The Prohibition Period for Cannabis

The Prohibition Period for Cannabis

Cannabis has had a  long and respectable history of use world-wide. So what gave rise to the international sweep of cannabis prohibition in the early 20th century? The answer starts with opium and a war on the international problem of addiction. Cannabis was lumped into the response because of politics, deep-seated myths and prejudice.

Opium Addiction in the 19th Century

Poppy flower

Addiction to opiates was a serious concern in the 19th century, particularly in Asia where European colonial powers held opium trade monopolies and encouraged opiate addiction for their own profit. The problem, however, was not limited to Asia; in North America, for example, laudanum and morphine were seen as miracle drugs and were heavily used by doctors for all sorts of ailments from pain relief to the (perceived) hysteria of women. The opium dens that opened in North America with Chinese immigration only exacerbated the problem, but in popular opinion, drug use became linked with immigration.

The first international drug control treaty, enacted in 1912, was limited to opium, but was revised in 1925 to include cannabis.  Why exactly cannabis was included is unclear, but seems to be multi-faceted and related to myths that cannabis caused violence and insanity, prejudice against the lower classes who used cannabis more often, as well as prejudice against immigrants and their use of various drugs. 

Cannabis Prohibition In Canada

As part of the League of Nations, prohibition in Canada followed the lead of the international community, starting with the Opium and Narcotic Drug Act of 1920. Cannabis, except for medical and scientific use, was included in the Act to Prohibit the Improper Use of Opium and other Drugs in 1923, even though recreational cannabis use was not common in the Canadian population.

Cannabis Prohibition In the United States

While cannabis had been used as a medicine in the United States for many years, attitudes began to change in the early 1900s in response to the Mexican revolution (1910) and the subsequent influx of Mexican immigrants to the US bringing with them their tradition of smoking cannabis.  Prejudice and negative attitudes towards Mexican immigration became associated with cannabis, fueled by the American media that ran stories of disruptive behavior of Mexican immigrants. The news stories blamed the bad behavior on marijuana. 

The adoption of the Mexican word “marijuana”, instead of cannabis, in the U.S. was part of a campaign to denounce cannabis by the  Federal Bureau of narcotics (FBN), by piggybacking on the popular dislike of Mexican immigration. The FBN was newly created in 1930, and its policies at the time were heavily influenced by the personal, highly puritanical views of it’s director, Harry J. Anslinger. The efforts culminated in the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 which set heavy taxes on cannabis products as well as other penalties on cannabis handlers.

The 1960s 

Cannabis use increased exponentially in the 60s in North America. That fact, along with the perceived need to control the student population in the 60s, instigated a political reaction in the form of more aggressive laws against cannabis. Nixon’s 1970 Controlled Substances Act categorized cannabis of any sort as a highly dangerous substance and its use or possession carried high penalties. This act is still in place federally today in the States. However, most states now allow its medical use, with several legalizing recreational use.

Promising Future

Global decriminalization or legalization movements have been gaining ground and there are now at least 22 countries where medicinal cannabis is legal. These countries include: Canada, New Zealand, Netherlands, Australia, Greece, Norway, Chile, Switzerland, Argentina, Israel, Poland, Croatia, Peru, Jamaica, Columbia, Thailand, Germany, North Macedonia, Cyprus, Italy, Lithuania and Luxembourg. Other countries that are likely to legalize in some capacity include: Brazil, Mexico, Ecuador, Venezuela, Spain, South Africa, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Zimbabwe and Lesotho.

Canada legalized the cultivation, acquisition, distribution and use of cannabis, for any use in 2018, being only the second country to do so after Uruguay (2014).

Although cannabis is federally illegal in the United States about 33 individual States allow its medical use and 11 States allow its recreational use. A majority of the American population believe in full legalization and it is a matter of time more than anything.

With all of these countries opening their doors to legalization and new research opportunities, the future looks very bright for phytocannabinoid treatments and applications.

Next up we look at some recent research, focusing on the Endocannabinoid System.

Ancient medicinal supplies

Ancient Medicine: The History of CBD Oil Use

Since the beginning of agriculture at least 10,000 yrs ago, we have been producing and consuming hemp products. In this post we outline some of the highlights of our long association with cannabis from ancient times up to prohibition in the 1920s. This is the first in a series of posts; the second will delve into the reasons for the prohibition of cannabis and the third will look at some  the current research on cannabis, focusing on the discovery of the Endocannaboid System.

Sumerian Birth 3000 BC

Our first ancestors to develop a written form of language is widely believed to be in Sumer which was an ancient civilization in southern Mesopotamia circa 3000 BC. This first record of human language and culture is known as Cuneiform. Tablets found from this time period have been translated. They mention the medical use of cannabis in past tense. Because our earliest records only date back to this time it is the logical beginning for the story of the history of cannabis use.

Chinese Ma 2500 BC

It is widely speculated that the use of the Hemp plant dates back as far as 10,000BC as a textile crop in ancient China. The earliest records of Chinese Medicine come from their pharmacological book, “The Herbal” or “Pen Ts’ao” written by Shen Nung, who was also known as the Red Emperor around 2500 BC. No copies of the original text remain, but the modern version is believed to be very similar. This text, which is still in use today, makes a multitude of references to the use of cannabis sativa for many conditions. Many different parts of the plant are mentioned, including the root, stem, leaves, flower and seed. In China it was recognized that the cannabis plant had a male and female traits relating to Yin and Yang.

Indian Bhang 2000 BC

Cannabis has been used as medicine in India for a very long time and is still legal today. Because our earliest written records of ancient India come from after 1000BC, we don’t know exactly when Bhang was introduced. It is generally agreed that the medicinal, religious and recreational use has been ongoing and widespread for more than 3,000yrs. The favourite food of the Hindu god Shiva is said to be cannabis. Popular preparations include the plants resin, flower, seed and leaves which are made into Charas (hashish), as well as a Bhang Lassi which is a traditional drink made from yogurt.

Ancient Egypt 1700 BC

Egyptologists widely agree that medical cannabis was recognized and used in ancient Egypt. One of the earliest medical documents that makes reference to cannabis is, “The Ramesseum III Papyrus”, circa 1700 BC. There are many references in other medical scrolls but the “Ebers Papyrus” (1500 BC) is the oldest, most complete medical textbook in known existence today. The “Ebers Papyrus” is thought to be based on a much older scroll, but that is merely speculation. There is no real evidence except for the general complexity of the ancient Egyptian’s understanding of using plants for medicine. Some of the oldest uses of hemp were for topical ointments used for inflammation and pain. 

Assyro-Babylonians 1000 BC

The Middle-East is one of the cradles of civilization and the language, culture and medicine of ancient Mesopotamia developed gradually over thousands of years. The Assyrian Empires flourished for nearly 2,000 years beginning in the 25th century BC. Just as the previous Sumerian people of that area, their development of a written language allows us a good understanding of their lives and technologies. We have discovered more than half a million cuniform clay tablets, of which many have yet to be transcribed. Thousands of them are classified as medical tablets, and refer to the use of cannabis for its medicinal properties.

Roman-Greco 50 AD

The Greek and the Roman texts on medicine were used in the western world until the 1700’s. One of the earliest Greek physicians that traveled with the Roman army throughout the civilized world, collected and wrote the first draft of “De Materia Medica”.  Pedanius Dioscorides recorded much of the ancient knowledge of plants and their medicinal uses, including references to hemp. Claudius Galen is another important Greek-born Roman physician who contributed volumes of medical texts. In Roman times, hemp’s textile and medical uses spread across the known world. Trade with the far east introduced the cannabis indica variety which had more intoxicating effects and stronger medicinal viability.

Arabic Medicine 1000 AD

With the fall of Rome in 400 AD, much of the west fell into the dark ages. However, the middle east experienced a golden age of Arabic medicine. Probably the most important and famous Persian physician is Avicenna who wrote the “Cannon of Medicine” based on the work of Galen, Diocordes and incorporating knowledge from the Far East.  This contribution was comprised of 5 volumes and was the most advanced medical textbook for 700 years. Translations into European languages led to the development and understanding of medicine in the west, helping to bring an end to the dark ages. The books make many references to cannabis, including chapters on its medical uses.

British Medicine 1800

A major turning point in the world of medical cannabis came from an Irish researcher and scientist named W.B. O’Shaughnessy. On his travels with the British Army in India he became aware of the popular intoxicant and many of the benefits of the cannabis indica strain. He released his first 40 page paper on the topic, presenting it to students and colleagues at the Medical and Physical Society of Calcutta in 1839. He was the first person to perform clinical trials for various ailments and contributed many more papers and books on his research. His findings invigorated the use of hemp  in the western world and led to the first marketed and copyright protected brand of cannabis tincture in 1840. 

Golden Age of Medical Cannabis

From 1840-1937 more than 20,000 cannabis products were protected with trademarks and were marketed as medicine. Countless tinctures, salves, capsules and extracts were sold around the world. This period is known as the golden age of medical cannabis and refers to a time when our knowledge and use flourished.  Every doctor prescribed it for hundreds of conditions and diseases. Unfortunately, widespread use came to an end with the prohibition period commencing in the 1920s and coming into full force in 1937. The prohibition period was characterized by mass propaganda and misleading messages.

Next up: The Prohibition Period of Cannabis.