Opinion: The Hysteria of Deception: Explaining the unfounded fear of cannabis in American society

The Oglala holy man, Black Elk, once observed that the desire to attain wealth makes white men go crazy and that some would do almost anything to achieve a financial upper hand. In this instance, Black Elk spoke of gold miners flooding into the Black Hills of South Dakota, but the observations of this revered spiritual leader were more profound and widely applicable than even he might have realized. The demonization of cannabis in the United States is the direct result of calculated deception and the deliberate spread of misinformation by timber and oil companies feeling a pinch in their pockets, and it made us all go crazy as a result.

It all began in 1916 when the USDA reported that hemp, the fibers attained from the stalk of the cannabis plant, produces four times more paper per acre than trees. This was big news. Timber had been on the ascendency over the 19th century, with oil recently becoming a cash crop in the Great Plains, but the United States had been founded on hemp during the two centuries prior. The first recorded use of hemp in the colonies was in 1632, when the Virginia Assembly directed every planter, “as soone as he may, provide seede of flaxe and hempe and sowe the same.” Massachusetts and Connecticut followed suit, and by the early 18th century, hemp was being cultivated throughout the eastern seaboard. In Kentucky in 1810, farmers were selling hemp for $330 per ton, with vast amounts crossing the ocean to European ports. Even George Washington and Thomas Jefferson raised the crop.

Fast forward to the early 20th century, and while hemp has lost its place, the memories of its potential lived on. This concerned timber and oil companies, and realizing that the logic of hemp providing environmentally friendly products at a fraction of the cost would create an unassailable adversary, the gangster mentality set in, and those at the top embarked on a campaign of fear, deception and hysteria to ensure that cannabis was – temporarily at least – demonized across the country.


Fortunately for the fat cats, they had a platform (albeit one relatively unknown by the everyday citizen) upon which to place their scaremongering. Following a half-century of bootleg peddling and quackery by traveling “physicians,” in 1906 Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act requiring that certain drugs, including cannabis, be labeled with contents. This was followed by a wave of legislation aimed at restricting all narcotic sales to pharmacies with doctor’s prescriptions. All fairly sensible stuff. But then the hysteria kicked in. State after state began passing bills restricting the sale of “habit-forming substances” (except tobacco, of course — it was too valuable), and with that, cannabis became a hot topic. Into the mix stepped the timber and oil companies, and the smear campaign began.

It worked, too. By publicly associating cannabis with hemp and focusing misguided attention on the psychoactive element of the plant, the American consciousness reacted with terrible ferocity. In 1931, Texas passed life sentences in prison for possession of the substance. And so, it continued, through the reefer madness hysteria of the late 1930s and early 1940s, all the way to the feverish prison penalties of the 1950s and 1960s.

And why? Because hemp is better than wood and oil as a practical substance, and those in charge fear it. Trees need up to 50 years of growth before they can be used to make paper; hemp can be cultivated within 100 days. Hemp also lasts longer and can be recycled three more times than conventional 8.5 x 11. As for the oil companies, methanol is a competitive alternative to gasoline, and can readily be extracted from the hemp plant, yielding up to 10,000 liters per acre harvested. Furthermore, hemp fuel is biodegradable and does not create sulfur dioxide when burned.

Black Elk died in 1950, but not before he had seen the world around him warp into an unrecognizable wasteland not his own. On a lesser scale, the world of hemp was also cynically manipulated by negative intent, with countless lives ruined by draconian laws spun as the policing of cannabis.

But at least the industry has an opportunity that Black Elk did not. To see it all change back.