A (very) brief history of cannabis
Updated: May 24
If you have never seen the 1936 film, Reefer Madness, coronavirus quarantine is probably a good time to check it out. Bizarre, dramatic, and overly theatrical. It paints a picture of “good” kids having their lives ruined because they tried marijuana…once.
They smoke a little marijuana and from there on out, it is manslaughter, suicide, rape attempts and just general lunacy. It is ludicrous and hilarious.
But it was also part of a larger movement carefully designed to instill fear into people, not only about marijuana, but also about minorities and immigrants. The effects of that movement are just now in recent years being analyzed and dismantled, and we are finally evolving into a more realistic relationship with cannabis.
Cannabis, a long time ago…
Written accounts of cannabis have been found as far back as 28 BCE in China. THC, along with nicotine and cocaine were identified in the remains of an Egyptian mummy from 950 BCE. Around 1000 BCE the tales of the intoxicant properties of cannabis had reached the Eastern Mediterranean region.
By the 1600’s the British government was encouraging colonial farmers to produce hemp, which was used in making rope, sails and clothing. So useful was hemp that in 1619, the Virginia Assembly passed a law requiring farmers to grow it.
By the 1840’s cannabis had become chic among artists and intellectuals in France. However, it was not until the early 20th century that marijuana began to have any real impact on society in the United States.
Reefer Madness, “the smoke of hell”
Following the Mexican Revolution of 1910 there were waves of Mexican immigrants into the United States, who helped to popularize the recreational use of cannabis. As it grew in popularity, it became negatively associated with Mexican immigrants and was often called “loco-weed”. Rumors were spread that Mexicans were giving this “marijuana menace” to unsuspecting school children. It is widely believed that the drug was called marijuana (anglicized version of marihuana) rather than cannabis to emphasize the “Mexican-ness” and make it seem scarier, more foreign.
In 1913, California passed the first state cannabis prohibition law. It was instigated by a man called Henry Fingers who reported the “Hindoo” immigrants were undesirable and heavy cannabis users and they would soon be initiating whites into the practice.
The propaganda of the time helped to ensure that people were afraid of both cannabis and immigrants.
In the 1930’s Great Depression era, unemployment and poverty worsened the resentment and fear of immigrants. During this time, the US had created the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, with Harry Anslinger as the first commissioner. He emphatically stated that marijuana led to “insanity, criminality, and death." By 1931, 29 states had outlawed it.
The Reefer Madness film came out in 1936. Others like it soon followed and by 1937 after intense propaganda campaigns, Congress passed the Marihuana Tax Act. This essentially criminalized it and required a heavy tax for those who wanted to use it for (authorized) medical and industrial purposes.
A widening divide on cannabis
The 1960’s and 70’s saw an increase in open marijuana use and advocacy. Presidents like Kennedy and Johnson were pretty chill about it. However, under the Nixon administration, things changed. As part of Nixon's anti-drug efforts, Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act in 1970. This was followed by the schedules of drugs used by agencies such as the DEA. Under this Act, marijuana was a Schedule 1 drug, alongside heroin. It remains there to this day. By 1971, the War on Drugs had officially begun.
Under Reagan, the war on drugs worsened, with support from both the right and the left to address the nation’s “drug problem”. In the 1980’s mandatory sentencing was enacted, thus leading the US to quadruple it’s prison population by 2015.
Medicinal and recreational cannabis use
The 1990’s saw a surge of interest in medicinal properties of cannabis. However, being classified as a Schedule 1 drug had been a consistent barrier to research. But, following the passing of Proposition 215 in 1996 in California, eventually 33 states had legalized the medicinal use of marijuana. This is especially relevant considering California had also been the first state to ban it in 1913. (Way to come full circle, California.)
In 2012, Colorado became the first state in the nation to legalize recreational marijuana and since then 17 other states and two territories (Washington D.C. and Guam) have followed suit.
Marijuana still has its share of “Anslinger-like” opponents. Jeff Sessions has stated that marijuana is “only slightly less awful” than heroin and had continued to order federal prosecutors to pursue the most serious charges possible against low-level drug offenders.
A more realistic view of cannabis
Over the past decade or so, we seem to have (mostly) shifted to a place where more honest, realistic discourse about marijuana can occur. When something is demonized, the other side tends to extol it. Of course, the truth is usually sliding around somewhere in between.
Certain things about cannabis are not debatable any longer. It does not kill people. It does not turn them into “lunatics”. It does help with a lot of medical issues. It is also not a panacea with no downsides.
The question is no longer, "is marijuana, right or wrong?" Fortunately, we can now take a more nuanced view and question whether marijuana is right or wrong for us on an individual level. It is likely, that within the next few years, we will see substantially more states legalize recreational marijuana.
Yes, Texas will probably be among the last. Although, in May 2022 Austin passed Prop A which formalized a city policy that officers would no longer cite or arrest people for low level marijuana offenses. There are some notable exceptions to this proposition; if the arrest or citation is part of an investigation into a high-priority narcotics case or a violent felony.
Support if you need it
People can and do struggle with managing their cannabis use. If you need help with cannabis, or other drugs and alcohol, Substance Use Therapy is here.
Whatever you are facing, you don't have to face it alone.
Kuhn, C., Swartzwelder, S., & Wilson, W. (2019). Buzzed: The Straight Facts about the Most Used and Abused Drugs from Alcohol to Ecstasy. W.W. Norton & Company.
Photo: Author’s own vintage postcard
About the Author:
Kimberly May, LPC-S, LMFT is a therapist at Substance Use Therapy in Austin, TX. Kimberly works with individuals, couples and families whose lives have been affected by substance use. By utilizing a harm reduction framework, Kimberly works effectively with people in any stage of use. In addition to substance use, she works with other issues such as anger, burn-out, anxiety and grief. Contact today to schedule a no-charge, 30 minute, in-person consultation. *Note: telephone and telehealth sessions are currently available.