American cannabis has played a pivotal role in the country’s culture and history.
It began, as it did in so many other places, with hemp. Hemp was used to make rope, sails, clothes, food, fuel, paper and construction materials.
Hemp farming was so important in early America that towns across the country named themselves after it. In 1619 Virginia even passed a law that said all farms in the colony needed a hemp plantation.
However, the rise of cotton to replace the itchy fibres of hemp meant the plant fell out of popularity. By the time the Civil War ended, hemp usage had dwindled as cotton production increased.
But that wasn’t the death of the hemp plant.
The Beginning of American Cannabis Culture
In the early 1900s, Mexican immigrants fleeing the Mexican Revolution brought cannabis with them. It’s here the term “marijuana” entered the public lexicon. It became popular with the black jazz community as well.
This wasn’t the first instance of cannabis in North America; in the 19th century, a book entitled The Hasheesh Eater talks about hash being smoked in the U.S.A., but it’s widely accepted the Mexican Revolution was the catalyst for American cannabis consumption.
Its exotic rebranding from cannabis to marijuana was explicitly done to emphasize the plant’s foreign history, appealing to the xenophobia at the time.
“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.” – Harry Anslinger, 1st Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, testifying to congress in 1937
The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 federally criminalized cannabis across the U.S.A.
For most of the 20th century, during the era of Reefer Madness, most of the marijuana consumed in the U.S. came from Mexico. It was terrible stuff. Marijuana mainly was the leaves, occasionally the flowers if the dealer was feeling in a good mood. Frequently the stems or the seeds if the dealer was feeling in a bad mood.
And the result was a product that probably averaged about 3% T.H.C. content by weight.
To cut off the flow of cannabis across the border, the U.S. started paying Mexico to spray their marijuana fields with herbicide in 1975. So, Americans started making a lot more of it themselves.
The War on Drugs
Throughout the 1970s, eleven different States had decriminalized cannabis, and many others reduced the legal penalties against those busted with small amounts. However, by the time the decade came to an end, a parent’s movement was influential in shaping public attitudes, which lead to the 1980’s War on Drugs.
The “war” lumped cannabis in alongside far more harmful, addictive and destructive substances, and possessing marijuana lead to mandatory sentences, imprisoning tens of thousands of primarily black and Mexican men and women for cannabis possession.
This continued under President George Bush (a man whose life was saved by hemp) into the early 90s, but more understanding of cannabis entered the public lexicon as each year passed.
In 1996, California introduced Proposition 215, which allowed for the sale and medical consumption of cannabis for patients suffering from AIDS, cancer and other debilitating diseases. This began loosening the tension between federal laws and state laws, a tension that still exists today.
New breeding techniques
American cannabis would only grow in the sunny U.S. states like California and Florida because the only marijuana locals had access to was cannabis sativa.
That all changed in the late 1970s when some Americans brought back the shorter cold-resistant cannabis indica from the Hindu Kush mountains.
And through cross-breeding came up with hybrids.
Crossbreeding these frost-resistant indicas with existing sativa plants soon allowed cannabis to grow in every single state in America.
And when the Reagan Administration started using spy planes to search for marijuana farms from the air, indica’s smaller size allowed growers to hide their plants indoors.
Enter cannabis ruderalis, a third variety of cannabis that sat almost in between cannabis sativa and cannabis indicia.
Like the Joint Doctor, some growers realized that crossbreeding with ruderalis allowed for shorter flowering times so that plants could sprout faster.
And these hybrids were now able to be grown indoors. And they didn’t take 12 weeks to produce, nor they didn’t grow eight or ten feet tall.
American Cannabis Today
Recreational marijuana legalization began in Colorada in 2012, and by the 2016 election, another four states joined in. 2020 saw another four states legalize recreational consumption. Now, more than a third of Americans live in a state where they can smoke cannabis without fear of legal repercussion.
President Biden has been clear he’d like to decriminalize (not necessarily legalize) cannabis across the entire country, following both his northern and southern neighbours.
And just in time for Independence Day, New Jersey, New York, Virginia, New Mexico, and, just last week, Connecticut.
In twenty years, American cannabis legalization has gone from a fringe issue to one most Americans embrace.
There are, of course, still significant hurdles to overcome. Cannabis is still illegal federally. And most Americans live in a state that hasn’t legalized nor have any plans to do so. It takes time, but we’re only going one way.
Happy 4th of July to all our American friends; keep up the great work!