As we gear up for what will potentially be the most important legal battle in the nearly century-long war against a bush, the challenge to the United States Supreme Court of Colorado’s legalization by Nebraska and Oklahoma, let’s take some time to review the history of cannabis in relation to the penal code.
First, a statistic to reflect on: Cannabis has been used by humans for at least 9,000 years. That number is probably a very low estimate for the actual duration of the relationship between our species and this incredibly versatile plant; its myriad uses point to a much longer history of use as a food, fuel, fiber and medicine source. Using 9,000 years as a baseline number, cannabis has been illegal for roughly .00877778 percent of its known history. The reasons for its prohibition are pretty disgusting and can be traced back to the conscious decisions and undue political influence of two men: Henry Aslinger and William Randolph Hearst.
The history of hemp (the name given to Cannabis sativa in its capacity as a fiber source) in America begins, curiously, with a 1619 edict in Jamestown, Virginia, ordering all farmers to grow it due to its utility for the burgeoning colony. Hemp was a vital crop over the next two centuries – there were even periods of shortage during which farmers could be jailed for refusing to grow this staple (take a minute to absorb that); the national census of 1850 records 8,327 cannabis plantations of at least 2,000 acres.
The tide began to turn against cannabis as the 20th century dawned and tension escalated concerning the emigration of Mexicans to the western United States and nine states passed anti-marijuana (a moniker selected to highlight the “foreign character” of this well-known plant) statutes passed by the end of the 1920s. It was into this racially poisonous environment that Aslinger and Hearst stepped, with agendas to impose.
Aslinger, as the first national “drug czar,” needed a cause to elevate his stature nationwide, and he allied with media magnate William Randolph Hearst to cast cannabis as the villain in a contrived morality play carried out through Hearst’s nationwide network of newspapers. Hearst was viciously biased against Mexicans (partially as a result of his loss of 800,000 acres of timberland to Pancho Villa during the Mexican Revolution) and saw industrial hemp as potential financial competition to his timber- and paper-producing interests. Aslinger and Hearst received additional backing from the Dupont chemical company (that saw hemp as competition to its newly-invented nylon fabric) and pharmaceutical companies that could neither effectively isolate the chemicals found in whole-plant cannabis extracts nor keep citizens from simply growing their own medicine and in 1937, Aslinger railroaded the Marijuana Tax Act through Congress by way of sensational lies that had been printed over the previous decade in Hearst’s newspapers and against the objections of Dr. William C. Woodward, the representative of the American Medical Association.
By the turn of the 21st century, much of the naked dishonesty of these two men has been exposed for what it was and states began to recognize cannabis as a medical and financial positive; nearly two-thirds of the states have legalized the plant to some degree. The lawsuit brought by Oklahoma and Nebraska against Colorado on the grounds that the legalization of marijuana by their neighbor state has unfairly stressed their law enforcement efforts was slated to be reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court but was postponed because of the death of Justice Scalia; the battle shaping up concerns the rights of states and the enforcement powers of the federal government and could be the final hurdle to a final sensible policy regarding a substance that has too long been surrounded by lies and political agendas. I hope the court will see the issues at play for what they truly are and send Nebraska and Oklahoma home crying. It’s been too long and too many lies have been allowed to stand. It’s time, DGO. It’s time.
Christopher Gallagher lives with his wife and their four dogs and two horses. Life is pretty darn good. Contact him at [email protected]