The NIDA Blog Team
March 5 2015

In Part 1, we showed how the cannabis (hemp) plant spread from Asia to other parts of the world thousands of years ago, mainly because of its usefulness as a fiber and a grain. But as in ancient times, today some people used it for healing and some used it as a recreational drug. Now we’ll look at cannabis in America from Colonial times until the start of the 20th century, and lay to rest one of the biggest myths about the history of this drug.

Did the Founding Fathers Smoke It?

The cannabis or hemp plant has been an important source of grain and fiber for thousands of years. It was brought to North and South America by European colonists in the 1500s. Hemp fiber was widely used for making sails, rope, clothing, paper, and other valuable commodities, and the growing of hemp was encouraged by the American colonies.

There is a popular story you might have heard that the Founding Fathers of our nation smoked hemp. You might even see Thomas Jefferson quoted as saying: "Some of my finest hours have been spent on my back veranda, smoking hemp and observing as far as my eye can see."

In fact, that quote is completely made up. None of his writings include it (or anything like it); it was falsely attributed to him—no doubt by a marijuana fan—in recent times, and it has lived a life of its own on the Internet along with lots of other made-up “facts.”

Jefferson, along with George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, did grow hemp on their farms, as did most people who owned land, but there’s no direct evidence they ever smoked it. The amount of the psychoactive (mind-altering) chemical THC in most hemp at the time was probably too low anyway to become intoxicated from it. When Colonial Americans smoked anything, it was mainly tobacco—the drug that was also a big part of America’s economy during those times.

Cannabis From the Druggist

Cannabis was not widely used recreationally in the United States until the 20th century, but in the 1800s it was used as a medicine. In the 1830s, an Irish doctor in India found that cannabis extracts (not the smoked kind) could lessen the terrible vomiting of people suffering from the often fatal disease cholera. His discovery spread, and by the late 1800s, cannabis extracts were commonly sold by American druggists (pharmacists) for ailments, including stomach problems.

Using cannabis extracts to treat digestive symptoms makes some sense, scientifically. We now know that THC is able to lessen nausea, as well as promote hunger, by interacting with areas of the brain that regulate those functions, like the brainstem and hypothalamus. Today, two FDA- approved THC-based drugs taken as pills are prescribed to treat the nausea caused by cancer chemotherapy and the loss of appetite that causes “wasting syndrome” in AIDS patients.

“Snake Oil”

But 19th-century doctors and druggists also touted cannabis extracts as beneficial for a long list of other problems, ranging from cough, fever, rheumatism, asthma, and diabetes to venereal (sexually transmitted) diseases, like gonorrhea.

This was still before modern medicine, when lots of herbal products (and even animal products like oil made from rattlesnakes) were sold as “cures” for every disease under the sun. These products were usually ineffective, occasionally harmful, and frequently (as with cannabis and opium extracts) even abused.   

In 1906, Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act, requiring that cannabis and other herbal products be accurately labeled. This was the beginning of laws regulating the sale of cannabis. In later years, some states passed more restrictive laws on cannabis-based medicines as more and more people realized that they could be habit-forming.

Stay tuned for the final installment of our History of Marijuana series, and find out how cannabis started to be called marijuana.

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