The Rise and Fall of Marijuana by Hogeye Bill
Marijuana has a long history, almost unknown to most people today. The very name "marijuana" is a recent innovation. For the first ten thousand years it went by other names. In English, it was referred to as "hemp" by farmers, while doctors used the scientific term "cannabis.
Cannabis has been used by man since ancient times. According to The Colombia History of the World, 1981 edition: "The earliest known woven fabric was apparently of hemp, which began to be worked in the eighth millennium B.C." Archaeologists and historians have a rather easy time recognizing hemp. Artifacts can be tested, and, in ancient writings, cannabis is easily recognized since it is the only known plant used for both its fiber and medicinal properties.
Historians generally agree that cannabis was the world's largest agricultural crop from before 1000 B.C. until the late 1800's A.D. During this time period, cannabis was used for the majority of the world's fiber, fabric, lighting oil, paper, incense, medicines, and as food for humans and animals. Hemp seed was regularly used in porridge, soups and gruels by most people in the world up until the 20th century. Cannabis has been used for building material, too. A bridge made of hemp hurds mixed with lime dating from about 600 A.D. has been discovered in southern France.
Cannabis is not indigenous to the Americas. It was first brought to the Americas by early Viking explorers, and later by Spanish European settlers. In the days of sailing ships, cannabis was a critically important crop. Since cannabis is resistant to salt and rot, the sails and rigging of these ships were made from hemp. To give some ideas of the quantity of hemp involved, it is estimated that the USS Constitution used over 60 tons of hemp. When you consider the number of ships and the fact that sails and rigging needed to be replaced every few years, you get some idea of the importance of cannabis for shipping and military uses. Today, military power depends on oil; back then it depended on hemp.
The first marijuana law in America was enacted in Jamestown colony in 1619. It ordered all farmers to grow cannabis. More mandatory hemp cultivation laws were enacted in Massachusetts (1631), Connecticut (1632), and the Chesapeake Colonies. Meanwhile in England, the crown decreed that foreigners who grew cannabis would be rewarded with full British citizenship, while those who refused to grow hemp were often fined.
Cannabis was legal tender in most of the Americas from 1631 until the early 1800's, mainly to encourage farmers to grow more. Americans could even pay their taxes with cannabis for more than 200 years. Nowadays, most school children know that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew hemp on their plantations. Few know that Jefferson was also a smuggler. While envoy to France, he masterminded the smuggling of some particularly good hemp seeds from China to Turkey. At the time, the Mandarin rulers valued their cannabis seeds so highly that exportation was a capital offense.
Cannabis was important to the American Revolution. Benjamin Franklin started one of America's first paper mills using cannabis. The revolutionary newspapers and pamphlets like Common Sense would probably not have been published if they had to procure paper from England. Until 1883, 80 to 90% of all paper in the world was made from hemp. Books, bibles, maps, money and newspapers were usually made from cannabis.
The term "rag paper" comes from the fact that Americans and most other peoples used to recycle clothes, sheets, diapers and rags, not to mention discarded sails and rigging, to make paper. Another use for old sails was to cover the wagons of pioneers moving west. The word canvas derives from cannabis.
About 80% of all mankind's textiles and fabrics, including the flag "Old Glory", were made principally from cannabis fibers until the 1820's in America and until the 20th century in most of the rest of the world. Ireland made fine linens and Italy produced cloth for clothing with cannabis, at least until the 1830's. Contary to popular belief, the majority of linen used to be made from hemp, not flax.
Early Americans knew that hemp is softer than cotton, warmer than cotton, and has three times the tinsel strength of cotton, so is many times more durable. Homespun cloth was almost always spun from the family hemp patch until after the Civil War. Virtually every city and town through the mid-1800's had an industry making hemp rope and cordage.
The navies of the world relied on hemp. When Napoleon was on his European rampage, his most serious opposition was the British navy. To counter this, he had to cut off his enemy from the hemp supply. Russia was the world's biggest cannabis producer, so Napolean attacked Russia and eventually forced the Czar to stop selling hemp to British merchants. How did the US get involved in this European mess? The British had to find a way to get hemp, and they didn't much care how. So they started capturing US (and other) merchant ships. They gave the captured ships' captains an offer they couldn't refuse. They could either lose their ship and seamen, or if they prefer, they could change course and sail to Russia, and the British navy would pay them well for the hemp they brought back.
The US census of 1850 counted 8,327 hemp plantations. Plantations were farms of at least 2,000 acres. Most of the farms were in the south, due to the cheap slave labor. Hemp production back then was very labor intensive. The census does not include the tens of thousands of smaller farms, nor the family hemp patches. Even with all these farms, the US imported about 80% of its hemp from Russia and various East European countries.
A majority of US Presidents used cannabis. Of course, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson most likely did not smoke it. It was a standard medicine distributed in liquid form as extracts, tinctures and elixers, and commonly used for a large variety of ailments. People back then took tincture of cannabis pretty much like we might pop an aspirin today. The US Pharmacopoeia indicated that cannabis could be used for treating fatigue, coughing, rheumatism, asthma, delirium tremens, migraine headaches, and the cramps and depressions associated with menstration.
So far we have covered the rise and long reign of hemp. We have learned that it was the world's leading agricultural crop until the late 1800's. What happened? Cannabis had had setbacks before. In Western Europe, the Roman Catholic Church forbade the use of cannabis and any other medical treatment, except for alcohol and blood-letting, for 1200 years or so. After the dark ages cannabis made a resurgence in medicine. Queen Victoria used it for menstrual cramps and PMS, helping to popularize it in the English-speaking world.
There were three major blows to cannabis which caused its decline and, finally, its prohibition. The first blow was the invention of the cotton gin. Cotton and cannabis were both highly labor intensive. Hemp was preferred, for its superior qualities as well as its cheaper price, before the cotton gin was invented. By the 1820's, Eli Whitney's hand cotton gins were being replaced by European-made industrial looms and gins. For the first time, cotton cloth could be produced cheaper than hand-retting (rotting) and hand separating hemp fibers to be hand-spun on spinning wheels and jennys. So this first blow to cannabis was a technical one. Hemp production declined, but surely - sooner or later - a cannabis "gin" would be invented to turn things around.
The second blow came on the medical front. Cannabis had been a good old medicine for centuries, but it had some clear drawbacks. First, its effects varied from person to person, moreso than many other drugs. Second, the quality of hemp varied tremendously - one batch of plants could be much more potent than another batch. They had no way of testing the amount and strength of the active substances in the 1800's; indeed, it wasn't until the 1964 that the main active ingredient THC was isolated. But these two drawbacks could be overcome. The third drawback was due to another technological advance: the invention of the hypodermic syringe. When the hypo became popular among doctors, there arose a bias in favor of injections. Morphine became the default drug of choice, and largely replaced cannabis. Morphine was considered better because it worked on virtually everyone, its potency was consistent and easily measured, and it could be injected. The doctors didn't know it was addictive back then! The main reason cannabis lost popularity in medicine was that, being oil-based, it could not be injected like morphine.
Nevertheless, cannabis was still used by doctors and remained in the Pharmacopoeia. Medical researchers still had high hopes that it would make a comeback when it was better understood. And, of course, as the problems of morphine addiction became recognized, cannabis was looking comparatively better.
Meanwhile, back on the fiber front, the cannabis equivalent of the cotton gin, called the "decordicating machine", was invented by G.W. Schlichten and patented in 1917. By the 1930's the harvesting and processing equipment for cannabis was up to snuff, and Popular Mechanics touted hemp as "The New Billion Dollar Crop." Hemp seemed poised for a major comeback.
The third blow to cannabis was the "reefer madness" scare of the 1930's. Most conspiracy theories are bunkum, but this one actually happened and is well documented. There were several special interests that would be hurt by cheap hemp. And as today, some business interests, when they can't compete in quality or price, stoop to competing by politics. William Randolf Hearst, the newspaper mogul, owned vast tracts of forest land, which he intended to use for making wood-pulp paper. Cheap hemp-based paper would make his forest investments a major money loser. Now Hearst was a master of yellow journalism, capable of starting wars. The "reefer madness" anti-cannabis campaign is despised and/or laughed at to this day. A typical story might be about little Johnny, who smoked a reefer then ax-murdered his family. Or about drug-crazed "niggers" that raped white women and couldn't be stopped with bullets. Hearst was not above playing the race card.
Perhaps Hearst's most brilliant (diabolical) ploy was to rename hemp. How could you convince farmers that their hemp patch, which grandma used to spin into cloth, was a "killer weed"? How could you convince doctors that a medicine proved safe for over a thousand years was "the assassin of youth"? Answer: You couldn't. Instead you had to con them - don't let them know what you're talking about. So Hearst, with a long history of anti-Mexican racism, came up with an obscure slang Mexican term for cannabis: Marijuana. He took the term from a song sung by some of Pancho Villa's revolutionaries - La Cucaracha. ("The roach, the roach, refuses to march, until he has some marijuana to smoke.")
Hearst had some formidable allies in his quest to snuff out the budding cannabis industry. His paper mills required bleaching and chemically processing the wood pulp. Most of the chemicals involved were supplied by the DuPont corporation. Furthermore, DuPont was ready to introduce petroleum-based fibers such as nylon. The last thing they wanted was a cheap natural fiber flooding the market. Finally, there were allies within government. Alcohol prohibition had just ended, and there were a lot of soon-to-be unemployed ATF "G-men." If a new demon wasn't found soon, these guys might have to get an honest job. Thus Harry Anslinger, head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, was a key player in the conspiracy.
Since outlawing cannabis would apparently require a constitutional amendment (like alcohol prohibition), something more subtle was required. The end-run around the Constitution was accomplished by disguising cannabis prohibition as a revenue measure. Instead of going to the food and drug, commerce, or textile committees, the Marijuana Tax Act was submitted to the House Ways and Means Committee on April 14, 1937. What they had was a bill prepared in secret, mislabeled so that farmers and doctors were unaware of it, and basically rubber-stamped by committee and Congress.
Despite the passage of the Marijuana Tax Act, World War II saw the US government supplying cannabis seed to farmers, and the Department of Agriculture producing pamphlets and a training film called "Hemp for Victory" to American farmers. The Japanese had cut off the Manila Hemp supply from the Phillipines, and the war effort required rope and cordage. US farmers were required to see the film, and kids in Kentucky 4H Clubs participated by growing hemp seed. After the war, however, the prohibition of cannabis was again enforced.
Most of the information here was culled from the book The Emperor Wears No Clothes by Jack Herer. That book contains references for the various facts presented here. This is a must-have book for anyone interested in this subject. Billy Bob sez check it out.