For quite some time I have wondered why marijuana is illegal while alcohol is legal...
Though both are intoxicating substances, alcohol is more often associated with bringing out aggressive or anti-social behaviour.
While the point of this article is to outline the historical uses of hemp as an ecologically sound and versatile material, I do have to point out that alcohol as an intoxicant is proven to be deadlier than cannabis when consumed. It's not uncommon for a person to completely lose recollection of an entire evening after having had too much to drink, or to do things they wouldn't ordinarily do and regret it the next day.
Marijuana has been associated with short-term memory loss - such as to phone numbers - but there is no parallel to the complete memory blackout associated with alcohol. People have died from consuming too much alcohol at one time, but no one has ever died from an overdose of marijuana.
That said, let's look at the history of hemp and try to see why it became illegal. Hemp has been used worldwide by most civilisations since ancient times. An ancient burial site discovered in 1972, believed to be of the Chou dynasty, contained cloth made of hemp; this is the oldest known preserved specimen. Ancient Chinese writings refer to hemp as medicine, and urge people to plant hemp for cloth fiber.
Silk, an important product in China at that time, was very costly; hemp was an inexpensive alternative. Ancient Chinese also replaced the bamboo they used for bow strings and paper with hemp. A papermaking process was invented by Ts'ai Lun in 105 AD, using hemp fibres.
The hemp paper was far more desirable than paper made from bamboo slips and wooden tablets. This paper-making process remained secret until the 5th century when it became known to Japanese paper makers. Knowledge spread to the Middle East in the 9th Century. By the 1100s the methods was used throughout Europe.
England sent explorers to the New World in search of treasures and a passage through to the East. No passage was found; they did, however, find an abundance of forests and fertile lands, whose inhabitants were eager to trade deer, otter, seal and beaver furs.
If settlers could produce raw materials, the English economy would flourish. To make the most of America's land, the King sent orders to the colonies in 1611 to grow hemp. By 1616 colonists in Jamestown had a crop of fine hemp superior to that grown in England itself.
It had always been a problem to get enough hemp for England's needs; huge amounts were required for rope and sails on the fleet of Navy ships. The British bought all they could get their hands on, mostly from the Baltic. Later, Russia became the main exporter of hemp, producing the most hemp at the cheapest prices. England was soon importing two-thirds of the hemp that Russia exported.
England's dependence on foreign hemp put her in a bad position, so lush lands in the new world were indeed a treasure. Hemp and other raw materials could be raised in the colonies, enabling England to be more self-sufficient. The Pilgrims arrived in 1620 for both religious and economic reasons; they planned to earn money from fishing and trading furs, not to become farmers of raw materials. Many choose to grow lucrative tobacco with their farmland.
However, settlers in Massachusetts found it necessary to grow fibres for clothing to last the winter months. Also, by 1629, Salem's shipbuilders required a great deal of hemp for rigging and sails; no other material was as strong and durable. It was difficult to produce enough hemp to meet the needs of England and the colonies because the labour to produce it was so costly; the process of harvesting and retting, done by hand, was back breaking, tedious work.
In 1639 the General Court of Massachusetts passed a law requiring every householder to plant hemp seeds. Women took on the chore of spinning and weaving clothes and blankets. The Wool Act of 1699 deprived the colonists of the right to import wool, so they began to use more hemp and flax fibres. By 1718 professional spinners and weavers began to arrive from Ireland.
A spinning school was set up in Boston.
Thomas Jefferson and George Washington both grew hemp. At that time prisoners were often used to do the work of retting the hemp. In 1765 the Stamp Act was passed. In protest the Daughters of Liberty led a boycott of English goods. The colonist became self-sufficient in clothes, which was a great benefit, as the Revolutionary War soon caused all materials from England to be discontinued.
There was such a shortage of rope necessary for the war effort that any man who worked in a rope-manufacturing factory for six months or more was excused from military duty. Cotton and flax had been imported from England. Hemp replaced them and was in demand as never before. The price went from about thirty shillings per hundredweight to three hundred shillings.
An ancestor of former American President Jimmy Carter, Robert "King" Carter, erected a spinning factory to spin the hemp into shirts and trousers for workers and soldiers of the Revolution. Hemp fiber was also used to make paper, which was in short supply; colonist were asked to recycle their rags to make paper. Betsy Ross' first American flags were made of hemp cloth.
In 1972 the tariff on imported hemp was $20 per ton; by 1828 it was $60. Secretary of the State Alexander Hamilton (the guy on the $20 bill), expected this action to stimulate domestic hemp supplies, but tariffs didn't discourage importing of foreign hemp; superior European methods of processing the fibres produced a far stronger fabric than the methods used in the US.
By 1850 there were 8,327 hemp plantations in America. Hemp was the third largest crop under tobacco and cotton. The hemp industry came to a virtual halt during the Civil War, but was somewhat revived during World War One, but not to the extent previously experienced.
The psychoactive elements of hemp were not commonly recognised in the United States until the mid-1880s. It was not widely known that the hemp grown in America was similar to cannabis indica, grown in the East Indies and other parts of South-East Asia and used largely for its intoxication. Throughout the 1800s homeopathic preparations were made from hemp and cannabis was first mentioned in an American medical journal in 1843.
In 1860 the Ohio Medical Society listed neuralgia, nervous rheumatism, palsy, and epilepsy as some conditions cannabis had been successfully used to treat. However, potency was difficult to control and differed considerably from pharmacist to pharmacist. Until the early 1900s morphine and opium were available freely in the United States. Many opium mixtures also contained trace amounts of cannabis. There were no federal laws against narcotics, so in many states potent drugs could be obtained over the counter. Even Coca-Cola had cocaine in it until caffeine was substituted.
Hemp All Star:
In 2001, Converse made a number of hemp sneaker styles. The high-tops come in a box labeled "All Star Hemp Hi." Really! They made high-tops in khaki, black, and olive. They even made low-tops in black and olive, for those who don't want a "hemp high" from their sneakers. The outside of the All Star Hemp High (the side without the Chuck patch) features a "hemp" tag located at the heel, slightly below the top of the shoe.
The Harrison Act, passed in 1914, did not regulate cannabis, but it is crucial in the history of drug laws. In its original form, it still allowed over-the-counter transactions of medications containing small amounts of opium and other narcotics, but required larger amounts to be prescribed only by registered doctors or dentists with a record of each transaction. The law was intended to regulate but not to ban the sale of narcotics. Many physicians distributed drugs freely to users. Other users turned to a black market supply.
The US Narcotic Drug Import and Export Act of 1922 banned the import of refined products such as morphine and cocaine; 1924 the importation of crude opium was also banned. Singapore, being a British colony, followed British law with a raft of drug laws in1928, but didn't apply the death penalty for trafficking until 1975.
To say that the trend for global marijuana prohibition was an industrial conspiracy is an understatement. In 1930, Congress formed the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, part of the Treasury Department. Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon appointed Harry J. Anslinger, (married to Mellon's niece), to head the department; he ran it for 32 years. Initially the Bureau was busy uncovering violations of the Harrison Act. There was an increase in reported marijuana use in the southwest "by Mexicans", but the department was not concerned with it until 1937.
Ernst Abel notes in Marijuana, the First Twelve Thousand Years, "There have been many explanations for this turn of events but none of them satisfactory. But one thing is certain: without Harry Anslinger, the marijuana maelstrom might have been just a passing breeze."
Perhaps it was when the FBN's budget was cut by $200,000 that Anslinger felt it was necessary to provide a new drug "menace". In 1937 Anslinger urged the Congress to pass the Marijuana Tax Act, which restricted legal use of marijuana by requiring Tax Stamps on transactions, then failing to issue the stamps. "Hearings" took place in the spring.
The bill was introduced by the Treasury Department's assistant general counsel, Clinton M. Hester, who announced that the drug was being used extensively by high school children, and the effects were deadly. No qualified experts were summoned to back up Hester's claims.
The only evidence presented were Hearst newspaper articles (many supplied to the newspapers by the FBN itself), a pharmacologist who had been conducting experiments with marijuana on dogs, and Anslinger, himself, offering his own dubious medical opinions.
The American Medical Association spoke against the bill. AMA representative William Woodward argued that there was no real evidence to support the claims being made against marijuana and that the newspaper articles were only hearsay.
He also stated he could not understand why such a bill was proposed and prepared in secret for two years and the AMA was unaware of it until it was introduced to the House. Prior to this the AMA had been involved in a successful attempt to block health insurance from being included in the Social Security Act and the House was not in the mood to listen to criticisms by the AMA. The bill was railroaded through.
A three-line notation appeared in the New York Times on August 3, 1937 stating that the President had signed a bill to curb traffic in the "narcotic" marijuana through heavy taxes on transactions. A fine of $2,000 and incarceration of up to five years could be imposed for violations.
In the book, The Emperor Wears No Clothes, Jack Herer presents some interesting information that may also explain the turn of events that led to the sudden change in attitude toward marijuana.
The February 1938 issue of Popular Mechanics ran an article on hemp as the "New Billion Dollar Crop" because a recently developed machine, the decordicator, would have made processing hemp easy by eliminating the laborious retting process and thus enabling hemp to compete once again with other textile fibres.
The only drawback was the new federal regulations.
The fact is that interference with hemp was especially beneficial to Du Pont who in 1937 patented a process to make paper from wood. They also invented nylon, Dacron and Orlon. If hemp industries grew, Du Pont's business would have unwanted competition; prior to synthetic fibres, hemp resisted water better than any other vegetable fiber. Andrew Mellon was Du Pont's chief banker.
However, Du Pont did not have the power to influence public opinion on the hemp plant; that job was left to William Randolf Hearst. Hearst owned the sensationalist San Francisco Examiner and the New York Morning Journal.
By running headlines such as "Marijuana Makes Fiends of Boys In 30 Days," "Hasheesh Goads Users To Blood Lust," and "New Dope Lure, Marijuana, Has Many Victims" (using the Mexican slang name marijuana rather than "hemp" or "cannabis" to make it sound more menacing and to appeal to popular racism), Heart was able to spread fear about this plant.
Du Pont was not the only one to be threatened by the new improved methods for processing hemp; Hearst himself owned massive timberland intended to be processed into paper and would stand to lose millions if hemp processing became cheaper.
Thus greed - and not concern for the health of the people - was the real reason that time-honoured hemp became a plant outlaw. Unfortunately, the repeated lies of governments and the media have been so persuasive that people have accepted them as fact (such as the "fact" that cannabis leads to hard drug use, while ignoring hard liquor's proven role as a gateway drug).
- Originally published in Umbrella Magazine