A Brief History of Marijuana

by Scott Miller

Many of the most popular drugs that became known to the mainstream in the twentieth century had long, legitimate histories. People had been smoking marijuana around the world for thousands of years. Evidence of marijuana cultivation reaches back as far as 2737 B.C. China, where it was used as a treatment for rheumatism, malaria, and absent-mindedness, among other things. It was used recreationally as far back as 1000 B.C. India. The Spanish brought pot to America in 1545, and the English arrived with pot in Jamestown in 1611, where it became a major commercial crop, eventually replaced in the American south by cotton. Marijuana was a principal crop at Mount Vernon and a secondary crop at Monticello. They grew it primarily for use as hemp rope, but there is some evidence that they were aware of its hallucinogenic properties as well.

            As far back as 5000 B.C. the Sumerians were using opium, and the Lake Dwellers of Switzerland were eating poppy seeds as far back as 2500 B.C. Greek naturalist Theophrastus wrote about using poppy juice in 300 B.C. The Greeks celebrated the Eleusinian Mysteries – the drinking of a hallucinogenic beverage – for two thousand years before the Christians stopped the practice in the fourth century. Among the drinkers were many of Western civilization’s great thinkers, like Aristotle, Socrates, Plato, Cicero, Sophocles, and others. In 1525, laudanum, a form of opium, was introduced into the practice of Western medicine. Throughout the world at this time, alcohol and tobacco were considered deadly drugs and the penalty for their possession or use was execution in some countries. English physician Thomas Dover introduced an opium powder in 1762 which became a very popular medicine. In 1800, Napoleon’s army returned to France from Egypt and brought hashish and marijuana with them. In the 1880s, the German army issued cocaine to its soldiers to increase their ability to endure fatigue, and Sigmund Freud began treating his own depression with cocaine. In 1894, the Indian Hemp Drug Commission issued a report commissioned by the British government, which concluded that “there is no evidence of any weight regarding the mental and moral injuries from the moderate use of these drugs.” In 1898, heroin was synthesized for the first time in Germany. Until 1903, Coca-Cola contained cocaine. All this history makes it harder to argue with a straight face that drugs are incontrovertibly bad.

Interestingly, in 1900 there were far more Americans addicted to drugs than there were in the 1960s or today. Estimates are that two to five percent of the population were drug addicts in 1900. Part of this is because morphine was used as anesthesia in medical operations and people became addicted to it. The other part of the reasons is the prevalence of “patent medicines” in rural America. Traveling salesman coming to small towns and farms sold elixirs and “medicines” that often contained marijuana, cocaine, or opium. Some contained up to fifty percent morphine, which of course made them very popular. And very addictive.

Mainstream recreational marijuana use began in the United States at the turn of the last century, courtesy of Mexican immigrants coming across the border to look for work in the American southwest. But white Americans weren’t feeling very welcoming and were looking for excuses for their racist hatred of Mexicans, so rumors began that pot gave these Mexicans superhuman strength and turned them into crazed murderers. Despite the fact that neither was true, these stereotypes would last for decades. Starting in 1914, local laws began popping up criminalizing marijuana – often not so much as a way of controlling pot usage as it was a way of controlling Mexicans. One Texas state senator said on the floor of the senate, “All Mexicans are crazy and this stuff [marijuana] is what makes them crazy.” One Montana state legislator said, “Give one of those Mexican beet field workers a couple of puffs on a marijuana cigarette and he thinks he is in the bullring at Barcelona.” From 1914 to 1937, twenty-seven states passed anti-pot laws.

Throughout the “jazz age” of 1920s America, pot use increased among jazz musicians and people in show business. Marijuana clubs, called “tea pads,” began springing up in many major American cities. In 1920, the U.S. Department of Agriculture urged American farmers to grow marijuana as a profitable crop. Pot was still legal in most places, but soon, marijuana was lumped together in the minds of the public with serious drugs like heroin and opium and it was placed under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Treasury Department, which in turn created the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (even though most of the drugs under its jurisdiction were not narcotics), headed up by prohibitionist Harry J. Anslinger. The War on Marijuana had begun.

            And yet, marijuana use continued to spread throughout the country. Sailors from the West Indies brought it into Los Angeles. Jazz musicians from New Orleans brought it up the Mississippi into the Midwest. In 1936, Hollywood produced the now comic but seriously intended “scare film,” Reefer Madness, which perpetuated the myth that pot drove users insane and turned them into crazed killers.

            In 1937 President Franklin Roosevelt signed a marijuana tax which required a government stamp in order to sell or distribute pot. The catch was the government refused to issue any stamps, effectively outlawing pot without actually passing a criminal law. The U.S. Congress, known for its usual months and months of hearings on a single issue, spent just two hours of hearings on the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. The primary witness was Anslinger, who said, “Marijuana is an addictive drug which produces in its users insanity, criminality, and death.” (In the following years, based on Ansligner’s testimony, five high profile murder cases invoked marijuana use in their pleas of insanity – to great success.) Dr. William Woodward, of the American Medical Association also testified, saying, “The American Medical Association knows of no evidence that marijuana is a dangerous drug,” to which one hapless congressman replied, “Doctor, if you can’t say something good about what we are trying to do, why don’t you go home?” The next congressman said, “Doctor, if you haven’t got something better to say than that, we are sick of hearing you.” After the hearings, the U.S. House of Representatives spent exactly a minute and thirty-two seconds in debate before voting to pass the law. The Senate did not debate it before voting on it.

            So the government undertook a campaign of massive arrests throughout the country. That same year, New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia commissioned one of the first scientific studies of marijuana. After six years of studying the drug, the results proved that pot did not cause increased sexual drive, violence, or insanity. Anslinger was furious and destroyed every copy of the report he could get his hands on, while LaGuardia publicly came out for legalizing marijuana. Anslinger further made sure no more pot could be (legally) acquired for any other studies.

            Anslinger also shifted his focus from ordinary Americans to movie stars, to up the publicity for his anti-pot campaign. Actor Robert Mitchum, drummer Gene Krupa, and many other celebrities were arrested and their arrests highly publicized. In response, the major Hollywood studios handed control of their films over to Anslinger, who banned any positive messages about pot in any films.

            From 1937, when Ansligner’s official War on Marijuana began, through 1947, the government spent a whopping $270 million fighting marijuana, a drug proven scientifically to be virtually harmless. In 1948 Anslinger went to Congress for money for more drug enforcement agents. When senators asked him who was violating marijuana laws, he replied (and this is a quote), “Musicians. And I don’t mean good musicians, I mean jazz musicians.” Of course, his statement made all the papers and within three days, the Treasury Department received fifteen thousand letters of protest.

            Since Anslinger had stopped the availability of pot for scientific studies, it remains a mystery where he got his information when he announced in the early 1950s that marijuana was a direct and inescapable step to heroin addiction. He also declared that Communists were behind the distribution of marijuana in the U.S. in order to make Americans “weak” and easy to conquer. In the Cold War hysteria of the 50s, this campaign was his most successful yet. He convinced President Truman to sign the Briggs Act which substantially increased penalties for marijuana possession. In 1958, following the lead of other states, Virginia passed a new law which required a minimum twenty years in jail for marijuana possession, with no parole. At that same time, Virginia law provided for a minimum fifteen years for murder and ten years for rape.

In 1961, Anslinger addressed the United Nations and convinced one hundred countries to sign an international agreement to outlaw marijuana. By 1963, Ansligner’s War on Marijuana had cost an additional $1.5 billion.

            Finally, in 1967, as Hair was opening off Broadway, and as marijuana use in America was increasing and becoming more mainstream, the federal government finally allowed a few studies of the drug to go forward, for the first time since LaGuardia’s study in the thirties. One study estimated that fully one half of the American soldiers in Vietnam were using pot on a regular basis.

Richard Nixon was running for president on a Law and Order platform, but since most law enforcement was handled by individual states, Nixon decided to focus on a federal “clean up” of the American “drug problem.” (Interestingly, in 1968 the American tobacco industry had gross sales of $38 billion, heavily subsidized by the U.S. government, and spent $250 million on advertising.) Once elected, he sent two thousand customs agent to the Mexican border to stop the flow of marijuana into America. His plan was abandoned after three weeks when virtually no pot was found by agents. So instead Nixon sent more federal money to local law enforcement agencies to stop marijuana on the local level. As more money was spent and laws were changed, some individuals were being sentenced to fifty years in jail for selling less than an ounce of marijuana, even while a study in 1969 reported that eight to twelve million Americans had used pot at least once. From 1964 to 1969, Anslinger and Nixon spent $9 billion dollars on the War on Marijuana, for a grand total of nearly $11 billion. In 1970 the U.S. Congress reduced penalties for marijuana possession.

As Hair still ran on Broadway, Nixon’s own National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse recommended legalization of marijuana, but when Nixon heard about their conclusions, he refused to read their report. Instead of following his own commission’s recommendation, he created the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to step up the War. In 1971, he declared that drugs were “America’s Public Enemy Number One.” But the tide was turning. By 1972, local and state anti-pot laws were beginning to be reversed, and despite opponents’ dire predictions, usage did not increase. In 1975 presidential hopeful Jimmy Carter came out publicly for decriminalization of marijuana. But he reversed his position later and the federal government continued to pour money into its War on Marijuana. During the Regan Years, first lady Nancy Regan launched the earnest but arguably nonsensical “Just Say No” campaign, apparently urging American youth to turn off its collective brain rather than make informed decisions. When all was said and done, the total cost to Americans from 1937 to 1998 amounted to a whopping $301.5 billion. And the result of all that money and effort? If the statistics can be believed, fully one half of our nation’s college students have been made, merely by definition, into “criminals.” Furthermore, marijuana is being used today for legitimate medical uses, including reducing side effects to AIDS and cancer treatments, and to treat (quite effectively) Tourrette’s syndrome. 


 Copyright 2003. Excerpt from the book Let the Sun Shine In: The Genius of HAIR (Heinemann, 2003) by Scott Miller. All rights reserved. Miller is also the author of From Assassins to West Side Story, Deconstructing Harold Hill, Rebels with Applause, and the vampire novel In the Blood.


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