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History of Marijuana in America

A cannabis plant, which has a long and intricate history in America.

In History

History of Marijuana in America

Marijuana inherits its name from Mexico, although it has a past steeped with global tradition. Long before its U.S. debut, marijuana was widely used, and popular among, some of the world’s earliest civilizations.  History documents show that the fiber-rich cannabis plant was used to produce rope and woven fabrics around 7000 B.C. in Central and South Asia. Additionally, it was referenced in Chinese manuscripts dating back to 2700 B.C. and ancient Indian scriptures have attributed medicinal properties to it.

After being used by half of the world for nearly 8,000 years, marijuana traditionally reached North America with Christopher Columbus in 1492 A.D. Initially, cannabis was only used to make industrial goods; its recreational use in America didn’t become popular until the early 20th century.  It wasn’t until then that the misunderstandings about cannabis truly began to popup.

The recreational use of marijuana soon became considered as harmful as cocaine or heroin. However, it has never led to a single case of human death from overdose in its entire history. This is a sharp contrast to the heavy mortality rate of its supposed counterparts. Nonetheless, the use and cultivation of the cannabis plant was made illegal at the hands of many capable antidrug advocates.

The distinction between marijuana and hemp has always been confusing. Botanically, they are species of the same genus, cannabis, though their composition varies in the percentages of anti-psychoactive cannabinoids (CBD) and psychoactive cannabinoids (THC). Cannabis plants containing less than one percent of THC are called “hemp,” which can be used in the production of about 25,000 different industrial products. Cannabis plants containing ten to twenty percent THC are known as “marijuana.” Both types of cannabis have been in use for centuries.

Domestic production of the marijuana plant was encouraged in various parts of America during the 17th century. The cannabis sativa plant, whose dried flower extracts can form potent recreational marijuana, was in great demand because of its long fibers which could be used for the production of clothing, ropes, and sails. In fact, The Assembly of Jamestown Colony, Virginia, passed legislation in 1619 making it compulsory for every farmer to grow the Indian hempseed – ironically America’s first marijuana law. Other colonial states like Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania allowed hemp to be exchanged as legal tender and could even be used to pay taxes.

The plant was an essential requirement during war times and farmers would be jailed if they were not able to produce enough hemp. Men who Americans hold in great reverence grew and encouraged the growth of hemp. George Washington grew hemp as his primary crop in the late 18th century for fiber production at Mount Vernon. Thomas Jefferson grew the plant as a secondary crop at Monticello and urged farmers to grow hemp in place of tobacco due to its many useful qualities.  Even Benjamin Franklin used cannabis as the raw material to start one of America’s pioneering paper mills.

Hemp is truly embedded in our American history.  Patriot wives and mothers spun threads of hemp fibers to provide clothing for Washington’s Continental Army; both the first and second draft of the Declaration of Independence was written on hemp paper; even the first American flag was made from the hemp fibers.  Additionally, the first U.S. Treasury Secretary, Alexander Hamilton, realized the worth of hemp in terms of boosting the economy of the early republic. Hemp flourished through the U.S.’s early years.  It was the first crop to be grown in many states. By 1850, production reached 40,000 tons making cannabis the third largest agricultural crop grown in America.  In fact, hemp remained the largest cash crop until the advent of the 20th century. However, the status of hemp in America started to change after the Civil War when several imported and domestic materials were used in its place. These textile replacements rendered the plant’s use primarily for recreational and medicinal purposes.

By the mid 19th century, marijuana’s medicinal properties were recognized in North America and it was used as a popular ingredient in many medicinal products. The United States Pharmacopeia had marijuana on its list of pharmaceuticals from 1850 until 1942, and many companies like Brothers Smith, Eli Lilly, Parke-Davis, and Tildens produced a cannabis extract, which Sir William Osler, “the father of modern medicine,” pronounced as the best treatment for migraines.  Marijuana was prescribed for various pain-relieving and mood-altering conditions such as nausea, labor pains, and rheumatism. A score of medical papers were published in this era flaunting the curing abilities of cannabis, and even the personal physician of Queen Victoria, Sir John Russell Reynolds, announced cannabis as having amazing powers to treat painful maladies.  It was sold openly and was easily available in public pharmacies. However, during this time, marijuana was also starting to be used more often as an intoxicant.

The recreational use of marijuana started on a small scale in the late 19th century in the northeastern United States with the opening of many Turkish smoking parlors. It was also during this time that about two to five percent of America’s population had unknowingly become addicted to morphine as most over-the-counter medicines contained levels of the substance. Among the addicts were soldiers, businessmen, housewives, and children.  In response, the American government passed the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906 and formed the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in part to help counter and control the addiction situation. The law, though not targeting marijuana specifically, also required cannabis -based medications to have its contents mentioned on the label.

The Spanish-American War, and the subsequent Mexican revolution of 1910, also influenced the marijuana scene in America. During the post-revolution years there was a great influx of Mexican-Americans who mostly found work on large farms in American fields. These immigrants cultivated marijuana, which they brought with them from Mexico, and indulged in its smoking for recreational purposes. Strong prejudice against the immigrants caused many to view the plant as an addictive and violence-inducing drug that created criminals, murderers, and delinquents. Not until the 1930’s, when the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and its director, Harry J. Anslinger, began drafting a bill to tax marijuana did an all out smear campaign begin, which eventually led to its national ban. State regulation of cannabis started in Massachusetts in 1911 and in New York and Maine by 1914. California passed the first state marijuana prohibition law in 1913, outlawing the preparations of hemp or “locoweed,” which was more a prejudiced controlling measure over the Mexican immigrant population than a controlling measure over the marijuana itself. More states came up with laws that banned marijuana, including Wyoming in 1915, Texas in 1919, and Nebraska in 1927. The states of Iowa, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, and Arkansas took this step in 1923.

Marijuana was prohibited by 29 states by 1931 due largely to the poor socio-economic conditions during The Great Depression. With unemployment at its peak, many American’s found themselves competing against Mexican immigrants for jobs in the fields. Consequently, Mexican workers and their associated drug marijuana became easy targets for attack.  By this time, marijuana’s misleading reputation began to overshadow its historic medicinal and industrial applications.

Marijuana had become increasingly popular among musicians and artists, especially Jazz entertainers, who believed its psychoactive and mind-altering properties were a necessary muse.  These musicians travelled the Jazz circuit in New Orleans, Chicago, and Harlem producing some of the greatest hits of all time and taking their “inspiration” with them.   The musician’s glamorization of marijuana helped marijuana’s recreational popularity and soon, business for marijuana picked up in the Black Market. The paving stones for marijuana’s tainted reputation and complicated legal policies were laid

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