The All-American Miracle Plant: A Brief History of Cannabis in the United States

American Flag in the Shape of the United StatesCannabis in the Colonial Era
Cannabis is deeply woven into the fabric of America. The Mayflower, the ship that first carried the 102 Pilgrims from Plymouth, England to the New World in 1620, carried a supply of cannabis seeds for planting, and, moreover, was itself rigged with rope and canvas sails both made from hemp.

From the early 1600s on, cannabis was well known to the European settlers, many of whom cultivated cannabis as a cash crop due to its high production value and versatility. Given the strength and durability of hemp fibers, the American colonists recognized cannabis as an excellent source for making thread, clothing, canvas and rope, but they also used cannabis for producing oil, paper, and food.

As a staple crop in early America, the term hemp became integrated into the language and culture over the years, leading to towns like Hempfield, Pennsylvania; Hemphill, Kentucky; Hemp, Georgia; and Hempstead, New York.

Our first three presidents—George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson—are all known to have cultivated cannabis on their estates, and advocated its commercial production. Jefferson went as far as instructing his workers that “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 also invented a special brake for processing the cannabis fibers. Another early Virginia planter, William Byrd II, the founder of Richmond, Virginia, wrote that cannabis was “the darling of all my projects.”

Cannabis in the Revolutionary Period
Cannabis continued to play a potent role in America’s history during the American revolutionary period. As the situation with the British crown deteriorated, cannabis became a resource that helped the American colonies to fight back. As the colonists increasingly boycotted British imports, they increasingly favored American products which were commonly made from hemp. “Homespun clothing, including that made out of hemp, became a hallmark of the American cause,”  writes The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. “The Virginia Gazette in April 1767 printed front-page instructions for growing hemp. The freeholders of Henrico County, Va., were among the chorus of voices who resolved in 1774 ‘that the raising of Sheep, Hemp, and Flax ought to be encouraged,’ and ‘that to be clothed in Manufactures fabricated in the Colony ought to be considered as a Badge of Distinction and Respect, and true Patriotism.’”

When hostilities broke out in 1775, the need for cannabis crops became an issue of burning importance for the Continental Army, which needed both uniforms and tents, but even more so for the Continental Navy, which desperately needed hemp for the lines and sails for the ships. “A single vessel in the Virginia Navy called the “Brigantine Liberty,” for example,” Swenson said, “required more than two miles of cordage.” America’s most famous Navy ship from the revolutionary period, the 44-gun USS Constitution, know as “Old Ironsides,”  reportedly required over 120,000 pounds of hemp fiber for its rigging alone, never mind the hemp canvas for her sails or the hemp caulking for her wooden hull. Cannabis quickly became so vital to the war effort that official commissioners were being assigned to oversee production.

By the summer of 1776, when the American colonists were finally determined to break with the British monarch, cannabis again played a central role. In fact, the very paper on which the Declaration of Independence was written was made from the cannabis plant. Another Founding Father, Benjamin Franklin, who, along with John Adams, had a hand in helping Thomas Jefferson write the Declaration of Independence, owned a hemp-paper mill on which the hemp paper was made.

Perhaps even more remarkable is the legendary story that our 4th President, James Madison, known as the Father of the Constitution, credited cannabis with providing the insights he had in the work of creating the new, democratic nation (as  reported in the Congressional Record—where, not surprisingly, the report is also called into question [and erroneously cited] by a staunch supporter—Representative Tim Lee Carter, R-KY—of one of the cannabis plant’s most infamous critics: President Richard Nixon).

Of course, we know from brain research and neuroscience today that this is precisely one of the effects of cannabis on the brain. As the famous astrophysicist Carl Sagan said, “Cannabis brings us an awareness that we spend half a lifetime being trained to overlook and forget and put out of our minds.” Better still, in the  words of Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Norman Mailer, “What I find is that pot puts things together. Pot is marvelous for getting new connections in the brain. It’s divine for that. You think associatively on pot, so you can have real extraordinary thoughts. But,” he continues, “the more education you have, the more you have to put together at that point, the more wonderful connections there are to see in the universe.”

Given the facts of cannabis science, and the fact that America’s Founders were literally surrounded by cannabis, the thing that would be highly unusual is if they somehow neglected to smoke cannabis and, more to the point, failed to walk away with some interesting insights as a result—regardless of what Madison may or may not have actually said. As Harvey Wasserman  writes in the Huffington Post, “Founders who smoked bales of tobacco and consumed oceans of beer (Washington was young America’s leading brewer) could not have missed the recreational properties of a crop well known for five millennia.”

Cannabis in the New Nation
After the war, the U.S. Constitution, which was also written on hemp paper, established our nation’s capital. Moreover, the city itself, Washington, D.C. (District of Columbia) was named after two men—George Washington and Christopher Columbus—who had close connections with cannabis. Washington not only grew cannabis on his plantation, but he also intentionally cultivated high THC cannabis, and is believed to have used it as a medicine for his toothaches. For his part, Christopher Columbus discovered the New World on a ship, the Santa Maria, whose sails were made of fabric spun from hemp.

Many of the next several American presidents are known to have smoked cannabis, including  James Monroe (5th), who smoked cannabis openly while he was the Ambassador to France, and continued smoking it until he died at age 73, but also Andrew Jackson (7th), Zachary Taylor (12th), and Franklin Pierce (14th), who wrote a letter to his family during the Mexican-American War saying that smoking cannabis with the troops was “about the only good thing” about the bloody war.

The record of cannabis consumption in the Pre-Civil War Era and the Antebellum Period is virtually non-existent. It’s entirely possible that Lincoln and certainly Grant, and perhaps Roosevelt smoked marijuana or hashish at some point, but there’s no actual evidence that any of the late 19th or early 20th century presidents consumed cannabis either as a medicine or for recreational purposes.

Cannabis in the 20th Century
American public opinion did not begin to turn against cannabis until a government official by the name of Harry J. Anslinger, 1st Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, suddenly discovered that it was in his best interests to publicly, repeatedly demonize the plant. When alcohol prohibition ended in the early 1930s, the Department of Prohibition was essentially irrelevant, and Ansliger, as head of the large bureaucracy, was afraid of losing not just his job, but his entire department.

Prior to the end of prohibition, Anslinger openly admitted that cannabis was not a problem. In fact, he  said, “there is no more absurd fallacy” than the notion that cannabis causes violence. After alcohol prohibition was ended, however, Anslinger immediately transformed into an anti-cannabis crusader, spreading all manner of racist rumors, preposterous propaganda and criminal lies. The hysteria of “Reefer Madness” was in full swing. By 1931, 29 states had outlawed cannabis, and America was about to suffer through what Harvey Wasserman  refers to as, “a period of hemp persecution that all the Founders—from Washington to Franklin, from Adams to Madison—would have deemed absolutely insane.”

Not until World War II would cannabis make another heroic appearance on the pages of U.S. history. With the war, America’s main sources of hemp (Philippine and East Indian), along with other industrial fibers, fell into the hands of the Japanese. To counter the curtailed supply, and meet the needs of the U.S. Army and Navy, the United States Department of Agriculture (U.S.D.A.) called on America’s farmers to again grow cannabis to fulfill their patriotic duty to help win the war. Named the “Hemp for Victory” campaign (complete with a short  film (1942)—which the government later denied making, but is now available for download on the National Archives website), the federal government, “embarked on an ambitious project that involved construction of many new  hemp processing plants.” Acreage dedicated to cannabis increased from 14,000 to 300,000 acres during this period, and cannabis, thereby, played its own special role in helping America to win the war.

Attitudes toward cannabis began to loosen somewhat after the war, particularly as medical research began to contradict the pre- war propaganda of Anslinger and the U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Of particular note were the results of a commission established by New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, which were published in 1944. “New York Academy of Medicine issued an extensively researched report declaring that,”  writes PBS, “contrary to earlier research and popular belief, use of marijuana did not induce violence, insanity or sex crimes, or lead to addiction or other drug use.”

By the 1960s, much of the race-based biases against cannabis, and the unsubstantiated beliefs about its dangers began to fade as the political and cultural climate in America became more open and relaxed. Upper middle class whites began consuming cannabis in record numbers. In fact, President John F. Kennedy, elected in 1960, planned to legalize cannabis in his second term, according to celebrated American cannabis activist Jack Herer, author of The Emperor Wears No Clothes. Herer  writes in his book that, “Close acquaintances of John F. Kennedy, such as entertainers Morey Amsterdam and Eddie Gordon* say the president used cannabis regularly to control his back pain (before and during his term) and actually planned on legalizing “marijuana” during his second term—a plan cut short by his assassination in 1963.” (Herer adds the following  footnote: “*As reported directly to this author by Eddie Gordon, renowned harmonica virtuoso, member of the Harmonicats, and the number-one harmonicist in the world, who smoked with Kennedy and performed numerous times for him.”)

The Kennedy brothers’ had  grown cannabis plants out on Hyannis Port, and, with his personal experience, Jack Kennedy knew better than to be fooled by the fear mongering and propaganda around pot. What’s more, investigative research commissioned by President Kennedy, and later by President Lyndon Johnson, both “found that  marijuana use did not induce violence nor lead to use of heavier drugs.”

Alas, in 1969, with Richard Nixon winning the White House, the nation began to slide back toward the hysteria, and public misinformation campaigns of the Anslinger era. Worse still, in 1971, President Richard Nixon initiated the infamous “War on Drugs,” declaring drug abuse as “public enemy number one.” Costing American taxpayers tens of billions of dollars, while destroying millions of American lives, cannabis consumption has nevertheless continued to increase from the beginning of the drug war until today—making the war on drugs one of the most costly and disgraceful failures in American history. Nevertheless, President Reagan and his wife, Nancy, continued the failed crusade against cannabis and other drugs with their “just say no” campaign, locking up record numbers of non-violent causal users and addicts alike, significantly increasing the national debt along the way.

Cannabis Bounces Back with the Baby Boomers
While the failed war on drugs continues to march ahead, Americans began to see glimpses of a more grounded and rational approach to cannabis beginning in the mid-1990s, a trend that continues in the states to this day. In fact, the last decade has seen a remarkable transformation in American’s attitudes toward cannabis. A  2017 CBS poll found that 61% of Americans now think cannabis should be legalized, the highest percentage CBS has yet to record. A recent  Quinnipiac poll found 93% are in favor of legalizing cannabis for medical purposes.

Grounded in the evolving science of cannabis, the trend toward legalization has slowly but surely made its way into presidential politics during this same period. “Astonishingly, every Democratic presidential nominee since 1992 is on record as having smoked pot. Apart from Joe Biden and Joe Lieberman, (at least as far as we know) every vice-presidential nominee has too. In other words,”  writes Daily Kos, “we’re coming up on a quarter-of-a-century of Democratic presidents and presidential nominees, and more often than not, both members of Democratic tickets, who enjoyed recreational cannabis during their youth.”

While there remains a relentless trend toward legalization, there are still some fierce anti-pot holdouts. People such as Attorney General Jeff Sessions, HHS Secretary Tom Price, Congressman Andy Harris, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, and DEA head Chuck Rosenberg—who recently said, “marijuana is not medicine” (right about the same time West Virginia became the 30th state to legalize medical marijuana)—seem stuck in a different era. While Sessions has been accused of being stuck in the Civil War era, the fantastical thinking, self-interested accusations, and utter disregard for data, science, and facts seems much more consistent with the witchcraft hearings and prosecutions in colonial Massachusetts, commonly known as the Salem Witch Trials. Nevertheless, in America today, the simpletons are the exception, not the rule. The great majority of Americans have a clear grasp of the tremendous benefits of cannabis. And they understand the costs and consequences of the failed war on drugs.

Our Patriotic Duty
The data is in. We no longer have to speculate about the ramifications of legalization. We now know what happens when states legalize marijuana. California first legalized medical marijuana back in 1996—more than twenty years ago. And now we have 8 states with recreational marijuana, including Colorado, Washington, Alaska, and Oregon, all four of which legalized recreational marijuana in 2014. The data from these experiments in democracy now show conclusively that not one, not a single one, of the dire predictions made by marijuana’s opponents have come true.

Instead, the opposite has happened: Cannabis use among teens is down, the roads are safer (see Columbia study),  violent crime rates are down, and the drug cartels have taken a hit (while  state and local tax revenues are way up). But it’s not just that the alleged negatives of cannabis legalization have turned out to be false. The data also reveals a wealth of benefits, benefits that are so positive, profitable, and constructive that what is now more clear than ever is that we have a patriotic duty to legalize cannabis. From the health and welfare of our people, to the strength of our economy, from our love of freedom and liberty, to our courage to boldly face the truth, Americans of this generation can no longer deny the truth of God’s miracle plant, or the benefits of legalization. We must stand together and, once-and-for-all, sweep cannabis prohibition into the trash heap of history.

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