5 Ways People Used Cannabis Before It Was Criminalized [History 101]

By the middle of the 19th century, marijuana was widely used in the United States both as a medicine, and for recreational purposes. Indeed, most U.S. cities even had ‘weed bars’ at the time! However, the herb slowly but surely became illegal thanks to the passing of laws such as the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906. Moreover, Massachusetts regulated the sale of weed and products derived from the plant in 1911, and states such as Maine and New York quickly followed suit.

The Uniform State Narcotic Act was passed in 1934 and three years later, the infamous Marihuana Tax Act was passed. Among other things, the Act stated that the possession or transfer of weed for recreational purposes was illegal. Then, in 1970, marijuana was further demonized when it was classified as a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act.

One of the reasons for the illegality of weed was its association with the swathe of immigrants that came to the United States in the early 20th century. At that time, the Mexican Revolution resulted in an enormous number of Mexicans crossing the souther US border and settling in states such as Louisiana and Texas. They brought their customs and cultures with them, including the use of cannabis as a relaxant.

The American public was well aware of cannabis’ medicinal properties, but the Mexicans referred to the herb as ‘marihuana’. Soon, the media used ‘marihuana’ as a propaganda tool in its quest to demonize the immigrants. It claimed that the disruptive and dangerous’ behavior of the foreigners was down to this bizarre ‘marihuana’ substance. Ultimately, this proved to be the mindset that helped drive the illegalization of cannabis in the 1930s, even though it was already in many Americans’ medicine cabinet. In this article, we look at five ways people used marijuana before it became illegal.

1 – As a Method of Treating ‘Hysterical’ Women

A complete lack of understanding of what women go through in male-dominated societies led to the creation of various drugs to treat their erratic and ‘hysterical’ behaviors. During the 19th century, drugs such as laudanum and morphine were used to treat menstrual pain, childbirth, and pregnancy. By the end of the century, women comprised around two-thirds of morphine and opium addicts.

Cannabis became touted as a means of treating gynecological conditions, and there are early 20th century reports of white, upper-class women using nitrous oxide to sedate them at ‘oxygen parties’. Several medical texts of the day recommended marijuana as a treatment for nervousness in women.

One of the most popular companies was the Lloyd Brothers of Cincinnati, who marketed their cannabis treatment as a type of ‘cure-all’. You were supposed to use a teaspoon of the concoction every 2-4 hours, and it could treat nervous depression, ‘tendency to melancholia,’ and forgetfulness. The label also suggested that you could use it in “hysterical patients and in the mild forms of insanity in women, especially if these be due to menstrual irregularities.”

Pretty wild, huh?

2 – As a Treatment for Gonorrhea

In the modern era, there is a genuine fear that Gonorrhea is in danger of becoming more or less untreatable. In recent years, the bacteria Neisseria gonorrhoeae, which causes gonorrhea, has developed a major resistance to antibiotics. Only two new classes of antibiotics have been introduced to treat the condition in the last 30 years, compared to dozens between 1940 and 1960. We have been guilty of abusing antibiotics for decades, and now our over-reliance on them is coming back to haunt us.

However, marijuana has been hailed as the ‘next big antibiotic’. In 2008, for example, researchers found that common cannabinoids such as CBN, CBD and CBC were capable of killing six different MRSA strains. As cannabinoids are at least as effective against bacteria as antibiotics (but are unaffected by the mechanisms these superbugs use to evade antibiotics), they could be our big weapon against deadly viruses.

Interestingly enough, marijuana was used as a treatment for gonorrhea as late as 1935, just two years before the Marihuana Tax Act. Chicago Pharmacal Co. sold them and advised users to dissolve “four to twelve tablets in four ounces of water, and use the liquid as an injection three times a day.” Wm. S. Merrell was another company that sold a weed-based tincture as a treatment for gonorrhea.

3 – As a Bunion and Corn Treatment

By the end of the 19th century, practically every treatment for corns and bunions (large bumps at the base of the big toe) contained marijuana. As well as being an anti-bacterial medicine, weed was a useful addition to the “corn-removing” industry because at that time, all creams, lotions and treatments for the removal of corns needed to have a rich green coloring.

The medical industry began taking germs seriously by that time (thanks to the discoveries of Louis Pasteur), and started to note that bacteria and fungi were the cause of numerous skin ailments. The industry realized that cannabis was an excellent anti-bacterial agent and since it was widely available and cheap (some states even mandated property owners to cultivate hemp), it made sense to include it in corn and bunion removers.

The 1936 edition of the National Formulary showed that the formula for “Corn Collodium” included alcohol, and extract of Indian hemp. Marijuana was an officially recognized ingredient in corn removers until it was removed from the Formulary and the United States Pharmacopoeia in 1942.

4 – As a Cough Syrup

Some cynics amongst us would suggest that modern-day cough medicines are borderline useless, and are no more than glorified (and expensive) sugar water. Back in the 19th century, though, they had a little more ‘kick’ thanks to the addition of marijuana as a main ingredient. According to Robert Hare in Practical Therapeutics (1895), weed “is one of the best additions to cough mixtures that we possess, as it quiets the tickling in the throat and yet does not constipate or depress the system as does morphine.”

Many people view coughing as the body’s way of removing excess mucus from the air passages and throat, and marijuana seems to have the capacity to expand and unclog these passages. As it was a well-known sedative and painkiller at the time, it made sense that it would find its way into cough medicines.

Marijuana was introduced into cough syrups by the 1880’s, and was a key component until the 1930’s. We need to remember that at the time, conditions such as tuberculosis were only ‘treatable’ rather than ‘curable,’ which gave cough medicine a great level of importance. Piso’s Cure for Consumption was one of the most popular brands of the era, and is in fact still available today (although it is now widely regarded as ‘snake oil’).

Incidentally, there are modern-day marijuana cough syrups on the market, but get your wallet ready because they tend to cost north of $100.

5 – As a Painkiller

In recent years, researchers have uncovered evidence that cannabis is a highly effective painkiller. Its link with our endocannabinoid system, or ECS, points to how the herb interacts with our central nervous system and the various pain receptors and neurons that comprise it. There is even a suggestion that it could help wean patients off opioids and reduce the impact of the deadly epidemic.

However, weed has been used as a painkiller for thousands of years, although it only became seen as a viable option in Western medicine after O’Shaughnessy released his findings in 1839. Marijuana was praised for its ability to treat migraine headaches and other painful maladies, and it was widely used for this purpose from the 1880’s until it became illegal.

While it was available in several forms, powdered cannabis was the preferred option for most people. There were also gelatin tablets available, and Cannabis Indica Extract was classified as ‘physiologically tested’ in a 1919 edition of the Eli Lilly Pharmaceutical Catalog.

Final Thoughts on Marijuana as a Medicine

It is regrettable that weed was demonized in the 1930’s, because it made a serious dent in the history of medicine. In recent years, medical researchers have realized that marijuana is arguably one of the most effective painkillers on the planet. Moreover, as it is far from being addictive, cannabis is actually useful in weaning people off truly addictive (and deadly) substances such as opioids.

Although medical professionals in the 19th century were largely unaware of the science behind marijuana as a medicine, they understood that it was a useful tool in their arsenal. Admittedly, though, they probably went too far and prescribed it for practically every illness under the sun. Matters were not helped by the “snake oil” salesmen that peddled fake imposter products as a miracle cure.

Nonetheless, it seems remarkable that in these ‘backward’ times, people realized the benefits of marijuana more than they do today. In what is a case of ‘better late than never’, though, it seems we are rediscovering the many uses of cannabis today; and it’s come not a moment too soon!

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