Part 2: Cannabis Prohibition – from wonder plant to a war on the people

WRITTEN by SY

 | Last revised

Dec, 2021

Not so long ago, cannabis, like opiates and cocaine, was freely available at pharmacies across the US. Cannabis was also a common ingredient in many turn-of-the-century medicines and over-the-counter concoctions brewed to proprietary formulas.

“You could go to any American pharmacy and buy products made from the same ingredients as heroin and cocaine. The most popular cough mixtures in the United States contained opiates, a new soft drink called Coca-Cola was made from the same plant as snortable cocaine, and over in Britain, the classiest department stores sold heroin tins for society women.”

Cannabis enjoyed its short-lived heyday in Western Medicine before its orchestrated fall from grace. But before this, hemp was enjoying its own economic and agricultural successes.

Cannabis reached the U.S. in two distinct waves

Hemp

Hemp wove its way to U.S. shores during the late 16th century with the Jamestown settlers. Until prohibition, it was embraced by farmers and presidents alike, including George Washington, who famously grew hemp at his Mount Vernon estate.

The British had long been cultivating and using hemp for fibre. In fact, the British navy required the processed equivalent of 10,000 acres of hemp just to keep a portion of the Navy fleet operational [1].

This consistent demand for hemp fibre led to the British Crown utilising the newly colonised nation to further increase hemp farming and production.

In the Americas, all English colonisers were required to grow at least one acre of hemp on their property for the English navy or face a fine [2].

Due to the early and broad exposure to growing hemp, by the 1800s, the United States had developed a thriving hemp industry.

In the 1760s, Founding Father George Washington predicted that hemp could be more profitable than other crops such as tobacco and planted hemp seeds at his farm.

While he ultimately settled on wheat as his primary cash crop, he continued to grow industrial hemp, using the plant to repair the large nets he used to sustain his fishing operation.

During Washington’s presidency, hemp was even used as a form of currency and could be used to pay taxes due to the high value of the plant.

Until hemp was lumped in with marijuana and prohibited altogether, it was an economic and agricultural success for the newly formed colony.

Marijuana

Marijuana, on the other hand, is an entirely different story rooted in racism, classism, fear and lies.

In early twentieth-century America, the emergence of marijuana smoking was mainly driven by the turbulent Mexican Revolution in 1910, which saw hundreds of thousands of Mexicans flee their homeland and seek refuge in the Southwest U.S. states. And with them, they brought the prized marijuana plant.

Marijuana was traditionally used as a folk remedy by curanderas in Mexico. The Tepehuan Indians in the Mexican highlands used cannabis as a substitute for the peyote cactus in spiritual and religious ceremonies [3].

By the early nineteenth century, it became commonplace for many underprivileged Mexicans to smoke cannabis recreationally. It was considered a social lubricant and hangover-free antidote to their difficult lives.

As more and more dispossessed Mexicans began to inhabit US border towns, it became widely known that they enjoyed smoking marijuana. Ultimately, this was used against them to drive a racist narrative.

Frenzied media reports drove a climate of fear and hostility toward Spanish-speaking foreigners. So began a slanderous campaign that depicted marijuana as a dangerous drug from the south set to ruin the lives of white Americans. This government-led narrative scapegoated and targeted Mexican immigrants by limiting their participation in society, further driving racial and social divides.

So, on the one hand, we have privileged white people living in fear of the same plant they are consuming in over-the-counter cannabis concoctions, and we have both Mexican and African immigrants being persecuted, disadvantaged and targeted (to put it nicely) because of their recreational use of marijuana.

A prime example of how the government and media work hand-in-hand to spread lies, misinformation and fear to keep people living within the confines of a set narrative.

So, how did hemp go from a wonder crop to a deadly drug?

Despite the economic success hemp provided farmers, it was soon deemed a ‘bad’ plant in the early 1900s, although it had a short respite from this false labelling during World War II.

One of the main reasons hemp use declined was due to influential elitists such as newspaper tycoon Randolph Hearst and companies like DuPont.

Both Hearst and DuPont were threatened by hemp because it dominated markets in which they were set to gain significant financial profit.

World War I had just ended, and DuPont had received the German patents to petrochemical technology. At the time, hemp oil was being used to make plastics and construction materials. With the possibilities of a financial windfall from manufacturing petrochemicals, DuPont wanted the hemp industry stopped so that they could market their new products without competition.

Similarly, the tree pulp industry had just been established, and Hearst held stock in the tree paper companies, and the thought of hemp paper out-producing tree paper was enough to scare him and the paper industry [2].

The media had the power and scope to construct a uniform reality for enough people, and thus the fear of the innocuous hemp plant was constructed through language. The likes of Hearst and DuPont manipulated word choices to construct a reality where hemp magically morphed into marijuana, and there was no distinction between the two strains of the plant.

Hearst’s efforts successfully created public hysteria in the U.S. Newspaper articles screamed sensationalist headlines about crazed and violent criminals running wild through the streets – explicitly referring to Mexican immigrants.

The deliberate conflation of marijuana and hemp combined with immigration issues and prevailing racist views at the time meant people from specific sociopolitical groups quickly rallied to outlaw the plant.

You can go back and check out part 1 of the prohibition story here, or read part 3 here.

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2 Comments

  1. Jan

    Great History . Thanks.

    Nothing much has changed in one respect : ” Follow the Money ”

    Greed and power must still be the basis for illogical laws, preventing people from easier access to good health products.

    Reply
    • Hinterland co.

      Jan, totally agree with you. The rules that are implemented certainly aren’t for the good of the people.

      Reply

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