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US and Cannabis

By: Patrick Eley

A monk in the mountains of northeastern Iran had left his monastery to go for a walk when he discovered a lone plant withstanding the wilting heat. He was curious how the leaves could tolerate the intense sun, so he cut a few to chew. Usually a solemn man, his fellow monks were surprised to find him jovial when he returned. He shared his discovery of the cannabis plant after swearing them to secrecy and went on to live his remaining 66 years in a much happier disposition.

–  An ancient story retold in 1155 AD by Islamic chronicler al-Maqrizi

Today’s rising popularity of the herb as medicine is actually a resurgence for the United States and most of Europe, where cannabis had been used medicinally for thousands of years. Already available in most pharmacies in the 19th century, the 1850 edition of The United States Pharmacopoeia officially listed cannabis for the treatment of nerve pain, tetanus, typhus, cholera, rabies, dysentery, alcoholism, opiate addiction, leprosy, incontinence, gout, convulsions, tonsillitis, insanity, menorrhagia, and uterine hemorrhaging. 

The United States Pharmacopoeia was considered a high-standard publication of the time and signaled the scientific community to begin a vast amount of research throughout the rest of the nineteenth century. A few notable studies during this period: 

  • In 1860 the Ohio State Medical Society published findings that cannabis helped stomach cramps, venereal disease, and post-natal depression. 
  • In 1889 The Lancet published an article by Dr. E.A. Birch outlining cannabis treatment guidelines for opium addiction withdrawals. 
  • In 1890 Dr. John Russell Williams, Queen Victoria’s doctor declared, “cannabis is of the most valuable medicines we possess”–ideal for treating nerve pain, migraines, and spasms.

During the early twentieth century, immensely influential author of A Manual of Pharmacology, Walter Ernest Dixon, wrote in the British Medical Journal, “hemp taken as an inhalation may be placed in the same category as coffee, tea, and kola. It is not dangerous,  [its] effects are never alarming, and I have come to regard it in this form as a useful and refreshing stimulant and food accessory, and one whose use does not lead to a habit.” 

Dixon’s view was generally accepted throughout the westernized world. At that time cannabis was cheaper than whiskey, gin, brandy, and tobacco and could be purchased from any grocer or pharmacist. It was a popular lower class drug because it was affordable, and prevalent among middle-class women who considered alcohol masculine and working class. 

Marijuana was not a societal problem but instead considered by-and-large a safe substance that women’s groups could advocate as an alternative to alcohol, which was still abused in many families. 

Confectioners the Gunjah Wallah Company in New York City produced cannabis sweets, and Vanity Fair advertised hashish candy in an 1862 issue as a treatment for nervousness and melancholy: “a pleasurable and harmless stimulant, under its influence, all classes seem to gather new inspiration and energy,” it read. 

As popular as marijuana was, nothing caught on to the degree of glamorous opium. One needed money to afford this habit. The most addictive substance in circulation, opiates hooked users quickly, but only the wealthiest could successfully pay to keep up the addiction. The mystique of being able to maintain a dependency became an upper-class privilege. 

Near the tail-end of the 19th-century anti-cannabis pieces began to appear in magazines published either anonymously or under fake names–many claiming violent criminal actions by African Americans and Mexicans on white women. Some of these articles turned out to be penned by disgruntled citizens whose families had been destroyed by drug abusers, but most authors were physicians defending their practice of prescribing opiates freely, hoping to shift the blame away from themselves.

The country had solidified itself as a world power with a growing national identity that was mostly white. The nation founded by immigrants was voicing concern over a burgeoning Mexican population, ironic since it was Mexicans who’d inhabited much of the southern part of the country for centuries. 

The numbers of Mexican, Italian and black families had grown in many cities. To control and keep tabs on these new “immigrants,” El Paso, TX borrowed a play from San Francisco’s book, which had outlawed opium decades earlier in an effort to suppress Chinese immigrants. The idea was to have an excuse to search, detain and deport Mexican settlers by banning cannabis in El Paso.

To make matters worse, the white American family structure was in turmoil. Men were developing alcoholism at alarming rates. Their habits cost them jobs. Fathers spent savings meant to provide for their families on drink. A growing sentiment that all drugs were a detriment to society resulted first in Alcohol Prohibition from 1920 to 1933. This policy didn’t quell the public’s behavior, and furthermore, opiates remained readily available. 

After the repeal of Alcohol Prohibition in 1933, the public still wanted a scapegoat for the deterioration of the family unit. Easier to blame immigrants for the lack of white American men maintaining jobs, Mexicans and African Americans found themselves, and their drug of choice under fire. During hearings on marijuana law in the 1930s, false claims about marijuana’s ability to cause men of color to become violent and solicit sex from white women began to surface, creating further racist hysteria.

When Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act, officially making it illegal, the Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics Harry Anslinger had successfully manipulated the pre-existing national racism by citing instances of Mexicans using cannabis before committing crimes. A racist at heart, his propaganda machine had published false stories across the nation. He generated enough uproar from Americans unfamiliar with the actual effects of marijuana to ban the herb that had brought healing for centuries.

A staunch opponent of Anslinger and his Tax Act, New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia commissioned a report on the effects of smoking cannabis by the New York Academy of Medicine. The Subsequent La Guardia Committee study, published in 1944, determined that marijuana was not a societal problem or a dangerous drug. After more than five years of research, the members of the committee drew up a catalog of 13 conclusions they’d reached. Here are some highlights:

  • Marijuana is used extensively in the Borough of Manhattan, but the problem is not as acute as it is reported to be [by Anslinger and the AMA].
  • The cost of marijuana is low and therefore within the purchasing power of most persons.
  • The consensus among marijuana smokers is that the use of the drug creates a definite feeling of adequacy.
  • The practice of smoking marijuana does not lead to addiction in the medical sense of the word.
  • The use of marijuana does not lead to morphine or heroin or cocaine addiction, and no effort is made to create a market for these narcotics by stimulating the practice of marijuana smoking as suggested by the government. 
  • Marijuana is not the determining factor in the commission of major crimes.
  • Marijuana smoking is not widespread among school children.
  • Juvenile delinquency is not associated with the practice of smoking marijuana.
  • The publicity concerning the catastrophic effects of marijuana smoking by the government is unfounded.

Anslinger used his propaganda to falsely discredit the Committee study when it was published in 1944. His efforts pushed cannabis into the underground of American culture. 

Prevalent cannabis use returned in the 1960s when several states began to relax their marijuana laws, including the Washington state legislature which reduced the crime of possession of 40 grams or less to a misdemeanor and no longer considered the drug to be an “opiate” or “narcotic.” 

The Marihuana Tax Act was ruled unconstitutional by the 1969 US Supreme Court case Leary v. the United States, which should have signaled the end of prohibition, but it was replaced with the Controlled Substances Act in 1970. The Act established schedules for ranking substances according to their dangerousness and potential for addiction. Cannabis was placed in the most restrictive category, Schedule I, supposedly as a place holder while then-President Nixon commissioned a report to give a final recommendation.

The Schafer Commission, as it was called, determined that marijuana should not be in Schedule I and even denied its designation as an illicit substance. However, Nixon disregarded the recommendations of the commission for fear changing stance could threaten his lead in an election, and marijuana remained a Schedule I substance instead of receiving an official classification. States, including Washington and California, now found themselves under federal scrutiny for their liberal stances on cannabis. Marijuana prohibition became stronger than ever.

Over the next three decades, mainstream media and academia largely remained silent about the pain-killing virtues of cannabis. Then in 1996, California legalized medical marijuana under Proposition 215. The legislation allowed citizens with medical conditions, including multiple types of pain, to use cannabis. The program was not only successful for patients but also worked both societally and economically. In subsequent years, over half of the states in the country implemented medical marijuana programs.

Cannabis wasn’t the only pain medicine that grew in notoriety in the 1990s. Opioids became the most prescribed drugs for pain beginning with a sharp rise in 1991. The dark side of their popularity with doctors was that they were highly addictive to patients with deadly consequences of dependency. The number of prescription opioids nearly quadrupled from 1999 to 2010.  Almost one in every three people prescribed opioids developed an addiction, killing 130 people each day. The federal government officially announced an Opioid Epidemic in 2017, one that they had created.

There is hope. Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health recently found that states with medical marijuana reduced opioid use. A resurgence of cannabis research in the twenty-first century has consistently found positive outcomes in using cannabis as a treatment for multiple types of pain, many for which opioids are currently prescribed. Due to this emerging evidence, voters have pressured lawmakers for marijuana reform. Multiple states recently legalized recreational cannabis generating hundreds of millions in tax revenue and making reform a significant topic in upcoming the 2020 Presidential Election.

Make no mistake the real history of cannabis is as a medicine and a political tool. At no time, has marijuana been a real danger to public health. Society needs to know about the safety and healing potential of cannabis, especially those depending on opioids to manage their pain.

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