The Growing Divide
The culture of Cannabis before normalization, and where it’s headed
Below the threshold
Prior to the Reefer Madness rhetoric that came about after Harry J. Anslinger took the helm as the first director of the newly formed Federal Bureau of Narcotics, hemp and Cannabis use was seemingly ubiquitous. We’ve all read that the Declaration of Independence was drafted on hemp paper, although this isn’t entirely true. It was actually written on parchment paper, however, our founding fathers did advocate for, and in some cases require, hemp’s large scale cultivation as a versatile industrial fiber. Aside from this, hemp made up the sails that Columbus used to accidentally bump into North America and confuse it for India. Hemp was an integral part of the materials being used for clothing fiber manufacturing, paper products, and many other applications because of the ease of its growth. Cannabis was an over the counter tincture long before the boom of our current concentrate market.
“Marijuana is an addictive drug which produces in its users insanity, criminality, and death.”
Harry J. Anslinger
Director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics 1930-1962
Then came prohibition in the 1930’s and the cultivation of an inorganic mindset
centered around the idea that somehow after over 10,000 years of recorded human use, we had discovered that it was in fact the most detrimental occurrence on Earth. Fueled by skewed facts, blatant lies, and the placating to the irrational, racially motivated fears many white Christian Americans held; Cannabis soon became public enemy number one.
With a majority of the population, over 80% by the early 1960’s according to PEW, believing cannabis to be a violent, dangerous drug consumed by criminals and minorities; the plant found itself in the house of the underground.
While Anslinger was busy turning a population against a plant, Adolph Hitler was busy turning a population against a people. By the end of Anslinger’s first decade in office, Hitler had broken his non-aggression pact and invaded Poland— solidifying the world’s involvement in its second war.
Dealing with political as well as economic turmoil, and with a world war abroad, the American people had little time or opportunity to pay much attention to the false ideas being manufactured and widely disseminated by Anslinger and his team.
Cannabis’ newfound home in the counterculture
"We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
- John Erlichman
Public policy chief to president Richard Nixon 1969-1974
America would go through a war abroad; watch the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Bobby and John F. Kennedy; learn of the theory of the Big Bang, read George Orwell’s 1984, and watch the creation and resulting decimation caused by the first atomic bomb by the time Richard Nixon would be elected into office in 1968. It had witnessed the discovery of DNA while still going through the civil rights movement as well as experiencing an awakening unlike any other in American history following the prosperity of the 1950’s— the counterculture.
As you may have read above, the motives of Richard Nixon when he initiated the most unsuccessful campaign in modern history were… less than altruistic. Under the guise of protecting the health and safety of the American people, the Nixon administration began a “full on offensive” that’s only potential outcome was its continuation— with no end in sight. He effectively shifted the public’s mindset from preventative treatment being most effective in combating substance abuse to one of viewing a substance abuser as a criminal in need of removal from society.
Who would challenge the idea that this person— the hippie, embodying what many felt was the reason for the enormous cultural upheaval America was enduring, is a detriment to society? And they smoke marijuana? No brainer. Marijuana must be responsible. It would have been an incredibly easy association to make; and if human history can teach us anything it's that we’ve always enjoyed a scapegoat. But the awakening of a new consciousness in the American fabric endured, often including the acceptance of Cannabis as not only a representation of this new frame of mind— but as a catalyst for it.
So as this plant became rooted even deeper in a culture that challenged the commonly accepted ways of thinking; it began to find more and more support, still somewhat under cover of darkness.
Right around the time Richard Nixon tossed up his ironic, somewhat awkward, peace signs before saying goodbye to the presidency in 1974, the first issue of High Times was published. Since its inception, High Times has advocated for the legalization of Cannabis and was well received by the subculture it was written to appeal to. By 1978, however, the publication had over 4 million readers every month. This would have been an incredible reach for any publication, but was especially for one that got its start in the shadows of the American culture.
It seemed as though Cannabis, and all the information surrounding it, was being seriously questioned by an increasing number of people. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) had been started in 1970 and was building traction. Later, Robert Randall became the first medical marijuana patient in 1975. Then the 1980’s, or the great dark period, brought a re-ignition of the War on Drugs with the privatization of prison systems and the incentive to incarcerate more and more citizens— with emphasis on doing so at minimal cost. Still the movement persisted, while the drug war continued to fail; gaining more traction through the 1990’s, albeit still limited on the availability of scrutinous, scientific research.
With the availability of knowledge about growth habits, strain genetics, benefits and detriments of consumption, and a general understanding about this plant being largely inaccessible because of its illegality; we haven’t yet had the chance to understand this plant on the level we have for other agricultural commodities or medical products. It would take over four decades from the 1960’s of people growing and breeding illegally, as well as people continuing to advocate for it and educate those around them, to arrive where we are today.
Innovative minds elevate
Since 1964, when Raphael Mechoulam first synthesized and isolated THC, our discoveries into the structure of the cannabis plant have only increased. Arjan Roskam started Greenhouse Seeds, a seed bank that’s won more Cannabis Cups than any other company, and started the Greenhouse Coffee Shops in Amsterdam. He now continues his work looking for land-race strains that he can store and preserve for future breeding in order to produce commercially viable strains.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who pulled a 180 when he came out to tell the public he had gotten the information wrong surrounding Cannabis, is now the head medical correspondent for the Marijuana industry. Jane West, who now owns three companies in the industry, has pioneered a way to get more women involved in the industry through one of her companies Women Grow. She’s a force to be reckoned with as she continues to battle both the many stigmas surrounding cannabis as well as the potential formation of yet another glass ceiling in trying to bring more women into the industry before that ceiling gets a chance to be put up.
Ethan Nadelmann, who started the Drug Policy Alliance in 2000, has been advocating for law reform for over 20 years. He is one of the biggest advocates for reform, and one we can thank a great deal for much of the reform that’s happened nationwide. Of course before him was one of the most influencial advocates of all time, Jack Herer. He spent his adult life advocating for law reform as well as educating the public on the many applications of the plant, especially Hemp.
Geoffrey Guy, who started GW Pharmaceuticals, created the first prescription derived solely from the Cannabis plant in the early 2000’s. Issac Dietrich, who started Mass Roots which many view as the Instagram for the Cannabis industry, started his company in his early twenties.
These are only a few of the minds behind Cannabis’ newfound innovation and mainstream acceptance. It is because of people like this, and the hundreds if not thousands of underground growers, breeders, smugglers, and quiet outlaws (with obvious exception to the unfortunate reality that is the cartels) that have allowed this plant to not only arrive in the incredibly potent form it is now; but also to arrive in the minds of so many people as being a completely acceptable practice.
With the innovation in everything from hybridization to extraction of specific terpene profiles from the plant ever prevalent, the expectation surrounding Cannabis, especially as medicine, is shifting dramatically. People have started to expect a very uniform experience while consuming— one that doesn’t deviate each time they partake. As a result, the pressure is on these newly formed behemoth grow operations to conduct themselves in a way that allows for the production of a predictable, formulaic product every time. They have to do this while being able to specify a growing process that the industry simply hasn’t had a chance to perfect yet.
Photo courtesy of the-human-solution.org
I point this out because in recent publications, specifically new publications
aimed at de-stigmatizing the burgeoning industry, there has been a lot of language almost vilifying the home grower and his or her lack of uniform, scientific methodology. This poking fun, or even disappointment, of the underground cultivator and the idea of this not being an intensely understood and methodical process, akin to that of industrial scale agriculture, is laughable.
What we need is to embrace the former underground nature and limited scientific understanding for the fact that it was forced in the first place to revert to that state; the fact that it is the reason we are here now with the incredible amount of information we do have; and the fact that we can now continue to focus on progress and enhanced scrutiny of information gathering, growing techniques, medical applications, and a more scientific mindset.
Part of the process of re-normalizing this plant will certainly involve the shift in how the entire growing process is viewed. The businesses that are pioneering the way towards incredibly innovative new products and medical applications must position themselves in a way that looks strikingly similar to any other business. There can’t be anything that resembles irresponsibility or unprofessionalism. That makes sense. But to insult the very culture that spearheaded the entire movement because of its inherent lack of rigid, formulaic understanding is inexcusable.
In many ways cannabis epitomizes the American disposition. The limitless potential for innovation with Hemp and Cannabis medicine are two of the most individually and societally liberating concepts within the fabric of this plant. This is true liberty. Freedom from dependence. The ability to cultivate something for ourselves. This is the dream fully realized.
Where this movement will lead, we decide. We are at a pivotal moment of choosing how history will be made. In choosing to embrace the culture that lead to our understanding of this plant as it is now, we can continue on the path to further knowledge and more advanced understanding. By acknowledging that the stigmas often associated with Cannabis were not only a result of its forced relocation to a small subculture, but were actually created as part of the rhetoric by the very forces that stuffed it into that subculture; we can begin to understand that our preconceived notions are just that— unsubstantiated. For there to be any language surrounding the idea that the home-grower with 10 years of experience can have zero contribution to advanced scientific understanding of this plant; we would need to take an egregious step backwards.
While Hunter S. Thompson might have been speaking of the erratic, curiously resonating endeavor he would take to Las Vegas in search of the American dream; his words still come to mind. The understanding of Cannabis, and its inherent potential, is also a classic affirmation of everything right and true and decent in the national character.
“A gross physical salute to the fantastic possibilities of life in this country- but only for those with true grit.”
And I truly believe we are all chock full of that.
Patrick Riddle is the author of this blog as well as the co-founder of Third day co-op, a non-profit organization that strives to get Cannabis Medicine to those who need it most, as well as to educate the public on the benefits of this incredible plant.