The history of the legalisation of cannabis has always been tied to the history of the United States, a nation that, from the moment it was conceived, was able to see the benefits of this plant. It is a bitter irony that it has also been the country to ban it -Marihuana Tax Act, 1937. However, and until then, cannabis had been considered a peaceful plant drug with multiple applications and has been present among the basic pharmacopeia of any, or almost any ancient civilisation.
"There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana usage. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relation with Negroes, entertainers and any others."
-Harry Anslinger, Narcotics Commissioner of the United States, Marihuana Tax Act, signed Aug. 2, 1937
The condemnation of cannabis was due to a combination of the Puritanism professed by a large part of the American society, and the racism and xenophobia generated in the country – and above all, among its leaders –. These two last aspects were mainly due to massive Mexican immigration during those years (marijuana was the vehicle of ancestral inebriation in Mexico).
Recreational use of cannabis was not apparent in the United States until the first decade of the twentieth century. It showed up on the Mexican border, as immigrant workers brought marijuana cigarettes with them. Cannabis had been used in South America and the Caribbean for many years. With the onset of alcohol prohibition, its popularity flourished and by 1930, hundreds of hash bars emerged in New York alone.
During this period, some efforts were taken to prohibit recreational use of marijuana in several states. But it was not until 1937 that the Marihuana Tax Act finally thwarted the consumption of cannabis for the country's future generations, whether for medicinal, practical or recreational use.
But the United States has been tied to cannabis since birth. In fact, the very Constitution of the United States of America (1787) is written on hemp paper. Among its founding fathers – John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and George Washington – several of them based their patrimony on cannabis plantations.
Even Benjamin Franklin owned a factory that made hemp paper. And they left a clear written testimony about their opinion about the inalienable right of the individual to govern their body and their mind.
In his General History of Drugs (Espasa, 1998), writer Antonio Escohotado quotes these words from Jefferson:
"The error seems not sufficiently eradicated, that the operations of the mind, as well as the acts of the body, are subject to the coercion of the laws. But our rulers can have authority over such natural rights only as we have submitted to them [...]"
On the other hand, the diary of George Washington, first president of the United States, shows they did more than just plant cannabis to obtain textile fibres:
"Began to separate the male from the female plants at do [sic]-rather too late" (Washington, in Escohotado, Ibid.).
If he separated the males from the females, it is clear that his purpose was to obtain seedless marijuana, much more valuable as a drug than if it is when already pollinated. Marijuana smoking must have been rather widespread, since it was the main commodity in Virginia along with tobacco.
George Washington knew that hemp, unlike other crops, could grow almost anywhere even in otherwise non-productive areas, and obviously, he had a very keen business sense. The following letter, housed in the Library of Congress, shows that Washington also considered cultivation of marijuana as a way to help the citizens of the newly formed nation.
It was written by George Washington to Alexander Hamilton on October 14th, 1791. Alexander Hamilton was Secretary of the Treasury at the time and as such, a very important figure in the government of the United States in his time. So this letter has a very important meaning for the United States and therein, George Washington basically becomes an advocate of the benefits that would result for his country from the production of hemp items, encouraging the cultivation of the plant all across the U.S.
Born on hemp paper and marked by a love-hate relationship with the cannabis plant, the United States of America today seem to be closing the circle. Several states have already decriminalised marijuana and the federal government itself is taking clear steps in that direction. Prohibition's days are numbered.
Let us toast and smoke to them!