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Education: Higher Education

America’s Mind-Altering History

Class 4. Demon Weed or Medical Panacea? The Many Lives of Marijuana


The fourth class examines marijuana’s place in American culture, from the cultivation of hemp for rope by colonial settlers in Jamestown; to its inclusion of the U.S. Pharmacopoeia between 1850 and 1941; to its DEA scheduling as a dangerous drug with no medical benefit in 1970; to its legalization for medical purposes in California in 1996, and 19 other states and the District of Columbia by 2014. Perhaps no drug in U.S. history better reveals the importance of shifting political priorities, cultural values, and user demographics in shaping the perception of psychoactive substances or the contingency of classifying drugs as “licit” and “illicit,” “recreational” and “medicinal.” Primary source materials examine early “pro” and “con” positions on cannabis, as expressed by a late-19th-century anti-drug crusader, H.H. Kane, and by the author of the 1908 US Pharmacopeia, Horatio C. Wood. These materials reveal the wide range of medical uses as well as prevalent fears about the drug in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. They stand in contrast to a third primary source by Federal Bureau of Narcotics commissioner Harry Anslinger who sought to demonize marijuana and expunge its medicinal use from recorded history. Secondary sources from recent discussions of medical and recreational use accentuate the diversity of opinions that still exist regarding the drug, as well as the legacy of Anslinger’s and the federal government’s position on marijuana, which flies in the face of most available evidence on the drug’s history and medicinal and recreational use.

Class Resources
  • Anslinger, H.J. and William Tompkins. “Marihuana.” In The Traffic in Narcotics. New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1953, pp. 18-26.
  • Kane, H.H., M.D. “The Hashisch Habit.” In Drugs that Enslave. Philadelphia: Presley Blakiston, 1881, pp. 206-18.
  • Wood, Horatio C., M.D., L.L.D. “Indian Cannabis.” In Therapeutics: Its Principles and Practice. 14th Edition. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1908, pp. 113-17.
  • Bostwick, J. Michael. “Blurred Boundaries: The Therapeutics and Politics of Medical Marijuana.” Mayo Clinic Proceedings 87 (2012): 172-186.
  • Caulkins, Jonathan P., Angela Hawken, Beau Kilmer, and Mark Kleiman. “A Voter’s Guide to Legalizing Marijuana.” American Interest 8 (November/December 2012): 28-36.
  • Earleywine, Mitch. “Highlights in the History of Cannabis,” and “Cannabis Use and Misuse.” In Understanding Marijuana: A New Look at the Scientific Evidence. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2002, pp. 3-47.

Discussion Questions
  1. How do the reasons people use marijuana today differ from those of a century ago? In what ways are the reasons people use this drug today similar to those of a century ago? Do you think smoking marijuana today is more or less dangerous today than it was one hundred years ago? Please explain your rationale.
  2. Since 1970, the Drug Enforcement Administration classified marijuana with heroin and LSD as a “Schedule One” drug. This means that it possesses the following characteristics:
    1. The drug has a high potential for abuse.
    2. The drug has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.
    3. There is a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or other substance under medical supervision.
    Do you think this is a reasonable classification? Why or why not?
  3. What might be some benefits of decriminalizing marijuana? What might the adverse consequences of decriminalization be? Discuss both and state your view on this issue.
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