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Marijuana has, in recent years, been a significant source of public debate, with laws to legalize both its medicinal and recreational use being adopted by a rapidly increasing number of states nationwide. But the history of marijuana and the history of the US are closely intertwined.

The cultivation of cannabis, particularly in the form of hemp, predates the founding of America and was central to the establishment of the colonial economy. In colonial America and beyond, hemp was cultivated for the production of textiles and other essential products, from ropes to ships’ sails.


And so, it seems, the growing acceptance of cannabis in its myriad forms today is simply a return to our national origins, and the colonists and patriots who weren’t looking to get high but were looking to make money.

Mary Jane Goes To America

Marijuana isn’t indigenous to North America. Like so many of us, it, too, is a transplant from the Old World, originating somewhere in Central Asia and steadily making its way through Europe and across the Atlantic.


As we’ve seen, from the founding of America, the primary value of cannabis was found in the utilitarian and monetary value of the hemp crop. Both hemp and marijuana are derived from various species of the cannabis plant. A key distinction, though, is that hemp has far less THC, the chemical substance that is responsible for cannabis’ infamous psychoactive properties, than does marijuana.


Instead, hemp’s claim to fame is in its relatively easy cultivation and seemingly endless material uses, from clothing to other textiles. And that makes it pretty easy to understand why American farmers in the 18th century weren’t just growing cotton and tobacco and sugarcane. They were also knee-deep (literally) in hemp. That’s right: the American economy was built in no small part on cannabis.


With significant improvement in farming technologies in the 18th century, colonists and newly-minted Americans were ready to cultivate immense swaths of land with much less time, money, and manpower than might have previously been required. High yield, high-profit hemp farms began to spring up from coast to coast, ranging from Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley to the hinterlands of the American southwest. And because these intrepid farmers turned out to be as much a part of the conquest of the American western frontier as any cowboy, pioneer, explorer, or trailblazer you could name, we can pretty much say that the story of cannabis is the story of America.

Laws of the Land

The hallucinogenic properties of cannabis were already quite well known by the 18th century. Indeed, records of the use of marijuana for both medicinal and psychotropic purposes date back thousands of years. It wasn’t until the late 19th and early 20th centuries, though, that marijuana consumption in the US became ubiquitous.


And that’s when laws designed to tax, regulate, and ultimately criminalize marijuana began to proliferate. But it wasn’t about promoting temperance in the populace. The criminalization of marijuana has much more sinister roots, grounded in racism and xenophobia.


At the turn of the 20th century, recreational marijuana was used primarily by Mexicans, those seeking some measure of comfort, anxiety relief, and a temporary psychological “escape” from the traumas of the brutal Mexican revolution. But American policymakers seized upon the association between Mexican immigrants and marijuana use to incite fear of both the drug--and the people who use it.


Across the decades, the stigmatization of marijuana use and users persisted, even as state and federal laws evolved with the shifting times and tides. This included mandatory sentencing for marijuana offenses and culminating in the “War on Drugs” in the 1980s, with its “three strikes you’re out” legislation.


Such a tough stance, as any mental health counselor can attest, often simply produces an opposite effect, leading people to become resistant and persist and even amplify the behavior you would like to change. So, it did not take long for people to realize that such draconian policies, especially regarding marijuana and cannabis, really weren’t doing anyone much good.


By the 1990s, public perceptions of marijuana use began to shift decidedly, especially as the medicinal properties of cannabis were rediscovered. The use of medicinal marijuana to treat the pain, anxiety and loss of appetite associated with cancer and AIDS diagnoses and treatment soon decreased the drug’s stigma, and soon its use not only for medicinal but also for recreational use was gaining increasing acceptance.


And as public attitudes shifted, so did the laws. Public outcry led to increasing decriminalization, a loosening of the laws and their enforcement, and the emergence of a multibillion-dollar legal cannabis industry.

The Takeaway

The colonists likely already knew of the medicinal and psychotropic effects of cannabis, but that was not what drove them to become such prolific cultivators of the crop. Rather, what motivated them was the coinage that each healthy hemp plant would yield. And today, after decades of criminalization and stigmatization, America once again seems to be returning to its roots. In other words, America, once again, is going to pot.


About the Author:
Frankie Wallace contributes to a wide variety of blogs and writes about many different topics, including politics and the environment. Wallace currently resides in Boise, Idaho, and is a recent graduate of the University of Montana.