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The Twisted History of Weed

by Twisted History producer John Kelly, research by Saint Anne

What's the difference between hemp and pot?

  • - The ropes, sails, and caulking of the Mayflower were all made from hemp …special copper straws
  • - George Washington grew hemp on his plantation. 
  • - Betsy Ross’s first flag of the U.S. was made of hemp. 
  • - Over 120,00 pounds of hemp fiber were used to rig the U.S.S. Constitution, “Old Ironsides,” the oldest Navy ship in America. 
  • - The first 2 drafts of the Constitution were written on hemp.
  • In 2020 the average projected amount each U.S. marijuana consumer will spend on cannabis products ranges between $500 to $2,500 annually.
  • On a similar note, it was also found that up to $5.8 billion U.S. dollars were spent on marijuana products monthly, or equal to $1.45 billion U.S. dollars weekly (~$194 million daily).
  • Revenue of the U.S. legal medical and recreational cannabis also grew greatly, from $13.6 billion U.S. dollars in 2019 to an estimate of $29.7 billion U.S. dollars by 2025.

Some historians argue that pot use can be traced back to Chinese Emperor Shen Nung in 2727 B.C. - But most agree, the use of marijuana likely started in China and Siberia around 500 BC.  Early uses of marijuana were largely medicinal, but there is evidence that some ancient cultures used the psychoactive component of marijuana for rituals or religious ceremonies, and archeologists have discovered burned cannabis seeds in the graves of shamans and holy men from that time. 

Fast forward over 1,000 years …an ancient Greek historian named Herodotus described the Scythians—a large group of Iranian nomads in Central Asia—inhaling the smoke from smoldering cannabis seeds and flowers to get high, and hashish (a purified form of cannabis smoked with a pipe) was widely used throughout the Middle East and parts of Asia after about 800 AD. 

Its rise in popularity corresponded with the spread of Islam in the region because the Quran forbid the use of alcohol and some other intoxicating substances, but did not specifically prohibit cannabis.

Fast forward another 800 years, and the history of cannabis cultivation in America dates back only to the early colonists, who grew hemp for textiles and rope.  Because it’s a fast-growing plant that’s easy to cultivate and has many uses, hemp was widely grown throughout colonial America and at Spanish missions in the Southwest. In the early 1600s, the Virginia, Massachusetts and Connecticut colonies required farmers to grow hemp.

But marijuana wasn’t widely used for recreational purposes here in the states until the early 1900s when immigrants from Mexico introduced the recreational practice of smoking to American culture.

Before that, the word "cannabis" was almost exclusively used to refer to the plant. However, when anti-Mexican sentiment in the United States began to rise in the early 20th century, the term was switched to "marijuana" to draw attention to the drug's use by Mexicans -- and thereby attempt to carry a negative connotation. 

Some common theories about the racial undertones of the stigma against cannabis circulate around the government associating marijuana use with dangerous, homicidal tendencies brought on by "locoweed" -- Mexican cannabis. This stigma, combined with the rising racial tensions against people of color, contributed to increasing federal regulation of the drug. 

In fact, in an article entitled "More Reefer Madness," The Atlantic explained the likely racial origins of the prohibition of marijuana.

"The political upheaval in Mexico that culminated in the Revolution of 1910 led to a wave of Mexican immigration to states throughout the American Southwest. The prejudices and fears that greeted these peasant immigrants also extended to their traditional means of intoxication: smoking marijuana. Police officers in Texas claimed that marijuana incited violent crimes, aroused a 'lust for blood' and gave its users 'superhuman strength.' Rumors spread that Mexicans were distributing this 'killer weed' to unsuspecting American schoolchildren. Sailors and West Indian immigrants brought the practice of smoking marijuana to port cities along the Gulf of Mexico. In New Orleans, newspaper articles associated the drug with African-Americans, jazz musicians, prostitutes, and underworld whites. 'The Marijuana Menace,' as sketched by anti-drug campaigners, was personified by inferior races and social deviants."

Additionally, the infamous quote by Harry Anslinger -- one of the leaders of the prohibition -- reads that "There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others."

During the Great Depression, the Prohibition era’s view outlawed cannabis in 29 states by 1931, and soon the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 was the first federal U.S. law to criminalize marijuana nationwide. 

The Act imposed an excise tax on the sale, possession or transfer of all hemp products, effectively criminalizing all but industrial uses of the plant.

Fifty-eight-year-old farmer Samuel Caldwell was the first person prosecuted under the Act. He was arrested for selling marijuana on October 2, 1937, just one day after the Act’s passage and was sentenced to four years of hard labor.

Skip ahead 40 years, and as part of the “War on Drugs,” the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, signed into law by President Richard Nixon, repealed the Marijuana Tax Act and listed marijuana as a Schedule I drug—along with heroin, LSD and ecstasy—with no medical uses and a high potential for abuse. It was identified in anti-drug programs like D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) as a “gateway drug.”

In 1972, a report from the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse (also known as the Shafer Commission) released a report titled “Marijuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding.” The report recommended “partial prohibition” and lower penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana. Nixon and other government officials, however, ignored the report’s findings.

California, in the Compassionate Use Act of 1996, became the first state to legalize marijuana for medicinal use by people with severe or chronic illnesses and Washington became the first to legalize marijuana for recreational use in 2012. 

Eleven states and Washington, DC, have now legalized marijuana for recreational use for adults over 21. And 33 states have legalized medical marijuana.

Oh yea, should we legalize coke? And, psychologists want to start micro-dosing LSD.

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