A History Of Marijuana Use And Prohibition

Monday, August 30th, 2010

This November, California will be voting on whether or not to legalize marijuana throughout the state. At the same time, Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske has promised to stop federal drug raids of medicinal marijuana dispensaries.

Update: Unfortunately, Californian voted against this measure and Mr. Kerlikowske lied about stopping the raids.

No matter what states do on their own though, marijuana is still illegal on the federal level and even classified on the same level as heroin because it is considered to be addictive and have no medical uses or applications. But why was the substance illegalized in the first place and why do people these days have such polarizing views on the drug. To understand that, it’s critical to look at the history of the drug itself.

While marijuana may not be physically addictive, many other illegal drugs are. If you or a loved one is addicted to a drug, please visit http://addiction.utsandiego.com/directory/rehab-centers/ to find a rehab center that can help.

Image by Flickr user Dey.

Records show that cannabis seeds were used for food all the way back in 6000 B.C., by 4000 B.C. the Chinese were making textiles from hemp. As far as drug use goes, charred cannabis seeds found in a brazier at an ancient Romanian burial site shows that people were smoking marijuana 3000 years before Christ’s time. While it’s difficult to say if these seeds were used ritually or medicinally, the medicinal use of marijuana was officially documented in 2727 B.C. Since that time, every part of the world has turned to cannabis for some type of medicinal use.

One of the earliest groups to be known for their marijuana use were the ancient Hindus. They called the drug “ganjika” in Sanskrit, which many believe to mean “belonging to the Ganges” as it grew naturally beside the Ganges River. The word has now evolved into our modern word “ganja.” The Hindus revered their ganjika so much that the sacred text of Antharva veda, written around 900 B.C., specifically mentions dried cannabis leaves, calling them “sacred grass.” The drug was declared to be one of the five sacred plants of India and was used as medicine and offerings to the god Shiva.

By 500 B.C., Europeans were introduced to cannabis by the Scythians, who relied on the intoxicating effects for ceremonies, medicine and recreation. It caught on here just as it had with the rest of the world.

Image by Alexandra Moss.

It wasn’t until the seventh century that the drug began to be restricted. Islamic law of the time banned the use of all drugs. Even so, leaders of the community still saw a value in the use of medicinal marijuana and allowed the drug to be used in treating disease and pain. Despite the Islamic ban on the drug, Europeans still began to associate marijuana with Muslims. The Spanish Inquisition banned the use of ganja as a medicine as early as the thirteenth century. In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII forbade the use of cannabis, calling it an “unholy sacrament” of Satanism. After the Pope’s decree, the use of the herb as a healing agent started to be used by the church as evidence of witchcraft.

Nevertheless, the drug remained popular through much of Europe, partially due to its usefulness in manufacturing. The plants could be used for clothing, rope and paper and needed little natural resources or time to grow. It was considered so useful that Columbus even brought cannabis to the new world with him in 1492.

Although the use of marijuana as an intoxicant was less common by the time America was being colonized by Europeans, many early English settlers were grew hemp for the production of textiles, particularly rope and clothing. Washington, Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson all grew hemp. The Declaration of Independence was drafted on paper made from cannabis fiber. Washington, often considered the father of our nation, once said, “Make the most you can of the Indian hemp seed. Sow it everywhere.”

Image by Scot Beale, Laughing Squid.

By the nineteenth century, cannabis stopped being used for manufacturing as much as it had once been, but many people were instead reverting to using marijuana as medicine. Even Queen Victoria was prescribed pot as a relief for her menstrual cramps in 1891.

During this period, the drugs were not used on their own, but mixed in elixirs and tonics. Many of these drugs, all available over the counter, also contained opiates, alcohol or cocaine. As many people began getting addicted to their cough medicines, the government decided to step in and require the labeling of all products containing these drugs. This was the beginning of the end for legalized marijuana use in America.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the Mexican revolution of 1910 began spilling into the American borders and western states began to harbor negative feelings towards their south-of-the-border neighbors. In an effort to differentiate themselves from Mexicans, states started to take issue with the marijuana plant that was so popular in Mexico. California was the first state to take action against the drug, followed by Utah and other western states. Many of the laws specifically targeted use by Mexican Americans. On the east coast, similar hatred of the drug began to develop as people associated it with African Americans. Stories spread that marijuana gave minorities a feeling of equality with whites and would help them seduce white women.

Image via Torben Bjorn Hansen.

At the same time, advancements in technology started to make hemp far more efficient in the creation of paper. Increased production capacity allowed hemp to produce four times the pulp as trees and an invention by Henry Timken, the creator of the roller bearing, would allow for quick stripping of the hemp plant, leaving only pulp. This development was touted to do for hemp what the cotton gin did for the cotton industry. It was estimated that paper from hemp could cost 50% less than newsprint. Additionally, hemp could be used for plastics, fibers and fuels. Henry Ford even constructed a car using hemp hardened by resin and  fueled by hemp ethanol.

The deck was stacked. Racism against blacks and Mexicans was turning the general public against cannabis and the paper, cotton, plastics and fuel companies recognized the threat hemp placed on their industries. Between racism and economics, marijuana and its THC-impaired cousin, hemp, were on the short-road to illegalization.

When Harry J. Anslinger was selected to head the new Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1931, he knew fighting cocaine and opium wouldn’t be enough. He decided that marijuana would be an easy opponent for his new agency. Anslinger began to help spread fear that the only people who enjoyed smoking ganja were ethnic minorities and jazz musicians. He also warned that whites who took the drug would suddenly become violent and lose all sight of their morals.

When William Randolph Hearst, who had extensive interests in the lumber industry, decided to lend his support to Anslinger, it was only a matter of time before the government outlawed the drug. Hearst’s famed yellow journalism papers helped spread misinformation about cannabis throughout the nation. Within a few years of this news saturation, films like Reefer Madness began appearing, depicting white, suburban teenagers turning to rapists and thugs after toking on one marijuana cigarette.

Public domain image courtesy of Wikipedia.

When congress passed the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, every state of the nation already had at least one anti-cannabis law on its books. Of course, none of these laws meant the government would stop researching the drug. In the early forties, the Office of Strategic Services began testing the effectiveness of marijuana as a truth serum.

While the organization tested many other substances for this same purpose, including LSD, cannabis proved to be their most successful truth drug. In 1943, they gave a cigarette mixed with THC to mafia enforcer, Augusto Del Gracio. He quickly warmed up to the investigators and gave up all information about his gang’s heroin operation.

While the government was becoming cozy with the drug, the public and its legislatures became more paranoid about the effects of marijuana on their society. As a result, mandatory sentencing was introduced for anyone caught in possession of marijuana. Punishments included between 2 and ten years in prison and fines up to $20,000 –equivalent to around $175,000 in today’s currency value.

Despite these strict sentences, marijuana use continued to grow. In 1965, one million Americans had tried ganja. That number reached 24 million by 1972.

Raid image courtesy of the OhioAttorneyGeneral.gov.

These mandatory sentences were repealed in 1970 and a commission on the subject that was appointed by Nixon urged legalization of cannabis. Unfortunately, that same year marked the start of the War on Drugs and the marijuana commission was ignored. The DEA classified marijuana as a schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act. Schedule I drugs, like heroin, are seen as to have no acceptable medical use and a high potential for abuse.

Despite the DEA’s opinion that there is no medicinal use for marijuana, the FDA wasn’t so sure. They established an experimental “Compassionate Use” program in 1978. Under this experiment, patients suffering from cancer, glaucoma or multiple sclerosis were permitted to legally use marijuana provided to them through the federal government. At the height of the program, there were over 30 patients. Although it was discontinued by the Bush administration in 1991, those already enrolled were grandfathered in. There are currently seven people still alive from the program and still receiving government raised pot.

Image by Troy Holden.

Between the FDA’s experiment and the thousands of years of further data about the effectiveness of medical marijuana, DEA administrative judge Francis Young agreed to hear a case regarding the legal status of cannabis. In 1988, Young recognized the effectiveness of the drug as a medicine and proposed the government remove marijuana from their list of schedule I drugs. The DEA put his recommendation aside and continued to try marijuana users on the same charges as junkies. Between the DEA and state law enforcement, it was estimated that someone was arrested every 38 seconds for violating marijuana laws in the U.S.

Since the Compassionate Use program started, many states tried to start their own medical marijuana programs, but these laws were largely symbolic because they all required doctors to prescribe the drug. Because federal law prohibits this action, doctors were afraid to issue prescriptions, as they may face legal sanctions. Even if the patient did receive a prescription though, there would still be no pharmacies to distribute it because it was against federal law for them to do so.

Image by Chuck “Caveman” Coker.

Everything changed with the 1996 California medical marijuana initiative though. This time, doctors only had to “recommend” the patient try marijuana and the patients were free to grow, possess and use the drug. By avoiding prescriptions and pharmacies, the law actually proved to be useful. Unfortunately, the federal government didn’t see it that way and thousands of users, doctors and dispensaries were raided and arrested by the DEA.

Despite the federal pressures, California’s law was largely considered a success, and seven other states followed suit and passed medical marijuana laws in 1998. By 2000, there were three more states with medical marijuana laws on the books. In 2003, Canada became the first country to completely legalize medical use of the drug.

The recent recession has proven to be another boon to the re-legalization of the drug, as state and federal governments face severe budget crises. In an effort to curb government spending, the DEA was ordered to stop raiding medical marijuana dispensaries. California will be voting on the legalization of the drug in November and many anti-drug advocates are still supporting the initiative, hoping that a tax on marijuana will help solve the state’s massive deficit. Marijuana is the number one cash crop in America and one of the largest industries in California. It is estimated that taxing the drug could bring in over $2 billion a year in taxes. Massachusetts is considering a similar initiative and many people are anticipating the federal government may be next. A $36 billion industry could certainly help the federal budget get back on track.

In the meanwhile, medical marijuana users are still in an awkward place, still not protected by the law, but not officially criminals either. Only time will tell if America will eventually follow Canada’s lead and legalize the use of medical marijuana completely.

Sources: Norml #1, #2, #3, Huffington Post, Salon, A1, Wikipedia