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According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, marijuana is the most widely used illicit drug in the United States. Marijuana was not always illegal. It has been widely used for recreational, medical, and commercial purposes. Interestingly, in some places where marijuana was used commercially and medically, it never gained popularity as an intoxicating drug. In other places, intoxication was its principal use.

In 1972, the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse presented a report to Congress titled "Marihuana, A Signal of Misunderstanding," which traced a detailed history of marijuana from ancient times to the early 1970s. According to the report, some of the earliest references to marijuana appear in a Chinese medical text dated 2737 B.c. The Chinese emperor Shen-Nung recommended it as a treatment for the nutritional disease beriberi, constipation, "female weakness," gout, malaria, rheumatism, and "absentmindedness." However, the Chinese appear not to have used marijuana as an intoxicant.

From China, marijuana seems to have spread south and west to India, where it became a major part of Hindu culture by 1000 B.c. In India, marijuana was called the "Giver of Life." Hindus who were in the highest social caste, or class, were not permitted to use alcohol but could freely use marijuana. Thus, high-caste Hindus included the drug (which they called bhang) in religious ceremonies as well as at marriage celebrations and family festivals. The working classes in India came to regard marijuana in much the same way people in Europe and the United States viewed beer. They smoked bhang and drank it in a liquid form at the end of the day to relieve stress and fatigue. According to one source cited in the report, Indians used marijuana "to obtain a sense of well-being, to stimulate appetite, and to enable them to bear more cheerfully the strain and monotony of daily routines"

India was not the only part of central Asia where marijuana gained popularity at this time. Clay tablet inscriptions found in present-day Iran show that the drug was used there around 700-600 B.c. Records from the Mesopotamian empire of Assyria indicate its use at the time of King Ashurbanipal's reign (669-626 B.c.).

From central Asia and the Middle East, the drug spread to Greece. In his epic story the Odyssey, the great Greek author Homer describes a drug called nepenthe, which many scholars believe was a liquid brew in which the most active ingredient was marijuana. The ancient Romans also employed marijuana as an intoxicant, according to the Roman author and physician Galen. In the second century a.d. Galen recorded that Romans would often serve marijuana to guests at banquets "to promote hilarity and happiness." Marijuana was also popular in the early Muslim world. Like upper-caste Hindus, devout Muslims were not allowed to drink alcohol. Long before a.d. 1000 the drug not only appeared in the Muslim world but also became a part of Muslim culture.

Records indicate that marijuana was used medically in Africa long before it became popular as an intoxicant. Texts from Egypt dating to the 1900s B.c. show that it was used to treat sore eyes. Marijuana was used in other parts of Africa as an antiseptic and to restore appetite and relieve hemorrhoidal pain. Other medical uses for marijuana included the treatment of tetanus, rabies, convulsion in infants, nervous disorders, cholera, rheumatism, hay fever, asthma, skin diseases, and difficult labor during childbirth.

Aside from its use in ancient Greece and Rome, most Europeans had never heard of marijuana until the 1800s. Muslims apparently brought the drug to Spain in the a.d. 900s, but its use did not spread beyond the Muslim community. Some scholars believe that the Italian explorer Marco Polo may have known about marijuana before his famous trip to China in the 1200s. They are convinced that he encountered a powerful and concentrated form of marijuana called hashish when he journeyed through the Middle East during his travels.

Marijuana seems to have first gained some popularity in Europe as a result of French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte's invasion of Egypt in the early 1800s. Two scientific reports prepared later in the century further increased European interest in marijuana. In 1839, the British physician W. B. O'Shaughnessy recommended the medical use of marijuana for a variety of illnesses and as a mild intoxicant. A later report by Russell Reynolds, the private physician to England's Queen Victoria, made many of the same recommendations. Members of Europe's medical profession during the mid-1800s spoke highly of the drug, which was easily obtained without a prescription.

Many popular writers of the day, including Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, and Pierre Gautier, wrote enthusiastically about the effects of hashish. Gautier and Baudelaire were even members of the Club des Hachischins, in which writers and intellectuals gathered and experimented with hashish. Although intrigued by the writers' descriptions of their experiences with the drug, the public at large looked upon marijuana with a mix of fear and repugnance. As a result, hashish remained a drug whose use was largely confined to a few European artists and intellectuals.

Historians disagree as to when marijuana first arrived in the United States. Some suggest that the Spanish brought the plant with them during their exploration of the Americas in the 1500s. Others claim that the drug was brought over on slave ships. Yet hemp plant from which the drug is derived has been grown in what is now the United States for centuries, apparently without widespread knowledge of its intoxicating effects. Early Americans used hemp for clothing, rope, and twine, and the first pioneers used hemp cloth to cover their wagons.

During the 1800s, marijuana was often used as a medicine in the United States. Although available without a prescription, it was also widely prescribed by physicians for a variety of ailments. In 1857, the Boston physician John Bell reported using marijuana to control mental and emotional disorders in the mentally ill. Three years later, the Ohio State Medical Society's Committee on Cannabis Indica claimed that its members had used marijuana to successfully treat pain, hemorrhage, hysteria, mania, whooping cough, infantile convulsions, asthma, gonorrhea, nervous rheumatism, chronic bronchitis, muscular spasms, tetanus, and epilepsy. It was also used to stimulate appetite.

The first recorded use of marijuana as an intoxicant in the United States dates to the early 1900s. American soldiers stationed in Puerto Rico and the Panama Canal Zone were using it by 1916. American soldiers fighting the Mexican bandit Pancho Villa also began to smoke marijuana around this time. Marijuana use in the United States grew during the 1910s and 1920s as large numbers of Mexican laborers came north for work and brought the drug with them.

During the 1920s and 1930s, marijuana grew in popularity in the United States, especially among musicians and other entertainers. It was at this time that the federal government began to express concern about the spread of the drug. The first federal antimarijuana laws were passed in the 1930s, in what is considered the beginning of the nation's "war on drugs." One campaign by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics portrayed marijuana as a powerful, addicting substance that would lead users into narcotics addiction. This idea of marijuana as a "gateway" drug is still supported by some authorities. These efforts, however, failed to curb a growing interest in the drug. During the 1950s, it became popular among the so-called beat generation of poets, writers, and musicians. In the 1960s, its use spread to college campuses where it became a symbol of rebellion against authority.

In 1970, the federal government classified marijuana as a Schedule I drug—a drug that has the highest potential for abuse and no accepted medical use. In effect, the government proclaimed marijuana to be as dangerous as heroin or LSD. By the 1980s, the government had adopted a "zero-tolerance" program that resulted in the passage of mandatory prison sentences for possession of marijuana. This period saw a decline in the use of marijuana, a trend which began to reverse itself in the early 1990s. However, by 2000, use of the drug had once again declined below previous levels. According to the 2007 "Monitoring the Future" study, about 42 percent of 12th graders report having tried marijuana, while about 32 percent had used it in the previous year.

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