Cannabis and Legalization is as American Made as it Gets. What Gives?

Matt Weeks September 21, 2020 0 comments

So long apple pie! The real icon of what’s American made is now cannabis.

From the very beginnings of the American experiment, cannabis played a vital role in establishing a versatile cash crop that kept the country’s early agricultural economy in fighting shape. Cannabis has also aided U.S. war efforts, protected citizens, and helped fuel the creativity of pop culture that became America’s defining export on the world.

The Colonial Days

There is a tendency to idealize the founding of America. The Revolutionary War and founding fathers stand above all others in the great pantheon of American hero worship. Children are taught tall tales about George Washington’s refusal to lie and Benjamin Franklin holding onto a kite during a thunderstorm.

While the history books make mention of America’s first landed gentry farming tobacco, the true cash crop of the time, hemp, is often passed by. George Washington may not have cut down his father’s cherry tree, but there’s no doubt that he grew acres of hemp at his Mount Vernon home in Virginia.

President Washington wasn’t alone, either. Many of the founding fathers, including Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, used their land to cultivate American made hemp for clothing, ropes, and ship sails.

Hemp was so useful and in such demand that Virginia ordered all its farmers to grow hemp for in 1632. Cannabis plants were illegal for decades in the U.S., there was a time when it was illegal not to grow weed.

Cannabis Comes to America

While hemp and cannabis are nearly the same plant, people today refer to any plant producing less than 0.3 percent THC as hemp thanks to the rules enshrined in the 2018 Farm Bill that once again legalized its cultivation.

The founding fathers certainly were not testing their crops for THC. But, it’s unlikely they ever smoked weed and, if they tried, it would not have produced a high anyway. So, when did the psychoactive healing herb come to prominence in the U.S?

History books tell us that the narcotic version of cannabis was known to the Portuguese and British in the late 1700s, and was shipped from those countries to South America, where the narcotic was given to slaves as a way to keep them docile.

By the 19th century, Napoleon’s troops were smoking hashish in Egypt instead of drinking alcohol. By the 1840s, cannabis was all the rage in France.

Experiments on Medical Cannabis

At the same time, physicians like Ireland’s Sir William Brooke O’Shaughnessy were experimenting with cannabis and its effects on diseases and disorders. By the late 1800s, cannabis concoctions were a staple of pharmacy sales in Europe and the U.S.

The idea of recreational cannabis consumption, however, most likely came to America during the Mexican Revolution of 1910. Immigrants running away from the violence south of the border crossed into the states via Texas, bringing the smokable kind of cannabis with them. The Mexican immigrants learned about the practice from Spanish-speaking plantations throughout Latin and South America.

And thus, within one hundred years of its founding, America learned about both the medical and recreational aspects of cannabis.

Cannabis: An American Made Dream

As a nation of immigrants, America has always leaned on imported ideas and norms to fashion its identity. The same was true for cannabis.

It may have started out as a crop in Asia. However, the hearty plant found a home in the soil of colonial America. After that, in the medical shops and black markets that dotted the Main streets of the industrializing country.

But, following with the importation of cannabis and early cannabis culture, America imported the cannabis backlash.

Anti-cannabis laws rapidly gained popularity around the world at the same time as the American Anti-cannabis laws. It started out as a way to further punish slaves and poor people, with laws like the one passed in Rio de Janeiro in 1830 that banned only slaves from smoking weed. Governments passed similar laws in South Africa, the Ottoman Empire, and Morocco.

From the beginning, the outlawing of cannabis had less to do with the plant’s effects than who was consuming it. It was no different in America.

The first laws aimed at Mexican immigrants. Richard Nixon later forced an association between cannabis with Black people. It all came as part of his “Southern Strategy” to win the presidential election. It was a strategy that appealed to the racism of white voters.

AMERICAN MADE REPRESENTED BY glass jar of weed over dollar bill with george washington

American Exceptionalism

No country has done more to create and typify cannabis culture and its stereotypes than the U.S.A. The lazy stoner archetype is just as American made as “Reefer Madness.”

And cannabis is everywhere in American culture. From Dr. Dre’s foundational rap album “The Chronic”, to the success of the Harold and Kumar franchise, to the show “Weeds”.

In other words, cannabis is a crucial ingredient in the American pop culture apple pie.

So, why will a country with a clear cannabis obsession not legalize it? America has a long history of treating the most important progenitors of culture terribly — especially if they happen to be people of color. America’s “King of Rock n’ Roll” performed a white-washed version of Black blues — helping to dissociate it from cannabis.

Further, as the only industrialized nation to refrain from offering its citizens universal healthcare, the United States perhaps unsurprisingly rejects legalized cannabis despite every polls finding a clear majority of citizens are in favor of it. Even politicians from both parties are growing closer on the issue.

America has a love-hate relationship with cannabis and with itself. It wants to profit from cultural output cannabis, but also use it to keep minorities down.  Today’s pot culture may be American made. But, it’s just as strong as the political force of the country’s evidence-denying population.

Author avatar

Matt Weeks

A writer living and working in Athens, GA, Matt's work has appeared in various newspapers, books, magazines and online publications over the last 15 years. When he's not writing, he hosts bar trivia, plays in local bands, and makes a mean guacamole. He holds an undergraduate degree in journalism and a master's degree in organizational theory. His favorite movie is "Fletch."

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