(Editor’s Note: This post is brought to you by contributing editor Adam Rathge. Enjoy!)
As of last week the political group known as ResponsibleOhio successfully secured enough signatures to put their controversial marijuana legalization measure on the state’s November ballot. In the coming months voters in the state (like me) will surely be subjected to campaigning from both supporters and detractors. Regardless of position, almost everyone agrees that the proposed Ohio measure is different from those already passed in Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska. Supporters will argue that is a good thing. They suggest the ResponsibleOhio plan is better than the current prohibition regime, that it will raise millions in tax revenue, and that limiting production to ten highly controlled grow operations will allow them to amply supply the market while ensuring less marijuana leaks into black markets or across state lines. Detractors will continue to assert that ResponsibleOhio’s plan will enshrine a constitutional cartel (or monopoly) on marijuana that benefits only its group of wealthy supporters, while allowing them to restrict the market and price to their control with limited regard to public health and safety. What we are highly unlikely to see in this debate, however, is a look at historical cannabis regulations in the United States prior its federal prohibition in 1937. This is unfortunate, since there are perhaps some very interesting lessons to be learned from a period in which cannabis was generally legal but often restricted.
“During the month of September, 1862, I took Cannabis on various occasions,” confessed Dr. W. A. D. Pierce in the pages of American Journal of Homoeopathic Materia Medica and Record of Medical Science nearly a decade later. He did so “with the purpose of gaining, through the intoxicating influence of the drug, an insight into the phenomena of Somnambulism, Delirium and Mania, in connection with my researches in Psychology.” Pierce was not alone. Following the formal introduction of cannabis to American medicine in 1840, medical journals were filled with pages and articles recounting the self-administration and experimentation of physicians and their patients. Indeed, while autobiographical accounts of drug use like De Qunicy’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater or Fitz Hugh Ludlow’s The Hasheesh Eater: Being Passages from the Life of a Pythagorean often garner the most attention on the matter, medical doctors were often experimenters themselves – especially when it came to cannabis.
Why is marijuana illegal? Do a quick internet search and you’ll find a series of generally related answers: racism, fear, corporate profits, yellow journalism, ignorant and incompetent legislators, and bureaucratic preservation. Almost all of these are also tied to one man: Harry J. Anslinger, Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics from 1930-1962. While these issues are critically important to consider, they help explain only portions of our nation’s marijuana prohibition story. Indeed, in part one of this series I examined the origins of cannabis regulations dating back to the mid-nineteenth century. These state level statutes demonstrate a clear, historical precedent for medicinal cannabis legislation in the United States, driven by the concerns of medical doctors and pharmacists seeking both their own professional authority and consumer protections in the marketplace. My objective is to suggest that these early developments demonstrate a far longer and more complex history of cannabis regulation than most existing versions of the story suggest, especially those readily available on the internet. It’s not that those internet versions of marijuana prohibition are entirely wrong; it’s that they often sustain a sensational narrative that misses critical components of this longer history and the original scholarship from which they are derived.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Today’s post is the first in a two-part series by contributing editor Adam Rathge. The series is drawn from Rathge’s dissertation, which examines the century-long road to federal marijuana prohibition in the United States by analyzing the development and transformation of medical discourse, regulatory processes, and social concerns surrounding cannabis between 1840 and 1940.
Robocalls. Partisan attack ads. Pundit punditry. It’s midterm election time in America! As this post goes live, Nate Silver’s projections over at FiveThirtyEight suggest the GOP will take back the Senate. But that’s not the only measure of intrigue to be settled on November 4th. In Alaska and Oregon, voters will decide whether to implement legislation modeled on the laws passed by Colorado and Washington in 2012, making marijuana sales legal for adults in those states. Voters in Washington, D.C. will also decide on marijuana legalization (with a ballot measure that will make it legal to possess or grow small amounts, but not buy or sell it). Meanwhile, Florida voters will consider a constitutional amendment to allow medical marijuana. And if we take a quick look ahead to 2016, we find a half-dozen additional states considering marijuana legalization initiatives.
One of the most fascinating aspects of this recent turn toward medicalization and legalization are the contradictions it inspires. For example, if “soft legalization” passes in Washington, D.C. next month, and Congress allows it to stand, marijuana possession would be legal throughout the city, but acquiring it would still require a series of acts that remain illegal. In fact, according to federal law, none of these ballot initiatives are legal. Marijuana remains a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substance Act, meaning it is “considered among the most dangerous drugs” with “potentially severe psychological or physical dependence” and has “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” Despite this, twenty three states and Washington, D.C. have legalized medical marijuana since 1996. Moreover, following the implementation of recreational legalization in Colorado this year, the state now allows the sale of marijuana to any adult over the age of twenty one while doctors continue to write marijuana prescriptions for patients. Cannabis is both medicine and intoxicant. All this has led the Justice Department to recently clarify its policies as the nation lurches forward toward what many consider a tipping point for widespread marijuana legalization. As such, now seems like as good a time as any to take a look back at how we got here in the first place. And I mean way back. A hundred and fifty years back.
Since the early 1970s, most Americans have been keenly aware of the effect foreign oil production and supply can have on the economy and national security interests of the United States. From the 1973 OAPEC embargo to the 1979 Iranian Revolution to more recent debates on the Keystone pipeline or Deepwater Horizon spill, the importance of “energy independence” has been a recurring theme for decades. But it may come as a surprise that similar rhetoric once surrounded a reliance on foreign hemp.
Originally this post was going to summarize the arguments of two of the most prominent mid-century American intellectual historians and how they regarded changing notions of juvenile behavior as it involved the use of illegal drugs. But then I received something rather incredible in the mail that changed my idea for this post completely.
My husband’s parents live in northern New Jersey, and my mother-in-law was kind enough to send me an issue of their local newspaper, the Two River Times. In the May 23 edition, the letters to the editor section featured two very interesting, and two very oppositional, points of view vis-à-vis drugs and drug use. The letters, which dealt with marijuana legalization and the use of Narcan, an opioid antagonist that can reverse the effects of an overdose, respectively, were indicative of how far the social dialogue over drug use has come, as well as evidence of how pervasive certain myths remain.