The Secret Past of Marijuana Laws: The Plant and the Poppy

MMJ and Heroin

The use of marihuana as a medicine is a 4000 year old topic, going back to traditions in Ancient China and the Middle East; but the use of marihuana also has a place in the 238 year history of the United States of America. Marihuana played an important in America’s founding as a British colony as well as an independent nation. Marihuana was responsible for international trade wars with the War of 1812 and the British Opium Wars and was widely used in over 40 medical apothecary applications throughout early US history up until the late 1800s with the advent of a drug called morphine and the popularization of the racial pseudoscience known as eugenics. The impact of these two concepts would do much to alter the history of the United States forever and would lead to the establishment of the US’ first drug enforcement agency, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.

Marihuana was first introduced to America with the Jamestown settlement of Virginia. The Virginia Company was mandated by King James I in 1619 to grow 100 hemp plants for every colonial citizen for export to the British Empire (Deitch). Hemp from the early 1600’s to the invention of the steam engine in the late 1800s dominated trade and naval capability as the best sails, rope, paper, and other necessary materials and oils were used as necessary components of both commercial and military fleets worldwide. The British dominance and rivalry towards the expansion of the French and Russian states at the time were fueled by American hemp as a critical component of their national defense infrastructure. That is why England was so hostile to American independence and why the French were so helpful toward it; the exportation of American hemp was critical to British war capabilities as naval supplies were used and eroded, fresh supplies of hemp from America were constantly necessary to fill shortages. This naturally led to the use of cannabis as a medicine as well in the American colonies, being used by many of our founding fathers and with hemp paper being used to write the Constitution of the United States.

Marihuana/Hemp trade wars didn’t end with American victory in the War of Independence. The Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812 continued the international trade war for Marihuana. During the mid-1700’s both the American colonies and the Russian Empire became the primary producers of hemp; Russia with its cheap serf labor produced 80% of the world’s cannabis and hemp for industrial use and it became their primary trading commodity. As tensions between Great Britain and America increased during the 1770’s, Britain came to rely on Russia for its marine hemp supply, accounting for 90% of Britain’s naval supplies (Herer).

The French Revolution shortly broke out in 1789 following the conclusion of American independence and devolved into a bloody revolution that finally settled with Napoleon’s control of France and the Napoleonic Wars between France and Britain. The British were able to isolate Napoleon economically by running a sea blockade on continental Europe with their cannabis dependent navy. Napoleon undermined the British by offering the US a deal on the Louisiana Purchase and cut a deal with the Russians on industrial hemp. Between 1807 and 1809 Russian traders blocked hemp exports to the British navy and America embargoed Britain while breaching their blockade with hemp and weapons shipments to France under the guise of neutrality. After 1809 the British started commandeering US ships, blackmailing US traders to double deal with Russia and supply hemp to Britain once again in exchange for British luxery goods at reduced cost. Napoleon demanded that Russia cease trading with the Americans,  aware that American traders were double dealing with the British; this request was denied by the Tsar who also started double dealing with the British himself to cash in on the excessive war costs of goods.

Napoleonic Wars

Napoleonic Wars

In 1812, the British navy started heavily restricting American trade angering Congress and giving rise to the War of 1812 after Congress decided to invade the British colony of Canada in retaliation for the economic interference. Hemp/Cannabis, because of the wars, had become a major economic industry, especially in the new western states of Ohio and Kentucky where cannabis production flourished. Napoleon realizing that Russia would not cease hemp exports to Britain decided to fatefully invade Russia to stop the Tsar, leading to France’s fateful defeat at the Battle of Borodino. The United States, who joined the war with Napoleon would also be dealt a heavy blow with the British burning of Washington DC and military defeats in the War of 1812. The conflict over cannabis is eventually resolved between the US and the British after the defeat of the British at the Battle of New Orleans, which signified to Great Britain that they had vastly overstretched their military resources. So, yeah there you have it, some of America’s first skirmishes were fought over marihuana.

America continued to profit of its production of cannabis in medicines, textiles, oils and fuels, fiber, pulp, rope and canvas, paints and varnishes and as weaning agent for alcohol and opium. So where did the hostility to the medicine come from? The answer to that has to do with the initiating of the US opium trade in 1820 and the invention of morphine in 1827 as a medical anesthetic.

America’s first drug epidemic occurred during the horrors of the American Civil War. Addiction to opium and morphine among several hundreds of thousands of Union and Confederate troops led the addiction to be known as “Soldier’s Disease”. (Le Dain) Morphine’s use during the Civil War, along with Chinese immigration to the American West in the mid to late 1800’s brought an explosion of opium and morphine addiction that had been unseen in American history. The economic malaise following the Civil War did not assist matters as the Eastern Industrialist class, now drunk with power after winning the brutal civil conflict over the formerly wealthier southern planters, began to expand their tentacles over the American economy throughout ‘The Robber Baron’ period of the late 1800s.

Consolidation of American financial and industrial power and the suppression of public and labor power during this period was legendary. Sixty families that were what would become the American oligarchy began to centralize US assets from oil to coal to rail to steel under their financial and legal control, using their power to dominate the agendas of Presidents and political parties alike. One of the most powerful men from these families, which included such names as Rockefeller, Morgan, Carnegie and Roosevelt, was one William Huntington Russell, the founder of Skull and Bones and the first American ‘Opium Robber Baron’.

William Huntington Russell

William Huntington Russell

The Second Opium War

The Second Opium War

Russell primarily dealt with Opium sales out of Europe selling Turkish opium to Guangzhou, the East Indies and to the British for resale in other parts of Asia. Russell was able to dominate this market and the British Opium Wars with the Chinese would afford him a rare opportunity. The British after defeating and humiliating the Chinese Empire in the First Opium War, had made demands for even more egregious trade privileges and for full legalization of foreign opium sales within China. China under the Qing Empire flat out refused, resulting in military skirmishes between the Chinese and the colonial forces of the French and British with financial and arms support from the United States. The superior firepower allowed the Western invasion forces to decimate the less advanced Chinese and burn down Imperial palaces in Beijing. This resulted in the Convention of Peking which forced open China to more western trade, completely legalized opium, gave Hong Kong to Great Britain, and allowed British citizens to sell Chinese servants to American railroad companies by 1860.

Russell would be able to leverage the success of these trade wars to build an international opium empire from Europe to the Far East and California and maintained a control position within the international narcotics trade; this position allowed him to make his fortune during the American civil war by providing the opium needed to produce morphine to the North. Russell’s legacy and subsequent pharmaceutical consortium (the Opium Cartel of Merck, Pfizer, Eli Lilly and Bayer) would become even more powerful during the McKinley Administration when his influence propelled his dear relative and friend, Theodore Roosevelt, to become the Assistant Secretary of the Navy in 1898.

The year Roosevelt achieved his position in the Naval Department at the White House, 1898, was a critical one. That same year, Bayer would synthesize heroin from morphine changing world history forever by introducing the most addictive compound in the human pharmacopeia since Morphine. Roosevelt had been responsible as Assistant Secretary of the Navy of managing colonial matters and overseas departments that managed regions where opium sales had taken place. Early on in the year Roosevelt with the political and financial support of the Opium Cartel, the Democrats and publisher robber barons William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer would start the Spanish-American War. The victorious result was a political boost for Roosevelt to align his presidential ambitions along with the annexation of several Spanish islands of which his associates could produce and sell opium to.

During 1898 another significant trend in the world of the Opium Trade came to bear as well, the domestic opposition to opium sales and the first indications of a politically powerful Temperance movement coming from American missionaries in both China and the US colonies. Protestant missionaries in China had been under assault as the Chinese had come to associate Christianity with the vicious opium addiction epidemic that had destroyed their country, primarily due to the fact that missionaries would often arrive on opium clippers (Lodwick). The missionaries formed Anti-Opium Leagues in opposition to the British Royal Opium Commission as well as US opium sales abroad and at home. Medical marihuana would also be used during this time as a medicine for weaning people off of severe morphine and heroin addictions.

Medical Cannabis Extract

Medical Cannabis Extract

The birth of eugenics in Great Britain and the spread of social darwinistic theories also became prominent during this period; leading to a revival of strict racial codes in the United States including the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1888. To gain support for the Chinese Exclusion Act, Republican politicians condemned opiate addictions and the general depravity of Gold Rush towns like San Francisco, banned public use of opium and attempted to control use of Chinese opium in California through a labeling law in 1891. Russell and the Opium Cartel, fearing that the tide of their fortunes were politically ebbing, turned to two entities for help in securing their future, the Temperance Movement themselves and the Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. It should also be noted that during this time the prior McKinley presidency had continued the Republican post-war tradition started by Ulysses S Grant of making war on the farmers and poor by imposing the gold standard. Insidious tactics were used to kill off support for silver politically (see the History of the Wizard of Oz for this story) to serve the interest of industrialists and big finance. (Lundberg) Threats against McKinley’s life led to the creation of the National Bureau of Crime Identification, a predecessor to the FBI; following McKinley’s assassination in 1901, Roosevelt, formerly the Vice President by that year and now acting President, commissioned the new bureau to start identifying potential domestic ‘anarchists’ and centralized the powers of the Department of Justice and the Department of Labor personnel dossiers under this new agency to monitor dissident Americans.

Neither the Opium Cartel nor Roosevelt could have predicted the influence of the Anti-Opium League and the Protestant missionaries had in being able to disrupt their distribution of opium. Charles Henry Brent, an Episcopalian bishop went to the newly owned Philippines as a missionary only to find that, since 1898, the island community had been decimated by a large opium epidemic. The opium was sourced in colonial era farms that served the Chinese opium import market. The Brent Commission would later go on in 1903 to be the first group to recommend that a licensing system for opium addicts exist and that narcotics be subject to international control laws.

President Theodore Roosevelt

President Theodore Roosevelt

Roosevelt and the Opium Cartel were concerned about the league of ministers and their growing power, as the Temperance and Dry Movements had begun to rise in both popularity and power in the late 1880s. By the early 20th century along with eugenics, their movement’s power was just beginning to grow politically and would peak with the passage of alcohol prohibition in the Volstead Act and 18th amendment in 1919. Roosevelt and members of the pharmaceutical consortiums, seeking to control the narcotics markets while dodging restriction by the Temperance movement, worked together to pass the Pure, Food and Drug Act in 1906. Roosevelt drove the political attention of the public toward the food inspection provisions built within the act and away from rules regarding regulations of available medicines. The act imposed strict regimens for labeling and packaging of pharmaceuticals which in the early 1900’s made small and medium sized apothecaries weak in competing with larger pharmaceutical corporations like Beyer and Merck. For the first time a list of ‘Dangerous Drugs’ were created that included Alcohol, Cannabis, Morphine and Opium (but not heroin).

Drug Inspectors were used more like thugs in tearing down small and medium sized businesses as “goods found in violation are subject to seizure and destruction”, reducing the number of apothecaries and pharmacies that supplied medical marihuana as weaning agents for the opiate narcotics and allowing the pharmaceutical companies to envelop full monopoly over the production of opium and opioids for medical purposes. Coca-Cola was also forced to abandon the use of cocaine in their soft drink at this time.  Medical cannabis could still be prescribed by a doctor but the requirement of delivery reduced supplies of opium and medical cannabis by 1/3 within a year of the bill’s passage due to government intimidation. The effects of the Pure Food and Drug Act were truly felt when the pharmaceuticals supported by the Republican Party at the time began a state by state crusade to heavily regulate medical cannabis starting with Washington DC in 1906, Massachusetts in 1911, and a cascade of other states would soon follow after the Harrison Tax Act of 1914 would be passed.

Medical Cannabis Extract

Medical Cannabis Extract

Let it also be noted that the religious Temperance Movement by the time of the Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt had evolved from a drug and alcohol abstaining religious movement into a darwinistic racial-religious body that sought to not only purify the white race through the sterilization of the poor and ethnic women, but also by convincing the ‘racially pure’ to abstain from vices that were viewed of as both lower class and ethnic. This feature was passed on from aspects of British Social Darwinism which had taken popularity in high American culture along with Egyptian Revival Architecture. The American oligarchy saw drug control and the temperance movement not just as a means of ‘cleaning up’ American culture or as a way of socially perfecting it; the oligarchy came to view drug control as a means to an end to achieve the racial perfection that they had dreamed of, through their belief in eugenics and racial hygiene.

Roosevelt empowered the Brent Commission in 1906 and they convened the First International Opium Commission in 1909 in Shanghai. This commission was the first international body on international drug prohibition. This meeting led to the International Opium Convention at the Hague in 1912 and the world’s first drug control treaty under the League of Nations. At this convention medical marihuana was further regulated and restricted under the term ‘Indian Hemp’, all cannabis byproducts, extracts and concentrations like hashish were deemed to not have medical use and were subsequently banned, cocaine and opium were also banned and morphine was severely restricted. The term ‘Indian Hemp’ was deemed to be any hemp or cannabis byproduct grown in an uncontrolled state outside of the domestic US.



The final decision to ban medical marihuana was not made in legislative hall of elected representatives nor in a town hall meeting or at a medical convention of authority. The final decision was made at a convention hosted by Winston Churchill, Charles Darwin’s son Maj. Leonard Darwin, and Lord Balfour and included illustrious guests including statesmen, industrialists and royalty from throughout Northern Europe, Great Britain and the United States. This convention was called the First International Eugenics Congress, where the elite of the world discussed policies on how to effectively curtail the population of the world, increase the ‘purity’ of class ‘breeds’ and decrease the population of the poor white race to purify themselves not only in race but in class as well. At this convention it was suggested for the first time that known drugs of great medical benefit should be restricted under the guise of ‘drug and narcotics control’ so that lower classes and groups would not have access to widely available natural medicine like medical marihuana legally. The hope was that such control laws would increase the mortality rate of the lower classes and allow for more effective Malthusian tactics.

Photo Poster promoting 'Racial Hygiene'

Photo Poster promoting ‘Racial Hygiene’

Banned Narcotics

Banned Narcotics

The Convention was wholeheartedly supported by the Progressive Movement at the time, both Republicans and Democrats alike.  “Progressives” today would find it hard to swallow that their heroes of yesteryear were eugenicists and possibly some of the worst race mongers in known history. Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler credited much of his racial theories to American progressive eugenics literature written in the 1910’s and 20’s. Sterilization laws were widely implemented throughout the United States, primarily from 1905 to 1954 with some being still on the books in even liberal states like California. It should also be noted that in during the 1910’s, Woodrow Wilson, a self-identified Klansman was President of the United States. By 1914 twenty nice states had regulated opium, morphine and heroin out of existence as available pharmaceutical drugs; the Brent Committee successfully passed the Harrison Tax Act which was designed to regulate many competing pharmaceuticals out of existence by expanding the definition of a narcotic drug, which would now include all forms of medical marihuana.

Eugenics Sterilization Law Propaganda Poster

Eugenics Sterilization Law Propaganda Poster

The Second International Eugenics Congress of 1921, this time hosted in New York by the State Department and Alexander Graham Bell with the British Royal Family as honored speakers and guests, celebrated the victories that had been achieved through the control of much needed narcotic drugs. With the banning of effective natural drug derivatives and the substitution of weaker tempered pharmaceuticals designed for profit, an astonishing level of death and destruction in the trenches of World War I and the ravages of the Spanish Flu pandemic that followed the war led to what was viewed as a true purging of the Earth’s population. Medical Marihuana would soon officially join Alcohol Prohibition at the International Opium Convention of 1925 under the pseudonym ‘Hashish’ and that only ‘European Hemp’ would be allowed for industrial use.

The 1920s will be discussed in the continuation of this series The Secret History of the War on Drugs with the rise of the Mafia in reaction to drug and alcohol prohibition, the evolution of the FBI, the heavy handed corruption of the Roaring 20s, how drug/alcohol prohibition and mafia wars contributed to the Great Depression and on the origins of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics



Lodwick, Kathleen L. (1996). Crusaders Against Opium: Protestant Missionaries in China 1874–1917. University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 0-8131-1924-3l

Deitch, Robert (2003). Hemp – American History Revisited. New York City: Algora Publishing. p. 16. ISBN 0-87586-206-3.

Ledain: History of Opium Use (

Food and Drug Act of 1906:


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