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Since the history of using cannabis as a medical treatment goes all the way back to nearly 2300 B.C., we can’t cover all of this so we’re going to fast forward some and focus on the last 75 years of medical cannabis history.
Let’s go back to the 1930’s. This was a time of jazz, and big bands, Hollywood films, and sadly, the Depression and prohibition. This was also the beginning of many years of debate about marijuana starting with the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. Although in previous years hemp was widely accepted as an alternative to cotton, as the industrial Revolution began hemp was brushed under the carpet, so to speak. The first legislation created for the farmers of hemp and marijuana was the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. During this period of time it was legal to grow and it was prescribed for medical purposes. What this act did was create a huge tax for pharmacist, doctors and especially farmers but they weren’t the cause of this act. As usual this act was fueled by prejudices against the main users of cannabis: people of color.
During the closed congressional hearings of 1937, the American Medical Association openly objected the prohibition of medical marijuana. The testimony of the Association’s legal counsel, Dr. William C. Woodward, passionately criticized the hearings and their determined intent. He questioned the motives behind the act, stating that no mention has been made of any excessive use of the drug by any doctor, or its excessive distribution by any pharmacist. And yet the burden of this bill is placed heavily upon the doctors and pharmacists of the country, and may I say very heavily—most heavily possibly of all— on farmers of the country. No medical man would identify this bill with a medicine until he read it through, because marijuana is not a drug... simply a name given to cannabis.” His point was simply this: by incorporating a Mexican slang word, marihuana. the U.S. government had misrepresented a common medication that had been used for over a century and that was not over-prescribed or over- distributed by any means.
Much to the dismay of the American Medical Association and numerous pharmaceutical companies including Merck and Ely Lilly, the United States government effectively banned cannabis use for all purposes. This was done without a thought or a care as to how it would affect the various hemp fiber industries, including the Ford Corporation and thousands of American farmers.
Apparently this move was based solely on the lies of certain federal law enforcers who were backed by major newspaper magnate William R9andolph Hearst. He created mass hysteria describing marijuana as “the weed with roots in hell.” This statement alone created much unrest with Americans because few had any experience with this mysterious plant if any at all.
It seems crazy to believe smoking could cause widespread terror but stories of mayhem and murder surrounding marijuana use were abundant at this time. In retrospect, it is clear that these scandalous stories were publicized and fabricated to destroy the hemp industry which, if not stopped, would continue to take business away from and eventually bankrupt Hearst’s tree paper based industries and Dupont’s, a synthetic fiber based industry.
Although cannabis was still legally prescribed until 1942, its medicinal usage had diminished severely because of the exorbitant tax on placed upon it. In addition to the already damaging slander from other industries, the movie Reefer Madness came out in 1936, which completely erased America’s fond memories of the hemp industry. Hemp was an industry that provided the original material that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were actually written on. Marijuana propaganda at this time period was focused on a negative image. It seemed to take control of the entire United States; everyone was afraid to catch Reefer Madness.
Interestingly enough, the World War II efforts boosted hemp production. The US Government outfitted the American armies overseas in uniforms made from hemp fibers. But as the war came close to end, the patriotic “Hemp for Victory” slogan was forgotten along with most of the hype for hemp. It seemed that even though people like Henry Ford, one of America’s most admired industrial heroes, could create a car made of hemp stronger than steel, the craze and reliance on one of the world’s greatest natural resources would soon be forgotten.
Between the national fear of marijuana and the government regulations, scientific studies on the beneficial effects of using marijuana became scarce. Between 1938 and 1965 over 2,500 papers on opiate drugs were published. During that same time period less than 200 studies about cannabis were published. Marijuana use was pushed to the back burner for years, until the cultural revolution of the 1960’s.
The 1960’s was a time of expression and experimentation and American youth experimented in large amount with marijuana use. This prompted the resurgence of research about cannabis but because of federal mandates much of it was extremely biased. Even while President John F Kennedy smoked cannabis in the White House, he was one of the few who advocated its medicinal use. Subsequent Presidents decided to fight a “War on Drugs.” During his presidential campaign, Richard Nixon vowed to crack down on drugs and he kept that promise when he was elected. He appointed the Shafer Commission to study what he called the “marijuana problem” but their results did not make him happy. Their research, which was presented in 1972 under the title, “Marijuana, A Signal of Misunderstanding,” did not make him happy at all. It did the exact opposite of what he was hoping to accomplish. The Commission concluded that the major problems with marijuana were a direct result of its prohibition. They actually favored decriminalization! But before they were able to publish their results, Nixon rejected their recommendation, thus thwarting any executive support for medicinal use of marijuana.
1965 marked the years of change for marijuana. Noted professor and experimentalist, Timothy Leary, more famously known for his experimentation studies with LSD, was arrested and convicted of marijuana possession under the Marijuana Tax Act and sentenced to 30 years in prison. Leary was eventually able to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that the Act required self-incrimination in order to comply with it, and therefore was unconstitutional. In 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court made their first step towards change by declaring the Marijuana Tax Act unconstitutional and overturning his conviction. But the change was short lived, as Nixon in 1970 rewrote the nations drugs laws and in the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 marijuana was classified as a Schedule I drug with “no medical value and a high potential for abuse,” along with heroin, ecstasy, LSD and peyote.
At this time the conversations between doctors and their patients became extremely limited as the definition for marijuana use changed from being medicinal to being illegal substance abuse. The new “drug name” made it almost impossible for patients needing their medicine not to be subject to fines, penalties and even jail time. But despite all of the potential legal consequences, the interest in this “forbidden medicine” has greatly increased in recent history.
The 1970’s brought a time of outspoken battling with the American government to at least acknowledge the benefits of cannabis. In 1976 it seemed as though a victory had been won. The government created the Investigational New Drug (IND) “compassionate access research program” which provided select patients with up to 9 pounds of cannabis each year. The program was extremely successful and to this day still provides up to 300 marijuanacigarettes to its three surviving patients. After ten years of this program, the DEA’s Chief Administrative Law Judge Francis L. Young ruled that “ [m]arijuana, in its natural form, is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known. It would be unreasonable, arbitrary and capricious for the DEA to continue to stand between those sufferers and the benefits of this substance..." Yet the White House refused to make any changes at the time due to an internal technical error and to this day has not rescheduled the drug despite clear evidence of marijuana’s medicinal value.
Due to the increase in the number of HIV positive individuals in the United States, the IND program was flooded with applicants and in 1991 the program announced that it would be suspended only to end completely in 1992.
4 years later, in 1996 medical marijuana was legalized in California, soon to be followed by Arizona, although their initiative was later voted out and re-voted in at the end of 2010. These two states’ laws prompted former President Bill Clinton, a confessed user of marijuana, to designate a million dollars to review the existing research. The Institute of Medicine published the article “Marijuana and Medicine: Assessing the Science Base” and their findings supported years of advocacy and knowledge already known to most physicians across the nation. For the first time, the government was finally recognizing the benefits cannabis use could have on certain illnesses and conditions. Since then 13 more states and the District of Columbia have adopted their own medical marijuana laws and five more are in the works. It has been a long road but one that ends with a light at the end of the tunnel. For people like Jack Herer, who died in 2010 after a suffering complications from a heart attack, who spent most of their lives advocating for the legalization of marijuana, today looks like a brighter day than yesterday. And who knows what the future holds. But one thing is for sure - the medical marijuana industry and cannabis cards is growing and can’t be stopped.