Cannabis is one of the first plants known to have been cultivated by humanity, with archeological traces of it dating back 10,000 years. Hemp was one of the first plants to be spun into fiber, and it was a staple of many industries for millennia for its uses in crafting rope, paper, textiles, clothing, plastic, fuel, construction material and food, among many other things. The word “canvas,” which refer to sails, comes from “cannabis” due to the foremost importance of hemp in sailing for much of recorded history—including on Christopher Columbus’ ships.
Hemp continued to occupy an important place in the Americas after Columbus. It was a vital crop in the New World, and domestic production was encouraged. In 1619, Virginia even passed legislation requiring every farmer to grow hemp. Hemp was so precious it was considered legal tender in parts of the country. It was grown by Thomas Jefferson in Monticello and George Washington in Mount Vernon. Betsy Ross allegedly made the first American flag out of the best fiber around at the time: hemp.
The plant remained a commonly grown cash crop, as well as a significant part of the U.S. economy, until the 1900s; at the time, cannabis did not suffer from its modern reputation as “the plant that makes you high,” which makes it all the more puzzling how it gained that reputation in the first place. The first cracks in the good name of cannabis appeared when its recreational use was introduced to white people in the U.S. by immigrants, in particular Mexicans.
An anti-cannabis movement started in the U.S. in the early 1900s, fueled by economic interests in seeing hemp step out of the spotlight and an anti-immigrant sentiment. Cannabis, the plant’s proper name, wasn’t scary enough. Opponents of cannabis started calling it foreign-sounding names like “locoweed” (from the Spanish word for “crazy,” loco) and the better-known “marijuana” (or marihuana), the popularity of which skyrocketed in the 1930s at the height of the anti-drug craze. For decades, the fact that the demonized Mexican drug “marihuana” was the same plant as the well-known and trusted cannabis crop was not made obvious to the populace.
“Fear of brown people, combined with fear of nightmare drugs used by brown people, produced a wave of public action against the ‘marijuana menace.’ That combination led to restrictions in state after state, ultimately resulting in federal prohibition,” explains NPR writer Matt Thompson.
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