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Reefer madness: a brief history of weed in America

Photo by: Sonia Talati

San Bernardino, Ca., is broke. The city of 210,000 filed for bankruptcy two years ago. Today, its city council will debate a proposal to make some extra cash by opening medical marijuana dispensaries. Current medical marijuana sales in California are estimated to range between $700 million and $1.3 billion a year, raking in $59 million to $109 million in sales tax.

With recreational weed going on sale in Colorado on 1st January of this year, it seems that grass is on its way back in the US. Hemp was once predicted to become the US’s biggest crop. In issue #11 of Delayed Gratification, available in our shopSonia Talati told the remarkable story of how the plan fell out of favour with the US government. Here’s an excerpt:

The fiery history of “the Devil’s Weed” in the US dates back centuries, before its primary use was recreational. Hemp, the plant that is genetically related to marijuana and can produce the drug, was an essential commodity for the early pioneer settlements, and was used for daily basics like clothing, ropes, canvas, parchment and sails. In 1619, the Virginia Assembly passed legislation requiring all farmers in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia to grow the stuff.

The trend caught on in the South and West, and hemp fields blossomed in Kentucky, Texas, Minnesota, Missouri, Wisconsin and Illinois. Production skyrocketed, and the Census of 1850 recorded 8,327 hemp plantations of more than 2,000 acres. Citizens could even use hemp as legal tender to pay their taxes.

The plant was exceptionally easy to grow, adaptable to virtually any climate and had myriad uses. So great was its potential that in the early 1900s, the Department of Agriculture predicted that hemp would become the US’s biggest crop.

New technology led to increased production of hemp paper, solidifying hemp’s prospects in the early part of the 1930s. But three powerful individuals had vested interests in destroying this potential: business tycoon Lammont DuPont, newspaperman William Randolph Hearst and Police Commissioner Harry J Anslinger. In 1937, DuPont patented a new process for papermaking from wood pulp. His timber-driven development was supported by Hearst, who invested heavily in lumber holdings and switched the two dozen newspapers he owned to printing on wood pulp paper. The third player, Harry Anslinger, became the first commissioner of the newly established US Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs in 1930. He had the power that DuPont and Hearst needed to undermine hemp production.

And they did. In secret meetings, DuPont and Anslinger developed the Marijuana Tax Act, penalising hemp, cannabis and marijuana production with heavy taxes and calling for strict enforcement of the rules. Violators of the new procedures could face up to five years in prison and $2,000 in fines. The media also started reporting sensational stories related to marijuana. The source of the publications: Hearst’s newspapers. His editors ran stories depicting marijuana as a drug used by Mexicans, who Hearst described as “lazy, degenerate, and violent.” One feature from the San Francisco Examiner claimed that “Marihuana [sic] is a short cut to the insane asylum. Smoke marihuana cigarettes for a month and what was once your brain will be nothing but a storehouse of horrid spectres.” Another suggested: “Three-fourths of the crimes of violence in this country today are committed by dope slaves – that is a matter of cold record.”

Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937, shortly after the release of a propaganda film called “Reefer Madness”. The anti-drug movie showed high school students going crazy, behaving like animals and exhibiting nymphomaniac and homicidal tendencies after smoking marijuana. Later, in 1970, the Controlled Substances Act classified marijuana as a Schedule I drug, making it illegal to possess, use, buy, sell, or cultivate the stuff. Despite the drug’s drift into the mainstream, it remained illegal at both a state and federal level until Colorado challenged the norm by legalising medical marijuana in 2001 and regulating it in 2009 with the Medical Marijuana Code.

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