Publications

Contact Us

A brief look at marijuana’s criminal and medical past in the U.S.

by Eric Mullens
Medicinal preparations of cannabis became available in American pharmacies in the 1850s following an introduction to its use in Western medicine by William O’Shaughnessy a decade earlier in 1839.
Marijuana was listed in the United States Pharmacopeia from 1850 until 1942 and was prescribed for various conditions including labor pains, nausea, and rheumatism. Its use as an intoxicant was also commonplace from the 1850s to the 1930s.
A US Department of Agriculture bulletin in 1905 lists twenty-nine states with laws mentioning cannabis. Eight are listed with “sale of poisons” laws that specifically mention cannabis: North Carolina, Ohio, Wisconsin, Louisiana, Vermont, Maine, Montana, and the District of Columbia. Among those that required a prescription for sale were Wisconsin and Louisiana. Several “sale of poison” laws did not specify restricted drugs, including in Indiana, Rhode Island, Hawaii, Nebraska, Kentucky, Mississippi, and New York. Many states that did not require cannabis a “poison” nonetheless required it be labeled.
In the West, the first state to include cannabis as a poison was California. The Poison Act was passed in 1907 and amended in 1909 and 1911, and in 1913 an amendatory act (Stats. 1913, Ch. 342) was made to make possession of “extracts, tinctures, or other narcotic preparations of hemp, or loco-weed, their preparations and compounds” a misdemeanor.
There’s no evidence that the law was ever used or intended to restrict pharmaceutical cannabis; instead it was a legislative mistake, and in 1915 another revision placed cannabis under the same restriction as other poisons.
Other states followed with marijuana laws including: Wyoming (1915); Texas (1919); Iowa (1923); Nevada (1923); Oregon (1923); Washington (1923); Arkansas (1923); and Nebraska (1927).
It was in the 1920’s that marijuana’s recreational use began to catch on. Some historians say its emergence was brought about by Prohibition.
Periodicals of the day say its recreational use was restricted to jazz musicians and people in show business. “Reefer songs” became the rage of the jazz world.
Marijuana clubs, called tea pads, sprang up in many major cities. These marijuana establishments were tolerated by the authorities because marijuana was not illegal and patrons showed no evidence of making a nuisance of themselves or disturbing the community.
At the time, marijuana was not considered a social threat.
A campaign conducted in the 1930s by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Narcotics (now the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs) sought to portray marijuana as a powerful, addicting substance that would lead users into narcotics addiction.
Next week, the series will continue with a look at how marijuana use was viewed from the 30s through the 50s.