Marijuana and Modern History

Hemp’s impact upon the stage of history is inestimable and has unfortunately been obfuscated and scoured from much of the modern historical record, most especially here in the United States. Last month our blog left off with the introduction of hemp to the New World by European explorers. Today we’ll take a look at the evolution of views towards cannabis in the modern era. But long before that, hemp had made a lasting impression upon historical records, not least of which because much of history has been recorded upon hemp paper.

Hemp has driven global economics for millennia, from shipping to textiles and food. To give an idea of hemp’s importance, the author of The Emperor Wears No Clothes*, preeminent cannabis scholar and advocate, Jack Herer asserts that, “From more than 1,000 years before the time of Christ until 1883 A.D., cannabis hemp – indeed, marijuana – was our planet’s largest agricultural crop and most important industry, involving thousands of products and enterprises; producing the overall majority of Earth’s fiber, fabric, lighting oil, paper, incense and medicines. In addition, it was a primary source of essential food oil and protein for humans and animals. According to virtually every anthropologist and university in the world, marijuana was also used in most of our religions and cults as one of the seven or so most widely used mood-, mind-, or pain-altering drugs when taken as psychotropic, psychedelic (mind-manifesting or -expanding) sacraments.”

Additionally, hemp is nutritious in that it provides both high amounts of fatty acids essential for overall immune system function and an easily digestible protein type known as globulin edestin. The only plant type containing a higher proportion of proteins is soy, and just like soy, hemp extracts can be formed into margarine or a tofu-like curd that can be spiced to taste like chicken and beef, and all at a lower cost than soy production. And if you allow the seed to sprout, its nutritional benefits increase and can easily be consumed in salads and cooked dishes alike. Hempseed can produce milk, just as soy can. Hemp has sustained many cultures during times of famine and drought. Hemp, unlike many plants actually thrives in harsh sundrenched environments. Herer asserts, “Australians survived two prolonged famines in the 19th century using almost nothing except hempseeds for protein and hemp leaves for roughage…[and] studies indicate that depletion of the ozone layer threatens to reduce world soya production by…up to 30% or even 50%…But hemp resists the damage caused by increasing ultraviolet radiation and actually flourishes in it by producing more cannabinoids, which provide protection from ultraviolet light.” In essence, hemp’s naturally produced sunscreen is what gets us high and yields all manner of health benefits from the other cannabinoids. And while there aren’t many environments on this planet harsher than the Australian outback, there have been countless cultures both ancient and modern who have supplemented their diets with, if not subsisted upon, hempseed during troubled times such as the Earth will be facing again shorter, thanks to global warming. So not only can hemp stave off economic depression and existential/religious dread but clinical depression, even famine and other unfortunate environmental factors, including climate change.

America is certainly no stranger to hemp. The original Daughters of the American Revolution ran “spinning bees” to spin hemp clothing for our soldiers during the Revolutionary War, and were it not for these hemp clothes, the Continental Army would have frozen to death while George Washington’s men were stalled at Valley Forge. Similarly, Old Glory, the living symbol of our democracy, was also fashioned from hemp originally. Farmers used to be able to pay their taxes with hemp, so valuable a commodity was it. The very first Levi’s were created out of hemp sailcloth for the ‘49ers of the gold rush, and had to be sewn from such sturdy material and riveted together, otherwise the weight of the gold would tear the pockets right out of their pants. Weaker textiles weren’t up to the task. And lastly, the first two drafts of the Declaration of Independence were written on Hemp paper. In essence, when this country was founded hemp was as American as apple pie…maybe more so, as I doubt there was much time for pastry right off the bat.

But not all that hemp brings along with it is sunshine and flowers: full-fledged wars have been fought over hemp. Thanks to historical revisionism after marijuana prohibition in the United States, most modern American history texts in the public school system neglect to mention that one of the primary motivations behind the War of 1812 was lack of access to Russian hemp. This gets a little convoluted, so bear with me. During this era, Britain was the world’s foremost naval power. From 1803 to 1814, the British blockaded Napoleonic France across the English Channel and at the straits of Gibraltar, as the British were at war with Napoleon due to his extensive European expansionism and military aggression. The British also feared that the sentiments espoused during the French Revolution might spread to the British Isles, and as such the nobility pressed for war against France. In order to pursue war, Britain required hemp to keep its navy afloat–quite literally–as the rigging, netting, sails, and even caulking were all hemp derived. At the time, Britain purchased 90% of all its hemp from Russia, who was the world’s finest producer of hemp, thanks to cheap serf and slave labor used in its production. The Russians produced the highest quality hemp-based textiles and products, and hemp was its most highly traded commodity, producing some 80% of all hemp used in the Western world. Every 1-2 years British naval ships needed 50-100 tons of hemp to refit, so needless to say hemp was big business. Meanwhile, money was growing tight for Napoleon in the midst of the British blockade, so he sold the U.S. nearly a third of its contiguous land mass in the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 for a mere $15 million.

Then in 1807 Napoleon and Russian Czar Alexander signed the Treaty of Tilset agreeing the Russians would cease trade with Britain and all its allies, in an attempt to cripple the Brits as their ships rotted away over time without the regular influx of Russian hemp. Thus the British blockade would fall to pieces. Seeing as we Americans had only recently thrown off the yoke of British Imperialism, we were considered a neutral country in the conflict. Because of this, the British began “impressing” American trading ships into British service as replacement for Britain’s own rotting ships. The only way a captain might retain his vessel was if he agreed to British blackmail and went to Russia to trade in hemp under a neutral flag and then return the Russian hemp to Britain, pocketing the profits. The choice was obvious for American traders. After several years these British tactics, Napoleon began leaning on the Czar not to trade with American traders and he wished to station troops in Russia to uphold the treaty; the Czar told him where he could stick it, dissolving the treaty, so by 1810-1812 Napoleon marshals his resources and moves to invade Russia, again to cut the British off from hemp. But even after Britain and Russia became allies and trading partners once more, the British continued rounding up American ships, effectively cutting the U.S. off from hemp. By 1812, we lost access to 80% of all Russian hemp, and so Congress debated and ultimately voted to go to war with Britain for the second time since 1776, siding once more with the Napoleonic French. Sadly for Napoleon, it turns out Russian winters aren’t to be trifled with–the Russians burned all the crops behind them as they retreated from his army, and through a combination of weather, starvation, and harrying attacks Napoleon’s 500,000 men were whittled down to 180,000. The British prosecuted the war in America, burning Washington D.C. and putting the White House to the torch in 1814; we burned the British Canadian capitol of Toronto in retaliation. The Brits defeated Napoleon in Spain and banished him to Elba, where he escaped after 100 days, only to have his forces defeated once and for all at Waterloo by the British Duke of Wellington. His defeat had tapped British resources more than they were willing to admit. Thus the Treaty of Ghent was signed in 1814 between us and our former colonizers, and so ended America’s hemp war. Virtually none of our school texts mention hemp in relation to the war, much less as an inciting factor in the conflict.

Despite many cultures knowing the medical effects of cannabis for millenia, medicinal cannabis use was almost unheard of in western culture until British doctor W.B. O’Shaugnessy “did an enormous study in 1839, and published a 40-page paper on the uses of cannabis medicines. At the same time, a French doctor named Roche was making the same rediscovery of hemp in Middle Eastern medicines.” The popularity of these medicinal infusions grew and grew until some 100 maladies and illnesses were being treated with it. “From 1842 through the 1890s, extremely strong marijuana and hashish extracts, tinctures and elixirs were routinely the second and third most-used medicines in America for humans (from birth, through childhood, to old age) and in veterinary medicine until the 1920s and longer…treating such ailments as: fatigue, fits of coughing, rheumatism, asthma, delirium tremens, migraine headaches and the cramps and depressions associated with menstruation” (Herer). By the era of alcohol prohibition, some temperance movements even suggested hashish use in place of the devil vine. But the demonization of cannabis was right around the corner for the Land of the Free.

The turning of the worm began with racist newspaper mogul and historical bastard William Randolph Hearst. His racism towards Spaniards and Mexicans came to a head when Pancho Villa’s army rolled over 800,000 acres of Hearst’s Mexican timber holdings during the Spanish American War. Pancho Villa’s men famously enjoyed their herb: even the song La Cucaracha refers the soldiers searching for Villa’s stash for “marijuana por fumar.” Hearst smeared all Latinos with a broad brush, painting them as a lazy, pot-smoking culture of criminals, a harmful stereotype that colors prejudices to this day. This is around the time when ‘marijuana’ entered the American nomenclature and quickly replaced the historical, pharmaceutical name of ‘cannabis.’ Most did not even realize the two terms referred to the same substance. Not to have his bigotry limited, Hearst spent the next three decades defaming African Americans as marijuana-crazed fiends bent on raping white women, committing larceny, listening to “voodoo jazz,” laughing at white men, and generally overthrowing the establishment. After thirty years of organized disinformation, American’s view of cannabis shifted from a beneficial pharmaceutical to an hysterical violence-inducing drug only used by people of lower standing and darker skin color seeking to supplant the whites. Imagine our shock upon discovering Hearst stood to lose a fortune in industries like papermaking (remember that timberland?) being threatened by newly mechanized hemp harvesting technologies! DuPont and Kimberly-Clark–giants of the chemical, paper, textile, and cordage industries who exist to this day–were in similarly tenuous financial straits, so under the guise of annihilating the marijuana fiends endangering our society, they started throwing their financial weight against the burgeoning modern hemp industry in order to criminalize cannabis.

The man for the job was Harry J. Anslinger, who became head of the new Federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs in 1931 where he reigned as a petty tyrant until 1962, willfully continuing Hearst’s campaign of sensationalist bigotry. By 1935 Anslinger had already begun drafting a prohibitively heavy tax on any and all marijuana transfers. Previously, a licensed dealer could sell an ounce for $1 with no tithe on transfers; the new tax would be an additional $1 per ounce, effectively doubling the price of cannabis overnight. And if you were unfortunate enough not to be a licensed dealer, the new tax was $100 per ounce transfer. At the time the act passed, NYC had only a single narcotics officer–oh, how things would soon change: today the DEA has more than 8355 positions, and that’s without even looking at local narcotics enforcement officers at a state and municipal level. Rather than just making marijuana illegal, these taxes were effectively designed to destroy all small scale marijuana production and drive prices through the roof. Despite many Senate hearings from concerned producers who would be driven out of business, the U.S. Marijuana Tax Act was pushed through by 1937. The threat of industrialized hemp decorticating (fiber-stripping) technology and the cheap, durable cordage and plastics it produced was eliminated, which conveniently coincided with DuPont successfully filing for patents for plastic production from oil and coal, as well as on newly developed nylon cordage. “After the 1937 Marijuana Tax law, new DuPont ‘plastic fibers,’ under license since 1936 from the German company I.G. Farben (patent surrenders were part of Germany’s World War I reparation payments to America), replaced natural hempen fibers. (Some 30% of I.G. Farben, under Hitler, was owned and financed by America’s DuPont.) DuPont also introduced Nylon (invented in 1935) to the market after they’d patented it in 1938” (Herer). So literal Nazis railroaded hard working Americans and a burgeoning, earth-friendly industry by taxing hemp farmers out of existence, in order that the fascists at DuPont might profit from new technologies which are inherently harmful and pollutant. From 1937 until 1991, products made using these technologies accounted for more than 80% of all DuPont railroad cargo, so you can imagine just how much companies like DuPont and Kimberly-Clark profited by having Congress remove their only competition. Best estimates are in the billions of dollars. And in one fell swoop, white supremacists had defamed entire races and removed one of the simple pleasures and affordable medicines available to these underserved and underrepresented populations.

While hemp production did revv back up temporarily during WWII in order to supply the Navy with rigging, this exception died down after the war ended. Communists became the next ‘undesirable’ group to target by way of marijuana association during the Red Scare. In 1971, Tricky Dick Nixon declared drug abuse in the United States to be “Public Enemy Number One.” Hippies who later took up the cause of hemp cannabis reform and legalization in the 60’s and 70’s were sheep-dipped with the Communist label. And then as the tide of the hippy movement turned and curdled in the late 70’s with the advent of miscreants like the Manson Family and televised coverage of the slaughter in Vietnam, so too did public sentiment towards legalization–if this is what prolonged drug use did to people, middle class white folk wanted no part of it. With heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamines pouring into the country, it was a simple thing to make marijuana out to be as bad as harder, addictive substances. Serious cannabis research at this point was a joke. For more than sixty years, accurate information about marijuana’s effects and benefits was actively suppressed by our own government.

Things didn’t start turning around for cannabis until 1985 when Jack Herer published The Emperor Wears No Clothes. This book was the first thoroughly researched historical and scientifically documented expose on the demonization of cannabis in the last century. It is the first work of its kind seen in decades, and it would set the scaffold for all future cannabis research. In 1996, California legalizes medical marijuana, followed rapidly by Alaska, Oregon, Washington, and Colorado over the next four years. In 1998 hemp sees a resurgence when county supervisor and former California senator Mark Leno attempts to legalize industrial hemp farming in San Francisco County. And then in a move that would have seemed impossible even twenty years prior, Colorado passed Amendment 64 in 2012, which legalized the recreational use of marijuana within its borders, flying in the face of federal law. The first recreational dispensaries opened in 2014. We were the first domino to fall, with other states soon following suit. Surprise, surprise chaos was not unleashed by drug fiends in the grips of reefer madness. Quite the contrary in fact. Total highway deaths in Colorado have gone down and are the lowest statewide since 2002 (Washington Post, “Since Marijuana Legalization, Highway Fatalities in Colorado Are At Near Historic Lows”). In the first two years of legalization, Colorado saw a 6% decrease in opiate related deaths, giving the lie to the “gateway drug” nonsense proffered by the government. Our marijuana taxes fund schools, pave roads, and re-educate police forces. We still come up against federal restriction upon human cannabis research trials, but as public opinion of cannabis use improves, so too do the restrictions loosen. Colorado has become the gold standard–or should we say green standard–for the rest of the nation, having provided the blueprint for legalization.

In the first moves on a federal level, President Obama signed the Farm Bill in 2014 which legalized industrial hemp growth by farmers for research purposes. As a result, research farms sprung up across many states, most especially among universities. This was the first time the federal government acknowledged that there is a difference between hemp and recreational/medical cannabis. And then Senator Mitch McConnell signed the 2018 Farm Bill using a hemp pen, once again making industrial hemp federally legal to farm. As a side effect of the bill, CBD became legal in all 50 states. And in some of the most recent news for the marijuana industry, last month banks began lobbying Congress to start hearings on legalizing federal banking of cannabis-earned money. All in all, prospects are looking up for marijuana.

The rest, as they say, is history.


*Jack Herer’s book is one of my primary sources and is where the majority of my citations come from. It’s the single most informative document I’ve ever read about marijuana and I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in the topic. It can be found in its entirety for free online.