As we learned in "Hemp's Ancient History: The One You Won't Get From a Text Book", the ancient world of the Middle East, Africa, India, Asia, and even Europe had long viewed cannabis as a valuable, often-times sacred plant. As these cultures clashed with one another, societal norms were embraced, shared, or forced upon the common folk. The fall of the Western Roman Empire ushered in what is today referred to by some, as "The Dark Ages" (called the Middle Ages by others). As a result, much of the Western World was cut off from the ancient wisdom of the East, and thus began their disconnect from cannabis culture. Most Eastern societies continued to hold their beliefs of the cannabis plant, and were not affected culturally until later - when economic forces "suggested" they do so. In today's entry, we will uncover how cannabis became a common, taboo-free topic in early American society.
In a previous post, we discussed the founders' understanding and use of cannabis. The settlers were commanded to plant hemp in the New World in the early 1600s. By the late 1700's, at the same time Napoleon was invading Egypt, George Washington was growing a variety of cannabis cultivars, including Indian Hemp and Blossom Hemp at his Mount Vernon estate in Virginia. Before him, Benjamin Franklin was using it as paper for his publications, and as rope for his side projects. Adams, Jefferson, and Madison all have their own unique relationship with the plant as well. Many of those that served as president after them, had experience using the herb medicinally during war-times.
Napoleon's invasion of Egypt is notable because it was here that his troops were introduced to the ancient Egyptian compound known as hash. The recreational effects of cannabis had been re-discovered by the modern Western World. Bonaparte quickly sent samples back to France for study and issued a declaration in 1800, prohibiting his soldiers from using the substance. The first scientific publication came as early as 1803. The French hash movement was in full force by 1845, when doctor J.J. Moreau and authors Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, and others formed the Le Club des Hachichins. As war began and the Declaration of Independence was signed, it was important to create a strong rapport with European powers.
Irish physician, William Brooke O'Shaughnessey joined the British East India company in 1833. Having studied medicine, chemistry, forensic toxicology and anatomy at one of the most well renown medical schools in the world: The University of Edinburgh - the trading company sent him to India (home of charas and bhang) to to serve as an assistant surgeon. It was there that cannabis became scientifically studied in Western culture, via Brooke's interactions with the indigenous people. Within his notes he details preparations used for both drinks and edibles. He also adds:
“All classes of persons, including the lower Portuguese, or ‘Kala Feringhees,’ and especially their females, consume the drug; that it is a most fascinating in its effects, producing extatic happiness, a persuasion of high rank, a sensation of flying, voracious appetite, and intense aphrodisiac desire.”
O'Shaugnessy was eager to put his medical training to the test and began to study the effects of cannabis on various animals. He started with mice, rats, and rabbits; but quickly moved to carnivorous animals such as fish, cats, dogs, pigs, and even birds. In these animals, he observed they "invariably and speedily exhibited the intoxicating influence". However, it was also learned that grazing ruminant animals like the cow, sheep, goats, horses, etc; "only experienced trivial effects from any dose that was administered". Realizing just how safe cannabis was, he then looked for human participants.
Within a decade of O'Shaughnessy's publications, the 3rd edition of the United States Pharmacopoeia (USP) (1851) recognized cannabis as medicine. Interestingly, the USP committee convened only once every ten years. Cannabis use had been widespread prior to the 1851 revision. From 1842 to 1900, more than half of all medicine sold contained cannabis as a top three ingredient. It was prescribed for rheumatism, epilepsy, migraines, depression, as a muscle relaxant, to assist in terminal illness, and was even commonly prescribed to children. The commoner was well familiar with the childhood "highs" of cannabis extract. Doctors did not recognize it as habit forming, anti-social, or to induce violence. It didn't take long for the medical literature to accumulate.
A government funded study of cannabis was conducted by Dr. R.R. M'Meens in 1860. The report found that digestion was not disturbed, appetite increased, and a more natural sleep was produced. It was concluded that it was preferable to opium, but not equal in strength or reliability. As noted by Dr. Lester Grinspoon in Marihuana Reconsidered (1971), "Between 1839 and 1900 more than one hundred articles appeared in scientific journals describing the medicinal properties of the plant". Commercial cannabis preparations could be bought over the counter in drugstores. The Gunjah-Wallah Company was making maple syrup hash candies by the early 1860s. Ads were featured in Vanity Fair, Sears-Roebuck catalogs, and the Chicago Tribune. Turkish Hash parlors sprouted up in the country's major cities, including New York, Boston, Chicago, St. Louis, and others. It was estimated that more than 500 smoking parlors existed in New York City in the 1880s. World Fairs and International expos typically featured a Turkish booth. At the nation's 100-year Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, it is said that some pharmacists brought more than 10 pounds of hashish. These same smoking parlors later became speakeasys during the Prohibition Era.
Scientists, doctors, and drug manufacturers (such as Parke-Davis and Squibb) could not discover the active compound in the cannabis plant. (The discovery of the first cannabinoid wasn't until 1895, when researchers Wood, Sivey and Easterfield were able to isolate and identify CBN - cannabinol). This added to the difficulty in regulating dosages. They also could not find a way to extend its short shelf life. For these reasons, they looked elsewhere. While Hippocrates wrote about the pain relieving properties of willow bark thousands of years prior, modern scientists didn't understand why until the isolation of salicin in 1826. By 1853 the isolate had been buffered by French chemists. Bayer patented Aspirin in February of 1900.
The hypodermic needle was perfected in 1853. As the majority of cannabis compounds are in-soluble, it could not be injected. However, morphine (an opium derivative) could. This led to an increase in opiate use, as stable forms could now be injected for more immediate pain relief. Dependency soon followed, and was commonly referred to as The Soldiers Disease. Due to this, and an already all to common alcohol addiction, many doctors still prescribed cannabis use over alcohol or opium. Some of the women's temperance organizations of the 1800s even suggested hash as a substitute for alcohol - which they believed led to wife beating. Cannabis became highly regarded amongst Protestant theologians in the 1860s. In the 1890s, marriage guides often recommended cannabis as an aphrodisiac.
Cannabis was the number one medicine in America up until 1863, when it was replaced by morphine. It maintained second place until it was replaced by Aspirin in 1901. Prohibition of cannabis didn't begin until the early 1900s. We will explore the reasons behind the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act, the 1970 Controlled Substances Act, and a whole lot more in a future entry.
States began to decriminalize in the 1970s, and medical legalization started with California's 1996 Prop 215. Recreational use became legal in Colorado and Washington in 2012. At the time of this writing, 11 states have fully legalized all forms of cannabis. At least 25 states have legalized it medically. Only 8 states, including Wisconsin, recognize it as fully illegal. It won't be long until we once again recognizes cannabis as a go-to remedy for the multitude of economic, physical, mental, and/or spiritual ailments that plague our nation and its people. Cannabis truly is: the antidote.
The sources cited are primarily intended for the casual reader. Each source however, has been carefully chosen to include scientific sources linked within. Living with today's industry funded, pseudo-scientific journals, we encourage you to "research the research".