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The History of Cannabis: Growing Restrictions and Fear of Reefer Madness

By February 5, 2019December 14th, 2020No Comments

Cannabis has been used for thousands of years for industrial, recreational, religious, and medicinal purposes. Once valued as a versatile herbal medicine, cannabis has held a volatile place in the medical field since the beginning of the twentieth century. Its decline was deeply influenced by economic, social, and ethical factors. Until recently, it seemed the flowering plant was destined to fall by the wayside: it was classified as a substance of abuse, condemned by governments, and contributed to the problems of drug trafficking. However, in recent years, a growing body of research has begun to demonstrate the medicinal potential of cannabis in the treatment of numerous pathologies. Cannabis’ path from praised healing agent to dismissed substance of abuse has now come full circle.

In the third installment of our exploration of the history of cannabis, we look at the growing restrictions on cannabis use beginning in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Growing Restrictions and Fear of Reefer Madness

Even though the body of research on the benefits of marijuana was reaching its peak at the end of the nineteenth century, the use of medical cannabis was starting to decline. The pharmacologically active components of marijuana were still unknown, and therefore the drug preparations suffered from standardization difficulties. Manufacturers were unable to accurately titrate clinical dosing or ensure quality control. Due to the variable effect cannabis medications had on patients, it failed to gain broad acceptance (Pisanti, Trends Pharmacol Sci, 2017 ; Russo, Chem Biodivers, 2007).

While medicinal use started to decline, recreational use was growing in Western cultures. The new research helped to popularize the exploration of the psychoactive properties of marijuana. For instance, French psychiatrist Jacques-Joseph Moreau trialed cannabis on himself and his students in 1840 and detailed the psychoactive effects in research journals. Soon after, use of cannabis grew among the intellectual elite in Europe. The Club des Hashischins (Club of Hashish Eaters) emerged in Paris and was frequented by famous poets and authors like Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Charles Baudelaire, and Honoré de Balzac. The group was dedicated to exploring the drug-induced experiences caused by hashish (Pisanti, Trends Pharmacol Sci, 2017).

Public and government concerns began to emerge about the uncontrolled circulation of cannabis for recreational purposes. This concern was driven in part by economic worries that cannabis use was impacting the productivity of slaves and indentured colonial workers and in part by propaganda that cannabis was a drug of abuse used by minority and low-income communities that lead to psychosis, mental deterioration, addiction, and violent crimes (Pisanti, Trends Pharmacol Sci, 2017; Baron, Headache, 2015).

The British government was so worried about the economic effects of hemp use by the Indian people in its colonies that it commissioned “The Indian Hemp Drugs Commission Report” in 1894. The report established “the occasional use or hemp in moderate doses may be beneficial, but this use may be regarded as medicinal in character… The excessive use may certainly be accepted as very injurious, though it must be admitted that in many excessive consumers the injury is not clearly marked. The injury done by the excessive use is, however, confined almost exclusively to the consumer himself; the effect on society is rarely appreciable’ (Pisanti, Trends Pharmacol Sci, 2017; Report of the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission, 1893-94. [CH. XIII]).

Throughout the Western world, governments began working to restrict cannabis use. In the U.S., local laws started to emerge after 1860 requiring medicines to indicate if marijuana was found in the preparation, and requiring prescriptions from doctors for use. The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 enacted the first national regulation that medical preparations containing cannabis be labeled. In 1925, international drug control treaties between the U.S., Germany, the UK, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, China, Japan, Persia, and Siam banned the exportation of Cannabis indica to countries that prohibited its use. Recreational use of cannabis was banned in the UK in 1928. In 1937, the U.S. government passed the “Marijuana Tax Act”, which did not forbid the use of cannabis, but made the purchase and preparation of the plant so expensive that experimentation into the medical uses of cannabis were all but discontinued. In 1941, despite protest from the medical community, cannabis was removed from the United States Pharmacopoeia and National Formulary (Pisanti, Trends Pharmacol Sci, 2017; Baron, Headache, 2015).