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Cannabis In the United States: A Historical Journey From Medicine to Menace

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Ah, the good old days when you could buy cannabis at your local pharmacy. Wait, what? You heard me right, folks. Believe it or not, cannabis was once a widely accepted medicine in the United States before the turn of the 20th century.

Back in the day, cannabis was commonly used to treat everything from pain and inflammation to insomnia and even menstrual cramps. In fact, it was so widely used that it was even listed in the United States Pharmacopeia, which is basically the bible of U.S. medicine.

How did we go from a society that readily accepted cannabis as a medicine to one that demonized it as a dangerous drug? Well, that's a long and complicated story, but let me give you the short version.

The Demonization of Cannabis

In the late 1800s, cannabis use started to become associated with the Mexican immigrant populations and African American jazz musicians in the United States. This led to anti-immigrant sentiment and eventually, as Mexican immigrants and black jazz musicians became more visible in American society, their use of cannabis was demonized by the media and politicians alike.

Rumors and myths spread about how the "marijuana menace" would turn users into violent criminals or even drive them to insanity. It didn't help that the term "marijuana" was used derogatorily to cast aspersions on cannabis users and associate cannabis with these marginalized groups. Those who wanted to vilify cannabis use largely succeeded in erasing the perception of cannabis’ as valuable medicine and rebranding it as a threat by association with disfavored groups.

This negative association led to the passing of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which effectively criminalized cannabis use and led to decades of unjust policies that disproportionately impacted communities of color. And just like that, a medicine that had been used for thousands of years was suddenly illegal. Unfortunately, these stereotypes and biases still linger today, perpetuating harmful and unfair policies that continue to harm marginalized communities—and fuel broader, unjustified fears of a plant that is known to hold great medicinal promise.

Cannabis as Popular Medicine

But let's rewind a bit. Before cannabis was demonized, it was a pretty popular medicine in the United States. In fact, many of our founding fathers were big fans of the green stuff. George Washington himself is said to have grown cannabis on his farm and even wrote about its medicinal properties in his personal diary.

But it wasn't just the founding fathers who were using cannabis. Women were big fans of the plant. In the late 1800s, cannabis was commonly used to treat menstrual cramps and other women's health issues. In fact, there were even cannabis-based products marketed specifically to women, such as Dr. Green's Female Pills.

And let's not forget about our dear old friend, Queen Victoria. That's right, even the Queen of England was a fan of cannabis. In fact, she reportedly used a cannabis tincture to treat her menstrual cramps.

The Lessons of Cannabis History in the United States
So, what can we take away from all of this? Well, for one thing, it's a reminder that our understanding of medicine and drugs is constantly evolving (and de-evolving, especially when national politicians step into the medical fray as happened in 1937). What was once widely accepted can become demonized and vice versa. What was once known can become unknown.

It's also a reminder that politics of fear deployed to shape social issues can have a huge impact on the way we view drugs and medicine. Cannabis was demonized in part because of anti-immigrant sentiment and fears about corrupting American youth. It was also demonized to advance 1930s political agendas. Sound familiar?

But perhaps most importantly, it's a reminder that cannabis has been used as a medicine for thousands of years. It's not some newfangled drug that's suddenly popped up out of nowhere. It's a plant that has been used by humans for millennia to treat a wide variety of ailments.

The history of cannabis in the United States is a long and complicated one. But it's important to remember that before it was demonized as a dangerous drug, American’s widely accepted cannabis as medicine to treat everything from pain to menstrual cramps. Who knows what other uses we'll discover in the future? Once we’ve recovered from 80+ years of lost opportunity in medical-cannabis research, maybe we'll even go back to buying cannabis at our local pharmacies. What a world that would be.

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