Cannabis history goes back thousands of years. In fact, cannabis has been used as medicine for most of our documented time here on earth. The first known use of cannabis stems from ancient China in 2737 BC, when Emperor Shen Neng documented cannabis use for the treatment of rheumatism, malaria, gout, and even memory loss. At that time, cannabis was first used in healing teas to soothe away headaches and treat every ill and ailment from aches and pains to childbirth. The medicinal popularity of cannabis spread from China throughout Asia, the Middle East, Africa, India, and even the west indies and western cultures.
Here in the United States, the settlers at the Jamestown colony were ordered to grow hemp by the king himself. Our founding father George Washington was a hemp farmer by trade, and in the meantime, many scientific studies were published recommending that American doctors use cannabis to treat inflammation, incontinence, and venereal disease. In fact, you were able to buy cannabis extracts at most pharmacies here in the states until around 1914 when cannabis prohibition came into play.
Even Illinois, the Prarie State, took part. Chicago has one of the richest histories with cannabis out of the states in the country. In fact, hash made its debut at the 1893 Chicago Worlds Fair, and murals depicting hemp as one of the foundational pillars that helped to make America what it is today can still be seen in photographs of buildings from the event.
Below, we’re diving into a timeline of Illinois’ history with cannabis. It all starts at the Worlds Fair.
Back in 1893, there were a lot of ideas and technologies debuted at the Chicago Worlds Fair. The fair celebrated 400 years after Columbus landed and was dedicated to sharing ideas and technologies. Thousands of people attended the fair. In fact, 25% of Americans showed up to the event. While many new technologies were unveiled, including Tesla’s Dream City and the world’s first Ferris wheel, agricultural advancements were the highlight for many.
At this event, hemp-inspired ideas and art were prevalent. Hidden high within the fairs Manufacturer building, a mural was painted depicting wood, iron, stone, and hemp to be the backbone of economics in America. However, one could visit the Agricultural building and purchase pounds of hemp and cannabis seeds. Multiple pavilions in this area highlighted the benefits of hemp and cannabis. In fact, Kentucky’s booth highlighted that hemp was a major part of the state’s economic story, weaved in with tobacco, corn, wheat, and grasses, forming a dramatic living backdrop.
After cruising through the buildings, visitors could visit the Turkish booths at the Midway and sample hashish made with cannabis. After partaking, visitors could purchase their own hash and pipes or hookahs or cruise down to the Chinese booths and sample opium. “If it comes to please then it will be through the process similar to the taste for opium or hashish.”
–Worlds Fair visitor
At this time, hemp was still a cash crop and many American doctors were prescribing cannabis tinctures for a variety of ailments. Recreational use of cannabis and hash caught on all over the united states after 1 in 4 Americans made their way to the Worlds Fair here in Chicago. While cannabis and hemp were already prevalent in the US, the sharing of ideas at the Chicago Worlds Fair including Turkish hash brought cannabis into the public eye.
However, the culture began to shift in the 1930s. Propaganda was spreading to protect stakes in logging and paper industries and to create social inequities. In fact, racism was a big contributor to prohibition, especially here in the hustle and bustle of Chicago during the Great Depression. Racist rhetoric pushed by politicians and the media in the 1930s stated that only criminals smoked cannabis, pointing fingers at Hispanics and black Americans.
In the early 1900s, a massive influx of Mexican immigrants began settling in the US after fleeing political unrest in Mexico. They brought smokable recreational cannabis use with them, and it exploded here in the US, as many Americans were already open to hashish and opium. In fact, lots of Americans already grew the stuff and used it themselves.
However, Harry Anslinger, who was head of the U.S. Treasury Department's Federal Bureau of Narcotics during the presidencies of Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy, made a scientifically false claim that cannabis caused violence and connected it to black and Hispanic people. This created a domino effect, and by emphasizing the Spanish “marihuana” instead of cannabis, he created a strong association of terror with Mexican immigrants who helped make cannabis popular in the US. He also pushed a narrative that cannabis use made black people “forget their place” in society and that jazz music was evil and created by evil people under the influence of marihuana.
Chicago took a liking to these ideas, unfortunately. In fact, Chicago was the first state to criminalize cannabis use in 1931, six whole years before the rest of the country took steps to ban the sale, consumption, and cultivation of marijuana nationwide.
A lot of propaganda went into criminalizing cannabis and making it illegal. 1936’s Reefer Madness film was released, showing teenagers smoking cannabis and getting trapped in a series of terrifying events like hallucinations, attempted rape, and murder. From 1936 to the 1960s, cannabis use was highly frowned upon and completely illegal as media portrayed it as a gateway drug to harder drugs and as something that only degenerates partake in. In 1936, Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 which officially made marijuana illegal except for medical uses —but it forced stringent regulations and taxes on cannabis that made it almost impossible for most doctors to prescribe it.
However, the 60s and 70s were liberating. There was a lot going on in the world, including foreign wars, peaceful protests, and the hippie movement. The 60s popularized drugs like cannabis and LSD in a counterculture movement thanks to psychologist Timothy Leary, who encouraged American students to “turn on, tune in, and drop out.” in an attempt to escape the problems of society. This counterculture spread from the US to the UK and throughout Europe by the 1970s when the US began getting involved in foreign wars.
In the 1970s, people were illegally importing cannabis from places like Colombia, and these imports were generating a huge interest in cannabis research from scientists and students at universities all over the country. The Natural Center for Natural Products Research at the University of Mississippi began researching cannabis samples taken from police raids all over the country, as cannabis was still highly illegal at this time. Scientific studies concluded that cannabis was a mostly safe substance with a plethora of potential medicinal uses.
For this reason, many cannabis agencies and organizations were born in the 70s including NORML, which promoted the reform of cannabis laws and started a grass-roots effort to legalize cannabis for medical uses at state and local levels. While most states didn’t buy into it, Chicago was again one of the first states to reform their cannabis laws.
In 1978, Chicago passed the Cannabis Control Act to legalize the medical use of marijuana. Unfortunately, though, the state left it up to the Department of Human Services and the State Police to create new drug policies. To this day, neither department has taken any action to create these new policies, so Illinois sat in cannabis purgatory for the next 30+ years.
Between the 1980s and 2000s, many states across the country were reforming their cannabis laws. Congress repealed many of the overly-harsh penalties surrounding cannabis possession and use and the states were left to decide how they would handle cannabis within their jurisdictions. While cannabis has always been federally illegal, states had the option to govern their own citizens.
Nixon declared the war on drugs in 1971 and these ideals stayed extremely prevalent in the successive presidencies of Ford, Carter, Raegan, and Bush. However, each presidency highlighted more and more unrest in the war on drugs. It was costing taxpayers a ton of money and drug use rates had continued to climb, especially in cities like Chicago.
On the other hand, more and more research was being conducted and books were being published about the medicinal uses of cannabis. With these ideas in mind, California became the first state to legalize compassionate care marijuana in 1996. During the 1980s, San Francisco activists succeeded in getting Proposition 215 passed which protected patients, caregivers, and physicians who used cannabis for medical reasons from legal persecution. The bill was passed in 1996.
Many states followed suit and reformed their medical cannabis laws. In 2012, Colorado and Washington state became the first states to make cannabis legal for adult 21+ recreational use. Both states included a heavy tax on cannabis sales, which made the bills popular with those voting for increased state revenues as well as with those who wanted the right to use cannabis without worrying about the feds kicking down the door and arresting them.
However, it wasn’t until 2013 that Illinois passed its own compassionate care medical marijuana program. Illinois was the 20th US state to legalize medical cannabis by introducing the Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program Act in 2013. It required that patients have a debilitating medical condition that was deemed treatable with cannabis by a state-licensed medical professional. It also required that patients had to undergo background checks, get fingerprinted, and pay an annual fee to have access to cannabis medicine.
In the 2010s, several states continually legalized both medical and recreational marijuana. This is the decade of cannabis legalization. More and more studies were published highlighting the benefits of cannabis as medicine and as treatments for lesser-known conditions like PTSD and mental health problems which were largely ignored in medicine until the early 90s. Leaps and bounds were made in cannabis agriculture as well as in extract sciences, and new products like live resin and other BHO concentrates emerged.
Many protests and rallies were held in DC by veterans and other advocacy groups seeking access to cannabis medicine in hopes of getting the drug decriminalized completely or lowered from its schedule I status. Reform continued to spread as many states with compassionate care cannabis programs sought to change who had access to cannabis and more specifics on commerce in each state.
In 2014, Illinois introduced a proposal that would allow minors to use low-THC cannabis products to manage debilitating conditions like epilepsy and for these products to be purchased by parents, guardians, or other caregivers who underwent background checks, got fingerprinted, and paid the annual fee. However, this proposal never came to fruition as cannabis in Illinois was completely decriminalized in 2016.
We’re on the upswing as far as legalization efforts are concerned. We’ve pushed through years of propaganda for racist and greed-related reasons and peeked behind the curtain regarding political schemes for a future pushing for national legalization and reform. As of today in 2021, cannabis is fully legal for sale and use in 15 states and the district of Colombia. 44 of the 50 US states have either decriminalized cannabis or started offering their own medical program if they haven’t legalized it completely.
Illinois is no different. Cannabis has been officially legal here since January 1st, 2020. It’s only a matter of time before the rest of the country gets on board and the federal government decides what to make of cannabis. With trends being what they are, we could see cannabis federally legal as early as later this year. A bill was introduced at the end of 2020 that would legalize cannabis at the federal level, but only time will tell.
In the meantime, be on the lookout for more and more states joining the cannabis conversation.