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Cannabis History in the United States

The cannabis plant has naturally occurred on Earth for nearly 38 million years(*); long before humankind existed. For thousands of years, humans have co evolved alongside cannabis, utilizing its properties for a range of purposes from religious and spiritual rituals and medicine to textiles, paper, fuel, and food. In the U.S., specifically, cannabis was a major agricultural crop throughout the 1800’s and early 1900’s and was found in many medicinal extracts and tinctures.(*) In 1851 the U.S. pharmacopeia, officially recognized as the book of standards for describing drugs, chemicals, and medicinal preparations, included “extract of hemp”; in1864, it was listed as a medicine and precise instructions were given on how to prepare it. (*) However, in the 1930’s, the view on cannabis, from a medicinal standpoint, changed drastically.

In 1920, the Mexican Revolution ended, and with this came a large influx of Mexican immigrants to the U.S. As a result, these new Americans brought their language, culture and customs with them. One of these customs was the use of cannabis as a medicine and relaxant, which they called “Marihuana”.(*) This was a new word for Americans, therefore, when the media began to play on the publics’ fear of these new citizens by falsely labeling them and their culture as disruptive and lazy, their use of Marihuana was a focal point, seen as a threat and particularly dangerous. This only added to the xenophobia of the time, and soon after, the common nomenclature for cannabis became Marijuana, or “loco-weed”. Little did the public know, this “evil” drug that was making immigrants crazy and dangerous was the very same drug found in most medicine cabinets across the states.

By demonizing cannabis as a dangerous drug, the government was extending this demonization to Mexican immigrants and their way of life. (*)(DP) Government officials and law enforcement in border states needed an excuse to keep tabs on these new citizens. The idea was to find an excuse to be able to search, detain, and deport Mexicans (like California had done with Chinese immigrants and their involvement with opium). This excuse became Marijuana, and after a few fabricated hearings on Marijuana law, in 1937, the “Marihuana Stamp Act” made all use and sale of cannabis illegal. Although this law was found to be unconstitutional years later, it was replaced by the “Controlled Substances Act” in 1970, which scheduled drugs according to their level of danger and potential for addiction. (*)(dp) Cannabis was labeled a schedule 1 narcotic, which according to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), “schedule I drugs, substances, or chemicals are defined as drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. Schedule I drugs are the most dangerous drugs of all the drug schedules with potentially severe psychological or physical dependence. Some examples of Schedule I drugs are: heroin, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), marijuana (cannabis), 3,4methylenedioxymethamphetamine (ecstasy), methaqualone, and peyote.” (*)(DEA) From this point on, cannabis was given the highest possible restriction, and research into its medicinal benefits was, for the most part, halted to a standstill. After this ruling, cannabis was excluded from further entry in the pharmacopeia and the stigma against its use for any reason was established-marijuana is a hard drug and the use, cultivation, or sale of cannabis in any form is considered a crime.

In recent decades, there has been a renewed interest in cannabis as a medicine and for other purposes. Even from the limited number of official studies done on cannabis, many benefits have been documented, including its effectiveness in treating disease, usefulness as an agricultural crop, and its potential as a renewable fuel source. In addition, state laws throughout the country have made real progress for patient accessibility. Unfortunately, cannabis still remains a schedule 1 narcotic, and although its range of benefits are becoming better known and more widely accepted, it still remains illegal on a federal level.

One major reason for the lack of extensive research is the protocol designed for cannabis study. In order to legally conduct a study on cannabis, permission and a special schedule 1 license must be granted through the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) who supplies their own cannabis from a farm in Mississippi for the studies. (*)(pb) For NIDA to green light a scientific or clinical study, it has to go through the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), who is only interested in funding projects showing the dangers and harm of cannabis. In addition to the DEA hindering progressive research, privatized industry, such as the pharmaceutical and oil industries, lobby the government with exorbitant amounts of money and contribute to anti-drug campaigns to protect their interests and increase their bottom lines. Pharmaceutical companies can make a lot of money if they can patent cannabis medicines (i.e. Marinol and Sativex) and have a stronghold on this market, while Big Oil would hate to see hemp competing in their sector as a viable renewable resource. Continued education, research, and support for cannabis is necessary for opening more doors towards our understanding of the plant, the role it should be playing in society, and the variety of therapeutic effects it has to offer.


-Ryan O'Malley, General Manager at Tahoe Wellness Center - 'Notes on Cannabis'



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