The Cannabis Economy in Colonial America

When the Puritans arrived in Colonial America, one of their first critical tasks was to plant hemp (i.e. the common name for cannabis seeds) to supply critical food, medicines and fibers for rope, rigging, sails, shoes, clothing and a wide-range of other textiles.  Cannabis seeds were always carried by ocean-going ships, so in the event of a shipwreck the crew could grow the rapidly-growing cannabis plants for food as well as the ropes and rigging as well as the canvas (i.e. cannabis) sails.

As strongest known natural fibers, cannabis was quickly planted throughout the colonies, and its use was so critical, that in 1619, Jamestown and other colonies made cannabis cultivation compulsory and called its production necessary for the “wealth and protection of the country.” Indeed, cannabis was so ubiquitous at the time that it was also used as legal tender in the U.S. from the 1600’s to the early 1800’s.  And when paper currency was used, cannabis was the preferred paper to use because of its strength and durability, which is why it was used to print books, maps and other documents, including the drafts of the U.S. Constitution.

Based on their farm journals in the National Archives, it is clear that Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams all cultivated cannabis and advocated a cannabis-based economy for America.  James Madison is even said to have remarked that cannabis gave him insight to create a new and democratic nation.  Thus cannabis was a strategically important crop for the American settlers, just as it was to the most other economies in the world since the beginnings of civilization.

George Washington’s 1765 Farm Journal made specific reference to the quality of cannabis seeds, and the importance of sowing the seeds in best areas of his farm.  Washington documented the importance of cultivating seeds at the proper time, taking care to pull the male plants from the females, which increases the potency of the smoking mixtures.  In the 1790’s Washington began cultivating “Indian Hemp” which he said “produced the best quality of plant,” and noted its superior quality to the hemp from Europe.  However, it is not known whether the Indian Hemp was provided by the Native American Indians or from the country of India.

Thomas Jefferson wrote that “Hemp is of first necessity to the wealth & protection of the country,” and it has been reported that he illegally procured strategically important cannabis seeds from China and Asia during his visits to Europe as Ambassador to France.  In his Farm Journal entry on March 16, 1771, Jefferson stated that tobacco greatly exhausts the soil . . . it requires much manure, yielding no nourishment for cattle . . . there is no return for the manure expended.” John Adams wrote a letter to The Boston Evening Post in 1763 advocating the production of hemp as a cash crop to pay off debts and taxes, stating: “We shall, by and by, want a world of hemp more for our own consumption.”  

Thus it is clear that from the European earliest settlers who arrived with Columbus in the 1400’s that cannabis was an integral part of the American economy, and the fact that this information has been deleted from the history books speaks volumes about the intensity of the effort to remove cannabis and all of its poison-free chemical and biochemical molecules that made gasoline and oil-based plastics unnecessary as well as uneconomic.

The Power of the Oil & Fossil Fuel Industrial Complex

During the early part of the 1900’s, chemists had discovered how the resins (often referred to as oils) from the cannabis plant could also be used to make paints, varnishes, plastics and bio-fuels like hydrogen and ethanol.   Moreover, in the 1920’s, Henry Ford’s chemical engineers used this new cannabis chemistry to create a wide range of plastics that were lighter and 10-times stronger than steel for automobile fenders and components.

Ford’s chemical engineers were also able to produce ethanol fuel from cannabis to power the Ford cars, which no doubt caught the attention and concern of the emerging oil and petrochemical industrial complex, including companies like DuPont Chemical Corporation, whose chemist Wallace Carothers had secured patents for synthesizing the molecules in cannabis from oil and other fossil fuels.  Such oil-based chemicals were highly-toxic and non-renewable, but that was not a concern to the largest investor in DuPont, Andrew Mellon.

Andrew Mellon & Harry Anslinger

The process of making cannabis illegal was spearheaded by Andrew Mellon, who ironically was already one of the wealthiest Americans, and who was Secretary of the U.S. Treasury. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) was then placed under Mellon’s control at Treasury, because Mellon’s objective was to have cannabis removed from the market with a steep tax. Mellon was able to hand pick the FBN Commissioner, Harry Anslinger, who married Mellon’s niece, and Anslinger’s primary mission was to orchestrate a campaign to remove cannabis as a competitor to oil and coal by making it illegal, which began with a media propaganda campaign based around an unknown Mexican slang term: “Marihuana.

This media blitz raged in the late 1920s and 1930s as the Hearst newspapers ran stories emphasizing the horrors of marihuana. However, Hurst had invested in old growth forests for paper, and inexpensive cannabis fibres made paper from trees too expensive.  Thus, films like ‘Reefer Madness’ (1936), ‘Marihuana: Assassin of Youth’ (1935) and ‘Marihuana: The Devil’s Weed’ (1936) were produced by these industrialists to create a national emergency to make marihuana illegal.

The first phase of the plan was to pass a highly-restrictive Marihuana Tax Act, and on April 14, 1937, the Marihuana Tax Act was brought before the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee, which is the only committee that can introduce a bill to the House floor without it being debated by other committees. The Chairman, Robert Doughton, who was a vocal DuPont supporter, and as Chairman, his support insured that the bill would pass through the Congress, in spite of the fact that the measure was opposed by Ford and the American Medical Association.  But the details of the hearing are especially insightful.


USC Law Professor Charles Whitebread

Charles Whitebread, a Professor of Law at the University of Southern California, is the co-author of a 450-page report, “The Forbidden Fruit and the Tree of Knowledge: The Legal History of Marihuana in The United States.”  The co-author was Law Professor Richard Bonnie, who was on the faculty of the University of Virginia, and the report was published in the Virginia Law Review in October of 1970.

Due to the fact that no one had researched the legal history of marijuana before, Professor Bonnie was named the Deputy Director of the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse and Professor Whitebread was appointed to be a consultant to that commission. The following details are from a transcript of a speech given by Whitebread to the California Judges Association 1995 annual conference.

As a result of Professor Bonnie’s two year executive directorship of the National Commission in 1971 and 1972 he and Whitebread were given access to both the open and the closed files of what was then called the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, what had historically been called the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and what today is called the Drug Enforcement Agency.  Based upon their access to those files, both open and closed, Bonnie and Whitebread wrote a book called “The Marihuana Conviction: The Legal History of Drugs in the United States” and that book went through six printings at the University of Virginia press before being sold out.

As Whitebread points out, the very first criminal law at the State level was in Utah in 1915, whose legislature was dominated by Members of the Mormon Church who enacted every Mormon religious prohibition as a criminal law.  The first criminal law at the federal level to criminalize the non-medical use of drugs came in 1914. It was called the Harrison Tax Act, and it specifically applied to opium, morphine and its various derivatives, and the derivatives of the coca leaf like cocaine, but made no mention of cannabis, hemp, marihuana, hashish, hallucinogenic drugs, amphetamines or barbiturates of any kind.

The law had two objectives, to regulate the medical use of these drugs and to criminalize the non-medical use of these drugs.  According to Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution, Congress did not have the power to regulate a particular profession or specific plants, foods or drinks.  Nor did it have the power to pass what was known as a “general criminal law,” which is why there were so few Federal Crimes and prisons up to that point.

The people in industry and their lobbyists in Congress who supported the Harrison Act came up with a novel idea. They would masquerade the criminal law as though it were a tax.  But as Whitebread points out, there were actually two taxes. The first tax was to be paid by the doctors who were prescribing cannabis, and the second was a much larger tax for every non-medical exchange of any of the drug.

The catch was the government refused to issue any stamps, effectively outlawing cannabis without actually passing a criminal law.  Thus the second tax was in reality a criminal prohibition, and the crime was Tax evasion.  Thus the law enforcement arm for the criminalization of drugs could be put under the control of The Treasury Department and its director, Andrew Mellon.

The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937

The Congressional Record clearly documents that the initial Marihuana Tax Act was enacted with little notice and with false testimony in the House Hearing regarding the American Medical Association.  Congressional Hearings typically go on for many days, but the entire testimony in the hearings on the national marijuana prohibition lasted one minute and thirty seconds.  According to Whitebread:

“When we asked at the Library of Congress for a copy of the hearings, to the shock of the Library of Congress, none could be found. We went “What?” It took them four months to finally honor our request because the hearings were so brief that the volume had slid down inside the side shelf of the bookcase.” 

 There were three bodies of testimony at the hearings on the national marijuana prohibition. The first testimony came from Commissioner Harry Anslinger, the newly named Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) which was the second federal police agency created after the FBI.  Commissioner Anslinger’s 14-word testimony, which lasted 10 seconds, was the entire Government testimony from the Commissioner to support the marijuana prohibition, which is as follows: Marihuana is an addictive drug which produces in its users insanity, criminality, and death.”


The American Medical Association

The only testimony from a major medical organization was from the American Medical Association (AMA).  Dr. William C. Woodward, a physician and attorney, testified on behalf of the American Medical Association. He was upset that the committee meetings on the Bill had been held in secret, and he told the committee that the reason the AMA had not denounced the Marihuana Tax Law sooner was that the Association had just discovered that marihuana was really cannabis. The AMA understood cannabis to be an herbal medicine found in numerous healing products that had been used to treat a wide-range of disorders worldwide for thousands of years.  The AMA’s testimony was as follows:’

“The American Medical Association knows of no evidence

that marihuana is a dangerous drug.”

 A Congressman then stood and responded:

“Doctor, if you can’t say something good about what we are trying to do,

why don’t you go home.”

The next Congressman rose and said:

“Doctor, if you haven’t got something better to say than that,

we are sick of hearing you.”

Henry Ford, who was using hemp to make plastics and biofuels for his cars asked:

“Why use up the forests which were centuries in the making and the mines which required ages to lay down, if we can get the equivalent of forest and mineral products in the annual growth of the hemp fields?”

While the oil industry lobbyists were successful in their efforts to remove cannabis and all of its molecules from the market by making it illegal, the result has been the unnecessary chemical contamination of the only planet in the Universe known to sustain life: the Earth.  And this chemical contamination and resulting catastrophic climate change are the principal factors that are now causing the 6th Mass Extinction Event in the Earth’s 4.5-billion-year-old history which is now in its final exponential stages — which means it is almost over. -HB