On Thursday March 29, 2012, the Flagstaff Leadership Program is presenting a panel discussion on the impact of medical marijuana in Arizona and Flagstaff. The discussion is free and open to the public. I encourage you to attend. This presentation and the fact that the Arizona medical marijuana program initiated in 2010 by Proposition 203 is now moving forward after some recent legal delays, prompted me to do a little more research into the history of marijuana (Cannabis sativa or Cannabis indica), its medicinal use, and its legal history. Here is a brief synopsis of my findings.
From a pure therapeutic perspective, cannabis has been used since 1500 B.C.E. in China and Egypt as an anesthetic, demulcent, laxative, emmenagogue, diuretic, and anthelmintic, for several ailments including post-partum difficulties, poisoning, constipation, vomiting, ulcers, and eye sores. In modern times, cannabis has been used for the same properties in the west since the turn of the 19th century. Cannabis was listed in the first edition of U.S. Pharmacopoeia in 1820 by the Food and Drug Administration and was the primary pain reliever prescribed by physicians until the commercial success of Aspirin in 1899.
There are some 483 compounds in cannabis, 80 of which are cannabinoids, the compounds that have medicinal properties as appetite stimulants, antiemetics, antispasmodics, and analgesics. Of these 80, five are the most significant: tetrahydrocannabinol, cannabidiol, cannabinol, β-caryophyllene, and cannabigerol.
So when did this natural herbal remedy get such a bad rap? The answer is in 1937. As for why did cannabis get targeted? The answer lies in politics, racism, textiles, and tobacco.
In the mid 1800′s, the U.S. Government received calls for better regulation of all pharmaceuticals to reduce the adulteration of proper medicines with undisclosed narcotics. This resulted in “sale of poisons” laws and their strengthening in the early 1900′s with the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. This act required that certain special drugs, including alcohol, cocaine, heroin, morphine, and cannabis, be accurately labeled with contents and dosage.
The death knell for cannabis came with the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. While the act did not itself criminalize the possession or usage of hemp or cannabis, it did restrict its use to medicine and industry along with a hefty excise tax for its legitimate use. Violation of these restrictions could result in a fine of up to $2000 and up to five years’ imprisonment. This is the first time that cannabis was lumped together with hemp, a strain of Cannabis sativa that is low in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), but is high in fiber and can be made into a variety of textiles like paper, cloth, rope, and oil.
Many people claimed at the time that the Marijuana Tax Act was an attempt to undermine the hemp industry. The act was introduced to congress by Rep. Robert L. Doughton of North Carolina. Not coincidentally, the top two agricultural products of North Carolina are cotton and tobacco, both of which were in competition with hemp and cannabis in 1937. Other players in moving the Act forward included Andrew Mellon, Randolph Hearst, and the Du Pont family. Hearst, a newspaper tycoon, had large stakes in the timber industry for paper production. Mellon, the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury at the time, had made a large investment in a new synthetic fiber made by the Du Pont Company called nylon.
The Marijuana Tax Act also legitimized the word marijuana in place of hemp or cannabis. Prior to 1937, marijuana was a slang term, believed to be of Mexican origin. In western states, increasing tension related to illegal immigration of Mexican field labors, who had a reputation of smoking cannabis after work, led to calls for action. With the enactment of the 1937 act, illegal immigrants could now be arrested for being in possession of cannabis.
From a medical standpoint, the American Medical Association was opposed to the 1937 act, because physicians prescribing cannabis and pharmacists selling cannabis would be impacted by the large tax and the cumbersome record keeping. While the AMA’s stand on cannabis has changed over the years, its present position is for the U.S. Government to review marijuana’s status as a Schedule 1 controlled substance “with the goal of facilitating the conduct of clinical research and development of cannabinoid-based medicines, and alternate delivery methods.”
Marijuana’s history is long and complex and it’s status is not likely to get any simpler with the addition of state laws legalizing medical marijuana for those in need.