Home Culture Part 2: A History of Cannabis and Prohibition

Part 2: A History of Cannabis and Prohibition

Cannabis in Early American Culture


Did your high school or college American history class ever cover the major role that hemp played in the life of early settlers in the 13 colonies? Likely, the answer is no; personally, I know none of my classes ever made more than a passing note about hemp, the fact that many of the British and French ships that came to the New World were outfitted with hemp ropes and sails and maybe a mention that it was once a valuable crop.

In part one of this prohibition history, we covered how the cannabis plant made its journey around the world and the role it played in ancient cultures as both a medicinal herb and for its material uses. We noted how the hemp plant made its way towards Europe as the psychoactive plant headed to Asia and then made a long journey around the globe – both eventually finding themselves in what we know as modern day North America.

This time around, we’re going to dig deeper into the role of hemp in the early American culture, when and why the colonists started to cultivate hemp and a look at how psychoactive marijuana made its appearance in the United States. You might be surprised at how well received the plant truly was prior to prohibition. It’s strange how public opinion was able to shift so rapidly – but we’re seeing almost the same thing now as support for legalizing marijuana grows more and more each year.

A quick note (just like last time) before we get started – I’ve linked to sources throughout this article, but some of the information I’m using comes from a book by Martin A. Lee called Smoke Signals. It’s a great read if you’re interested in the story behind the cannabis plant and prohibition.  

It Started When King James Ordered Jamestown to Cultivate Hemp

In the last article we discussed how King Henry VIII (1533) and Queen Elizabeth I (1563) required that all farmers grow hemp or face a hefty fine. The first hemp seeds in the colonies were planted in Jamestown in 1611 when King James made a proclamation that mirrored those previously enacted in England, requiring all farmers grow hemp.

Only eight years later, in 1619, the Virginia assembly passed a law that not only required farmers, but all households, to raise hemp due to its many beneficial uses. This was the same year that they brought in experts from Poland and Sweden to try to teach farmers “hemp culture” in order to help them grow the crop successfully.

During these years, some newcomers were contracted to grow hemp in exchange for a ride over to the New World, which many took happily knowing what was supposed to await them across the sea. Hemp was one of the first crops planted on American soil and as such, it became a staple in their everyday lives. People wore clothes made entirely out of hemp fiber, they wiped their hands with hemp towels and blew their noses on hemp handkerchiefs.

Some was used to make things like paper and yarn and eventually the first draft of the Declaration of Independence was written on hemp paper. Hemp fiber was used for so many things that it was eventually able to serve as a substitute for legal tender later on during seventeenth and eighteenth century America. There were places all throughout the Atlantic coast to the Midwest that showed how much the country appreciated hemp, with towns named things like Hempstead, Hempfield, Hemp Hill and several variations of those.

Not long after the Virginia assembly required all households to grow the valuable crop did the town of Salem (better known for the period of the Salem Witch Trials) document its first shipment of hemp seed from England and Holland in 1625. Less than 5 years later, in 1629, Salem was the home to the first hemp rope factory in the United States – which lead to dozens of new factories to pop up over the next hundred years or so.

The Story Behind the Founding Fathers and Hemp Cultivation

There is truth to the rumors that the founding fathers grew cannabis – but in reality, it was not the marijuana plant that we all think of that they were trying to grow, but rather the industrial hemp plant that was so very valuable in those days. While their attempts to grow hemp may not have been the most successful, the reason behind growing it and urging everyone in the colonies to do so as well is extremely memorable.

It’s not like the founding fathers were blind to the way things were going with Great Britain – they knew where things were headed after the greatly celebrated Boston Tea Party. When the colonists first started to force their Independence on Great Britain, they refused to send back the raw hemp they had harvested. Instead, they processed the hemp themselves – which eventually lead to Benjamin Franklin telling the British that the Americans needed all the hemp they could get.

Franklin also owned a mill which was used to convert hemp pulp into paper, which the Americans used for many famous documents as well as brainstorming their plans for liberation. Things such as Common Sense by Thomas Paine spoke highly of hemp and all it could provide Americans with. Washington’s soldiers wore uniforms made of hemp, the entire revolutionary army was clothed in hemp and even the first American flags were made of hemp. It was a vital crop and without it, the colonists would have had a much tougher time separating themselves from Great Britain.

Now let’s backtrack for a moment, to when George Washington and Thomas Jefferson first attempted to grow hemp in their own backyards. Washington found out from his own experience that even though hemp was not terribly difficult to grow, it was highly difficult to process – and it never seemed to keep up with their demand. The main problem, he believed, was the lack of a proper guide on how to cultivate the hemp plant.

At the time, the only guide of this sort was printed and published in Italy – unfortunately, it was written in their native tongue, which made it useless to the colonists. Of course, the cultivators of hemp in Venice responsible for the guide were not interested in sharing their tactics. It wasn’t until ten years later that anyone attempted to write a guide in English. It was less of a book and more of a short guide, written by Edmund Quincy (cousin to John Adams, the first vice president and second president) titled “A Treatise of Hemp-Husbandry”.

The treatise was published in 1765, which was the same year that George Washington’s diary provides his records of trying to grow hemp at his Mount Vernon home. A part of the entries that reads “Began to separate the Male from the Female hemp . . . rather too late.” This is likely the reason that many people believe that George Washington was trying to grow psychoactive cannabis, rather than industrial hemp (as separating the plants is a vital practice in creating highly potent marijuana, such as the medical grade plants in California).

However, this is likely not the case as George Washington noted that he was trying to increase the yields of seeds by separating the plants as recommended in “A Treatise of Hemp-Husbandry”. The more likely scenario is that he was writing about how he had not followed directions, potentially damaging the yields of that particular harvest. In the end, it was all his hope of gathering enough seeds that they would never need to rely on outside countries for such an important resource.

Between the Revolution and the Prohibitionist Era

By the time the mid-1800s rolled around, a hundred years later, hemp had become the third largest cash crop in the country just behind cotton and tobacco. This stayed the norm for many years, especially as this was the era where the medicinal benefits of both hemp and marijuana started to come into play for the early Americans.

Cannabis was a main ingredient in an alcohol based tincture called “Squire’s Extract” that was prescribed throughout Europe and the United States in the 1840s. In 1854, Indian hemp (what we eventually came to know as marijuana) was listed in the U.S. Pharmacopeia and it was listed under the name Extractum Cannabis, or Extract of Hemp. It was listed as having a variable potency, and more than a hundred articles appeared in medical and scientific journals of that time period.

Six years later, in 1860, the very first official United States government study on cannabis was conducted by the Ohio State Medical Society. The study was able to provide them with insights into a wide range of conditions that doctors had successfully treated with hemp including bronchitis, rheumatism and postpartum depression. At this point in time, the use of both hemp extract and the more potent, psychoactive cannabis extracts were considered a safe and effective form of treatment for a number of different conditions around the world.

The idea of using cannabis as a recreational drug did not come about in America until around this time as well. It was when many first-person literary accounts of recreational cannabis use were published around the world that Americans finally took an interest in something other than alcohol for recreation. In 1876, cannabis was on sale at the Turkish Hashish Pavilion during the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, which gathered a lot of attention. Within a decade, hashish was a popular substance and people gathered in private social settings to consume it.

Even though most cannabis use for recreation was done in private even then, it was still often in a social setting and it was also not discriminated against in the way that it is today. Actually, back then, before the upcoming era of Reefer Madness it was not known as an addicting substance and it was absolutely not known to induce violence or antisocial behaviors; rather, it was considered to be elegant and people of all ages and generally of the higher class were using cannabis.

Unfortunately, while we had a small chance that this social influence would have been the one to keep moving forward, a lot of things changed when Mexican refugees started crossing the border between the years of 1910-11. Those refugees brought the first smokable marijuana as we know it to the United States and with that came all the negative stigma that will lead us into the world we know today. However, the story from here on out, we will save for part 3 of this series.

It’s interesting that less than 200 years ago, this plant was completely accepted and trusted for its medicinal uses and less than 400 years ago it was used to make everything from clothing to paper. Our country would never have reached the point it has if it were not for the cannabis plant, both industrial hemp and psychoactive marijuana alike. Next time we will be taking a look at just how quickly public opinion on marijuana changed and how quickly things took a downward turn for the cannabis plant.


  1. 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.” (This quote appear’s in the 2012 book The Moment, a collection of “life-changing stories” from writers and artists.)

    John Ehrlichman
    President Nixion’s aid