One of the longest ongoing FUD campaigns is the prohibition of marijuana. Even in this 21st century, despite always more legalized weed [campaigns] available, the stigma is often maintained and the lies continue. Lies as recently expertly told by the USA’s Surgeon General with his “this ain’t your mom’s weed” claim and subsequently countered by Dana Larsen’s calculation that “according to agencies a joint is now 12,600 times stronger than in the 60s”.
Living where I do, and even looking in our own community, we still see people who lack a total understanding of the history of marijuana and how the plant became outlawed around 80 years ago.
If you hadn’t guessed it yet... it has nothing to do with marijuana being a drug or dangerous or a threat to society. Marijuana’s prohibition, and everything that comes with it is one of the best propaganda campaigns ever. Sadly enough.
So let’s have a look back in history. A look at the rich and especially long, history of medical use of marijuana and what eventually led to the worldwide prohibition we have known until recently, but which still continues even in countries with more liberal approaches.
Note: this post does not aim to be the complete, ultimate reference material. This is merely a “brief” look into things, a 101 geared at people who don’t know about the false reasons behind the outlawing of cannabis and the subsequent lies told ever since.
So rollup and let's travel time, Tokers United.
Medical Cannabis in History
It is often said that China is the root, the berth of cannabis so let’s do like Tintin and travel to the East to look at the history of cannabis in the vast Asian country first.
The earliest traces of actually confirmed cannabis go back almost 3,000 years, to the northwest Chinese province which is now known as the Uyghur territory, the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous region, and the Yanghai Tombs, a vast ancient cemetery.
A 2,700-year old shaman grave contained a a wooden bowl filled with 789g of cannabis, which has been preserved by climatic and burial conditions. Researchers even demonstrated the found cannabis contained tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
The Pamir Mountains
It is thought the Jushi culture, to which the shaman was said to belong, used cannabis as medicinal or psychoactive product. This is the oldest evidence of cannabis as a medicinal agent currently known
Also in China, but in Western China in the Pamir Mountains this time, were the oldest traces of smoking cannabis discovered, dating back around 2,500 years (500BC). Cannabis residue was found on charred pebbles, possibly used during funerals. A more recently published study claims these cannabis traces also contained THC.
Next, we go back even further in time and travel to the other side of the Pamir Mountains, to modern Afghanistan or historical Iran, to around 2,200-1,700BC. More than 1,000 years before the shaman tomb discovered in northwest China.
In the Bactria(na), a province between the Hindu Kush mountains and the Pamir Mountains, multiple settlements were discovered with ritual rooms which contained everything required to make drinks containing opium, cannabis or ephedra. In the same period, cultic use (religious use) of hemp has been discovered spreading from Romania to the Yenisei River bassin in Mongolia and Siberia.
In more high level medical application, cannabis is recorded to be first used as an an aesthetic in the third century CE, by the Chinese surgeon Hua Tuo. More interestingly, the Chinese term for “anesthesia” (mázui 麻醉) literally means “cannabis intoxication”, ma meaning numbness, senselessness. This could possibly mean that by then the Chinese had discovered Indica cannabis varieties, and their much loved “couch-lock properties”.
Medical Cannabis Beyond Asia in History
Cannabis wasn’t only limited to the Asia, and the nations around the Silk Road. Medical cannabis has been documented also in other cultures.
The Ebers Papyrus - photo by Einsamer Schütze, CC BY_SA-3.0
The Ebers Papyrus, dated 1,550BC in Ancient Egypt, mentions the use of medical cannabis. Other documents from Ancient Egypt mention the use of hemp to relieve the pain in hemorrhoids.
A not-referenced Time article from 2010 even mentions that Egyptians used cannabis to treat eye sores around 2,000BC.
At the other side of the Mediterranean Sea, in Ancient Greece, cannabis was used both to cure wounds and sores of horses, but also to treat nose bleeds, inflammations, and even expel tapeworms.
While Herodotus first documented cannabis being used by the Scythians in the fifth century BC, it would take until the first century CE before Greek literature fully recognized the medical use of cannabis although the practice was already well established by then.
Always at the forefront of the cannabis party, a more than 4,200 years old Neolithic grave was discovered in the Netherlands containing a large amount of “pollen”. After five years of studying, researchers concluded that the pollen were mostly cannabis, as well as a smaller amount of meadowsweet. The presence of meadowsweet led to the researchers deciding that the human in the grave was most likely very ill and cannabis had served as a painkiller (article in Dutch).
With the background of multiple 2,000-years old — and much older even — records of medical use of cannabis set, we now make a big jump to more modern history and return to China, in the 19th century.
The Opium Wars
In the 18th and 19th Century, the British Empire was still a major trading force — no Brexit cynicism involved — and the British East India Company (EIC) was a dominant presence in Asian trade.
In the second half of the 18th Century, the EIC had started to smuggle opium to China to balance its trade deficit. The EIC would become the leading supplier before the end of the century. Opium revenue from the illegal trade would become that substantial for the empire that it vastly contributed to the supremacy of the Company Rule of India [by the EIC] and later the British Crown Rule of India.
The Adventures of Tintin, The Blue Lotus
By the second half of the 1830s, the opium smuggle was said to have led to to 10-12 million Chinese opium addicts. All while the British Empire lobbied for legalization of the opium trade, assisted also by the Americans who had joined the lucrative smuggle early in the 19th century.
When Emperor Qing cracked down on the smugglers in 1839, after being rejected by Queen Victoria in his request to halt the smuggling, the smugglers lost more than 20,000 chests of opium (77 kilos per chest). Efforts to convince the traders to forfeit their opium for tea failed and the Qing dynasty resorted to force and imposed a blockade of foreign ships.
The British trade commissioner in Canton, through which most China’s trade routes went, wrote Queen Victoria and suggested the use of force. In June 1840 the British naval force arrived, almost a year after the first skirmishes, and bombarded the port of Ting-ha.
The First Opium War would eventually end in 1842 and China had to cede part of its territory to the British, most notably Hong-Kong. China was also forced to make a 21 million dollar payment to Great Britain, as well as establishing 5 treaty ports. The strategy employed by the British would eventually become known as gunboat diplomacy.
This was for China the beginning of its “Century of Humiliation”.
Almost two decades later, in 1856, the Second Opium War would start after, again, failed negotiations about the legalization of the opium trade.
With the capture of the vessel the “Arrow”, a former pirate ship which now sailed under British flag — albeit with an expired registration — the British began bombarding the city of Canton after China refused to release the complete crew of the Arrow.
Temple in the Ruins of the Summer Palace, photo via BBC
As the war started to pick up pace, after intermittent skirmishes around Canton, the French joined the British and later the USA would also assist the alliance.
The Second Opium War would eventually end in 1860, after the brutal destruction and looting of the Summer Palace in Beijing, now the Palace of Shame and China’s own “Ground Zero” in its modern history teaching.
The Anglo-Franco American alliance emerged victorious and China had to cede yet more territory, the Kowloon Peninsula, to Great Britain. At long last, opium trade was also legalized with the 1860 Convention of Peking.
In the decades after, other trading forces would continue to search their share of China’s riches and Germany, Japan, and Russia all defeated the nation at times. China’s Century of Humiliation would end only when the country emerged as a victorious ally in World War II.
After this seemingly unrelated time travel, we now cross the Atlantic and go to the USA. To the Founding Fathers and their agriculture business.
The Founding Fathers Love Hemp
In as far as is known, hemp was always present in the Americas and an integral part of sea trade, going back in the records all the way to the Mayflower, which like most ships, carried hemp seeds. At times it was even compulsory to grow hemp in certain areas and taxes have been known to be paid with it as well. Hemp fiber was part of the known history of the Americas since the first settlers set foot on the continent.
But things would pick up even more, with the Founding Fathers and the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America.
Given the currently still reigning attitude, worldwide, it may be more surprising to many to learn that the Founding Fathers, as well as some of the USA's earliest presidents were active hemp farmers.
Several even are known to have smoked, possibly for the pleasures of “hemp”.
The first President of the United States was a prolific hemp farmer and is also one of the first western historic figures to highlight the importance of the different sexes of the plant, as early as in 1765 in his personal diary.
"— began to separate the male from the female hemp at Do — rather too late"
Being a known hemp smoker this could possibly mean that Washington already knew of the "non industrial" variety, which we call cannabis/marijuana now and is the common topic here on Smoke.
While the first president used to farm hemp on industrial scale, to manufacture clothing, it is the third president of the USA, Thomas Jefferson, who is “credited” with bringing cannabis to the continent via his smuggling of new strains all the way from China’s, while being ambassador to France.
Jefferson was a large scale plantation owner and also cultivated tobacco. He even received a patent for a hemp threshing machine. He has also extensively written about the benefits of hemp over tobacco. But it is highly unlikely that he ever smoked weed, despite highly disputed accounts.
Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky, by Benjamin West
Another of the seven Founding Fathers to be an influential hemp farmer was Benjamin Franklin, the prolific scientist and inventor, and later President of Pennsylvania.
Franklin was one of the first known owners of a paper mill which processed hemp into paper.
Urban legend has it that hemp paper produced by Franklin was used to write drafts of the Declaration of Independence on, and even the United States Constitution.
The myth of the on hemp paper written Declaration of Independence has been debunked though.
The Declaration of Independence was written on parchment.
Yet, as we will soon discover, hemp paper played a significant role in the further history of marijuana.
The fourth president of the United States of America, and credited with being the "Father of the Constitution“, James Madison was a known hemp smoker. He even claimed that hemp gave him the insights to create a new democratic nation.
If that’s true, the American democracy was actually inspired by weed. Think about that for a second.
Other Smoking Presidents of the USA
George Washington wasn't the only President of the USA who has been known to smoke hemp. The first century of indepence for the United States of America would see several more of its presidents love the greens we all love so much as well.
The fifth president, James Monroe, was a prolific smoker too and was known to smoke hashish in public, while Ambassador to France. He would continue to smoke until his death in 1836, aged 73.
Andrew Jackson, 7th POTUS, Zachary Taylor, 12th POTUS, and Franklin Pierce, 14th POTUS, all used to smoke with the troops before becoming president. They referred to smoking marijuana in their letters.
Now we’ve established the popularity of hemp, and even weed, among the highest historic figures in the USA, as well as its millennia old medical use, how did cannabis become prohibited?
Time for another jump through time, to the beginning of the 20th century. We are not hopping any ponds but staying in the Americas this time
The Industrial Revolution and the Wonder Crop Hemp
In the second half of the 19th century, cannabis had become one of highlighted "poisons" in a newly budding pharmacy and medical sector. This was often due to the presence of opium, and cocaine and their respective effects, which required new regulations on the emerging industry.
Pharmaceutical Cannabis fluid extract (tincture) sold in USA around 1933
The mind-altering power of cannabis [sativa] resulted that in many states cannabis was to be explicitly listed among ingredients of medicine. Medicine which until the earliest pharmaceutical regulations often was sold as "patent medicine", without disclosure of any ingredients.
In almost all states cannabis was still allowed to be sold though, often even without prescription, as long as a disclosed ingredient under the pharmaceutical “poison” laws.
That even after the the first International Opium Commission, which would become the first international drug control treaty and act against the massive fall out of Opium addiction. The treaty was implemented in 1915 by the USA and several other nations, and worldwide in 1919 with the Treaty of Versailles.
The first International Opium Convention was also the first time the USA lobbied to include cannabis as a regulated substance in order to counterbalance the financial loss of its opium trade with China.
By the 1920s hemp had continued to establish itself as a pillar in agriculture. The plant had even been highlighted as possibly the first billion-dollar crop, in the early 1900s by the influential Popular Mechanics magazine.
The industry was starting to discover the vast potential of hemp fiber, pretty much a century before the current multiple use cases and benefits of hemp are once again highlighted. Paper, construction, oils and fuels, and many more.
Enter big petro dollars, mainstream media, and the Feds.
Or the “Marijuana Conspiracy”. Let’s have a look at its main conspirators now, the three people who would lead the war on marijuana eventually contributing to its international prohibition.
Irénée du Pont
A MIT graduate, Irénée du Pont was the president of petrochemical company Du Pont. He was active in the patent sector and thus the multiple different capabilities of hemp, such as oils and fibers — we now know that hemp fiber could potentially have saved us from the microplastics epidemic — were a major threat to his developing industry which would go on to define the next century. Not necessarily positively as the climate crisis evidences.
Du Pont, who was a believer in eugenics theory and white supremacy, could be considered the industrial revolution precursor of Exxon & its ilk, as he presided Du Pont when 8 workers were fatally poisoned with Tetraethyl lead. He also supported right-wing organizations.
Born into a millionaire mining family, and Harvard College graduate, William Randolph Hearst was a media mogul, initially owner and publisher of the San Francisco Examiner.
Opting for a populist, and sensationalist, blend of “yellow journalism” the Examiner would soon become the leading newspaper in the area.
Backed by the finances of his widowed mother, he was quickly able to expand his media operations to more than 20 papers across the USA and enter a circulation war with Joseph Pulitzer. He didn’t hesitate to recruit some of Pulitzer’s leading journalists.
But, Hearst, wasn’t just a publisher anymore by then. He also owned almost the complete cycle of his publishing chain, complete with millions of acres of forestry land growing trees on. This gave him a leading edge in the publishing business, being able to purchase his paper cheaper.
Obviously, the emergence of hemp paper and its potential industrial scale production levels, could be threatening to his business empire due to the cheaper cost of hemp paper, its superior quality and more sustainable resourcing.
Because he couldn’t attack hemp due to its agriculture, and medical, importance in society — and financially amongst his readers — he set out on a propoganda campaign against the plant, using a Mexican slang term... marijuana.
With deep rooted racism ever-present in the USA, Hearst could via his publications play the Spanish origins of the term and demonize hemp. Hearst was not averse to inventing one, or multiple lies in his war on hemp.
Born was the early print version of, and subsequent multimedia, “Reefer Madness”.
The by Hearst started propaganda would continue for multiple years and even see different movies join the war on cannabis.
Due to his populist, sensationalist tone Hearst could be called the Fox or Murdoch precursor.
Harry J. Anslinger
Of course, no prohibition story would be complete without Mr. Prohibition himself, Harry J. Anslinger.
Born to Swiss-German parents, who emigrated to the USA in the second half of the 19th century, Anslinger would after some years in international operations against drug trafficking become the first Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN, now DEA) in 1930.
This happened against the background of Anslinger leading the Department of Prohibition from 1929 on. But the alcohol prohibition was nearing and end as negotiations were ongoing to relax the rules and legalize alcohol. So Anslinger was a man with a mandate nearing its end and in need of a new mission — and job — soon.
Until confronted with the ending alcohol prohibition, Anslinger had not been involved in any marijuana focused legislation, and even didn’t have any problems with cannabis.
But as the end of the alcohol prohibition was becoming always more inevitable, and thus the mandate of the Department of Prohibition, Anslinger’s position changed and soon he would play the same tune as Hearst, demonizing cannabis helped by racist propaganda.
It was around that time Anslinger became evolved in the negotiations to include “Indian hemp”, referring to cannabis, in the next second International Opium Convention — negotiations for which had started in 1925.
In the next years Anslinger would promote a vicious and toxic account of the violent effects of cannabis, often ignoring evidence-based counter claims by scientists and even the American Medical Association.
”... deadly, dreadful poison that racks and tears not only the body, but the very heart and soul of every human who once becomes a slave to it in any of its cruel and devastating forms... Hasheesh (sic) makes a murderer who kills for the love of killing out of the mildest mannered man who ever laughed at the idea that any habit could ever get him” source
A man in need of a raison d'être, Anslinger had bitten his teeth in marijuana and his jaws wouldn’t open up anymore. Just like Hearst, Anslinger wasn’t shy a lie and compiled a list of horrible, unsubstantiated claims graphically depicting vile effects of cannabis, based on police crime report quotes taken out of context.
This oeuvre consisted of a body of 200 violent crimes, known as the “Gore Files”, which Anslinger used to further demonize cannabis. He then promoted those on radio.
Anslinger’s campaign was, of course, heavily supported by Hearst, who gave the commissioner’s propaganda ample column space and reach.
During the hearings for the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which would eventually outlaw marijuana in the USA, Anslinger would retell the story of a murder, the Licata killings, and blamed cannabis for this.
While the second International Opium Convention wouldn’t fully outlaw cannabis, despite the United States trying to get it inserted, Anslinger had finally won his war and marijuana was now prohibited in the USA with the Marihuana Tax Act.
Anslinger had established himself as one of the leading [drugs] prohibition authorities and would influence multiple nations’ policies. Especially the policies of nations themselves not internally affected by drugs.
Full Circle Prohibition
Employing commercial support pressure, and trade negotiations, slowly but surely the marijuana prohibition would find its way around the world. Culminating in the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs which scheduled drugs according to their effect. A classification often lacking scientific basis.
By 2018, 186 states worldwide had adopted the act.
The USA had finally outlawed cannabis worldwide, with adoption of the convention by the Republic of China as well. A nation which previously was made to struggle due to smuggling of opium, by Great Britain and the USA, into its country.
Until this day, none of Anslinger’s wild claims have been validated and no cannabis overdose casualty has been recorded either.
TL;DR: Cannabis was never made illegal because it was dangerous. Cannabis was a pawn in the economical games played by the elite and countries.
It’s time end prohibition and restore the damage done.