Wooh! 235 years and still going strong! In honor of America’s birthday this Monday, I thought I’d pull out all the stops for this edition of Cannabytes and interview some very important Americans on the subject of cannabis. Unfortunately, my Way-Back Machine is broken and my Tardis got repossessed, so I couldn’t get in touch with our nation’s infamous Founding Fathers. On the bright side, they had the awesome foresight to write on this very subject, effectively answering all my interview questions over two hundred years ahead of time. What luck!
But before we learn more about the men who were Americans before America existed, we should learn a bit about cannabis prohibition in the United States. Because what’s the Fourth of July without a good history lesson?
It all started back in 1914, 138 years after we gained our independence, in New York City. The city’s sanitary laws included marijuana as a prohibited drug. The next year, Utah passed the first state statute to prohibit the sale or possession of cannabis. It wasn’t long before half of the United States had similar laws. 143 years before that, when the Constitution was ratified, there were no such laws anywhere in the country.
And why would there have been? There was no reason to fear something that was so heavily used. Cannabis was used for more things back then than it currently is in this country. We don’t use this plant to its full potential today–but that’s a post for another time. The study linked to above, released by the Virginia Law Review in 1970, found that “the legislative action and approval [of cannabis prohibition] were essentially kneejerk responses uninformed by scientific study or public debate and colored instead by racial bias and sensationalistic myths.” Cannabis continued to be demonized and sensationalized by the American government well into the 20th and 21st centuries through the use of propaganda. (If you’ve ever seen “Reefer Madness” or any anti-drug public service announcement or education program, you know exactly what I’m talking about.)
So our country’s been actively opposed to pot for about a hundred years. Nearly half of our nation’s history is marked by cannabis prohibition. But what about those first 138 years? What was the smoke scene like back then?
Americans love to attribute their own political opinions to the founding fathers. Who wouldn’t want those guys on their side? For many, political debates end with “The Founding Fathers would agree with…” Thankfully for cannabis advocates, the guys who brought you the United States were big fans of the plant. Personal correspondence and other records suggest that one half of Mount Rushmore may have been stoners–or at least cannabis users. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson cultivated Cannabis indica. Benjamin Franklin processed hemp paper in his paper mill. Some writings seem to suggest they smoked hash or even bud, although this is still a point of debate.
Hemp was so widely used at that time that there are rumors the Constitution was written on hemp paper. Actually, it’s written on parchment. According to the National Archives, the original Constitution has been examined and preserved over the years. The one on display in Washington, D.C. is the same one originally signed in Philadelphia, and it’s not written on hemp paper. However, drafts of the Constitution may have been written on hemp paper, since it was such a commonly-used material at the time.
They weren’t just writing on it, though. They were interested and wanted to know more about it. George Washington’s journals describe his cultivation and study of the plant. In them, he says, “The artificial preparation of hemp, from Silesia, is really a curiosity.” He goes on to say how he “began to separate the male from the female plants,” much like today’s cultivators do, to increase the potency of the plant. Male plants were harvested for hemp fiber, while female plants were likely smoked.
So the Founding Fathers liked the cannabis plant. What does that mean for Americans today? Not much, really, unless you think their ideas should guide modern America–and if they did, we’d need to repeal the abolition of slavery. Evidence of cannabis use in early America only proves that cannabis was used way back in America’s history. It doesn’t mean anything for our rights and liberties. If it did, we wouldn’t be fighting so hard for legalization right now.
But at least now, if someone tells you the Founding Fathers would have wanted marijuana prohibition, you can smugly say, “You’re wrong.” Happy Fourth, everybody.