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Since the Dawn of Time: The History of Marijuana Prohibition in America - Part 1


By: Patricia Smith, Penn Valley

November 19, 2012 - In a historic move, Colorado and Washington voters have passed the first laws to legalize recreational marijuana for adults over 21 setting the stage for the end of decades of prohibition. This series will explore the History of Hemp in America, the forces behind Prohibition and what the future holds for marijuana reform. To understand the present, we have to start by looking at the past.

Cannabis has been grown and used productively since the dawn of civilization. The earliest known use of hemp dates back 10,000 years to the island of Taiwan where archeologists unearthed pottery shards that had pieces of hemp twine embedded in the design.

The discovery that twisted fibers were stronger than single fibers led to advancements in spinning and weaving, and some of the first fabrics ever produced were made from hemp. China is well known for inventing silk, but only the very wealthy could afford such luxuries. Hemp was the cloth of the working man.

The Chinese are also responsible for recognizing that cannabis plants had two distinct genders and each had different characteristics. They learned that the male plants produced a stronger fiber for making rope and fabric while the female plants produced seeds that could be used for a nutritious food source. (Scientists have since discovered that hemp seeds contain every essential amino acid necessary to maintain life.) However, it was the invention of paper that spread the cannabis plant around the world.

"Magic Paper"

Ts'ai Lun is credited with the invention of paper, 105 AD.
A minor court official, Ts'ai Lun, is credited with inventing paper in AD 105 although Papyrus was used in Egypt many centuries earlier. Keeping records before the invention of paper was cumbersome and required a strong physique since stone, clay or wood tablets were the only option. A conscientious administrator might process 120 pounds of documents every day.

Perhaps it was his job to cart around the heavy tablets, but Ts'ai Lun was convinced there was a better way to keep records. Through many trials and errors, he devised a system of crushing hemp and mulberry fibers and submerging them in water. The flotsam that rose to the top was placed in molds. Once dried, the fibers bound together to form the first sheets of writing paper.

With great excitement, Ts'ai Lun presented his invention at Court, but it was not well received. Ts'ai Lun was widely ridiculed and it looked like paper would have to wait for another civilization to recognize its potential until he developed a brilliant scheme. Ts'ai announced that paper had magic abilities and it could bring back the dead!

To prove his claim, Ts'ai Lun faked his own death - complete with an elaborate burial. His wife confounded mourners who came to pay their respects by burning "Underworld Money" and letting the ashes fall over his grave. She explained that burning the magic paper for seven days would give Ts'ai the resources to bribe the King of Hell who could then be persuaded to return him to his former life.

In a move used by Harry Houdini twenty centuries later, Ts'ai had a small hole drilled into the casket where he inserted a thin bamboo tube that supplied him air. After seven days, Ts'ai Lun's coffin was exhumed. Imagine their shock and amazement when Ts'ai sat up and thanked the gathered crowd of mourners for their faith in his invention! To this day, the Chinese still burn hemp "Underworld Money" over the graves of their loved ones.

The art of paper making slowly spread to Vietnam, Korea and Japan but stayed in Asia until the 9th Century when the Arabs "coerced" a captured prisoner of war during the Battle of Samarkand to reveal the secret formula. By the 12th Century, paper mills were operating in the Moorish cities of Valencia, Toledo and Xatavia. Before Spain threw the Moors out of their country in the 1400's, the only paper available to the rest of Europe was imported.

People have always been resistant to changes - even when they are beneficial. As great an advancement as paper was for civilization, it wasn't universally embraced. In 1221, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II issued a proclamation that any document produced on paper was invalid. No doubt he was influenced by wealthy landowners who produced parchment from the skins of their livestock – the first recorded attempt to prohibit cannabis based on competing special interests. It wasn't until the invention of the printing press several centuries later that paper came into its own.

The Father of Chinese Medicine

Shen-Nung discovers the medicinal benefits of cannabis.
The earliest use of cannabis as medicine is also credited to the Chinese. Legendary Emperor Shen-Nung, who lived during the 28th Century BC, was the first known person to research the medicinal value of plants. He compiled his findings in the a book called the Pen Ts'ao, the world's first Materia Medica. Shen-Nung is known as the "Father of Chinese Medicine." Drugstores throughout the country still offer a 10% discount to their patrons on the 1st and 15th of each month to honor Sheng-Nung's contribution of medicine.

Shen-Nung discovered that female cannabis plants had more beneficial medicinal qualities than its male counterpart. His simple solution was to grow only the female plants – the first record of selective breeding to attain the most favorable attributes from a plant and the genesis of sinsemilla marijuana. One of the attributes of cannabis that Shen-Nung recorded in his pharmacopeia was the "ability to commune with the Gods."

There are references to cannabis and hemp use in almost every civilization dating back to the first written language. Cannabis is mentioned in many ancient holy books including the Vedas, the Talmud, and the Vendidads from Persia. Some even believe that the Holy Bible references cannabis as in Ezekiel 47:12: "And the fruit shall be food and the leaves medicine."

The Plant of Many Uses

The uses for cannabis and hemp products today are just as diverse and beneficial as they have proved throughout history. Cannabis Sativa literally translated means "plant of many uses."

The list of items that can be manufactured from this one plant include medicine, food, paper products, textiles, plastics, body care products, construction materials, livestock food and bedding, nutritional supplements, and essential oils.

The virtues of hemp were extolled in an 1938 edition of Popular Mechanics, "as the new billion dollar crop... it can be used to make 25,000 products ranging from dynamite to Cellophane."

Apparently they didn't realize that the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 had already made hemp production illegal in the United States. Meanwhile, efforts to prohibit its production based on special interests continue unabated.

In the next installment, we will look the vital role hemp played in the development of our nation. There was a time you could be arrested for NOT growing hemp in America!

Patricia Smith lives in Nevada County. She is the Chair of Americans for Safe Access - Nevada County Chapter.


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