How did the United States catch reefer madness after the golden age of medical cannabis?

cannabis plants reefer madness

After the decades following the U.S. Civil War, when cannabis extract was a fixture on every pharmacist’s shelf, how did the “Golden Age” of medical cannabis transition into the horrors of Reefer Madness?

These stigmas did not simply appear overnight. Despite popular allegations of business conspiracies in the 1920s (theories now dismissed by modern historians), the hatred of cannabis and the people who used it grew out of homegrown American racism.

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The Golden Age of Cannabis

The mid-1800s saw a little-known “Golden Age” of medical cannabis, sparking the beginnings of Western research into the plant and its many medical uses. From the earliest days of the U.S. colonies, hemp (a low THC type of Cannabis sativa) was grown around the fledgling country as a popular material used for clothing, sails, ropes, and more. Many of the Founding Fathers spoke of it fondly due to its unsurpassed versatility and range of industrial uses.

For the more psychoactive, THC-rich types of cannabis, we turn to Dr. William O’Shaughnessy, an Irish physician working in India. In the 1840s, he ignited the modern Western scientific study of medical cannabis with his first research paper on the topic. In his writings, he noted how the cultures of Africa, Asia, and South America utilized hemp in a variety of ways not yet embraced by Europe. He observed that intoxication from cannabis does not create sickness or nausea and performed experiments with cholera patients that hinted at possible medicinal benefits from the plant.

O’Shaughnessy’s research inspired other doctors and scientists of the time to learn more about cannabis in medicine, leading to discoveries about its pain relief and sleep benefits, neuropathic pain relief, and efficacy in the OB-GYN field. As other doctors and groups of physicians continued his research across the English-speaking world, the knowledge of the efficacy of medical cannabis spread until cannabis extracts became widely available in pharmacies across the United States.

The U.S. Turns On Cannabis

Cannabis sentiments began to shift for the worse with the start of the Mexican Revolution in 1910. This bloody conflict was marked by much political change and restructuring in Mexico, even prompting United States intervention through embargo and trade.

The revolution also spurred increased immigration from Mexico to the United States as refugees fled the conflict, causing the Mexican population of Texas border towns like El Paso to rise significantly. These new immigrants brought with them the concept of recreational cannabis use. As recreational use grew in popularity, it became strongly (and negatively) associated with the Mexican newcomers.

Anti-drug community leaders began to warn Americans of the “Marihuana Menace” and the “horrible crimes” attributed to cannabis and the Mexican immigrants who used it. Such racially targeted associations with crime and immigration sparked negative stigmas surrounding cannabis, spreading to different races and immigrant communities, including African Americans using “reefer” in New Orleans clubs, West Indian immigrants along the Gulf Coast, and “Hindoos” in California.

These growing sentiments eventually led to El Paso’s 1915 legislation to outlaw cannabis in the city. News reporting on the El Paso law named cannabis as “the deadliest drug on the market… known to create a lust for human blood in the users and some of the most atrocious crimes committed in the city.” This local anti-cannabis ordinance of El Paso preceded others that followed Mexican immigrants as far north as Denver. Such laws foreshadowed President Nixon’s policy of banning psychoactive substances associated with certain groups, such as the anti-war protestors with cannabis and black activists with heroin, effectively creating legal tools for targeting dissenters.

The embers of these sentiments would later be fanned into flames by those seeking personal gain and power in the 1900s. Government officials like Harry Angslinger used the Reefer Madness campaign to expand the budget and influence of his newly-formed Federal Bureau of Narcotics. With help from newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, Anslinger led many states to enact a Uniform State Narcotics Drug Act to ban cannabis, culminating in the federal Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. The legislation required all cannabis products to have a tax stamp, despite opposition from the American Medical Association and the American public’s general acceptance of marihuana and hemp. Not a single stamp was ever issued.

The Past as a Prologue

Cannabis and hemp products were used and accepted around the country just over a century ago, embraced as clothing material, a crop of commerce, and a burgeoning source of relief from common ailments. The 19th century was far ahead of current times in terms of cannabis acceptance. Political and demographic changes in the early 1900s generated some of the earliest cannabis stigmas in our history, planting the seed for future restrictions, prohibition, and prejudice.

Imagine how different the legislation and culture of cannabis today would be had racist sentiments not spurred anti-cannabis laws and stigmas, which only multiplied as the century unfolded. If the scientific exploration ignited by O’Shaughnessy had not been curtailed, cannabis today may have already reached FDA approval, thanks to the last century of research. Recreational use would have long been the norm, and legalization may have occurred decades ago. Looking back on the past of cannabis could inform its future and if the United States can learn from this “Golden Age,” we may be able to get back on course for societal cannabis acceptance.

This article was submitted by a guest contributor to GreenState. The author is solely responsible for the content. 

Joseph Dowling and Lex Pelger Joseph Dowling was appointed Chief Executive Officer of CV Sciences in May 2018, following four years of serving as Chief Financial Officer at the industry-pioneering company behind hemp-derived CBD brand PlusCBD. Lex Pelger, scientist at CV Sciences, studied biochemistry and molecular biology before moving into science writing about psychoactives. He now publishes 'The Cannabinoids & the People', a free weekly newsletter sponsored by CV Sciences with a complete digest of all the new cannabinoid science as well as a canna-education TikTok channel for CV Sciences.