By Wes Annac, Cannac
Cannabis is an ancient plant with a long history. From its history in ancient China to its use in India and many other places as a medicine and sacrament; there is no shortage of fascinating information about a plant that has long intrigued people.
Today, cannabis legalization is a source of controversy and fierce debate. This debate has been ongoing for roughly a hundred years, with people arguing that the plant is either benign, a devilish weed we should eradicate, or a savior of mankind.
Thankfully, many people today are taking a commonsense approach to cannabis. As we begin to accept and utilize it on a larger scale, we should be aware of its fascinating history and role in American politics.
Mankind’s historic relationship with cannabis and hemp is so rich that I couldn’t possibly cover it all here. What I can offer are 5 facts about this history in what could be the first of many articles in a series. When reading this, you’ll find that some people in the past were not only unfearful of marijuana but were surprisingly open to it.
- Explorers may have found wild hemp growing in the U.S. and Canada in the 1500s
You may know that the American colonists were so pro-hemp that growing it was required in Virginia in the 1600s. But are you aware that explorers may have discovered it growing wild in North America as early as the 16th century?
According to Sensi Seeds, The Florentine explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano found wild cannabis in Virginia in 1524. Throughout all three of his trips to Canada in 1535, 1536, and 1541 respectively, French explorer Jacques Cartier claimed to have found cannabis growing freely. (1)
Shortly thereafter, Samuel de Champlain noted in 1605 that natives were fishing with wild hemp. Additionally, Henry Spelman noted during a trip to Virginia with Thomas Hariot that natives were harvesting their maize in hemp baskets. (1)
Thomas Hariot claimed to have discovered hemp in the area, but he may have been wrong. The Schaffer Library of Drug Policy writes that Hariot found a hemp-like plant known as Acnida cannabinum. It is a useful plant but weaker than hemp, making it less ideal for industrial use. Nonetheless, the prospect of harvesting hemp in America excited the colonists. (2)
Whatever the truth may be, it wasn’t until 1606 that hemp was considered a part of the flora of North America. (1)
- Cannabis use played a role in the history of Islam
Islam’s history with cannabis is as complicated as its current policy regarding the drug. In some Islamic groups, cannabis appears to hold great significance – historically and in a modern religious context. On the other end of the spectrum, it is forbidden.
According to History.com, after 800 AD, the use of hashish was common in the Middle East and some areas of Asia. It became popular at around the same time Islam began to spread. The Quran considered alcohol and a few other intoxicants sinful but took no issue with cannabis. (3)
Whether Islam accepts marijuana use today is not so clear.
Melissa Sherrard at Civilized describes the topic of cannabis in the Islamic community as “complicated and controversial”. Neither their prophet nor the Quran directly address the topic. Some followers consider cannabis “halal” (allowed), whereas others believe it should only be used medicinally. (4)
Religious cannabis use in the Middle East predates modern Islam according to Melissa, which means in some areas, its use in this context is so widespread that prohibition would never work. Sufis, for example, use cannabis ritualistically in the open. (4)
Despite this, the consensus among most Islamic scholars and authorities is that the drug is “haram” (not allowed) due to its intoxicating effect. Despite its potential as a religious aid, it is forbidden because it alters perception. Regarding intoxicants in general, their prophet states: “if much intoxicates, then even a little is haram.” (4)
- The U.S. government grew massive amounts of hemp during World War II
Usually, if the federal government has anything to say about cannabis or hemp, it is nothing positive. They demonize cannabis and consider hemp a useless casualty in the war on drugs (despite that hemp is non-intoxicating).
If you rewind time back to the 1940s, you’ll find that the government was quite interested in this genetic cousin to the cannabis plant. When Japan cut off the U.S. supply of Manila hemp from the Philippines in the early 1940s, the government suddenly had a lot of wonderful things to say about it. (5)
Kim Nunley at Medical Marijuana Inc. News writes that in addition to creating the pro-hemp propaganda film Hemp for Victory, Uncle Sam incentivized farmers to grow massive amounts of it for the war. They gave out 400,000 hemp seeds to farmers, who grew it to be made into rope, cloth, cordage, and many other essential products. (5)
These frantic efforts to restock the nation’s hemp supply included the creation of the War Hemp Industries Department, which subsidized farmers who would go on to grow a million acres of hemp throughout the Midwest. (6)
This all came to a screeching halt after the war, when the government shut down every hemp processing plant and ceased to incentivize farmers to grow the crop. (6)
- In the 1930s, New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia stood up against drug czar Harry J. Anslinger’s propaganda
Harry J. Anslinger is a notorious villain to the cannabis community. As America’s first drug czar, Anslinger set out to rid the U.S. of marijuana while persecuting the black and Mexican communities with which he worked tirelessly to get people to associate the drug. He wanted people to fear cannabis, and for a long time, he got his way.
Despite all the people like Anslinger who were in power at the time, there are a few heroes in this tragic tale of American marijuana prohibition. One such hero is New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, along with the 31 scientists and medical professionals who helped him disprove Anslinger’s erroneous claims about cannabis.
La Guardia, a critic of the Marihuana Tax Act which effectively outlawed the plant, claimed most people did not want it illegal and the government should thus abolish the Act. (7)
In a time when people feared cannabis and most politicians wanted to capitalize on that fear, you may wonder what led La Guardia to take the road less traveled. Had he tried to vanquish this “evil” plant from his city, he could have looked like a hero and gained political clout.
Instead, he used common sense.
A L Katz at Weed Maps writes that Anslinger ran his smear campaign against cannabis in every local newspaper across the country. La Guardia, who had previously supported Anslinger, read about this supposed marijuana-driven increase in crime and depravity. He and his police force noted that this was not happening in their city; there was no increase in crime attributable to the drug. (8)
Becoming skeptical of Anslinger’s talking points, La Guardia set out to form a committee that would start an impartial investigation into every facet of the plant’s cultivation and use, writes A L. His committee was comprised of internists, psychiatrists, pharmacologists; an expert in public health; the Director of the Division of Psychiatry; as well as the commissioners of Health, Hospitals, and Corrections. (8)
Their findings contradicted everything Anslinger had been saying. Here are a few of them:
- Cannabis is safe (8)
- It does not cause violence, psychosis, hypersexual urges, or anti-social tendencies (8)
- It is non-addictive (8)
- It is not a gateway to harder drugs (8)
- Children were not using it and becoming delinquents (8)
- It was not a driving force behind crime in general (8)
The report concluded that Anslinger’s portrayal of the drug was “unfounded”. (8)
Of course, Anslinger wasted no time responding.
Along with destroying as many copies as possible, A L writes, Anslinger described the report as “giddy sociology and medical mumbo-jumbo” and called the authors “dangerous men”. He then wrote a book titled “The Murderers: The Story of the Narcotics Gangs” and recruited religious groups as well as the right-wing press to his anti-marijuana crusade. (8)
Having been embarrassed by the La Guardia commission’s report, Anslinger doubled down on targeting musicians and entertainers while creating a bogus connection between cannabis and heroin. (8)
- Roger Adams: respected chemist and pioneer cannabis researcher
No discussion of U.S. cannabis history is complete without an acknowledgment of Roger Adams’ work.
A descendant of Founding Father John Adams, Roger was a respected organic chemist with an impressive 56-year career. He spent nine of those years working under Harry J. Anslinger for the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Throughout his extensive research into the cannabis plant, he discovered cannabinoids like CBD and CBN nearly a century before they would become well-known to the rest of us.
Adams is credited with unofficially discovering THC, the psychoactive chemical in cannabis, two decades before the technology existed to extract it from the plant. Like La Guardia, Adams’ statements on cannabis angered Anslinger, who was vicious in his pursuit of marijuana prohibition.
Victor Ananda at Cannabis Cactus writes that Adams became assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1916. Just ten years later, he was leading his department. Along with his cannabis research, Adams is known for his countless valuable contributions to organic chemistry throughout his nearly six decade-long career. (9)
He was an expert in his field.
Victor writes that Adams worked for the Federal Bureau of Narcotics from 1940-1949. One of Anslinger’s goals at the time was to find and isolate the main psychoactive chemical or “active principle” in cannabis. (9) Additionally, the U.S. was interested in studying that chemical’s potential to be used as a truth serum. (10)
To that end, writes Judith Stamps at Cannabis Digest, THC was infused into cigarettes and given first to employees of the Manhattan Project and later to soldiers at army bases. Adams’ team reportedly supplied the THC in liquid form. Ultimately, THC was an ineffective truth serum and that aspect of the research was abandoned. (10)
According to Victor at Cannabis Cactus, during the nine years they worked for Anslinger, Adams and his team published 27 studies on cannabis in the American Journal of Chemistry. Despite that the technology did not exist to isolate THC from the plant until the 1960s; Adams studied the plant and its compounds so thoroughly that he could identify THC and produce it by converting it from CBD. (9)
Speaking of CBD; Adams was awarded a patent for his isolation of this medically beneficial cannabinoid all the way back in 1942. (11) This was roughly 70 years before any of us would know of its existence.
He was the first to synthesize THC through its conversion from CBD. (11) In a study for the Journal of the American Chemical Society (Structure of Cannabidiol: Isomerization to Tetrahydrocannabinols), he describes a method of converting CBD to THC. (9)
According to Bill Weinberg at Freedom Leaf, Adams was well aware of THC, to the extent that he could guess what its “molecular makeup” looked like with surprising accuracy. He produced incredibly precise drawings of it and other cannabinoids. (11)
In 1964, with the official discovery of THC, Hebrew University of Jerusalem researcher Raphael Mechoulam confirmed what Adams had figured out in the 40s. (11)
Armed with knowledge and firsthand experience with cannabis, Adams would inevitably ruffle Anslinger’s feathers. He knew the drug was not harmful and could in fact be beneficial.
Bill writes that while giving a lecture about his research to the National Academy of Sciences, Adams mentioned marijuana had “pleasant effects” when smoked. (11) This comment enraged Ansligner, and it’s been said that afterward, the Office of Naval Intelligence wanted to label Adams a security risk. (10)
That’s how serious these people were about marijuana prohibition. They wanted to maintain an image of a dangerous drug that turns good people into murderous lunatics. If enough of the public believed them, which they did, then they could effectively persecute the drug’s consumers in minority communities.
When Adams told the truth, he was perceived as going against a patriotic war on an evil plant. The problem is that none of it was true. It was a hoax designed to unite the country against a manufactured villain while providing yet another justification for racist laws.
Roger Adams was a pioneer and a rebel. It was controversial for an establishment figure like him to make pro-marijuana statements in the 1940s, and he had to endure his share of backlash for it. Although some cannabis enthusiasts don’t know his name, we have him to thank for countless important discoveries that laid the groundwork for where we are now.
This brief glimpse into the history of cannabis mostly covers the 20th century, but as always, there is so much more to learn. Humans have a long and complicated history with this plant that originated in Asia and has spread around the world throughout thousands of years.
Its role in various societies, past and present, is as fascinating as the plant itself. If you dive down that rabbit hole, you’ll find no shortage of interesting facts that shed light on a history more complex than any of us can imagine.
(1) “Cannabis History: How Cannabis Came to America”, Sensi Seeds, April 27, 2020 – https://sensiseeds.com/en/blog/cannabis-history-how-cannabis-came-to-america/
(2) “Marijuana – The First Twelve Thousand Years”, Schaffer Library of Drug Policy, n.d. – http://www.druglibrary.org/schaffer/hemp/history/first12000/4.htm
(3) “Marijuana”, History.com, May 31, 2017 (Updated October 10, 2019) – https://www.history.com/topics/crime/history-of-marijuana
(4) Melissa Sherrard, “How Does Islam Regard Cannabis And Marijuana Use?”, Civilized, n.d. – https://www.civilized.life/articles/how-does-islam-regard-cannabis-use/
(5) Kim Nunley, “The History of Hemp in America”, Medical Marijuana Inc. News, April 22, 2020 – https://www.medicalmarijuanainc.com/news/history-hemp-america/
(6) “Hemp History”, The Hemp Industries Association, n.d. – https://thehia.org/History
(7) “Marijuana (Weed) History and Facts”, Brainz.org, n.d. – https://www.brainz.org/420-milestones-hist kj7ory-marijuana/
(8) A L Katz, “Blunt Truths: Chapter 8 — Fiorello La Guardia Debunks Anslinger’s Myths”, Weed Maps, March 14, 2019 – https://weedmaps.com/news/2019/03/blunt-truths-chapter-7-fiorello-la-guardia-debunks-anslingers-myths/
(9) Victor Ananda, “The True History of THC”, Cannabis Cactus, June 1, 2018 – https://cannabiscactus.com/the-true-history-of-thc/
(10) Judith Stamps, “Who Discovered THC? Setting the Record Straight”, Cannabis Digest, August 11, 2014 – https://cannabisdigest.ca/discovered-thc-setting-record-straight/
(11) Bill Weinberg, “U.S. Chemist Roger Adams Isolated CBD 75 Years Ago”, Freedom Leaf, December 4, 2018 – https://www.freedomleaf.com/roger-adams-cbd/
Other sources embedded in the article.
About Wes Annac:
I’m a twenty-something writer & blogger with an interest in spirituality, love, awareness, activism, and other crazy stuff. I run Openhearted Rebellion – a blog dedicated to sharing wisdom and encouraging a revolution that begins in the heart.
I also run Cannac – a blog in which I share some of my research and opinions on cannabis. There, I write about everything from legalization to hemp and the various ways people use the cannabis plant.
I’ve contributed to a few awesome websites that include Waking Times, Wake Up World, Golden Age of Gaia, and The Master Shift. I can be found on Facebook (facebook.com/wesannac, facebook.com/cultureofawareness) and Twitter (twitter.com/Wes_Annac, https://twitter.com/love rebellion)
If you enjoyed this post and want to support my work, consider donating via PayPal to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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