As you’re probably aware, marijuana was fully legalized in Canada in October 2018. America’s northern neighbor became the second country in the world to take this bold step. Uruguay was the first in 2013, and, as far as we know, the small South American nation has not experienced a breakdown in civilization during the intervening years.
As for the next country to legalize weed recreationally? Your guess is as good as ours, although we suspect there are a few nations in South America likely to make this move before any European nations. South Africa has also made a huge move in recent times.
Of course, the above only relates to the recent history of cannabis. For the record, the herb has only been illegal for approximately a century or two in most countries. Before its prohibition, weed was enjoyed globally for thousands of years, as we’ll illustrate in this article.
The Early Ages of Weed
The origins of the Cannabis sativa plant are hotly disputed. It is believed that a hemp rope found in what was formerly Czechoslovakia is dated to at least 25,000 BC! It is widely believed that cannabis was a significant crop in Central Asia in approximately 10,000 BC. There are also traces of woven hemp found in China from 8,000 BC, and Kazakhstan from 4,000 BC.
According to legend, a Chinese emperor mentioned marijuana’s medicinal effects in his writings in 2,727 BC, although historians don’t believe the mysterious Shen Nung even existed. Therefore, we are unable to provide a definitive answer to the title question, although it seems certain that China or a Central Asian nation was the first to light a joint. However, this may not be true if the Czech hemp rope is as old as we believe!
In around 500 BC, the famous ancient historian, Herodotus, wrote about how the Scythians used marijuana. He even described the people of this empire getting high! For the record, the Scythian Empire was located in Central Eurasia, which encompasses parts of Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
By the first century AD, marijuana had spread to the Middle East and most of Europe. It arrived in Britain just after the Roman grip on the island had been relinquished in the 5th Century AD, and the herb was probably brought over by the Anglo-Saxons. It was used in the Middle East during the so-called Dark Ages, although numerous rulers viewed it as a form of poison used by assassins. As a result, the Emir of the Joneima of Arabia, Soudoun Sheikouni, outlawed marijuana in the 14th Century, one of the earliest recorded examples of cannabis prohibition.
Cannabis made its way to the New World courtesy of settlers at Jamestown, Virginia in the early 17th Century. It was also introduced to colonial America by Spanish Missions in the Southwest. Indeed, colonies at Connecticut and Massachusetts required farmers to grow hemp. It is important to note that these plants had extremely low THC levels.
Marijuana is Made Illegal
Aside from the ban by the Emir, there are few recorded instances of weed being made illegal anywhere in the world until the late 18th Century. In 1787, King Andrianampoinimerina of Madagascar not only banned marijuana; he decreed that its use would be punishable by the death penalty.
In the early 19th Century, Napoleon banned the use of weed amongst his troops because he was concerned it would negatively affect their fighting skills. In the end, his Grand Armee was all but annihilated in Russia, and would probably have welcomed a smoke when freezing their butts off in Moscow.
There were a few bans around the world during the 19th Century. The Municipal Council of the Brazilian city Rio de Janeiro banned weed from being brought into the city in 1830. A handful of British colonies prohibited the substance; Mauritius in 1840 and British Guiana in 1861 to name two. Singapore banned marijuana outright in 1870, and in 1890, Greece became one of the first European nations to ban the importation, cultivation, and use of the herb.
In 1894, the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission in British India released findings from a detailed survey. In it, the Commission stated that moderate use of weed produced practically no ill effects. Despite this endorsement, the list of countries to prohibit the use and sale of marijuana escalated in the early part of the 20th Century.
Long before the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act made cannabis federally illegal in the United States, over a dozen countries and numerous American states had already taken the grim step of banning the herb. The 1913 Ganja Law prohibited marijuana use in Jamaica, and within a couple of decades, countries such as Sierra Leone, Mexico, Canada, Sudan, Australia, the United Kingdom, the Irish Free State, and Thailand followed suit. By the end of the century, marijuana use was illegal in almost every country in the world.
Modern Legalization of Marijuana
Amidst all the chaos, Japan implemented a law that carried a modicum of common sense. The 1948 Cannabis Control Law created a licensing system for dealers and only punished individuals guilty of unlicensed sale or use. In 1971, the Netherlands placed marijuana in a less-dangerous category when classifying narcotic substances. Possession of 30 grams or less was deemed a misdemeanor. This was one of the first instances of decriminalization of marijuana in the modern era.
A little-known fact is that in January 1975, cannabis was briefly legalized in Comoros when president Ali Soilih seized power. It didn’t last long as Soilih was overthrown and executed in May 1978. Therefore, we can argue that Comoros was the first nation in modern history to light a joint legally in modern history. Over in California, medical cannabis became legal thanks to Proposition 215 in 1996. It was the first medical marijuana initiative to be passed at the state level.
In the 21st Century, a host of countries began to decriminalize marijuana, including Luxembourg, Portugal, Belgium, Chile, Brazil, and Argentina. Meanwhile, Canada (2001) and Austria (2008) went one step further by legalizing medicinal cannabis. Finally, in 2013, Uruguay went all the way and became the first country in the world to legalize weed for all adult citizens.
Although President Jose Mujica signed the legislation in December 2013, it was a slow process, as Uruguay only legalized cultivation in August 2014. In October of that year, the government started to register grower’s clubs, which were allowed to grow up to 99 plants a year. Individuals were allowed to grow a maximum of six plants at home. The retail component of the law was severely delayed, but in 2017, 16 pharmacies received authorization to sell marijuana commercially. By the way, you can get herb in Uruguay for just $2.50 a gram!
As Uruguay is a small nation and still had plenty of problems at the beginning, it is a sign of the hurdles the Canadian Government faces now that marijuana is legal across the nation. For example, there is already confusion because cultivation remains illegal in certain provinces. Then there is the small matter of crossing the border into the United States. Canadian marijuana industry employees could be banned from entering America for life!
In the last few years, several countries have legalized cannabis for medical use. Nations that have taken this step include Italy and the Czech Republic in 2013, Macedonia, Australia, and Poland in 2016, Germany in 2017, and Malta in 2018. The recent big news surrounding marijuana comes from South Africa. In September 2018, the country’s highest court legalized the use of cannabis by adults in private places.
It is a law that doesn’t go as far as Uruguay or Canada, because it remains illegal to use weed in public, to supply it, or to sell it. However, it is a major step because South Africans are free to use or possess the herb in private for their personal consumption. We expect numerous nations to follow this step in the next few years instead of opting for outright legalization.
So What is the Conclusion?
Lack of conclusive early evidence makes the title question a tough one to answer. The hemp rope found in Czechoslovakia might indicate that the plant was used for practical purposes rather than to get high. Cannabis was probably cultivated as a crop 12,000 years ago, but once again, we have no way of knowing if early growers understood the psychoactive potential of the herb.
It is likely that China was the first nation in the world to light a joint several thousand years ago, but there is a decent chance that a country like Kazakhstan beat it to the punch. In the modern era, Japan was one of the few countries not to grow crazy during the 20th Century spell where almost every country banned weed.
Comoros briefly claimed the mantle of the first country to fully legalize marijuana in the modern era in 1975, but it was made illegal again just three years later. California was the first American state to legalize medicinal weed, while Uruguay became the first country in modern history to see sense and allow their citizens to enjoy marijuana in peace.