A short excursion into the history of cannabis

Once used as a source of quality raw materials and potent medicine, cannabis is still today branded as a dangerous and illegal drug. Let’s take a look at the history of this famous plant.

While cannabis has numerous myths and legends and occupies a special place as a multi-dimensional plant with a broad spectrum of effects, cannabis is actually a simple and widespread, adaptable, sun-loving weed that can be grown in many climates. It is often described as a dangerous and illegal substance with a high risk of abuse. A view, that completely ignores the real potential of cannabis and its effects on human life throughout history. Over the past decade, the perception of cannabis has slowly changed, and we are breaking the bad reputation that stigmatized the plant in the early 20th century – not the least thanks to the research work of some scientific pioneers and the resulting medial attention.

Cannabis in ancient times

Cannabis is one of the first plant species to have been cultivated by humans and its many uses have been discovered thousands of years ago. The spectrum as a beneficial and medicinal plant is unbelievable – from raw materials to food and edibles to a variety of therapeutic applications. Considering its enormous potential, it is no coincidence that cannabis has found its home all over the world, but it is certainly surprising how cannabis has achieved such a bad reputation.

One of the first recorded cultures to cultivate and use cannabis was the Chinese. Already in the early 3rd millennium BC hemp was cultivated in China for the production of clothes, ropes and paper and – since about 2000 BC – Also used as a remedy for relieving pain and treating gout. They also used the seeds to make oil or food. Via India, the plant is said to have reached the Middle East and eventually spread across Europe to North and South America.

Cannabis in modern society

Cannabis found its way into modern medicine through the 1839 published report of the Irish physician William Brooke O’Shaughnessy (1809-1889), who – as part of his medical work as a professor of chemistry at the University of Calcutta in India – observed analgesic, antispasmodic and muscle-relaxing effects after the application of Cannabis indica (Indian hemp). He started with controlled experiments on mice, dogs, rabbits, and cats, and when he was convinced of his safety, he made extracts from native recipes and passed them on to some of his patients. His 1839 publication featured case studies of patients suffering from rheumatism, cholera, and tetanus, as well as a study involving an infant with seizures who responded well to cannabis therapy and allegedly improved “from a near death to enjoyment of robust health” in a few days[1].

He advised other doctors to start with low doses, but warned against a form of “delirium” that was “caused by the persistent hemp intoxication”. He concluded that these clinical studies have led him to believe that “hemp is an anti-convulsant of the utmost value.” Based on his observations and studies, O’Shaughnessy recommended the use of cannabis in rheumatism, cholera and tetanus[2]. Between 1839 and 1900, more than one hundred articles appeared in scientific journals on the medicinal properties of cannabinoids.[3]

The use of cannabis both as an intoxicant and for medical purposes became increasingly common in Europe and America between 1850 and 1930. Tinctures of marijuana or cannabis extract accounted for half of all drugs sold between 1850 and 1900, with the reputation for effective pain relief that was marketed by major drug companies in the US and Europe at the time.

How cannabis was banned

Cannabis is banned in 185 countries. One might think that health concerns have led to it. But this is not the case. Using the example of the USA and Germany, it can be seen that economic and political interests in particular were behind the ban. In the US, the possession and consumption of cannabis was illegal from 1933 onwards. For this purpose, various industrialists, including representatives of the wood industry. They saw hemp cultivation as dangerous competition for the timber industry. At the same time, cannabis became a symbol of society’s racist divisions. Cannabis has been hounded in hate campaigns as Devil’s Lettuce, which was said to turn African-Americans and Mexicans into rapist and dangerous people.

This moralization of the cannabis debate can still be found in the USA today. For example, Trump’s Justice Minister Jeff Sessions believes that good people do not consume cannabis: “Good people do not smoke marijuana.”

The spelling marijuana is one of the more obscure Spanish Slang words for the plant. It was purposely made popular during the anti-cannabis crusade of the 1920s and 1930s, and was channeled in the media by press baron William Randolph Hearst to cement the connection between the plant and the Mexicans. By stigmatizing marijuana and the Mexican immigrants who smoked it, Hearst managed to bolster the anti-Mexican sentiment during the Great Depression, when many White Americans believed they were competing with Hispanic migrants for tight jobs. Interestingly, the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) still insists on using the archaic marijuana for cannabis products until now, possibly reflecting its anachronistic attitude to the substance.

ABSTRACT

ANSLINGER: THE ARCHENEMY OF CANNABIS

ADAPTED BY SMOKE SIGNALS: A SOCIAL HISTORY OF MARIJUANA MEDICAL.

RECREATIONAL AND SCIENTIFIC BY MARTIN A. LEE

On August 11, 1930, Harry Jacob Anslinger became director of the newly formed Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) in Washington, DC. He was the godfather of the American war on drugs, and his influence on public order would be felt long after his death in 1975. Anslinger gave cannabis its first public attention in 1934 when the FBN stumbled. During the Great Depression, tax revenues declined, the office budget was cut, and Anslinger’s entire department was on the kill list. Then he saw the light and realized that marijuana could be the perfect hook for his hat.

Anslinger understood that the likelihood of a prohibition law increased when the substance in question was linked to ethnic minorities. He avoids references to the known positive effects of cannabis and called for a federal ban on marijuana. Few Americans knew that marijuana, the weed that smoked some African Americans and Chicanos, was just a weaker version of the concentrated cannabis medication everyone had been taking since childhood. By stigmatizing marijuana and the “foreigners” who smoked it, Hearst managed to bolster the anti-Mexican attitude during the Great Depression, as many Anglos felt they were competing with “brown-skinned migrants” for tight jobs.
In order to gain public support for his crusade, Anslinger presented marijuana as an eerie substance that made Mexican and African-American men lust for white women. His hunt-tirades served the white women, who had recently won the suffrage, as not so subtle memories that they still needed strong men to protect them from the “degenerate races”. He was never tired of telling new versions of the same moral story. The movie Marijuana! (1935) contained the lurid advertising slogan “Strange orgies! Wild parties! Unleashed passions!” But when it came to ridiculous anti-marijuana propaganda, nothing could surpass the “enlightenment film” Tell Your Children (1936), better known by his later title Reefer Madness. The film tells the tragic story of brave high school students who, after consuming cannabis, commit rape, drive irresponsibly, fall mad and ultimately kill themselves.

In later years, Reefer Madness should become a humor-cult classic among American college students. A vivid example of the national madness that has paved the way for a federal ban on cannabis. This film epitomized the synchronicity between Washington, Hollywood and the mainstream media in the war on cannabis.

With the work of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) led by Commissioner Harry J. Anslinger, the Marijuana Tax Act was enforced throughout the United States in 1937, criminalizing all possession and use of cannabis.

In 1944, the La Guardia Report was published in the US by the La Guardia Committee, a group of experts appointed by New York’s mayor of that time Fiorello LaGuardia, who found many of the negative sociological, psychological and medical implications attributed to cannabis use unconfirmed.[4] Anslinger then threatened to severely punish further research on cannabis[5]

In Germany on the other hand, a threatening trade dispute with Egypt finally led to a ban. The King of Egypt campaigned for a worldwide ban on cannabis at the 1924 Opium Conference. The ban was justified by the then undetectable medical benefit with simultaneous severe psychotropic side effects and mental dependency[6]. Rather, to counter imminent import failures from Egypt, pharmaceutical companies such as Bayer pushed the German government to a ban in 1929.

DECRIMINALIZATION AND LEGALIZATION

Worldwide, we see a trend towards the decriminalization and legalization of cannabis – thanks to increasing educational work. Already in 1976, the Netherlands decriminalized the use of cannabis and in 1980 the sale was allowed in the popular coffee shops. Some US states are playing a pioneering role today. The acquisition and consumption of cannabis is now legal in nine US states (state July 2018). Another 30 states allow the medical use of cannabis and are committed to decriminalization, so that owners of small quantities do not have to fear punishment. The states benefit from this: substantial tax revenues, a flourishing cannabis industry, and relief from law enforcement agencies.

The US shows what legalization means for patients. They have easier access to high-quality cannabis products. In the state of Washington cannabis can legally be bought since 2014. The consumption among patients is correspondingly widespread. Around a quarter of cancer patients use cannabis regularly. When will legalization take place in other countries? There are many arguments in favor of legalization, as shown in the following table.

Reasons for legalization

Possible risks of legalization

Control of price and quality

Increase in cannabis consumers (This fear is refuted by data from the US and the Netherlands)

Tax revenue for the state

Trivialization of possible health hazards

Promoting companies and jobs in the cannabis industry

Aggravated protection of minors (This argument is considered to be debunked. Regulation of delivery to adults makes it not easier for adolescents to obtain cannabis)

Relief of police and justice

Weakening organized crime

End of the criminalization of otherwise respectable citizens

Easier access to medical cannabis for patients

Better protection of minors through the regulated tax

With significant amounts of new scientific research and clear evidence of the medical potential, cannabis finds its way back into the community.

Modern cannabis research began with the isolation of cannabidiol (CBD) in 1963 by Raphael Mechoulam. A year later, the isolation of the main psychotropic drug Δ9-THC in 1964 followed. Another milestone in cannabis research was the discovery of the endocannabinoid system with its receptors and endogenous ligands from the late 1980s, which formed the basis for the Today’s understanding of the mode of action of cannabinoids forms. Interestingly, on April 21, 1999, the United States Department of Health and Social Services registered patent US6630507 B1 “Cannabinoids as antioxidants and neuroprotectants” as its original representative[7]. The government that has made access to cannabis so difficult not only for the public but also for research purspose…


[1] O’Shaughnessy WB, On the Preparations of the Indian Hemp, or Gunjah, Med. and Phy. Soc., Bengal, Calcutta, 1839; and Brit. and For. Med. Rev. July, 1840, p. 224.

[2] O’Shaughnessy WB (1839) Case of Tetanus, Cured by a Preparation of Hemp (the Cannabis indica.), Transactions of the Medical and Physical Society of Bengal (Memento vom 21. Juli 2011 im Internet Archive) 8, 1838–1840, 462-469.

[3] Lester Grinspoon, Marihuana Reconsidered (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971), 15.

[4] The La Guardia Committee Report: The Marihuana Problem in the City of New York. 1944.

[5] Anslinger HJ, Oursler W: Hemp Around Their Necks.1961.

[6] Pisanti S, Bifulco M. Modern history of medical cannabis: from wide-spread use to prohibitionism and back. In: Trends in Pharmacological Sciences 38 (3). 2017, S. 195–198.

[7] Cannabinoids as antioxidants and neuroprotectants.