It would be an astronomical understatement to say that humans have a “close” relationship with cannabis. It’s closer than close, and more than any other intoxicant, cannabis has played a pivotal role in politics, culture, and revolution. The history of cannabis in and amongst the history of human civilization is rich with colour, contention, racism, religion, and politics.
There is much more to the cannabis story than the chapter between prohibition and now. There is evidence that humans were using cannabis as long as 10,000 years ago. In that time, its uses were largely medicinal or ethnobotanical, and it isn’t clear to what degree cannabis was recreational.
Despite the fact that humans lived in harmony with cannabis for millenia, that harmony ended within all of a few hundred years of arriving in America. Yes — in a few short centuries, cannabis went from being the most lucrative and versatile crop to the most demonized illicit drug on the planet. That is the chapter of cannabis history we’re going to talk about in this article.
It comes as no surprise to most people that our ancestors feasted on psychedelic mushrooms, and that virtually every single ancient civilization had some kind of relationship with psychotropic plants. Almost everybody that has tried cannabis (and other psychedelic substances) intuitively understands how humans can form such a close bond with psychedelic plants.
What doesn’t come so naturally is the understanding of how that relationship was flipped on its head — when, and more curiously, how, did cannabis become so vilified? The very suspicion that something is awry with such vigorous legislation around cannabis is what sparked the cannabis revolution. There seems to be something profoundly wrong about criminalizing the use of a natural substance — especially a substance with the backstory of cannabis.
The colourful chapter of cannabis history between prohibition and legalization is a political labyrinth of concepts and ideas. These ideas shaped the modern cannabis construct, and why cannabis has had to re-emerge from inside the proverbial “shell” again in the last few decades.
Let the story begin.
From ‘cannabis’ to ‘marihuana’: Cannabis post-Mexican Revolution
All the way until the early 1900s, cannabis was fair game in America. It was especially the case for hemp, which was imperative to the manufacture of sails and rope. Hemp cultivation wasn’t just commonplace, it was a necessary part of Colonial America. It’s rumoured that Thomas Jefferson and George Washington grew hemp on their plantations, and that Benjamin Franklin opened one of America’s first hemp paper mills.
In fact, for some Americans, it was required to grow hemp. In 1916 Virginia passed a law requiring a certain amount of acreage of each farm to be dedicated to hemp cultivation. Given the fact that Americans were still traveling on sailing ships at the time, hemp was in high demand for sailcloth and cordage.
In the dispensary, cannabis was a medicine for all matter of ailments including pain, menstrual problems, hysteria, and child labour. There wasn’t much recreational cannabis use happening at the time — cannabis was a pharmaceutical and a fibrous plant for textile production.
Well, before all the interesting stuff in Mexico started, hemp was already slipping off the radar. Steam ships had made their arrival on the scene, and there was a lesser need for sails. When it came to travel, hemp was being replaced by coal.
The Mexican Revolution started in the 1910s, bringing hoards of Mexicans fleeing north to America. Racial tension was already forming between Americans and Mexicans in Texas and other common arrival points. And ultimately, Mexicans were “coloured” people, arriving after a long, dark history of “coloured” slavery in the USA.
But what they brought with them was of particular interest: the recreational use of cannabis. This was the first real introduction to cannabis smoking for Americans, and the government greeted it with the same fear and prejudice as the Mexicans.
“Police officers in Texas claimed that marijuana incited violent crimes, aroused a “lust for blood,” and gave its users “superhuman strength.”
Rumors spread that Mexicans were distributing this “killer weed” to unsuspecting American schoolchildren. Sailors and West Indian immigrants brought the practice of smoking marijuana to port cities along the Gulf of Mexico. In New Orleans newspaper articles associated the drug with African-Americans, jazz musicians, prostitutes, and underworld whites. “The Marijuana Menace,” as sketched by anti-drug campaigners, was personified by inferior races and social deviants.”
The Mexicans didn’t call cannabis by its latin name, but rather by its Mexican name: marihuana. As racial tension mounted, the government and the media slipped into their notorious roles. The term “cannabis” disappeared off the radar, and was from then on known as “marihuana” — the toxic, madness-creating drug brought by the Mexicans.
It’s hard to say whether Americans actually believed that cannabis was something different to marihuana, or whether the concept of recreational use was so abhorrent that it had to be demonized. But the paradigm shift between cannabis as a dispensary staple and then as a deadly, illicit drug happened so rapidly, a person would think Americans saw “cannabis” and “marihuana” as two completely different things.
Reefer Madness, and the madness that ensued
By the 1930s, contempt for Mexicans had well and truly set in. As the decades past, there was even less of a need for industrial hemp, too. Cannabis cultivation was becoming a clandestine event, and judgment towards cannabis use was mounting. It didn’t help that at the same time as the US, Mexico was also cracking down on the drug .
Now, for those whose history is a little cloudy, 1929 marked the beginning of the Great Depression. The government attempted prohibition, but it was repealed, likely due to the implications on the economy at the time of the Great Depression. But the government continued to paint cannabis under the guise of Mexican deviance. Marihuana, along with the communities using it, were depicted as a threat to a country already at risk of economic collapse.
In 1936, Reefer Madness made its debut in American cinema. The documentary, which aggressively exaggerates the side-effects of cannabis, made an enormous imprint on the modern conceptualisation of a cannabis user. Reefer Madness wasn’t the beginning, but it marks a pivotal turnaround in history of the beginning of cannabis misinformation.
The film depicts two high school students who are lured into the world of drugs. Needless to say, the two use drugs and become irreversibly impaired by psychosis and madness. Their lives descend into chaos, and the narrative officially began.
1937 marked the arrival of the Marihuana Tax Act, drafted by H. Anslinger himself. The Act was designed to levy hemp cultivation and physicians who dispensed cannabis. For all intents and purposes, there’s no use going into the rest of cannabis legislative history. It was a series of downhill legislative alterations that eventually ended in a complete prohibition of cannabis.
There really can’t be any doubt that the phenomenon of democratic consensus over the prohibition of cannabis was intertwined with political racism and propaganda. Anslinger drafted the bill for the Marihuana Tax Act, and he also testified for the introduction of federal cannabis restrictions. In his testimony, according to druglibrary.org, Anslinger included a letter from Floyd Baskette, an editor of the Daily Courier of Alamosa that read,
“I wish I could show you what a small marihuana cigaret can do to one of our degenerate Spanish-speaking residents. That’s why our problem is so great; the greatest percentage of our population is composed of Spanish-speaking persons, most of who are low mentally, because of social and racial conditions.”
The advent of the War on Drugs
As mentioned, legislation after the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was a succession of harsher and harsher restrictions on cannabis. Some cannabis research took place between the 40s and 60s, but it was few and far between. Restrictions became so tight that obtaining cannabis for medical research came to a complete halt.
By the 1960s, cannabis was well and truly un-fair game. It was illegal, possession meant jail, and overall, Mexicans were vilified as the primary users and sellers. And by 1961, the UN had already published the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. Which by the way, cannabis was a part of (and still is), and scheduled among the most dangerous drugs on the planet.
So, if cannabis was already illegal, what does the War on Drugs have to do anything?
Richard Nixon started campaigning for president in 1968, and he was strongly leaning into the Vietnam War, which had been going on for over a decade by his election. There was a giant undercurrent of Americans that didn’t support the war, and in 1969, they had their summer of love.
Yeah, we’re talking about the hippies of the 1960s and 70s.
By that time, cannabis was on its way to becoming public enemy number one, and anybody who used it was simply cast under the same light. The hippies were somewhat of an enemy to Nixon as they desperately fought to end the Vietnam War.
Now, Nixon wasn’t seen as the most benevolent leader. Many accused him of racism, especially towards black Americans, although racism was still a huge issue in America as a whole at the time. Since the days of Nixon, more evidence has come to light about his and Reagan’s views on black people. An article was published in the Atlantic in 2019 revealing a phone conversation between Nixon and Raegan; Reagan called African Americans “monkeys”, and Nixon thought it was quite hilarious.
The famous words of 1971 that nobody will ever forget: the War on Drugs. Nixon called it in June that year, declaring drugs as “public enemy number one”. With the war on drugs came exponential increase in police presence in the USA and the presence of federal drug control agencies. He pushed, and saw through, mandatory sentencing and no-knock drug warrants.
Back to the point of racism, which so many speculated is what instigated the War on Drugs. At that particular moment in history, the hippies led the anti-war movement, and the blacks were fighting for their civil liberties. Could it be, that in a bid to quash the voices of the anti-war and black freedom movements, Nixon declared the War on Drugs — vilifying his two most potent “enemies”?
Nixon pinned heroin on the African American community, and pinned cannabis on the hippie community. Decades of mounting misinformation about drugs and anti-drug movements already had most of the American public believing the association between drugs and crime. And with the simple declaration of the “War on Drugs”, Nixon trapped two enormous alternative groups in the middle of a political war.
An infamous interview took place in 1994 between Harper’s Magazine writer, Dan Baum, and Nixon’s Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs, John Ehlrichman. According to Baum, Ehlirchman said in the interview,
“At the time, I was writing a book about the politics of drug prohibition. I started to ask Ehrlichman a series of earnest, wonky questions that he impatiently waved away. “You want to know what this was really all about?” he asked with the bluntness of a man who, after public disgrace and a stretch in federal prison, had little left to protect. “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.””
It’s important to keep grains of salt handy for such blunt and shocking statements like Ehrlichman’s. After all, he had spent time in prison over the Watergate scandal by the time the interview took place, and as Baum mentions, he had little left to protect. Is it possible he was just angry and bitter over having spent time in prison?
Legalization: The War on Racism
Like we said, there was almost no cannabis research happening between prohibition in the 1930s and the modern day. For over 70 years, the dangers of cannabis were public knowledge — knowledge that literally nobody could argue with because there was no scientific inquiry into cannabis at all.
It took the better part of 60 years for the consequences of the War on Drugs to become apparent to the American population. Drug propaganda and anti-drug movements were so intertwined with racism that for so long, it was impossible to differentiate between the two.
As decades went by, data began to reveal the racism underpinning the War on Drugs:
- Black Americans are four times more likely to be arrested on cannabis charges than white Americans.
- For that matter, Black Americans make up nearly 30% of all drug-related arrests, despite making up for only 12.5% of substance users.
- Almost 80% of people in the USA serving time for federal drug offenses are black or Latino.
- In America, the average black defendant on drug charges will serve nearly the same amount of time in prison as a white defendant on violent crime charges.
If the War on Drugs didn’t start because of racism, it certainly turned into a war against ethnic groups in the USA. The repercussions of the War on Drugs cost the USA so much more than it helped, that it essentially began the War on Racism.
A big part of the legalization movement was about the end of racial vilification at the hands of the War on Drugs. Amnesty for the charges that effectively ruined so many lives is still a huge matter of concern after legalization.
Basically, everybody realized that sending people (mostly ethnics) to prison, taking away years of their lives, and stamping them with a criminal record for life was bulls**t.
And in 1996, California was the first state in the USA to legalize medical cannabis.
And we’re proud to say, since then, it’s been a succession of laws that have opened the door for cannabis in the USA, Canada, and around the world.