I’m not going to go into great detail here on the long history of cannabis in all its many forms. We have all heard the medicinal benefits touted again, and again, and again. To me, though, attacking the hypocrisy of cannabis prohibition only as it relates to medical marijuana is too narrow a focus.
Industrial hemp has been in use for millenia. Even here in the United States it has a long and storied history as an integral part of our society. It has been used for rope, clothing, hemp seed oil, paper, fuel, construction. The list goes on and on. There are over 25,000 different products that can be made from industrial hemp.
Which brings me to the real reason marijuana is still a controlled substance.
Dating back to the 1860s in New York there were laws on the books against marijuana. These laws though were about stamping out competition for opiates. With opiates all the rage at the time producers didn’t want to have to deal with the competition of a lower cost, freely available alternative. It came down to money. Hell, even the regulation of most controlled substances came down to, as the Treasury Department put it, lost revenue. The illicit drug trade stole money from the government in the form of lost tax revenues. But instead of just taxing drugs and regulating them the government went the other way and criminalized their use.
This approach, they realized, would result in far greater revenues than taxes and regulation. Fines and property and asset forfeiture would bring in much more money than simple taxation ever could. And they knew this.
So here we are, back to simple greed. The control and regulation of drugs at the time fell under the Treasury Department, due to their lost revenue claim illustrated earlier. The agency was the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, a newly created agency handed to the Commissioner of Prohibition, Harry Anslinger. Anslinger’s reign of terror on cannabis lasted for over 30 years in his post as the Commissioner of the FBN.
He wasn’t alone in his crusade, though. He had some very powerful captains of industry on his side: William Randolph Hearst, and the DuPont family. See where this is going? Yes, you guessed it. Right back to greed, all over again.
Hearst had a vast fortune in the timber industry and as a newspaper magnate, he was heavily invested in developing his wood pulp paper processing across the country. Industrial hemp paper is heartier than wood pulp paper, and can be cultivated and harvested on a much faster and larger scale than wood pulp paper. Industrial hemp would prove to be a big thorn in Hearst’s side if allowed to continue as a viable alternative to wood pulp paper, not to mention all of the other direct areas of competition it would pose to timber.
But it wasn’t just in the realm of timber that hemp posed a danger to profit. Industrial hemp has been used in the manufacture of rope for centuries. Compared to other sources, hemp doesn’t degrade in salt water so on sailing vessels hemp rope is far superior than other types of rope. It lasts longer, is stronger, and doesn’t degrade. Industrial hemp would have proven disastrous for a new material being developed by DuPont: Nylon.
Given industrial hemp’s use here in America these corporate titans knew they couldn’t attack it directly. There would be too much push back, and their true motives would be too obvious. In Harry Anslinger they saw a great ally. He was crusading against marijuana under the guise of eradicating a harmful drug from society. Well, you know, by attaching it to every societal evil his paranoid bigoted mind could concoct. Marijuana, Anslinger said, allowed black men to look white men in the eye, flirt with white women, and since only niggers, Mexicans, and jazz musicians who played the devil’s music smoked it, it was an evil that needed to be stopped now.
This crusade of Anslinger’s would be the perfect cover under which to achieve their goal of eliminating industrial hemp as a competitor to their proprietary profit generators. Guilty by association, as it were.
It worked, too. Anslinger successfully lobbied Congress to classify marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug. This had the intended consequence of severely limiting the use of industrial hemp.
In many jurisdictions here in the United States it is about as hard to obtain the required permits to cultivate industrial hemp as it is to obtain the required permits to cultivate medicinal marijuana, where it is approved by state law. Nevermind that the two genus of cannabis are strikingly different in appearance, and psychoactive properties. The two plants can easily be told apart. But that hasn’t stopped law enforcement agencies from allowing ignorance to continue.
I could also go into the alcohol vs marijuana debate to further illustrate the hypocrisy we allow to continue, but I wanted to focus on industrial hemp and how greed and nothing else is at the root of our failed war on drugs.
These points are what we need to inject into the national conversation about why it’s time to end the criminalization of cannabis.