America's History with Cannabis? It's Complicated.
Did you know George Washington was a hemp farmer? It's true. So was Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.
Ironically, until recently the US government has been much less supportive of cannabis crops. Propaganda against “marijuana” has instilled fear into American society keeping us from valuing its proven history as the Founding Fathers once did. But things may be looking up. Here is a look at cannabis's complicated history in the US.
1700s: Hemp takes root in the colonies.
Hemp, which has has been around for 10,000 years, was one of the first crops grown in Colonial America. In 1619, Jamestown, the first English settlement, established the first-ever cannabis legislation in the New World by requiring all settlers to grow hemp. This trend spread throughout Colonial America, and the value of hemp was so recognized that in Pennsylvania and Maryland the plant was accepted as a form of currency.
1800s: Cannabis embraced by farmers and doctors.
Hemp production thrived as a quick-fix resource during turbulent times like the Civil War. Farmers primarily used the plant for its fibers that could be made into rope, cloth, sails, and paper. By the 20th century, steamboats began to eliminate the demand for hemp rope and sails, but hemp’s psychoactive sibling cannabis was already making its mark on the U.S’ medical landscape.
Before prohibition, cannabis was widely accepted by the government and doctors alike. In 1850, the United States Pharmacopeia listed cannabis as a treatment for alcoholism, opiate addiction, insanity, and menstrual bleeding among other illnesses. Cannabis was sold over-the-counter in public pharmacies and was especially popular as an alcohol-based tincture. The future of cannabis seemed bright.
Early 1900s: Cannabis gets weaponized.
Starting in the 1920s, attitudes started to change about cannabis. After the Mexican Revolution, the US saw a huge influx of Mexican immigrants crossing into the states, bringing with them a culture of smoking cannabis and the Spanish rooted word “marijuana”.
The Federal Narcotics Bureau (precedent to DEA) led by Henry J. Anslinger shifted their focus from moonshine and bootleggers to demonizing cannabis. Anslinger was able to wipe the resourceful histories of hemp and cannabis from the public’s consciousness, and instead associated America's fear of Mexican immigrants with the use of cannabis. The success of Anslinger and the U.S government's anti-cannabis propaganda relied on fear-mongering and racism.
Anslinger joined forces with fanatical newspaper publications to spread false stories of insane, murderous marijuana users. Tying all minorities into the same marijuana myths allowed for White Americans to easily denounce cannabis as a “new” drug and menace to society.
“There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers," he said. "Their Satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana usage. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others."
The Federal Narcotics Bureau’s propaganda allowed for the difference between cannabis & hemp (the amount of THC content) to be lost in fear as the “Marihuana Act of 1937" finally made the cannabis plant federally illegal. The value of industrial hemp would not be revitalized until World War 2 when a shortage of hemp imports caused the U.S Department of Agriculture to create its “Hemp For Victory” initiative. Farmers growing hemp were excused from war as they provided the raw materials to support the military’s needs. Yet, as soon as WWII ended, both cannabis and hemp remained illegal.
Late 1900s: The War on Drugs
By the 1970s, the fear around cannabis had shifted from Anslinger’s rapists and murders to Richard Nixon’s War On Drugs which targeted the “anti-war left & black people”. The narrative was no longer that marijuana made you a maniac, but instead a pacifist that betrayed patriotism and the American war effort in Vietnam. During their terms, Reagan and Bush spearheaded their own versions of the War On Drugs characterized by harsh mandatory sentencing laws and disproportionately arresting those from Black and Brown communities.
Cannabis today: It's still complicated.
In 2018, cannabis is back to being more accepted and mainstream. Thirty states have legalized medical marijuana and 9 states have approved it for adult recreational use. Despite the federal government's insistence on classifying cannabis an illegal Schedule 1 drug, popular opinion is shifting in favor of legalization. A Quinnipiac poll found that 63 percent of American voters think that the use of marijuana should be made legal in the US. Just last week, the Senate voted to legalize hemp. A decision that no doubt would have made the Founding Fathers very proud.