone, aka Quaaludes.
However, despite the legal concerns imposed by federal laws, cannabis culture has continued to thrive. Learn more about the history of marijuana and how April 20 became associated with it below!
1. Cannabis Is Native to Central and South Asia
Cannabis is native to Central and South Asia but it has been consumed by humans since at least the seventh to fourth millennia. According to Cannabis: Evolution and Ethnobotany, evidence of ancient Romanians smoking marijuana near the Danube river has been dated to this time.
The earliest written mention of cannabis use dates to 2727 B.C. by the Chinese Emperor Shen Nung, writes Cannabis: History.
Other ancient cultures that consumed cannabis for its “psychedelic” properties include Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Assyrians, Aryans, Scythians, Thracians, and Dacians. Most of these cultures used cannabis as part of their religious ceremonies as a way to induce trance. According to Ancient Origins, cannabis eventually found its way to Britain during the 5th century Anglo-Saxon invasions.
There, it may have been the source of inspiration for playwright William Shakespeare. According to the BBC, “Research published in the South African Journal of Science shows that pipes dug up from the garden of Shakespeare’s home in Stratford upon Avon contain traces of cannabis.”
With the rise of the British Empire, cannabis sparked renewed interest in the 1800s when Irish physician William Brooke O’Shaughnessy brought some back with him from Bengal, India, writes The Science of Marijuana.
According to Narcocon, “In 1545 the Spanish brought marijuana to the New World. The English introduced it in Jamestown in 1611 where it became a major commercial crop alongside tobacco and was grown as a source of fiber” called hemp. George Washington grew hemp, writes the Mount Vernon Organization.
However, it would soon become illegal.
2. Cotton Replaced Hemp
According to Ozarkia, “Historians generally agree that cannabis was the world’s largest agricultural crop from before 1000 B.C. until the late 1800’s A.D. During this time period, cannabis was used for the majority of the world’s fiber, fabric, lighting oil, paper, incense, medicines, and as food for humans and animals. Hemp seed was regularly used in porridge, soups and gruels by most people in the world up until the 20th century. Cannabis has been used for building material, too. A bridge made of hemp hurds mixed with lime dating from about 600 A.D. has been discovered in southern France.”
Until the 19th century, the primary use of the cannabis plant was as a source of fiber. But this would soon change. According to Narcocon, “By 1890, hemp had been replaced by cotton as a major cash crop in southern states. Some patent medicines during this era contained marijuana, but it was a small percentage compared to the number containing opium or cocaine.”
The cultivation of hemp changed with the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney. Harvesting cannabis and cotton was very labor intensive. But with Whitney’s validation of his cotton gin patent in 1807, cotton crops soon began to overtake hemp production. While a hemp gin was eventually invented, it wasn’t until 1917 and by that cannabis had another problem attached to it: it had become known as marijuana, a Spanish term that inspired American racism.
3. ‘Reefer Madness’
Prior to the 20th century, the term “marijuana” did not exist in the English language. According to Leafly, “Between the years of 1910 and 1920, over 890,000 Mexicans legally immigrated into the United States seeking refuge from the wreckage of civil war. Though cannabis had been a part of U.S. history since the country’s beginnings, the idea of smoking the plant recreationally was not as common as other forms of consumption. The idea of smoking cannabis entered mainstream American consciousness after the arrival of immigrants who brought the smoking habit with them.”
With the arrival of the Mexicans, the racially charged term of “marijuana” was picked up by politicians trying to curb Mexican immigration. As the Great Depression hit in the 1930s, the blame shifted to these refugees and caused many white Americans to associate “marijuana” as a low-class, foreign substance. As jazz was also viewed as a low-class form of entertainment at the time, marijuana also became associated with African-Americans.
Nowhere is this better depicted than the 1936-1939 film series Reefer Madness, which depicts what happens to a group of high school students who are lured by pushers to try marijuana. The melodramatic events that unfold in the church-produced film include murder and rape. Watch it above.
Marijuana prohibition can also largely be attributed to Harry Anslinger, who was the first director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1930. Anslinger latched onto a populist, racist message against marijuana to help enact its prohibition with such statements like, “Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men… the primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races.”
Anslinger’s work brought about the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which federally criminalized the cannabis plant in every U.S. state, the precursor to the Controlled Substances Act of 1970.
4. The Story Behind 420
Despite its prohibition, the newly renamed “marijuana” stayed part of American culture, particularly in the 60s and 70s. It was during this time that group of students in San Rafael, California, first used the term “420.” The term referred to a fall 1971 plan to search for an abandoned marijuana crop that they had learned about based on a treasure map made by the grower, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
The group planned to meet every day at 4:20 p.m. to search for the crop.
The term spread with fans of the Grateful Dead, known as Deadheads, who were also associated with San Rafael, thanks to the band’s second album sleeve, which had a mailing address for a fan club subscription in San Rafael.
420 has nothing to do with German dictator and Nazi party leader Adolf Hitler, who was born on April 20, 1889.
5. Marijuana Is Becoming Legal in Places
Many countries are rethinking marijuana prohibition, particularly states within the United States.
As of 2017, 9 out of 50 states have legalized marijuana on some level. The most extreme versions of legalization, however, are in Colorado, Washington, and Oregon. In these three states, according to Business Insider, persons aged 21-and-over can legally buy weed at state-licensed marijuana dispensaries.