by Chris Conrad, (c) 2014

Raveling the Thread of History

The first 9,900 years of cannabis history were, on the one hand, hugely profound and, on the other hand, so mundane that it barely garners a mention in history books. Hemp fiber was found at the oldest archaeological sites of Europe and Asia. It was the humble farm crop upon which mighty empires were built. Hemp seed was mentioned in the first and oldest cookbooks. Cannabis was described in the first medical books of China and the Romans. Those two distant civilizations invented paper about a century apart and each used cannabis hemp to do so.

Hemp was as ubiquitous as the air and the water. Every farmer grew some, everybody used it for rope, caulk, textiles, string, and thread; it was the standard natural fiber by which other fibers were gauged over the millennia. A remarkable plant in a most unremarkable kind of way, hemp was the unsung workhorse crop that everybody relied upon—and nobody paid much attention to. It was a solid foundation for the great global economies because hemp was readily available, easy to make into numerous commercial products, always in demand, and grew anywhere. Cannabis was the source of the word “canvas;” the fabric of sails, tents, and paintings. Hemp seed provided the solid nutritional base that made everyday gruel such a healthy food. Hemp was a plant whose history was not listed on the poets’ scrolls, but in the accountants’ ledgers and recipe books.

African tribes enshrined cannabis seed in their creation myths. The Hindi peoples of India sang praise to a different part of the plant—flowers and resin to make bhang and charas. In Mesopotamia, Zoroaster rode a cloud of hash smoke to a great height, from which he saw that there was only one God instead of the many deities. Along the ancient spice routes stretching from China to Nepal to Afghanistan to Persia and across North Africa to Morocco, hashish was a common item of exchange. Muslim culture forbade alcohol but embraced cannabis, and mighty Ottoman Emperors sat on silk-tasseled pillows smoking hookahs under billowing clouds of cannabis smoke.

Pursuit of Happiness

Hemp was the staple fiber of Europe’s Middle Ages into the Renaissance. Hempen sails powered the mighty ships of the Age of Exploration that conquered the oceans and led to the European invasion of many lands. Spanish conquistadors planted hemp seed in Chile less than a decade after Columbus landed in the Americas.

Great Britain saw the vast agricultural potential of the temperate fields of North America. England brought in soldiers and farmers to colonize and cultivate vast acreage of hemp to ensure that theirs would be the mightiest naval force on earth.

Hemp farming was mandatory in most of British America, and it helped grow the economic power and maritime commerce that enabled 13 colonies to break away and form the United States of America as a new nation based on the principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1791 that hemp “is of first necessity to the commerce and marine, in other words to the wealth and protection of the country.”

About the mid-19th Century, the same time cannabis was gaining worldwide recognition as a medicine, a complex mixture of economic factors supplanted hemp with the rise of cotton, logging, and petrochemical industries. By the early 20th century, Robber Barons, corporations, and Big Pharma came into the mix. Into a toxic social stew of prohibition, racism, and yellow journalism waded a man by the name of Harry Anslinger.

Anslinger’s Folly

The last 100 years have been complicated for cannabis. During the “Roaring ‘20s” Alcohol Prohibition, jazz clubs popularized smoking reefer among White society and the mixing of races, which infuriated Anslinger. He fabricated his marijuana “Gore Files” and propagandized reefer madness.

As head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Anslinger leveraged considerable power and played an enormous role in the events that transpired over the course of decades and shaped the 20th century. He waged war on cannabis for decades with two signature accomplishments: the US Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 and the UN Single Convention Treaty on Narcotic Drugs.

The first of these, the MTA, was adopted over the objections of the American Medical Association and numerous business and agricultural groups. It was suspended briefly during World War II, when taxpayers subsidized the cultivation of 1,000,000 acres of the plant now labeled “marijuana” as part of the War Hemp Industries program. After the war, prohibition returned with a vengeance and a national campaign of eradicating the vilified plan came into existence, along with mandatory prison sentences. It was declared unconstitutional in 1969, and replaced by the Controlled Substances Act, which remains in effect into 2014.

The second, the Single Convention Treaty, launched more than a half-century of international cultural genocide against cannabis consumers. It suppressed the global hemp industry to the benefit of fossil fuels, toxic chemical industries, genetically modified organisms, synthetic pharmaceutical drugs, etc., to the detriment of our forests, environment, family farms, and communities.

The Juggernaut of War

When social mores shifted in 1960s, and White America reconsidered marijuana, numerous scientific studies found no harm, and in fact some benefits, associated with cannabis use. The issue became hopelessly entangled with the politics of the Vietnam era. In 1972 the President’s Commission on Marijuana and Other Drugs recommended that marijuana use should not be a crime. A week later, President Richard Nixon declared war on drugs and peaceful hippies, which gave hard drugs a boost as violent gangs began to sink their bloody hooks into Mexico.

A few years later, Nixon resigned in disgrace and President Jimmy Carter called for up to an ounce of marijuana to be decriminalized. Instead, Presidents Reagan and Bush Senior doubled down with Zero Tolerance, and made the US the number one nation in the world in incarcerating its citizens. It opened a revolving door between career prohibitionists, political bureaucrats, law enforcement, and the Drug War industrial complex of prisons, lobbyists, and drug testing industries. It has made cops and crime gangs rich and powerful.

When admitted marijuana smoker Bill Clinton was elected president, people expected a change. The issue of industrial hemp had resurfaced. The use of medical marijuana was becoming widespread among cancer and AIDS patients. The racist overtones of sentencing laws and the financial burden of mass incarceration began to weigh heavy on society. California voters stepped up to the ballot box in 1996, and passed proposition 215 legalizing medical marijuana. Clinton responded with a crackdown that resulted in media images of SWAT teams coming down hard on helpless patients in wheelchairs. The effect on public opinion was not as positive as he had expected. Soon thereafter, five other states legalized medical use. A similar number of states had been quietly passing industrial hemp laws, and reform pressure began to build.

The Laboratory of State Laws

The George W. Bush administration continued its prosecutions and property forfeiture schemes, but took a more hands-off approach when it came to state laws about marijuana. California was the medical marijuana battleground and other states were left alone. Public support for medical use grew. The public embraced hempseed foods. Hemp clothing became the symbol of a clean environmental conscience. Dispensaries and gardens flourished, along with public acceptance of cannabis.

In 2008, another former pot smoker named Barack Obama ran for president and said he would not waste resources suppressing medical marijuana in states where it was legal. Obama began his first term in office seeming to live up to that promise, but in 2010, as California prepared to vote on legalizing adult use, he abruptly reversed course and launched the broadest, most sustained attack on medical marijuana seen in 20 years. More people were prosecuted for medical marijuana in the state of Montana alone that year than had been filed in all 50 states during the entire eight years of GW Bush. When the initiative was narrowly defeated at the polls, Obama put a full-court press on all the states that allowed medical use and on the politicians, media, patients, and providers in those states. The net effect of this was to push public support for reform ever higher. Coming into the 2012 election, the administration was conspicuously quiet as voters in Washington and Colorado passed marijuana legalization. It remained silent for some time afterwards.

The trend since 2012 has been favorable. In August of 2013, the federal “Cole Memo” outlined some restrictive steps for states to take towards legalization, and more states began to consider laws to move in that direction. In 2014, Obama signed the bipartisan Farm Bill allowing agricultural hemp for the first time in a half-century, and the nation of Uruguay legalized marijuana, and all before the spring equinox.

Maybe it’s true that rope springs eternal. Only time will tell.