The evolution of cannabis use and consumer habits

Published Aug 3, 2020 11:00 a.m. ET
iStock / Tinnakorn Jorruang

Cannabis use dates so far back that we aren’t even sure exactly how long humans have been using it for, but we do know that the people who’ve used it, the ways that they’ve chosen to consume it, and the motivations behind why they made that decision has changed significantly over the course of the last couple hundred years. In fact, at one time, the cannabis market was so different from what we know and love today, that you wouldn’t even recognize it.

In the beginning

We’ve mentioned that we really aren’t sure when the earliest humans used cannabis, and that’s because it’s a plant, so it’s difficult to come across actual evidence of the material after it’s aged for a few thousand years. We rely mainly on written text for this proof, and as far as we can tell, some of the earliest experiments with cannabis began 2500 years ago in Western China, where the plant materials were utilized as a medicine, and eventually tried successfully as one of the earliest forms of anesthesia.

Some of the earliest users of cannabis may have smoked it, but the majority of the evidence that we have available points to the fact that it was ground up and put into things such as coffee and tea, or in healing salves and creams. This seems to imply that smoking wasn’t one of the main cannabis uses, which peaks funnily enough, shortly after prohibition.

When prohibition began

There are some earlier cases where restrictions on cannabis were put into place, but in the United States, this happened in August of 1937, when President D. Roosevelt signed the Marijuana Tax Act into law. It was officially banned at the federal level in October of 1937, though American officials had been gearing up to prohibit the plant for many years prior.

At this time, there were some white cannabis enthusiasts as there always have been, but the plant was more openly associated with minorities. This, along with plenty of documented evidence to suggest a biased has led many researchers to believe that the move was purely based on racism and then backed by large paper and wood corporations who saw the competition on the horizon if cannabis were to ever make it mainstream.

At this point in time, consumers knew about edibles, but cannabis uses were limited to basic cannabis products like flower, hash, and BHO which were smoked or steeped into a tea for an extra potent treat. Most smoked it because it was the easiest way to do it, and though a few seemed to be aware of the medicinal benefits, most consumers at this time did so purely out of recreation, which makes sense seeing as we knew so little about the science behind the medicinal benefits of the plant.

Leading up to legalization

In the ’60s, the cannabis movement seemed to pick up steam and along with the widespread word came higher numbers of users, and since then, it has grown exponentially into a whole world of its own. Major protests began to arise, as users learned for themselves that cannabis was entirely safe, despite decades of exposure to reefer madness propaganda. At this time, cannabis uses were broadening as we began to understand through personal experience and that of those we knew, and medical consumption was on a steady rise from this point forward.


By this time, we also had a better grasp of the various methods of extraction, leading to an increase in the variety of widely consumed cannabis products. Hash and oil became the most common, followed by more intricate and difficult to obtain options such as wax, shatter, and crumble. Prior to legalization, tools and devices also got an upgrade as vape pens rose to one of the trendiest fashions, shifting the kinds of existing cannabis consumers into a new group called vapers.

Since legalization

Since the legalization of cannabis became widely realized, beginning in Canada in 2018, we’ve come to see a new shift among cannabis consumers unlike anything from history, with the closest comparison being the manufactured release of vaporizers. As research continues, which has only been made possible since the legal status of the plant has changed, we’ve learned that there are some adverse effects to smoking it, and that has pushed users towards vaping and oral methods of ingestion.

Though there has always been the occasional consumer who utilized edibles or made capsules, now more than ever before, cannabis users are making the switch away from any methods that require inhalation or combustion, and they’re seeking new and more health-conscious ways to get high or to medicate. This led to the mass production of carefully processed cannabis products like THC diamonds, to offer consumers a way to have an intense buzz, without having to use so much to get there.

These days you can find everything in legal countries from the more exotic THC diamonds all the way down to the more basic cannabis oil in various strengths to suit any need. We no longer have to guess how much we’re taking, nor do we have to be ok with inhaling smoke if we want to get stoned. It’s a brand-new world that gives hope for what’s to come in the very near future.

The future

Cannabis uses haven't changed that much in the last decade or so, as experts have focused on perfecting the methods that we already have available, but there is still plenty of excitement on the horizon. Some cannabis companies are brewing THC alcohol, and many are looking into new and more appealing ways for us to utilize the plant without risking our health. Pretty soon, we should expect to see common kitchen appliances that are cannabis compatible, and even more new cannabis products to try. As long as we push forward at the same rate that we always have, there will be something incredible just around the corner, if we’re patient.

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