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
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.
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.
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.