It is arguably the most controversial substance of the last century. How did cannabis get its bad rap, and why is it basking in admiration now?
For more than 30,000 years, the humble cannabis plant has been an important agricultural crop and medicinal herb. It has also played a significant role in our cultural development. But in the early 20th century Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica became a thorn in the side of influential business interests. The result was an unprecedented smear campaign to ostracize and criminalize those involved in its production and use. Today cannabis has made a comeback—thanks to its potential as a source of new medicines in conjunction with discoveries about the human body.
Police were called to the Licata family home in Tampa, Florida, on the afternoon of October 17, 1933, after neighbors noticed they hadn’t seen the family all day. Inside, officers discovered the bodies of 47-year-old Michael Licata, his wife, Rosalie, and three of their four children—a girl and two boys. They had been hacked to death. Their other son, 21-year-old Victor, was found cowering in the bathroom; he wore clean clothes but his skin was stained with blood. He then told a strange story: His parents had pulled him from his bed the night before and mutilated his body while his siblings laughed. He had not killed anyone, he insisted, but rather defended himself. Medical records revealed a history of dementia in the family, and police efforts to commit Victor to an institution a year earlier were rebuffed by his parents, who thought he could best be helped in the home. The state attorney declined to prosecute Victor, who had been clearly “established as insane,” so he was committed to
“AN ACRE OF THE BEST GROUND FOR HEMP IS TO BE SELECTED, AND SOWN IN HEMP AND TO BE KEPT FOR A PERMANENT HEMP PATCH.”
THOMAS JEFFERSON, IN WRITTEN INSTRUCTIONS FOR THE MANAGEMENT OF HIS POPLAR FOREST PLANTATION
a mental institution where other patients would later state that he often spoke about his desire to murder his entire family. (About 12 years later he did manage to escape the facility before being captured and sent to a state prison and dying there months later by his own hand.) That might have been the end of the story. However Harry Anslinger, who in 1930 became the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, decided to exploit it for his campaign to criminalize the use of cannabis…
The history of human civilization is closely tied to the usage of cannabis, the plant from which both hemp and marijuana are derived. (The fibrous hemp plant is a strain of cannabis that has a significantly lower amount [less than .03%] of THC, the psychoactive component in its sister strain.) The story of its use began in ancient China where the plant was prized for utilitarian and therapeutic purposes. From there it spread out across the continent, arriving in India, Persia, Greece, and Egypt and ultimately continuing its journey throughout the centuries to reach Europe and beyond to the New World. Its versatility is one of the reasons for its popularity, as the plant can be used to make such practical items as paper, textiles, and rope as well as medicines and food. And the ability of the cannabis flowers to elicit pleasant feelings was certainly not lost on the ancients, who regarded this aspect as part of the plant’s healing and spiritual capabilities.
Evidence of the plant’s use has cropped up all over the world. The 2019 excavation of a 2,500-year-old tomb in China revealed the presence of cannabis remnants and served as unmistakable evidence that the plant was being utilized for its psychoactive properties, possibly as part of a ceremony to honor or commune with the deceased. Fibers found by archeologists at Dzudzuana Cave in the country of Georgia are 30,000 years old; colored in hues of turquoise, pink, and black to gray, they were initially believed to be flax from textiles but later analysis has suggested they may well actually be hemp. Hemp seeds discovered near present-day Eisenberg in Germany have
“THE ILLEGALITY OF CANNABIS IS OUTRAGEOUS, AN IMPEDIMENT TO THE FULL UTILIZATION OF A DRUG WHICH HELPS PRODUCE THE SERENITY AND INSIGHT, SENSITIVITY, AND FELLOWSHIP SO DESPERATELY NEEDED IN THIS INCREASINGLY MAD AND DANGEROUS WORLD.”
CARL SAGAN, ASTROPHYSICIST AND COSMOLOGIST
dated back to about 5500 BC, and the plant has continued to influence the development of human societies. One of the factors leading to the obsolescence of Medieval armor, for example, was the use of the longbow, a weapon often fitted with a hemp bowstring and used by the English army to devastating effect during the Hundred Years’ War. The invention of the canvas sail, a sturdy cloth made of hemp or flax, made the modern sailing ship possible, and even the name “canvas” can be traced to the Greek word kannabis. Marine canvas—unlike cotton—is often water resistant if not waterproof. In 1545 the Spanish brought cannabis to the New World, importing it to what is now Chile for use as a fiber. Later grown on the plantations that proliferated in the American colonies during the 17th century, hemp was used for making clothing, paper, lamp fuel, and rope. It was such an important commodity that colonial farmers were legally compelled to grow it (even some of the Founding Fathers grew it), and people were allowed to pay taxes with it. When westward migration began in America, hemp was one of the materials used to make the canvas of the covered wagons. Hemp fibers have even contributed to written communication as a component of the fibrous pulp used to make the paper needed for books, newspapers, and letters. There are indications that some copies of the Gutenberg Bible were printed on paper that was made with hemp fibers (though the notion that the Declaration of Independence had been written on hemp-based paper is bogus—the all-important historical document was written on parchment, as was the Constitution and the Bill of Rights). But such success was also the reason the rise of hemp as an agricultural crop was thwarted in modern times. Or more accurately: It fell victim to a campaign of ostracism and demonization.
HOW DO YOU WAGE WAR ON A PLANT?
Harry Anslinger was no blind ideologue. When he decided to use the macabre story of Victor Licata for his anti-hemp campaign, he was well aware of the truth about cannabis
(colloquially known as marijuana); he had regarded it as a nuisance that would serve to distract from the hard drugs he actually wanted to fight and knew it did not pose a significant threat to society. As late as 1926, Anslinger declared there was “probably no more absurd fallacy” than the claim of a link between cannabis and violence. However when his wife’s uncle, Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon, appointed Harry Anslinger to be the first commissioner of the newly formed Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) in 1930, he suddenly changed his tune, if not his mind. He maintained strict views that drug abuse was a moral as well as a criminal matter and he believed that addiction should be treated with penalties rather than considered a public health issue. He also believed in the ills wrought by the abuse of substances such as alcohol and heroin (in fact, combatting heroin smuggling was one of the FBN’S chief aims), and although he was firmly of the opinion that all intoxicants should be prohibited, his critics believe public safety was not his primary concern when it came to cannabis prohibition. He seemed to be much more concerned about the racial implications for white society due to cannabis use by people of color. His concerns about Mexicans and African-americans using the drug led him to present hellish visions of where the country was headed, saying among many other things that he’d been told of “colored students at the University
“THE FEDERAL OBSESSION WITH A POLITICAL AGENDA THAT KEEPS MARIJUANA OUT OF THE HANDS OF SICK AND DYING PEOPLE IS APPALLING AND IRRATIONAL.”
KATE SCANNELL, MD, FORMER CO-DIRECTOR OF THE KAISERPERMANENTE NORTHERN CALIFORNIA ETHICS DEPARTMENT
of Minnesota partying with [white] female students and getting their sympathy with stories of racial persecution. Result: pregnancy.” Such statements were a taste of the tone that was being set and the harsh rhetoric that would be deployed through his career as Anslinger proceeded to weave a conspiratorial web of lies that was to change public policy toward cannabis for decades to come, and his interests may have coincided with those of a few very powerful businessmen…
While trade in the types of cannabis that could get a user high (the so-called “Indian hemp,” with its high THC content) had been regulated by the International Opium Convention drug-control treaty since 1925, Anslinger launched a systematic smear campaign against the lowthc hemp traditionally grown in the U.S. for its fiber. He worked tirelessly to get it prohibited and scored a major success in 1937 with the Marihuana Tax Act, which was designed to ensure it was no longer economically viable to grow hemp and made it essentially impracticable to buy or possess cannabis. Anslinger’s personal motive was simple: In demonizing the cannabis plant through his public campaign of misinformation, he was acting to shore up his future as head of the FBN by giving the agency a nefarious high-profile scourge to combat. At the time the illegal consumption of opiates and cocaine was not yet a big problem in the U.S. And when it seemed likely in the early 1930s that the prohibition of alcohol was about to come to an end, the very existence of the bureau that Anslinger led was in doubt, as was his professional career. He managed to solve the problem by turning cannabis into his agency’s new target. He found a powerful ally in William Randolph Hearst, the owner of a large chain of newspapers known for their flamboyant yellow journalism. Hearst supported Anslinger by publishing a campaign of lies against “marihuana” and the people who used it to stir up mass hysteria about this “weed with roots in hell.” Anslinger released what became known as “The Gore Files,” a collection of quotes from police reports published by Hearst publications that graphically depicted violent crimes allegedly committed by cannabis users that often relied on salacious and racist angles. (Historians who’ve subsequently investigated the background of some of these sensational cases have found the cannabis-fueled aspect of the crimes to be meritless.) During this time that’s now recognized as the “Reefer Madness era,” the traditional term cannabis was supplanted by “marijuana” and “marihuana” in the hopes that the Spanish words would rouse anti-mexican sentiment and conjure images of criminal immigrants in people’s minds as the media’s disinformation crusade blazed a trail across the country.
Many allegations have been made about an industrial conspiracy devised by Hearst and the Dupont company. Hearst’s motivation for getting involved in the dirty war against cannabis is attributed to two things: In addition to his xenophobic feelings that minorities were pulling down white society, he had invested in the wood-based paper industry by purchasing woodland meant to provide newsprint for his publications and was strongly opposed to anything that could interfere with his profits. Moreover, around this time Dupont had invented a chemical method of pulping paper, which was cheaper than the prevailing mechanical method, and a deal between Hearst and Dupont would provide Hearst with a cheap and plentiful source of paper that he could use to gain a competitive advantage over other newspapers by being able to lower the prices of his own publications. This opened up the prospect that Hearst was keen to eliminate any potential competition from hemp-based paper. Since the market was squelched it’s not possible to know how improved hemp processing methods would have contributed to the expansion of hemp-based paper production, but there are several factors that support the notion that hemp could compete: a possibility of comparable yields (based on a 1916 USDA report comparing the per-acre paper production of hemp versus trees), favorable hemp plant properties resulting in higher quality paper products that didn’t yellow and fall apart with age, and the elimination of the need to bleach the wood pulp by way of harsh chemical processes that contaminated the environment. It’s unlikely Hearst was intimately acquainted with the science behind forestry and paper processing and thus his knowledge of how realistic it was for hemp’s potential to threaten his profits would have been limited.
Dupont’s role is also said to have stemmed from the desire to preserve its industrial interests. The company was the world’s largest manufacturer of explosives and munitions and had branched out to use fossil fuels such as oil to synthesize new rubbers and plastics, including Cellophane, and entirely new polymers that could be used to make fabrics and clothing. In the early 1930s Dupont began patenting these synthetic fibers, including Lucite, Teflon, and Nylon (which would soon have an extensive marketing campaign behind it), so potential competition from natural and sustainable fiber sources such as hemp would’ve been undesirable. At that point preparing hemp for industrial usage was a labor-intensive and expensive process, so it could not compete with cotton and the new chemically produced Nylon. However in February of 1938, just six months after the Marihuana Tax Act was passed, Popular Mechanics published an article about hemp titled “New Billion-dollar Crop” that gave details about recent improvements made to the decorticator, a machine poised to make processing hemp for industrial use significantly easier and cheaper. The article went on to describe how decorticated hemp fibers would be valid for a variety of commercially valuable uses and could replace the foreign fibers that were flooding the American market. Additionally the article stated that hemp was an economical source of pulp for any grade of paper and that it could be used to manufacture “more than 25,000 products, ranging from dynamite to Cellophane.”
Another party with a dog in this race was the owner of America’s powerful Mellon Bank of Pittsburgh, who in his time as U.S. Secretary of the Treasury had appointed his nephew-in-law Harry Anslinger, the man who’d work so hard to drive cannabis out of the legal market, as the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Mellon Bank had invested a substantial sum to finance Dupont’s efforts in the synthetic textiles industry. And so the stage was set for Anslinger’s campaign against cannabis, which made no distinction between marijuana and hemp, and which helped give rise to America’s war on drugs, with its sharp focus on cannabis as the most widely consumed illegal substance. Anslinger also had an adverse influence on the medical profession, and this was on full display in his dealings with the American Medical Association (AMA), which he targeted in order to publicize and legitimize his smear campaign. A short time before the congressional hearings for the Marihuana Tax Act got started the AMA found out the so-called Mexican killer weed was actually the cannabis plant that doctors had been familiar with for centuries, as testified to by its representative, Dr. William C. Woodward. According to an editorial in a 1937 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association the AMA was strongly against the bill, thus Woodward was there to object before Congress. But the bill was passed, partly due to Anslinger’s fervid testimony.
“THE LEGALIZATION OF MARIJUANA IS NOT A DANGEROUS EXPERIMENT—THE PROHIBITION IS THE EXPERIMENT, AND IT HAS FAILED DRAMATICALLY, WITH MILLIONS OF VICTIMS ALL AROUND THE WORLD.”
SEBASTIAN MARINCOLO, PHILOSOPHER AND AUTHOR
In the decades that followed, cannabis disappeared almost entirely from the medical scene. In recent years, however, the ancient herb has been making a sensational comeback. The focus in this regard is on two particular components of the plant and discoveries about the human body. In the years to come these beneficial cannabinoid compounds could become a new and powerful weapon in the medical arsenal. The possibilities contained in the compounds that are found in cannabis—especially THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol)—seem almost unlimited. The reason lies not so much in the plant itself as in the cells of the human body. Scientists have discovered what they call the endocannabinoid system. Endocannabinoids are cannabinoids that are produced by the body, and experts have identified two key ones so far. Not only can the body make endocannabinoids on its own, these neurotransmitters are also essential elements in bodily functions such as intercellular communication and the immune response. Certain cells in the body have one of two main receptors where cannabinoids can dock, the CB1 and CB2 receptors. Receptors for the former are found mostly in the brain and nervous system while those for the latter are predominantly present in the immune system (which is largely based in the gut). Targeting these receptors has been shown to be effective in alleviating some pathological conditions as well as chronic pain.
Studies have revealed that CB2 receptors in particular show promise for immunotherapy applications in addition to the treatment of various inflammatory conditions and neurodegenerative diseases.
Scientists have also discovered that cannabinoids play an important role in many bodily processes such as pain sensation, mood, sleep, appetite, metabolism (including energy storage and transport of nutrients), and neuronal activity (including memory). If certain cannabinoids dock with a CB1 receptor, for example, they trigger processes that alleviate pain by inhibiting overactivity in the paincontrol loop. Activation of CB1 receptors can effectuate analgesia by curtailing excitatory postsynaptic neuronal transmission and the release of various proinflammatory mediators. “In a nutshell, the endocannabinoid system stimulates rest, relaxation, and regeneration of the body,” says Dr. Sven Gottschling, chief physician at the Center for Palliative Medicine at Saarland University Hospital in Germany. While the body’s own cannabinoids play roles in the regulation of endocannabinoid system processes, the introduction of phytocannabinoids by way of the use of the cannabis plant has significant medical potential. One great advantage of cannabis is that it doesn’t cause overdoses and therefore its use doesn’t directly result in fatalities (notwithstanding fatal missteps that intoxicated individuals might inadvertently make); its extremely low
“WITH CANNABIS, THERE IS VIRTUALLY NO RISK OF OVERDOSE OR SUDDEN DEATH. EVEN MORE REMARKABLE, CANNABIS TREATS PAIN IN A WAY OPIOIDS CANNOT. THOUGH BOTH DRUGS TARGET RECEPTORS THAT INTERFERE WITH PAIN SIGNALS TO THE BRAIN, CANNABIS DOES SOMETHING MORE: IT TARGETS ANOTHER RECEPTOR THAT DECREASES INFLAMMATION — AND DOES IT FAST.”
DR. SANJAY GUPTA, NEUROSURGEON AND CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT
toxicity in the body means the amount that would have to be ingested to produce a deadly effect is significantly greater than a person could physically consume.
Decades of prohibition have forestalled the research that’s needed to investigate the potential benefits and possible applications of cannabis and cannabis-derived medications, but researchers have been making up for lost time. The range of the possible uses of cannabis in modern medicine is astonishing. “I anticipate a relatively glowing future for cannabinoid therapy, particularly in the field of autoimmune disease,” says Dr. Gottschling. “I am treating a number of patients, including children and young people, who are suffering from rheumatoid arthritis or chronic inflammatory bowel disease. In addition, we have preclinical data related to treating dementia and tumors. There have even been early, very small studies of patients suffering from brain tumors. Cannabinoids have been found to inhibit the escape mechanisms of cancer cells that help tumors evade immunosurveillance. There is also evidence of proapoptotic activity in cancer cells, which can cause disassembly of the target cell.” Thus on the long list of conditions that may benefit from therapeutic applications of cannabinoids, cancer is one of the most exciting, as substances in cannabis have been shown to inhibit the growth and proliferation of cancer cells and impair their angiogenic ability to encourage the formation of new blood vessels to supply them with nutrients and even induce apoptosis (programmed cell death) in cancer cells while leaving healthy cells alone.
And so, many decades after it was declared a villain, cannabis could become a hero in the battle against some of our most common illnesses. One example: Millions of people currently suffer from the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, and a study at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland has shown cannabinoids can inhibit gastric acid secretion in addition to alleviating a wide variety of inflammatory conditions. According to Dr. Gottschling, “The endocannabinoid system helps the body recover and recharge its batteries.” They may not be suitable for every patient, but the therapeutic substances present in cannabis are becoming a real game-changer for so many who are dealing with debilitating conditions.
Thus the medical usage of cannabis has become less controversial and more accepted than ever in America. As more research has been done (and even securing the governmental permission to conduct such research had been an uphill battle for decades and has accounted for the dearth of reliable data), more beneficial aspects have come to light and more misinformation has been put to rest. So after decades of demonization and prohibition, enough people have stood up for cannabis, from medical use advocates to champions of civil liberties, that it has now become legal for medicinal use, or decriminalized, or fully legalized in most U.S. states. This marks a significant sea change in national sensibility, considering federal law has prohibited cannabis usage for any purpose, including medical, since the Controlled Substances Act was passed in 1970. In fact, currently cannabis is completely illegal for any purpose in only 14 states. Polls show nearly 70% of Americans supported legalization in 2020. But this is a hard-won state of affairs, and the most die-hard of drug warriors continue to try to perpetuate myths to suppress this plant, though their voices have gotten progressively less loud. In the November 2020 election five states had cannabis measures on their ballots, and all five were approved by voters. Three of those states fully legalized cannabis for all uses, including recreational, some of them citing social justice reform and amending drug laws that disproportionately affect people of color as one of the motivations for taking up these measures. In December 2020 the House of Representatives passed the MORE Act to do away with the federal penalties for cannabis and expunge cannabis-related criminal records—truly an epic and historic step. More steps will need to be taken before the injustice and ignominy of prohibition have been totally remediated, but the political support cannabis has been receiving—at the state and now the federal level— proves the country has finally turned the corner on Harry Anslinger’s hysterical campaign of cannabis prohibition.