Letter to the Editors: Don’t Forget Our History

The Editors are pleased to print the following letter as part of this month’s Cato Unbound discussion. Michael Krawitz is a disabled U.S. Air Force Veteran, Executive Director of Veterans For Medical Cannabis Access, Advisor to Patients Out of Time and Patient Representative for the United States in the International Association for Cannabis as Medicine. His letter emphasizes the racist and anti-immigrant sentiment that underlay early marijuana laws, as well as the ups and downs of previous marijuana activism. Although he strongly affirms the value of cannabis as medicine, he also writes, “To a certain extent the popularity of cannabis today is a byproduct of its status as a counterculture icon, and it is a counterculture icon because it is illegal.”

Thank you Cato for allowing our organization to contribute to this excellent roundtable discussion. Given the peak in support of cannabis legalization we currently enjoy you ask “Why now? What’s changed lately to bring so many people around? And where are we going from here?” To answer these questions for Veterans For Medical Cannabis Access we put forward our Executive Director Michael Krawitz.

Our relationship with this plant has never been simple. Cannabis sativa – industrial hemp or “true hemp” — came over to the new world with our very first settlers who used sturdy fabrics and ropes made of its fibers. Hemp was an important crop then as it is today, but early settlers had little understanding of cannabis as a medicine, even though cannabis was already used successfully as a medicine in the east for thousands of years.

In the mid 1800s, when he wasn’t working to string telegraph across Asia or creating the cure for cholera, Dr. William Brooke O’Shaughnessy (1809-1889) was introducing cannabis to modern western medicine. Dr. O’Shaughnessy’s 1839 40-page paper, first introduced to a group of students and scholars of the Medical and Physical Society of Calcutta, eventually made its way to the Journal Of the American Medical Association [AMA], where it set off 75 years of research in the United States as doctors tried to understand and best employ this medicine.

The problem was what early Cannabis americana as it was called was straggly looking and weak compared to the tight, THC-rich nuggets that were coming from Africa (then called Cannabis africanis) and from India (Cannabis indica). In the very early 1900s, Parke Davis and Eli Lilly, pharmaceutical giants of the day, sent operatives to Asia to learn cultivation technique and together launched a test garden where they perfected not only Cannabis americana but also a physiological test to ensure their product was active. The physiological test, by the way, was to administer the medicine to dogs and watch for telltale signs of effect.

Even as the first waves of cannabis medicinal knowledge washed across the West another relationship between Americans and cannabis would form based upon a collection of drug induced literary masterpieces. Starting with Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821) a genre would form of first-person accounts of drug experience. In 1857 writer Fitz Hugh Ludlow would publish the book A Hasheesh Eater in Harpers. Fitz Hugh Ludlow writes of the great insights given him from his experience:

It is this present half-developed state of ours which makes the infinitude of the hasheesh awakening so unendurable, even when its sublimity is the sublimity of delight. We have no longer any thing to do with horizons, and the boundary which was at once our barrier and our fortress is removed, until we almost perish from the inflow of perceptions.

One most powerful realization of this fact occurred to me when hasheesh had already become a fascination and a habit. In the broad daylight of a summer afternoon I was walking in the full possession of delirium. For an hour the expansion of all visible things had been growing toward its height; it now reached it, and to the fullest extent I apprehended what is meant by the infinity of space. I shut my eyes. In one moment a colossal music filled the whole hemisphere above me, and I thrilled upward through its environment on visionless wings. It was not song, it was not instruments, but the inexpressible spirit of sublime sound — like nothing I had ever heard — impossible to be symbolized; intense, yet not loud; the ideal of harmony, yet distinguishable into a multiplicity of exquisite parts.

Though cannabis history in Africa predates the United States by an order of magnitude, it was likely slavery that inadvertently reintroduced African Americans to cannabis. Working around the hemp breaker, a backbreaking job, slaves would have had access to small amounts of flowers and tops that would have fallen to the ground from the tall lanky plants that were being grown for hemp. This would become politically important a century later when, after several wars and a cultural revolution, America faced a new reality where middle class mostly white college students would embrace African-American culture including the use of cannabis.

In the time period from 1860 to 1960, we went from horsedrawn carriages and oil lamps to jet planes and the first supercomputer. There is no way to quantify change in public support for marijuana in this time period for various reasons, including the fact that the word “marijuana” was only to appear in common use in America after William Randolph Hearst plucked the Spanish word from its obscure home in the folk song “La Cucaracha” sometime around 1910.

Today’s reformers should take heed of the slide in public support cannabis experienced in the early 20th century. Around 1915, right at the height of its popularity, cannabis was in over 100 pharmaceutical preparations and seen as a medicine extraordinaire especially for difficult to treat neuralgia. It was in the early 20th century that America discovered jazz, and jazz seems to have been born with an affinity to the good herb. Louis Armstrong, besides being one of the best Jazz musicians of all time, was a cannabis ambassador and really was the very first cannabis activist. At that time cannabis was still legal. It was available in pharmacies, of course, but also could be ordered from catalogs as Hashish Candy and was commonly passed around amongst jazz musicians as cigarettes (“muggles”).

This was some powerful stuff. Consider this hashish experience as retold via the story “A Hashish House In NY” published in Harper’s in 1883:

Wonder, amazement, admiration, but faintly portray my mental condition. Prepared by what I had already seen and experienced for something odd and Oriental, still the magnificence of what now met my gaze far surpassed anything I had ever dreamed of, and brought to my mind the scenes of the Arabian Nights, forgotten since boyhood until now. My every sense was irresistibly taken captive, and it was some moments before I could realize that I really was not the victim of some dream, for I seemed to have wholly severed my connection with the world of today, and to have stepped back several centuries into the times of genii, fairies, and fountains-into the very heart of Persia or Arabia. [1]

According to Dale Gieringer [2] the very first anti marijuana law was passed in California in 1913. Dr. Gieringer reports that testimony that led up to the ban included this statement from a California pharmacy official: “Within the last year we in California have been getting a large influx of Hindoos and they have in turn started quite a demand for cannabis indica; they are a very undesirable lot and the habit is growing in California very fast…”

Anti-immigrant sentiment may have started the ball rolling, but it wasn’t long until marijuana was seen as a useful weapon to put the genie of African American civil rights back into its bottle. The well-established industry that provided cannabis as medicine was

sufficient to keep cannabis out of the first federal drug prohibition law, the 1914 Harrison Act, but the industry apparently had no fight left in it when, after alcohol Prohibition, federal authorities turned their attention toward cannabis,

Most reformers know that Harry J. Anslinger was responsible for the Marihuana Tax Act (1937) but less well known is that later in his career, Commissioner Anslinger became Ambassador Anslinger and championed drug control treaties in an ultimately futile effort to shore up the legal basis for the tax act.

The very first cannabis legalization activist organization was called LeMar (for “Legalize Marijuana”), and it was formed in the mid 1960s in NYC around such luminaries as Ed Sanders, Allan Ginsberg, and Timothy Leary. By the late 1960s, the Fitz Hugh Ludlow Library of San Francisco had reclaimed much of the story of cannabis, including some of the medical knowledge and many of the lost literary works.

These were very serious and effective activists. For example, many people do not realize that Timothy Leary won his challenge to the federal Marihuana Tax Act in the U.S. Supreme Court, and that the act was unanimously found unconstitutional. Nor do many people know that activists like Drs. Tod Mikuriya and Michael Aldrich, working with the Consumers Union (publisher of Consumer Reports) and the Shafer Commission, helped create paradigm-changing studies calling for cannabis legalization. [3]

As the movement to legalize marijuana moved across the country from its New York City birthplace, it picked up steam. For a time in the late 1960s, most every college paper in USA looked like High Times. The pot leaf had become the banner of a generation, representing rebellion against the status quo and against an objectionable war.

But using the pot leaf as a banner against the Vietnam conflict was a double-edged sword. On one side, marijuana was a great outreach tool and helped bring 1000s to rallies, but on the other side it left the protesters vulnerable to the wrath of Prohibition.

Much of the energy created by the 1960s marijuana legalization movement focused in 1971 on a single person, John Sinclair. John was a leader of the White Panthers, a white anti-racist group aligned with the Black Panthers, and a leader of Amorphia, the west coast based organization that grew from LeMar, and was in prison serving a decade long sentence for just a few marijuana cigarettes. The Yipsters helped set up a rally to free John Sincair that was made famous by John Lennon’s performance. The good news is that Sinclair did get released early but the bad news was that much of the movement’s energy was gone and the wisdom of using the pot leaf as a banner against the war was becoming questionable, as some of the excesses of the antiwar effort were now working against legalization. People now associated the marijuana legalization movement with violent attacks on government facilities and spitting on returning veterans.

The passing of the baton from the founders of the marijuana legalization movement to today’s leaders occurred around the time of the first state legalization initiative, California’s 1972 Prop 19. The initiative only received about 30% vote but was impressive enough for California Senator George Moscone to convene a commission that would eventually change California law. What is less generally known is that there was considerable discussion leading up to the 1972 campaign between a “regulate marijuana with an alcohol model” which was championed by Stanford Professor John Kaplan, or a “Free Legal Back Yard Marijuana” campaign. The Free Legal Back Yard Marijuana won out, but Prop 19 was defeated.

The marijuana movement enjoyed several more years of prosperity, as the country seemed to be coming to grips with racism, sexism and some other ism’s, reaching a pinnacle with President Jimmy Carter’s attempt to nationally decriminalize possession of a small amount of marijuana. The backlash that started forming in the sixties broke free, however, when president Carter’s plans hit the brick wall created by scandal surrounding his top drug advisor using cocaine at a High Times pot party and the many debacles of his failed foreign policy.

It was a perfect storm forming against legalization of marijuana that would set the movement back decades. Mothers carrying “bongs” descended upon federal leaders who were quick to embrace prohibition policies to “protect the children” and a decade of increased enforcement ratcheted tighter and tighter even though every click caused the illegal drug markets to increase in size and the war zone to spread.

That policy ratcheting might have never abated if it weren’t for the Netherlands, where 1970′s activists called the Provos helped set a different tone then in the United States, in favor of harm reduction policies. By contrast, one might characterize U.S. policies as harm maximization — turning substance with relatively few intrinsic dangers into one that carries many externally imposed dangers.

If not now, when? In many ways we have already moved beyond the end of marijuana prohibition. With the discovery of the endogenous cannabinoid receptor system, we learned why cannabis has never caused death and we started a tidal wave of discovery that will lead to many ground breaking medical treatments. To a certain extent the popularity of cannabis today is a byproduct of its status as a counterculture icon, and it is a counterculture icon because it is illegal.

Making marijuana even more illegal won’t make marijuana any less a counterculture icon but it will cause even more devastation to our families and communities and will delay access to this important medicine for my fellow disabled Veterans. The time to end the charade of cannabis prohibition is now.


[1] H. H. Kane, “A Hashish-House in New York” Harper’s Monthly, Vol. 67 (November, 1883), 944-49.

[2] “The Origins of California’s 1913 Cannabis Law,” http://www.canorml.org/background/ca1913.html.

[3] Edward M. Brecher, Licit and Illicit Drugs. Consumers Union, 1973.

[4] President Nixon’s Shafer Commission – Marihuana, A Signal of Misunderstanding. http://www.druglibrary.org/schaffer/library/studies/nc/ncmenu.htm

Also from this issue


  • Paul Armentano begins our roundtable discussion with a review of the burgeoning literature on the safety of recreational cannabis and the unique effectiveness of cannabis for many medical purposes. Recent years have seen an outpouring of this type of research, which stands in stark contrast to the political consensus in Washington, which still favors criminalization.

  • Norm Stamper argues that when people see the true face of the War on Drugs, they are justifiably outraged. The average citizen can now take videos almost anywhere and then publicize what they’ve recorded. The result? YouTube clips of military-style police raids, in which the violence meted out seems vastly disproportionate to any possible wrongdoing by the suspects. Police have an important job to do in our society. They need the public’s respect if they’re going to succeed, and the War on Drugs is getting in the way.

  • Allen St. Pierre, the executive director of NORML, surveys the political landscape of cannabis Prohibition. He finds significant disparity between public opinion and federal policy; even so, state policies have been much more susceptible to change. Among many other suggestions, he urges advocates to confront the “fear factor” surrounding cannabis, to win more diverse political allies, and to be more open about being “pot tolerant.”

  • Morgan Fox argues that marijuana both can and should be integrated into the American economy and American civil society. He notes that while taxation and regulation of marijuana may be causes for concern among some growers and users, the “regulation” we have now is undoubtedly worse, because it means only criminals are allowed to grow the nation’s largest cash crop. With public support for legalization at 50%, he nonetheless acknowledges that politicians have been slow to adopt the issue, and federal Prohibition is still likely to last for quite some time.