Have you ever wondered why cannabis has the reputation that it does?

Posted: Jul 12, 2021

The story of cannabis in the US is a complicated one. From widespread use in the early colonies by historical figures such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe, to extreme fear and hatred of the plant with nationwide propaganda demonizing cannabis with scary titles like “the devil’s lettuce” and others.

However, in recent times many states have voted to allow medicinal and recreational use of cannabis, proving that the story you may think you know about cannabis, may not be the truth after all.

In this three-part series, we’ll be going back in time to tell the real story of cannabis in the US!

How it all started.

Early depiction of hemp cultivation in the US

The history of cannabis cultivation in America dates back to the early colonial times. When the first colonists arrived here, native Americans introduced them to the cannabis plant and other agriculture. The colonist quickly learned that this plant could be used for all sorts of things such as textiles, rope, paper, and food. It was even used on the sails of ships. The uses for the plant were found to be boundless due to the nutritional value that it provided, as well as its ability to be turned into incredibly strong and durable fabric. 

Cannabis was such an important resource during colonial times that farmers were required to grow it, or they could be fined, or worse even jailed. In the writings of George Washington, he wrote, “Make the most of the Indian hemp seed, and sow it everywhere!” 

By the 19th century, cannabis was used as an ingredient in many medicinal products sold in pharmacies and doctors’ offices across the country. Solidifying cannabis as the foremost valuable crop that early America was built upon. 

What happened?

Things started to change as the popularity of another crop began to take off. Tobacco, a crop that created addiction, lung disease, and cancer, was suddenly thrust into the American spotlight. At the same time, the United States was seeing an influx of Mexican immigrants coming into the US after the Mexican Revolution. 

These immigrants brought with them their native language, traditions, and culture, which angered some white Americans. Leaders at the time used this opportunity to capitalize on this fear of immigration by associating the use of cannabis with Mexican immigrants. Mexican immigrants had used cannabis recreationally for years in their culture and referred to the plant as marihuana. 

Harry J Anslinger, the first head of the bureau of narcotics, known as the father of marijuana prohibition, was promoted to head of the bureau of narcotics by Andrew Melon. A powerful industrialist who was known to support legislation in favor of big business. To the pair and their cohorts, Cannabis posed too much of a threat to other profitable big business industries, such as cotton, paper, petroleum, and tobacco. As it were, Melon and Anslinger both heavily profited from the federal ban on cannabis. 

After the federal ban, the plant became negatively associated with Mexican culture as Anslinger worked zealously to demonize the plant. Creating the now familiar term, marijuana (an Americanized version of marihuana). Anslinger used marijuana to highlight the growing frustration towards Mexican immigration in the US. Campaigns quickly spread throughout the states demonizing the once widely accepted plant as some sort of “demon plant”. Films such as Reefer Madness, and Assassin of Youth portrayed the plant as a drug capable of turning even the most successful individuals into manic and dangerous threats to society!

Next week, we’ll explore the jazz scene and how black jazz musicians known as vipers created their own subculture which included the medicinal and recreational use of cannabis.

We’ll also learn more about Harry Anslinger, the prohibition of cannabis, and how we’ve come to achieve so much in terms of true knowledge surrounding the cannabis plant.


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