Cannabis has an ancient medical history. Recently, the U.S. Department of Justice vowed not to prosecute anyone using medical marijuana or distributing it within legal states, making formal a policy hinted at by the Obama Administration earlier. Currently, doctors can prescribe medical cannabis to patients in 28 states, for conditions ranging from glaucoma to AIDS.
However, until the record-breaking announcement of the Justice Department, none of those laws had any weight to them. They did not provide any protection from federal persecution, despite the fact that people have been using cannabis medicinally since before recordkeeping even began. Marijuana’s history is exceptionally long, but we provide a brief summary of it.
As early as 2737 B.C., Chinese Emperor Shen Neng was prescribing cannabis tea for almost every complaint, from malaria to rheumatism, gout, and strangely, even forgetfulness. Its effectiveness quickly made it popular throughout Asia. It spread to the Middle East and even down Africa’s eastern coastlines. Some Hindu sects were using marijuana religiously and to relieve the stresses of daily life in India.
Physicians’ centuries ago were administering cannabis to patients suffering everything from childbirth to earache and severe pain. However, even back then they cautioned against using too much at one time, believing overconsumption responsible for blindness, impotence and hallucinations. By the end of 18th century, marijuana was mainstream medicine.
In the earliest American medical journals, doctors were recommending hemp roots and seeds for venereal disease, incontinence and inflamed skin. William O’Shaughnessy, a doctor from Ireland, was the first one to popularize the medical use of marijuana in the United States and England. While doctoring sailors for the British East India Company, he discovered it eased rheumatoid pain, and reduced nausea and discomfort in cases of tetanus, cholera and rabies.
Toward the end of the 19th century, American attitudes toward weed began changing. Approximately five percent of the population had a morphine addiction and did not even know it. Patent medicines contained high doses of morphine, such as “Dr. Fenner’s Golden Relief” and “The People’s Healing Liniment for Man or Beast.”
To prevent escalating rates of morphine addiction, the government implemented the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, which birthed the Food and Drug Administration. Although it did not apply to cannabis and only gave doctor’s control of opium and morphine distribution, the start of regulating chemical substances had a significant impact on drug policy in the United States.
It was only in 1914, under the Harrison Act, that drug use became a criminal offense with penalties and jail sentences. To bypass the rights of states, the act implemented a regulatory tax for cocoa- and opium-derived drugs, levying a tax for nonmedical consumption that cost more than the drugs themselves. Not paying the tax became a punishable offense.
By the time 1937 came around, marijuana was illegal in 23 states. Some banned it to prevent morphine addicts from abusing new substances, and some prohibited it in protest of incoming Mexican immigrants, who were bringing their weed in large quantities with them. The federal Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 officially made the use of marijuana for nonmedical purposes illegal.
The only exemption to this law was for the birdseed industry. Hemp seeds give a particularly shiny sheen to bird feathers. To this day, birdseed companies may use hemp, but only if imported and treated to prevent sprouting first. Except during World War II, when hemp crops were supplying rope to the navy and the Japanese were controlling hemp supply from Asia, the government has been further criminalizing weed and creating harsher penalties for it.
Congress passed the Narcotics Control Act and the Boggs Act in the 1950s. It introduced mandatory sentencing for drug offenders, which included anyone caught in possession of, using, or distributing marijuana. Despite a relaxing of cannabis laws during the 1970s, Reagan’s administration got tougher on drugs during the following decade, and laws applied to weed then, as well.
Despite all this, the long-term trend continues toward relaxation. Back in 1996, California became the first state to legalize medical cannabis. Since then, more than a dozen states have done the same. Critics argue that pot shops are encouraging underground weed culture in legal states. Steve Cooley, district attorney of Los Angeles County, estimates the city has more than 1,000 illegally operating pot shops.
Despite promises by the federal government to stop cracking down on patients with genuine cannabis prescriptions, everyone else still runs the risk of legal trouble. The federal ban also makes scientific study into the benefits of marijuana difficult, and until it decides to join the fray and legalize it, there may well be continuing conflict between state and federal marijuana laws.