The history of medical marijuana

Cannabis through the Ages

While there is still much debate in the United States on whether to legalize cannabis for recreational use, the medicinal benefits are hard to dispute. People have been using cannabis for its healing properties across different continents and cultures for thousands of years. The idea that cannabis can be used as medicine is not a new idea. It’s one we’re slowly getting back into.

Using cannabis for its medicinal benefits most likely predates recorded history. But one of the first written references dates back to 2900 B.C. when a Chinese emperor described cannabis as a popular medicine of the time. Egyptian doctors were prescribing cannabis for glaucoma and inflammation as early as 1200 B.C., and an ancient Persian religious text cites medical use of cannabis in the Middle East by 700 B.C.

A few hundred years later in ancient Greece, doctors were prescribing cannabis for earaches and inflammation. During the Middle Ages, Europeans also used cannabis as medicine. In North America, the first settlers in Jamestown brought cannabis — or hemp, as it was commonly known at the time — to make clothes, rope and other goods. Founding fathers Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were both hemp farmers. By the late 1700s, early editions of American medical journals recommended using hemp seeds and roots to treat inflamed skin, incontinence and venereal disease. Hemp remained the most valuable crop in North America until it was supplanted by cotton in the early 1800s.

In early American history, hemp was legal, and growing it was encouraged. The change in attitude came in the early 20th century. The U.S. government passed the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906 in response to a growing number of people who were addicted to morphine, a popular ingredient in medicines of the time. This created the Food and Drug Administration but also required the regulation of all chemical substances. While this didn’t specifically target hemp or its use, it marked a major shift in American drug policy.

The First Anti-Cannabis Campaign

For most of American history, cannabis has been legal. But the shift toward criminalizing it, even for medicinal use, can be traced back to one law, one man and a culture of xenophobia in the U.S. in the early 20th century.

The passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906 marked a shift in U.S. drug policy by requiring the labeling of all “patent” medicines with their actual ingredients. While this law was certainly necessary, many states began labeling cannabis as a poison.

From the beginning of the Mexican Revolution in 1910 until 1920, an influx of Mexican immigrants made their way into the U.S., introducing Americans to the recreational use of cannabis. At the same time, there was growing public distrust and fear of Mexicans. As that sentiment grew, so did the anti-marijuana movement, which warned that marijuana was a public menace that caused crime and violent behavior. Cannabis was no longer thought of as medicine.

During the Great Depression, high unemployment increased resentment of Mexicans even further. The federal government — looking to ease public concern — appointed Harry J. Anslinger as the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Within a year, 29 states had outlawed cannabis altogether. After a lengthy propaganda campaign by Anslinger, the Marijuana Tax Act was passed in 1937, placing a federal tax of $1 on the sale of cannabis. Buying cannabis from an individual without paying the tax became illegal.

The comically bad scare film “Reefer Madness” was released in 1936. Despite efforts like this to deter people from using it, cannabis remained popular among musicians and Hollywood actors in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Both Louis Armstrong and jazz drummer Gene Krupa were arrested at separate times. Robert Mitchum was arrested in 1948. Anslinger sought to make examples of both Krupa and Mitchum, but both were eventually sentenced to lesser charges and rebounded from the incidents.For the next 20 years, cannabis use remained largely underground until the rise of the counter-culture movement in the ‘60s.

Counterculture shapes attitudes on medicinal use

By the mid-1960s, the cultural landscape in the United States was beginning to change. Federal and state governments still enforced harsh punishments for possessing or using cannabis, but more people began using it. It was particularly popular among white, upper middle-class young adults, who adopted more liberal positions on issues such as Civil Rights and the ongoing Vietnam War. This counterculture movement became highly influential in helping shape cannabis legislation in the next decade.

With cannabis use on the rise, both President John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson commissioned studies on its use, finding that it neither caused violent behavior, nor led to the use of harder drugs. Still, laws across the country remained largely unchanged until 1970, when Congress repealed most of the mandatory penalties for drug-related offenses. By this time it was widely acknowledged that the drug war that began in the 1930s had been unsuccessful and costly, with unnecessarily harsh punishments. But it wasn’t over. When Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, he vowed to take a hardline approach toward drug use and drug users.

The Anti-Drug Abuse Act signed into law by Reagan in 1986 reraised the federal penalties for cannabis possession and dealing. Marijuana and heroin became considered equally dangerous under the new guidelines. However, after another decade of failed drug policy, the pendulum of public opinion began to swing the other way.

The Compassionate Use Act, Proposition 215, was passed by California voters in 1996, allowing the sale and medical use of cannabis for people diagnosed with AIDS, cancer and other illnesses. In 2003, SB 420 established an ID card system for patients, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed SB 1449 in 2010, making possession of up to one ounce a minor violation. Today, medical cannabis use in California remains decriminalized. But state laws stand in conflict with current federal laws regarding cannabis use.