Turning a Staple Cash Crop into a Criminal Offense
The hemp plant (Cannabis sativa), for which "marijuana" is the Spanish name, was established in the Old World and a primary agricultural crop in North America until after the Civil War. In fact, at times, penalties were imposed on those who didn't produce it. The sails and ropes on Columbus's ships were made from it, as were those of the Mayflower. Besides being a source of one of the most useful general-purpose fibers, the flower has been valued as a recreational intoxicant and an effective medicinal painkiller since ancient times.
It was made illegal in 1937, shortly after the perfection of machinery for more easily and economically separating the fiber from the plant, which would have enabled paper, clothing, and other items to be produced far more competitively than ever before. And the free market would take care of the rest, one would think - or at least, anyone who believes that economics really works the way the textbooks say it does. This is where the difference between Capitalism and a Free Market (often misguidedly used as if they were synonymous) reveals itself.
It just so happened that at about this time, DuPont had patented a process for making paper from wood pulp, which relied heavily on chemical products not needed for making paper from hemp. The process came to be used extensively by the Hearst group, who not only published newspapers but made the paper to print them on and had bought up large tracts of forest for the purpose. In addition, DuPont had taken German patents on producing nylon from coal tar and petroleum, which again stood to be threatened by inexpensive hemp-based textiles. In a way reminiscent of the ozone fraud, it wasn't long before the nation's perceptions were being shaped by a hysterical campaign against marijuana, spearheaded by Hearst newspapers and attested to by a retinue of house-trained "scientists" . . . and the rest is history. It's also interesting to note that one of the most evangelical crusaders against the new evil - described as turning respectable middle-class boys into criminally insane fiends in 30 days - head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, W.H. Anslinger, was appointed to the office by his uncle-in-law, Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, who was the largest stockholder in Mellon Bank, one of the two banks with which Dupont did business exclusively.
I got the above information from a truly enthralling book entitled Ain't Nobody's Business If You Do, by Peter McWilliams - over 800 pages of wit, wisdom, common sense, and a staggering amount of information on all the things in our lives that government shouldn't be involved in. (Prelude Press, 8159 Santa Monica Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90046, 1993, ISBN 0-931580-53-6) A staunch Libertarian by the name of Don Le Tiggre sent me the book as a gift some years ago, and I confess it has taken me until now to get around to reading it. But well worth the effort, although I regret the delay.
McWilliams also provides several pages of examples from Jack Herer's book The Emperor Wears No Clothes: The Authoritative Historical Record of the Cannabis Plant, Marijuana Prohibition, and How Hemp Can Still Save the World of other potential uses. Besides paper, textiles, and medicines, these include fuels and lubricants (I didn't know that modern racing cars run on methanol), food (the seed is an excellent source of protein for breads and oils, and no, you can't get high on it), plastics, and building materials. I also never knew that the plant can grow 20 feet high in a season, and a good year can see three crops.
So here's a possible alternate-history theme for science-fiction. If it weren't for the quirk of technology and politics working out as they did in the 1930's, maybe today we'd see an America with the Pacific Northwest forested in hemp, government-backed exhortations to "Save the Weeds," and after some world-ending evil had been discovered for the competition, you could be thrown in jail for growing apples (think what Hearst could have done with cider alcohol) or possessing a Christmas tree.
Note added October 2, 2001
Further information from Peter McWilliams's web site at www.mcwilliams.com.