Marijuana is Growing
We are currently in the middle of one of the biggest expansions that the cannabis market has ever seen, but that expansion has been very unequal. Just in the United States, many states have legalized recreational marijuana use in the past few years. Some of them enjoyed a relatively smooth transition such as Colorado in 2013, Oregon in 2014, and California in 2016. Other states are rushing to catch up, like Rhode Island who legalized it just last May. At this point, 19 States and Washington D.C. have legalized recreational usage for marijuana.
But Not Everywhere
There are still lots of places where legalizing recreational use seems like a pipe dream. In South Dakota and Mississippi plant enthusiasts are stumbling to find a way. Both of these states had successful voter ballot measures to legalize cannabis, and both were swiftly overturned by high level interests with low level intentions.
In South Dakota the voters passed a ballot measure to legalize cannabis in 2020, only to have the governor and the state supreme court strike down the measure on a technicality. The government also made sure to raise the threshold for this type of voter written ballot measure up to 60% in an attempt to choke out future efforts, as the previous vote was only 54% in favor of plant based freedom. But whacking weeds does not defeat them, the roots will help them grow back. So the grass-roots organizers have gathered more than 25,000 signatures to put marijuana legalization on the South Dakota ballot in 2022. For a state with about as many people as San Francisco, that’s a lot of support for a plant.
Legality of Cannabis in the United States
Blue = Legalized Green = Medical Only D = Decriminalized
by Lokal_Profil, Summer 2022, CC BY-SA 2.5
Meanwhile in Mississippi… even medical marijuana has been having difficulty getting past the Nixonian levels of interference. In 2020 the flower power supporters managed to get enough signatures to put the plant on the ballot, but they did not expect some last minute competition from a surprisingly similar alternative designed to confuse voters. In spite of this, the flower powers won with more than 2/3s of the vote. But in a bizarre turnaround, the Mississippi State Supreme Court quickly stuck down the law on a truly outlandish technicality. This ruling would require ballot initiatives to get signatures from five congressional districts in a state that currently only has four.
The state government offered a tiny twig of an olive branch in early 2022 by legalizing just medical use. But they restricted access for only those with deadly conditions such as cancer, AIDS, or sickle cell. They also made sure to include restrictions to keep anyone from buying more than 3.5 grams in a day. This would add a significant cost in terms of packaging and transportation for both patients and dispensaries. Mississippi passed that law just earlier this year, so it’s not clear yet how things will go.
We’ll have to check back on their gardens later to see how the weeds are looking.
To understand any issue, it is important to examine how we got here. Hemp has been used going back to prehistory as both a medicine and a source of useful renewable fibers. Of course hemp is technically the same plant as the cannabis sativa that we toke, but hemp plants are bred for their fibers rather than their medicinal qualities. In the era of sailing ships hemp became very valuable. It was a critical raw material for producing both rope and canvas, which made it an important resource for the military of colonial powers. Hemp was so important in 1619 that King James ordered all of his land owning subjects in Jamestown to grow 100 hemp plants.
Hemp Rope from Ship Rigging
by Orlando Drummond, 2017, Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Although the founding fathers did grow quite a bit of hemp in their time, there is no evidence they were smoking it. However, it appears that Dutch people of the era were enjoying buds like we do, as we can see pipes in their paintings with the telltale seeds next to them. By the 1830s, some Victorian doctors had begun to take note of the many medical uses for the plant in India. Upon further study, they documented the effectiveness of cannabis as a remedy for anxiety and various convulsions, as well as an aide for digestion and sleeping. One of the most enthusiastic cannabis doctors from the 1840s even left us his recipe for a medical tincture:
“ganja tops two pounds, rectified spirit one gallon. Macerate for two days, then boil for twenty minutes in a distilling apparatus, strain while hot.” – Dr. William Brooke O’Shaughnessy
Before long, similar concoctions were widely available over the counter at pharmacies throughout Britain as well as America.
Cannabis Indica Fluid Extract
American Druggists Syndicate, 1906, via Wikimedia Commons
Dazed and Confused
Sadly, the doctors of the era were barely able to scratch the surface of what cannabis offered before the prohibitionists and politicians decided that other people were having too much fun. Victorian researchers had the wrong idea about how cannabis is handled by the body, as they expected to be able to refine the buds down to a single purified essence similar to what had been recently achieved with cocaine from the coca leaf and morphine from the opium flower.
However, cannabis has a very different method of action. THC is the primary component, but there are dozens of other compounds in the flowers beyond just that and Cannabidiol, also known as CBD. These compounds work together using what specialists now call the “entourage effect”, which allows various cannabinoids to support and enhance the effects of others. This is a hot topic of research among cannabis enthusiasts, so we can expect more information now that widespread legalization has allowed more researchers to easily access the plant.
The Natural History of Plants, by Baillon, Ernest, Hartog, Manuel, 1871, Flickr
By the latter part of the 1800s, the temperance movement was sweeping many parts of the western world, and the squares weren’t just worked up about alcohol. British preachers were pushing their politicians to have cannabis wrapped up with opium as a “horrible” drug for scary foreigners. The missionaries had come back from India with all sorts of outlandish and fanciful tales about the horrendous acts which locals were supposedly committing while high on cannabis.
This image clearly struck a chord with people at the time, even if it was entirely made up, so in 1893 parliament formed the Indian Hemp Commission to examine the issue. Although the investigation was more of a distraction to keep them from having to address the opium issue, the results were relatively honest. The final report stated that cannabis use is generally harmless towards health and wellbeing, and they recommended that cannabis be taxed rather than banned. Surprisingly forward thinking from a government that has since regressed to prohibition and fear mongering.
Hecho en México
On this side of the ocean things have been following a somewhat different historical path. Marijuana has a very long history in Mexico dating all the way back to the 1500s, when it was brought over from Europe by one of Cortez’s men. It didn’t take long for the plant to become a hit with the locals, which quickly led to restrictions from the Spanish authorities.
This also seems to be the time and the place where the word ‘marijuana’ was originally coined. Although reports are inconclusive as to the true source of the word, some of the theories suggest it could have originated with slaves from Angola. Other academics suggest the word was coined as a mistranslation from Chinese. We may never know the origins for sure, as with many parts of linguistics the details are lost to time, but we do know that new world cannabis took off like a weed. Marijuana liked the environment here so much that in many parts of America it is still easy to find what they call ditch weed growing along various embankments.
by Channone Arif, 2009, Flickr, CC BY 2.0
In spite of the stereotypes about the pervasiveness of Mexican cannabis usage in the early 20th century, there is very little evidence to back up this assumption. Mexico is actually the source of the fear-mongering around the idea of ‘locoweed’ and its potential to induce criminality.
Mexicans did not introduce Americans to cannabis, and long before the cannabis moral panic got big in America many Mexicans were already worried about exaggerated negative side effects of marijuana. This set of cannabis stereotypes was working its way across the border even before immigration to the United States from Mexico started increasing because of the Mexican Revolution, which lasted from 1910-1920.
Crusaders against Cannabis
At this point the moral panic in Mexico had reached a fever pitch. Before the war was even won the future victors were already planning to impose a completely new ‘sanitary council’. They wanted to address what they described as the scourge of marijuana endangering the people of Mexico. Here again the politicians had cannabis rolled in together with cocaine and opium as part of what they saw as a wider crisis of health and societal degeneration. At the time marijuana was very strongly associated with violence. Apparently this originated from being confused with jimsonweed, which is a completely different plant that is known to cause madness in horses.
In Mexico the media had been fanning the flames of this ‘locoweed’ panic going back to at least 1890. It was this attitude of moral panic that worked its way across the border along with the immigrants. Yellow journalism was big back then on both sides of the border, so the media made quite a sensation out of the supposed madness and violence of marijuana users. Some widely published articles at the time even reported that smoking a joint could induce visions of lions and tigers which would then prompt the user to viciously fight the beasts. We still aren’t sure exactly what those joints would have been cut with.
Motion Picture Ventures, 1936, via Wikimedia Commons
This tale, and others like it, are the original source for the stoner portrayals in the infamous cult classic 1936 film “Reefer Madness”. Pretty soon the politicians in far off D.C. started to get really riled up about the idea of ‘locoweed’, and this is where the nonsense of modern cannabis law begins to come into focus. Fast forward several decades and marijuana has become a cultural fixture on both sides of the border, in spite of decades long efforts by multiple governments to wipe it out. The ‘sanitary council’ did not work out the way they were hoping either, recently the Mexican government has signaled a readiness to finally move forward with marijuana legalization.
Cannabis history traces a long and winding road that bounces all over the world, and there are many more interesting bits to explore. Between the moral panics, misinformation, and negative stereotypes, one of the consistent themes throughout this story is inequality. Some places allow people to access cannabis while others do not. Many times it involves politicians deciding what the cannabis limits are for everyone, without any input from regular citizens. This is the type of information that the city of Oakland was looking at when they developed their groundbreaking framework for cannabis licensing. Next time we will dig into more of the details so we can understand what is happening with Oakland’s cannabis, and how other cities and governments are looking to copy their success.