A Brief History of Cannabis

  • Fossilized evidence of cannabis is discovered at almost all archeological sites. The earliest evidence dates to 4000 BCE in China.
  • Human migration distributed cannabis throughout the world. It was a valuable crop, used as food, fuel, textile, and medicine.

The first written documentation of cannabis being used as medicine occurs in 2727 BCE in a Chinese pharmacopoeia called the Great Herbal attributed to Emperor Shen Neng.  He didn’t write it himself, but instead collected all the knowledge about cannabis and put it into one document.

  • Anglo-Americans and Europeans knew about the benefits of cannabis since at least the 1830s. Sir William Brooke O’Shaughnessy, a doctor working in India, documented that cannabis extracts could ease cholera symptoms like stomach pain and vomiting. He is credited with introducing it to the western world.
  • By the late 1800s, Americans and Europeans could buy cannabis extracts in pharmacies, and doctors regularly prescribed it to help with stomachaches, migraines, inflammation, insomnia, and other ailments.
  • The US Pharmacopoeia admitted cannabis as a recognized medicine in 1850 and listed it until 1942.
  • The Smith Brothers, Parke Davis, Squibb, Lilly, Burroughs Wellcome, and other leading drug manufacturers, marketed cannabis extracts.

Before prohibition, there were at least 280 companies that manufactured over 2,000 cannabis medicines.  By 1918, over 60,000 pounds of cannabis was produced annually, all at pharmaceutical farms east of the Mississippi.

What Happened?

 There are many factors that brought about cannabis prohibition.  If you spend any time researching this, you will find an abundance of theories and explanations, all of which play a part in its eventual banning.  Hemp became caught up in the fray even though it was used solely for industrial purposes.

There are many sides to the story.  One is intertwined with timber holdings and creating a market for the new fiber, nylon.  The other side is tied to misinformation and racist fears.

The English colonies passed the first cannabis law in 1639. The Massachusetts General Court ordered every household to plant the weed. Connecticut then followed the next year. They did it because of a rope shortage — they needed the hemp.  The early New England farmers grew plenty of cannabis, including 220,000 pounds of hemp fiber that went into the rigging of Old Ironsides.

Processing hemp was labor intensive until machinery was developed that reduced processing labor and made it competitive with timber.  In 1916, the US Government predicted that by the 1940s all paper would come from hemp and not from trees.  Plans were in the works to implement programs to achieve this outcome.

Hemp production became seen as a threat to those with large timber holdings, such as newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst.  It was also seen as a threat to the creation of a market for a new synthetic fiber, called nylon, developed by the DuPont Family.  Andrew Mellon, Secretary of the Treasury and richest man in America, was heavily invested in DuPont and shared those concerns.

Into this mix came refugees fleeing the Mexican Revolution.  They brought their cannabis with them and preferred to smoke it while most Americans used it in tincture and extract form.

Hearst used propaganda in his newspapers to fuel racist fears of cannabis use and promote prohibition.  Cannabis was falsely accused of causing dangerous, homicidal behavior brought on by “locoweed”.  Harry Anslinger, a virulent racist and head of the Department of Prohibition, helped create and perpetuate the marijuana “problem” as a way to keep his position and power.  He demonized cannabis in his new position as the director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.  Anslinger ignored a doctor who looked at 2,216 criminal cases and found cannabis had influenced exactly zero.

The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was passed.  It imposed a tax on growers, sellers, manufacturers, distributors, pharmacies, and doctors.  The aim was to eradicate the cannabis industry through excessive taxation.

Congress held only two one-hour hearings before passage of the Marihuana Tax Act.  The American Medical Association strongly opposed the bill.  The final witness, and only voice of dissent, was Dr. William Woodward, the legislative counsel for the American Medical Association (AMA), who challenged Anslinger’s claim that cannabis was a dangerous drug with no therapeutic value.  AMA doctors, Woodward asserted, were completely unaware that the “killer weed from Mexico” was actually cannabis, a medication that doctors used with great success for a multitude of issues.  He correctly predicted that federal legislation banning marijuana would strangle any medical use of the plant.

Martin Lee’s 2012 book “Smoke Signals’ provides an in-depth look at all the racial and political forces that led up to cannabis prohibition.

Ironically, Timothy Leary, a leader of the 1960s drug counter culture, managed to get the Supreme Court to overturn the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 after he was arrested for cannabis possession in 1966 in Laredo, Texas, and was charged under the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. Leary faced a 30-year prison sentence, so he hired a team of lawyers to defend him in court. They argued the law violated his Fifth Amendment right protecting him against self-incrimination. They reasoned he had to tell federal authorities he possessed pot so they could tax it. But state laws made cannabis possession a crime.  The high court sided with Leary in 1969, and Congress repealed the law the next year.

But then, in 1970, Richard Nixon declared “the war on drugs” and made cannabis a schedule 1 drug under the Controlled Substances Act.  This also included LSD and Psylocibin.  Cannabis was removed alongside over 200 other natural compounds like St. John’s wort and echinacea, which did not return to the USP until 2004.

John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s domestic policy advisor, stated during a 1994 interview with Harper’s magazine;

“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did.”