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Early American Cannabis | Cannabis History

I was born and raised in America. Maybe I’m out on a limb here, but I don’t think my experience with cannabis was a whole lot different from most people’s, aside from some of the details. By the time I was conscious enough to know what was going on, cannabis culture was already bleeding into the mainstream – beyond Cheech & Chong and stoner coded characters full of innuendos – and there were much more jarring things to be concerned about, with the dawning of methamphetamine abuse awareness campaigns. As I got older and became more informed about cannabis and cannabis history, I remember being a little shocked that cannabis hasn’t always been demonized and taboo in the United States. Working at the medical co-op at the time, what we were doing felt revolutionary, and watching the rest of the country follow suit felt like being a part of a new day in America. What I learned is that what we’re a part of is more like a revival.

Sir William Brooke O’Shaughnessy

While ancient societies and cultures have long, documented histories of using cannabis for a variety of medicinal and industrial uses, the medicinal use of cannabis in western cultures is largely credited to 19th century Irish physician Sir William Brooke O’Shaughnessy. O’Shaughnessy, who graduated from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland in 1829, began studying the medicinal uses of cannabis in India while working for the East India Company as an assistant surgeon. While living and working in Calcutta in the 1830s, O’Shaughnessy was introduced to cannabis and its medicinal – and intoxicating – effects by the Indian people, who had been using cannabis for thousands of years. O’Shaughnessy once noted cannabis “producing extatic[sic] happiness… a sensation of flying, voracious appetite and intense aphrodisiac desire.” Sounds familiar.

After hearing the locals’ claims about cannabis and finding contemporary western research lacking, O’Shaughnessy began conducting experiments. First on animals and later on humans with a variety of illnesses from cholera – which was devastating parts of India and the west during the 1800s – to rabies and a 40 day old baby with convulsions – likely some type of seizures or seizure disorder. In a publication with a title that is so very 1800s – “On the preparations of the Indian hemp, or gunjah (Cannabis Indica), their effects on the animal system in health, and their utility in the treatment of tetanus 6 and other convulsive disorders” – O’Shaughnessy revealed that while he had little success treating some of the illnesses with cannabis, it did significantly reduce pain and effectively calm patients. Where he was only able to curb some of the pain of conditions like rheumatism and hydrophobia with cannabis, O’Shaughnessy was successful in easing convulsions and muscle spasms associated with tetanus and rabies, as well as claiming to have stopped the baby’s convulsions. Although the patient with rabies that O’Shaughnessy was treating did not recover, he noted that “…the awful malady was stripped of it’s horrors; if not less fatal than before, it was reduced to less than the scale of suffering which precedes death from most ordinary diseases” and that the western medical community had gained “an anti-convulsive remedy of the greatest value”. We know now that modern science can confirm a lot of what O’Shaughnessy’s early experiments suggested and now medical cannabis is commonly used to treat pain and muscle spasms, as well as quelling nausea and stomach pain like he discovered from his cholera patient.

When he returned to England, O’Shaughnessy published two books, The Bengal Dispensatory in 1842 and The Bengal Pharmacopeia in 1844 featuring some of the plants he studied during his time in India. The Bengal Pharmacopeia contained a 25 page assessment of the medical uses of cannabis that was, at the time, one of the most comprehensive and complete collections of information about medical cannabis that was available to western medicine and O’Shaughnessy’s two publications increased interest in other medicinal plants besides cannabis across Europe. On one of his return trips to England, O’Shaughnessy brought back a collection of cannabis seeds and specimens that were given to medical groups like the Royal Pharmaceutical Society for research, and Sir Russell Reynolds, Queen Victoria’s private physician was said to have advocated for medical cannabis after reading O’Shaughnessy’s work, as well as prescribing it to Queen Victoria for menstrual pain. On this return trip in 1842, O’Shaughnessy met a London pharmacist named Peter Squire with whom he developed cannabis tinctures that became available in local pharmacies.

Sir O’Shaughnessy was not the only person conducting medical cannabis research at the time, he is often credited with validating the traditional uses of medical cannabis in the eyes of western medicine, and may be responsible for the early availability of cannabis medicines in pharmacies across Europe and eventually the United States.

American Hemp

While medical cannabis wouldn’t show up in America until later in the 19th century, hemp was grown and used in America as early as the 1600s. With the English navy growing exponentially at the time, hemp was an incredibly important resource for creating canvas sails and hemp ropes for the ships. English farmers in the late 16th century, and later American farmers, were required to devote a portion of their land to hemp crops, with The Virginia Assembly of 1832 declaring “that every planter as soon as he may, provide seed of flax and hemp and sow the same”. There was an indigenous species of cannabis known to the Native Americans (Apocynum cannabinum), but the species grown for hemp cultivation was Cannabis Sativa, introduced by the colonists.

Although hemp was widely cultivated throughout early colonial America, there’s been no documented evidence of cannabis being commonly used recreationally in the 18th century. Hemp seeds were sometimes boiled in milk to treat a cough but the negligible amount of THC in the seed wouldn’t cause any noticeable psychoactive effects. Hemp crops were grown for industrial fibers for cloth and rope, so crops were planted in tight patches, promoting tall, individual plants that can yield long fibers and less room for branches, which means less room for THC rich flowers on female plants. By the mid 18th century, Virginians alone had 12,000 acre in cultivated hemp.

In the early days of America’s journey towards independence, hemp crops were crucial for filling in the gaps caused by boycotts of imported British goods. Hemp clothing became a staple and in 1767 The Virginia Gazette printed front page, step-by-step instructions on how to grow your own cannabis crop. In 1775, just like we saw with the British fleets in the early 17th century, the American Revolution brought a huge demand for hemp to the colonies. With 11 state-sponsored fleets and the Continental Navy, prices for hemp skyrocketed as did the need for hempen sails and rope, with ships like the Brigantine Liberty requiring more than two miles of cordage.

Hemp played a crucial role in the founding of America, with founding fathers among its cultivators, and remained a staple crop for manufacturing rope and fabric throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.

Early Medical Cannabis and Prohibition

After William O’Shaughnessy’s publications in the 1840s, medical cannabis preparations became available in American pharmacies in the 1850s, though medical preparations of cannabis in the 1850s looked a lot different from what we have available now. Most of O’Shaughnessy’s medical cannabis research was centered on cannabis’ uses as an anesthetic, painkiller and anti-convulsive, and those were the capacities in which it appeared in American pharmacies. Typically, cannabis was added to other medicines as an additional pain killer or sedative. Not only was cannabis a common medicinal additive, the New York Times listed it a “Fashionable Narcotic” in an 1854 article and hashish parlors were gaining popularity alongside opium dens.

It should go without saying, but just because cannabis was used in medicines in the 19th century doesn’t mean those medicines were good or safe. For example, Victor’s was an infant cough syrup that contained “1-4 grains” of cannabis indica. However, this was in addition to other ingredients like chloroform (yikes) and “sweet spirit of nitre” aka ethyl nitrite, which was banned in the US in 1980.

Regardless of the questionable ingredients used in 19th century medicine, doctors and pharmacists were not just running around adding and prescribing cannabis to everything and everyone with no regulations. Around the same time as medical cannabis was introduced to western medicine, the United States was making efforts to regulate the sales of pharmaceuticals with laws introduced on a state-by-state basis. These included creating penalties for mislabeling drugs, altering them with undisclosed narcotics and improper sale of drugs that were considered poisons. Only some of these laws specified which drugs and “poisons” would be included in the new regulations while others left it up to medical experts, however those that do often mention cannabis as “cannabis and its preparations” or “hemp and its preparations”. In 1905 the USDA released a bulletin that listed 8 states and territories with “sale of poison” laws that specifically mention cannabis, where others didn’t consider cannabis a poison but did require it to be labeled. Several states at the time required a prescription for medical cannabis preparations.

The Pure Food and Drug act of 1906 and the subsequent legislations that followed in 1910 pushed for all narcotics, including cannabis, to be restricted as poisons, limiting their sales to pharmacies and now requiring a prescription from a doctor. This seems to be the standard for medical cannabis until the International Opium Convention in 1925, where the United States supported the regulation of Indian Hemp – which is what the high THC cannabis we think of as weed or marijuana used to be known as. The convention banned Indian Hemp imports to countries that already prohibited its use and required importing countries to issue certificates that state that it was for use “exclusively for scientific or medical purposes”.

And thus begins the age of Harry J. Anslinger and Reefer madness which I think deserves its own article. Anslinger deserves very little attention and even less praise, but his vehement fear mongering and fact denial has had lasting consequences on the landscape of American cannabis use.

From the industrial super crop that bolstered the American Revolution to a restricted narcotic in less than a century, our history with cannabis has been short and chaotic, but perhaps our awareness of the past will keep us moving in the right direction for our future.


Laura Mastropietro

Kelly Mahoney worked at a medical cannabis Co-op with her mother, Laura Mastropietro, dealing mainly with helping new patients acquire their medical cards and helping them find the best strains and methods. Diagnosed at a young age with spinal muscular atrophy, she was also a medical cannabis patient and still advocates for the incredible benefits, and downright fun, of cannabis. She now lives in a prohibition state as a cat mom and gamer wife.



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