Did you know joints were sold legally in the US in the 1870s? Neither did I.

Yesterday I stumbled across this ad for Grimault & Co.'s "Indian Cigarettes" in an 1876 edition of the Daily Argus in Rock Island, Ill. I was aware that, during the nineteenth century, Cannabis indica was used in a variety of remedies and carried in pharmacies across the nation. But I had never heard of anyone selling joints before the early twentieth century, when cops started rounding up pot-puffing Mexicans along the border.

The folks over at the Antique Cannabis Book have more details on these early legal reefers. They note that Grimault & Co.'s Cannabis cigs were available since 1870, and they were apparently the only ones on the market. This, along with the general dearth of reports of intoxicating Cannabis use during the nineteenth century, seems to suggest that Americans at the time just weren't that interested in using Cannabis to get high. Opiates could also be legally obtained then, too, so maybe those who wanted a trip just chose the stronger stuff instead.

Isn't it funny how some thirty years later, when poor, migrant, brown-skinned, non-English speakers started bringing the same exact product across the border, we completely lost our $hit and banned them?

Granted, the middle and upper classes in Mexico didn't exactly paint a sparkling image of marijuana for Americans, and the unruly behavior of pot-smoking soldiers and prisoners didn't do the plant's image any favors, either.

Modern-Day Reefer Madness: How the Ferguson Police Department Used Michael Brown's Cannabis Use to Cheapen His Life

Police investigators repeatedly stressed Michael Brown's Cannabis use prior to his death at the hands of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson.
Former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson displayed a stunning mastery of nineteenth-century racist rhetoric when he described Michael Brown, the unarmed black teenager he shot and killed, as a "demon" whose freakish strength mirrored that of "Hulk Hogan." "I had to kill him," Wilson said.

After the shooting, as is common after a non-black kills a young black person for no good reason, media personalities and the public showed respect for the dead teenager by digging into his personal life and piling up as many excuses for his killer as they could: Brown was a a cigar-snatching bully and a career criminal! Wilson was working in a dangerous (read: black) neighborhood; you can't expect him to exercise the same kind of calculated judgment with all those scary black bodies walking around! Brown was a "thug" who liked guns and liquor and money: See, here's a picture of him holding a gun and money next to some liquor  (oh wait, that wasn't Brown; it was just another black person profiled by another white police officer)...

And then there was my personal favorite, Brown was a drug user!

As if Wilson's harrowing story of Brown's super-Negro strength was not enough to convince the Ferguson police "investigators" that their fellow officer was squeaky clean in this incident, Brown's toxicology report showed he had been smoking pot at some point before he died. A construction worker then told police investigators that he saw Brown with some marijuana the day of the shooting and asked the teenager whether he had tried  "wax" - highly concentrated Cannabis oil. Brown was not seen smoking any Cannabis preparations the day of the shooting. The worker did not offer Brown any wax, or say anything about where he might get it. Brown told the worker he had never tried wax before, and that was the end of what should have been considered an irrelevant conversation.

But you can almost see the police investigators' eyes light up upon hearing this tangential information: "SUCCESS!" their tiny brains must've cried, "Not only was Michael Brown a black criminal, but he was also high! We got him! ... er, well, we already got him, but now WE'VE GOT HIS REPUTATION, too!"

In their ensuing questioning of witnesses, investigators proceeded to lay out the absurd possibility that extremely concentrated hash oil made Brown hallucinate that he was invincible, thus explaining the bizarre part of Wilson's story where a "demon"-eyed Brown "charged" him and required the officer's astute unloading of six rounds into the body of the drug-fueled beast.

Again, nobody saw Brown smoke any kind of pot that day. Depending on rate of use and body type, THC, the primary psychoactive compound in Cannabis, stays in the system for days or weeks. Brown could have smoked the small amount of pot the construction worker saw him with that day, or he could have smoked pot a day or two before. Herbal forms of Cannabis, like the kind Brown allegedly had, rarely have enough THC to induce hallucinations. High concentrations of THC, such as those found in hashish or wax, can. Again, there was no evidence that Brown had access to, possessed, or smoked anything besides enough weed for a joint. Case closed, right?

"... prosecutors still pursued the waxing angle.

The jurors first heard the term from a police chemist Oct. 7, as he was being questioned by Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Kathi Alizadeh.

“If one were to ingest that, you would be consuming a higher level of THC than you would if you were to have smoked or ingested the plant material?” Alizadeh asked.

The chemist answered, “Yes, you would.”

The questions did not lead to any mention of Brown’s waxing, though, leaving it unclear why they had been raised."
The Post-Dispatch writer seems confused. This is understandable. Allow me to explain: the purpose in pursuing the "waxing angle" was not to discern whether or not Brown actually was suffering from drug-induced hallucinations during the struggle with Wilson. It was pursued and brought up in front of the grand jury in order to highlight - to plant in the minds of the jury, onlookers, reporters, and commentators - yet another possible reason that Brown's life may not have been worth all that much anyway. One does not have to look far to find precedent for such a strategy: Earlier this year, attorneys for Theodore Wafer, the Detroit man who shot 19-year-old Renisha McBride to death for knocking on his front door, also fervently claimed that the victim's use of Cannabis and alcohol that evening somehow justified her dying. (The difference is that Wafer, a private citizen, was put on trial and sent to jail, whereas Wilson, a cop, never even got close)

The idea that Cannabis fuels crime and violence, especially among poor minorities, is nothing new. In the 1930s, during his push for federal Cannabis prohibition, Federal Bureau of Narcotics chief Harry Anslinger maintained that "Mexicans, Greeks, Turks, Filipinos, Spaniards, Latin Americans, and Negroes" who smoked marijuana were responsible for 50 percent of the violent crimes in their neighborhood. Anslinger also warned that blacks were using marijuana to steal and corrupt virtuous white women, claiming that "marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes." Similarly, a newspaper editorial from 1934 claimed that  "Marijuana influences Negroes to look at white people in the eye, step on white men's shadows and look at a white woman twice."

Anslinger's racist testimony - really the only testimony that was heard at the time - was instrumental in Congress' decision to pass the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which effectively legalized the racial profiling of minorities under the guise of rooting out potentially dangerous drug users. But the most chilling resonance to the Michael Brown case is found in the Bureau's explanation of marijuana's effects, which it published in pamphlets during Anslinger's reign as chief from 1930 to 1962. This was the text as of 1962:
"The drug produces first an exhaltation with a feeling of well being, a happy, jovial mood, usually; an increased feeling of physical strength and power. Those who are accustomed to habitual use of the drug are said eventually to develop a delirious rage after its administration during which they are temporarily, at least, irresponsible and prone to commit violent crimes. The prolonged use of narcotics is said to produce mental deterioration."
Sound familiar? The above government-concocted myth about Cannabis fits like a glove on the hand of the mythical hulking beast Negro. I'd like to remind you all that it is now 2014, and both of these myths were just deployed - with depressing efficacy - to support the claim that a white police officer was justified in shooting an unarmed black teenager to death, and then leaving his uncovered body to rot on the sidewalk.

The persistent idea that the lives of drug users, especially minority drug users, are worth less than any others amounts to nothing more than absurd discrimination and hypocrisy on the part of the American authorities and the drug-shaming (but secretly drug-loving) American public. The Michael Brown case is yet another example of how our awful and unproductive history of stereotyping and punishing drug users, especially those who have already been "othered" by racism, lives in the present.

As someone who reads a great deal about race in America, the grand jury's decision not to indict Darren Wilson did not surprise me. What did surprise me, however, was the slew of blatant, centuries-old myths that the white public and white authorities have subsequently used to justify that decision. The only conceivable reason these myths were drudged up is that, somehow, somewhere, people still believe them. The whole scenario has resulted in a profound distortion of the space-time continuum, in which every day I have trouble answering the deceptively simple question of "what century am I in?"

Although, as Harry Anslinger and the Ferguson police would argue, maybe it's the pot.

"A little reefer by the woodstove": How Cannabis Indica came to Alaska

Courtesy of CannabisCulture magazine.
In last week's midterm elections, Alaskans approved Ballot Measure 2 by a margin of 52 to 48 percent, making theirs the fourth US state in two years to legalize recreational cannabis use. Oregon became the third earlier Tuesday night, joining Colorado and Washington, states that legalized in 2012. Add in marijuana's quasi-legal status in California, and Alaska's vote brought legal weed to the entire West Coast of the United States (perhaps to the chagrin of oft-busted bud growers in Canada's B.C.).

In an age of near-universal public support for some kind of cannabis legalization, it may not seem very surprising that Alaskans voted to legalize weed by a fairly wide margin. I mean, the stuff had pretty much been legal in the country's northernmost reaches since 1975, when the Alaskan Supreme Court ruled that personal cultivation and consumption of marijuana in the home was protected under the state constitution's right-to-privacy article [1]. Under that ruling - which made marijuana laws in staunchly conservative Alaska the most liberal in the country by far - Alaskans could possess up to four ounces of cannabis and grow up to 25 plants in their home. When that ruling was challenged by a 1991 initiative that re-criminalized cannabis, barely anything changed [2]. State troopers refused to enforce it, with some even agreeing that they'd rather try to take a man's gun than his stash of weed.

Yes, you read that right: In Alaska, a state where people love (and actually need) their guns more than they do in Texas, state troopers in the 1990s preferred grabbing guns instead of ganja. Alaskans further undermined the '91 law when they legalized medical cannabis via a ballot initiative in 1998.

Alaska is a cold, unforgiving place, populated by people who, as their state constitution's privacy article suggests, value their individual liberties above most everything else. It's safe to say that telling people what they can and cannot do in a state where nature's laws undoubtedly govern more effectively than man's has never been popular. In such a harsh environment marked by half-years of total darkness, it's also completely understandable why Alaskans have some of the highest rates of marijuana use in the country (see footnote #1 and the map to the right, where as of 2008 the percentage of monthly marijuana users in Alaska was surpassed only in three other states and Washington, D.C.).

But when we discuss Alaskans' historic relationship with cannabis in a purely political or social context, we gloss over one of the most fascinating and important elements of the story: namely, how did a plant that thrives in the most sun-drenched parts of the world come to find a happy home so close to the Arctic Circle?

On Cannabis, Drug Plants, and World Societies

Moments of radical drug-policy change, like the one in Colorado in 2012, inspire scholars to think differently about "controversial" topics like drug plants. (Image: warondrugs101.com)
Like so many projects, this one was inspired by a question raised in the context of what I once understood to be an unlikely and wholly surprising event: the voter-approved legalization of recreational cannabis in the state of Colorado on November 6, 2012. That night I sat with a group of friends under the heated lamps of a rooftop bar in Fort Collins, watching the election returns, when a big-bodied young man who had been staring at his cell phone leapt from his barstool: “It passed! Amendment 64 passed!” As I watched the man’s back-length dreadlocks writhe in elation, my emotions ranged from happiness—what I had long considered to be an overdue change to draconian drug policy had finally been put into the law books somewhere—to complete astonishment that the change even happened at all. Somewhere between those emotions and the dread-headed man’s announcement that he was now going to smoke a celebratory blunt in his car, a question blared into my head: “Of all places, why is cannabis now legal in Colorado, and of all times, why now?”

It is a question that sparked a year and a half of research, and probably many more, on the cannabis plant and its human history. At this point, I can only hypothesize an answer. But that is no longer my main concern, as in the course of my research the entire story of drug plants, with its remarkable evolutionary twists, poetic dichotomies of tragedy and ecstasy, and penultimate truths, bared itself before me as one of the most fascinating stories in the history of evolutionary life. In plants, humans have found nearly everything they need: food, fuel, shelter, fiber, medicine. With plants that provide these in a reasonably efficient manner, humans have formed ancient, reciprocal relationships, in which immobile plants defy the worst of their evolutionary handicaps. They increase and spread their populations rapidly via means of human waste, locomotion, cultivation, and most recently, transportation. This gives them the edge over plants that either produce nothing of benefit to humans—the rare plant indeed—or whose useful qualities have yet to be discovered. Drug plants derive all of these same benefits from humans, yet they provide us not with sustenance but with another extraordinary, if controversial benefit: The coveted shift in consciousness.

"Justifiable homicide": Marijuana & Tragedy in Humboldt County, 1970

The Eel River in Humboldt County, CA, was the site of a tragic cannabis-related shooting in October 1970.
Everything seemed to be looking up for Patrick John Berti in the fall of 1970. The 23-year-old native of Ferndale, California graduated near the top of his class at Chicago State University the previous fall, and had just spent the summer touring Alaska and Canada. He had applied to law school at San Diego State College and was waiting for a reply.[1]

On October 4, Berti's father, John, enlisted his son to help him carry debris from an old, wrecked store in nearby Waddington. On that Sunday afternoon, Patrick and Jack McCanless, another 23-year-old from Ferndale, took some debris out to be burned on a gravel bed in the Eel River, just east of Waddington near Grizzly Bluff Road.[2]
Two days earlier, Roscoe Rich was following his cows near the same spot on the Eel River when he noticed two four-foot marijuana plants growing in containers on the bed. Rich showed the plants to Humboldt County sheriff deputies Mel Ames and Larry Lema. Ames set up a stakeout to see who would come tend the plants. Two days later, Lema was crouched behind some bushes watching the plants when McCanless and Berti happened upon the containers and began examining them. Like many small-town Americans, Berti knew members of the local police force, including Lema. Berti's back was turned and Lema did not immediately recognize him. But he recognized McCanless, and figured he had caught the youth and a partner cultivating marijuana.[3]

His revolver drawn, Lema stepped out and called to the young men that they were under arrest. Berti, who was crouching next to one of the plants, stood up and turned around. He had taken a small twig from the plant. Lema mistook it for a weapon and fired a single shot into Berti's chest.[4]
It was only after Berti had uttered his final words - "Christ, Larry, you shot me!" - that Lema recognized him. As Berti lay dying on the gravel bar, Lema began handcuffing McCanless, who pleaded with the deputy to let him go get help. They went to the Rich house, where McCanless called an ambulance and Lema told Rich's son, John, to notify the sheriff's department. Berti was dead when Lema and McCanless returned to the gravel bed.

Earlier that day, Lema had witnessed his own child's baptism; his actions that afternoon ensured someone else’s would have a funeral. Presumably from Berti's limp hand, he took the six-inch marijuana twig as evidence.[5]

To understand how a sheriff's deputy could gun down a young man for simply checking out a potted plant, one has to understand the political and cultural context of California, and to some degree the nation as a whole, in the late sixties and early seventies.

California's Nascent Marijuana Industry, 1960-63

California's famous marijuana-growing region, the "Emerald Triangle," shown in green.
 In 1954, the Ukiah, California Kiwanis club invited Reno Bartolomie, a special investigator for the DA in Mendocino County,to speak at one of their weekly dinners. Bartolomie, who would later be elected sheriff of Mendocino County, discussed the state's growing concern with drugs and told the group their county "is fortunate in being one of the clean spots in the state" (1).

Eight years later, as sheriff, Bartolomie could no longer make that claim, as by August of 1962 his deputies oversaw the pullup of 121 marijuana plants from the backyard of Mendocino City resident Donald Treadwell (2).

Along with Humboldt and Trinity counties, Mendocino County is now part of northern California's "Emerald Triangle" - the country's hotbed of outdoor marijuana farming. But before the back-to-the-land hippies began cultivating marijuana in the warm, rugged region in the 1970s, large-scale growing operations stateside were few and far between (3). Of course, it has been well-documented on this blog that California's climate allowed dozens, probably hundreds of people to grow their own supply - and sometimes a little extra for the black market - pretty much anywhere (4). One L.A man in 1959 grew 550 plants in his backyard (5). But before the 1980s most of the nation's illicit marijuana was grown in and smuggled from Mexico, Jamaica, or Colombia (6).

However, a healthy foreign supply did not keep enterprising Californians like Treadwell from trying to get a piece of the black pie. Treadwell's partner, Jacques Mion, was an artist from San Francisco, a city that harbored more than its share of pot-smoking beatniks in the fifties (7). It is likely that either one or both partners smoked; deputies confiscated a "pipe" which, given the lack of poppy seeds or plants, was probably not "used for opium" (8). It was the cultural descendents of beats like Mion who would usher in Mendocino County's era of large-scale, high-quality marijuana production.

PHOTO: Marines "burn down" in Chicago, 1957

The caption from this syndicated photo in Eureka, California's Humboldt Standard in August 1957 pretty much says it all. An article in the Hayward Daily Review four days earlier noted that the Cook County sheriff was withholding the exact location of the patch. My guess is most residents could have simply followed the smoke and skunky odor to thegrow site, which does not appear to be in a particularly urban area.

Huge, outdoor grows like this one were rarely found near large cities, where people often grew marijuana in window boxes and vacant lots.

Sources for this post:
"Huge Marijuana Field Burnt Up," Hayward Daily Review, August 8, 1957.
Photo, Humboldt Standard, August 12, 1957, p. 24.