With a recent poll from the Associated Press
indicating that a 61% majority of Americans are all for the legalization of marijuana, it feels like a refreshing new day for the U.S. But as many historians and weed aficionados will be quick to point out, we may be simply returning to the American perspective of cannabis that was in place before the 1930s, albeit with new information in support of weed’s medical benefits. The truth is that, in reviewing America’s marijuana history, the U.S. bond with cannabis has always been strong, even beyond the 1930s. While that romance has been clandestine at times, Americans are beginning to feel more confident about owning their love for a plant with such high medicinal and recreational benefits. But instead of new days, it’s a bit like old times.
The Importance of Hemp
From America’s inception, the farming of hemp was strongly encouraged. In 1619, the Virginia Assembly decided to bypass persuasion altogether and make hemp farming the law
. This wasn’t a legally-enforced stoner utopia as some would imagine; rather hemp was a vital commodity for the fledgling 13 colonies who relied on it for the production of a variety of goods such as clothing, ship sails, rope, and even parchment. The Virginia Assembly was so keen on getting as much hemp on the market as possible that they even authorized its use as currency in Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland.
The Founding Fathers in U.S. Marijuana History
With hemp production becoming a tenant of patriotic duty, it should come as no surprise that many founding fathers and politicians have been directly linked to cannabis. However, it’s up for debate whether the political heroes of the U.S. were cutting loose on Friday nights with wooden pipes packed with cannabis or whether they were simply farming an in-demand commodity. For example, it’s known that Thomas Jefferson owned hemp plantations
and wrote an early idea for the Declaration of Independence on hemp paper. Granted hemp is a wonderful material but a founding father farming the basic ingredient in rope is not anywhere as sensational as a founding father who grows his own stash. Today, people aren’t fighting for the right to make textiles; they’re fighting for the right to treat themselves with a natural miracle drug…and, yes, in some cases fighting for their right to get high. And those people are in luck when it comes to the granddaddy of all founding fathers: George Washington.
George Washington had his own hemp plantation too and it was used exclusively for non-psychoactive purposes…almost. Washington religiously detailed his life in a series of diaries with some entries expounding upon his cannabis cultivation techniques. Passages describe his awareness of plant gender and his focus on guiding his crop to produce more female plants while weeding out male plants. In addition, there are references to his use of the cannabis medicinally to treat his infamous dental problems.
A Turning Point in Perspectives on Cannabis
For a while, the diversity of hemp continued to reinforce America’s relationship with cannabis. Betsy Ross used it to create the original American flag design while founding father James Madison indicated its benefits surpassed textile material when he went so far as to credit cannabis in inspiring him to initiate the Land of the Free. Yet the vital role that hemp played in the early days of the U.S. began to wane following the Civil War when a plentitude of other materials and an increase in foreign trade rendered it less integral. But it wasn’t too long after this period when recreational marijuana use began to be cited regularly in southern states with documentation beginning in the eastern states. For many, this is where America’s true marijuana history began.
The Demonization of Cannabis
Arguably, the first official attempt to control and regulate the use of marijuana as a narcotic came in 1906 with the Pure Food and Drug Act
which enforced a system of labeling for over-the-counter cannabis products. By this time, cannabis was being used regularly in medicines and was a staple of any decent pharmacy. But the true demonization of marijuana in the U.S. directly followed the 1910 Mexican Revolution. An influx of Mexican immigrants resulted in a xenophobic atmosphere (sound familiar?) with anti-drug zealots going into full scaremongering mode. These angry post-prohibitionists often scapegoated immigrants, blaming them (and their partiality to a drug with an exotic name) for brutal crimes. Strained relations between Mexicans and U.S. citizens hadn’t always resulted in negativity for cannabis. While fighting in the Mexican-American war, future U.S. president Franklin Pierce noted that his introduction to smoking weed was “about the only good thing” about the conflict.
Hemp Regains its Traction…Momentarily
Strangely, the U.S. government appears to have had a brief relapse in a moment of possible desperation during World War II when they commissioned the short film “Hemp for Victory
.” Like the Virginia Assembly hundreds of years before, the U.S. government once again urged farmers to grow as much hemp as possible. The film was vehemently denied by officials until Jack Herrer himself acquired a copy which he promptly (and publicly) donated to the Library of Congress in 1989.
Much like many U.S. citizens, marijuana is a transplant not indigenous to America which draws an even stronger parallel between the plant and the country. It is believed that cannabis originated in Central Asia and its appearance on American soil is pure speculation. American author Don Williams Jr. famously proclaimed, “The road of life twists and turns and no two directions are ever the same. Yet our lessons come from the journey, not the destination.” That may not always hold true for the U.S. citizen or the cannabis plant. Rather, it’s important to note not from where the U.S. citizen came but rather that s/he is here and deeply integrated into America. And here we find yet another parallel to the cannabis plant.