Reefer Madness, a classic in the annals of hemp literature, is the popular social history of marijuana use in America. Beginning with the hemp farming if George Washington, author Larry "Ratso" Sloman traces the fascinating story of our nation's love-hate relationship with the resilient weed we know as marijuana.
Herein we find antiheroes such as Allen Ginsberg, Robert Mitchum (the first Hollywood actor busted for pot), Louis Armstrong (who smoked pot every day), the Beatles, and more rapscallions standing up for, supporting, smoking, and politicizing the bounties of marijuana.
With a new afterword by Michael Simmons, who has written for Rolling Stone, LA Weekly, and High Times, on the progress of the hemp movement and the importance of medical marijuana, Reefer Madness is a classic that goes on.
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St. Martin's Griffin
November 01, 1998
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Excerpt from Reefer Madness by Larry Ratso Sloman
MEXICAN FAMILY GO INSANE Five Said to Have Been Stricken by Eating Marihuana
Mexico City, July 5--A widow and her four children have been driven insane by eating the Marihuana. plant, according to doctors, who say that there is no hope of saving the children's lives and that the mother will be insane for the rest of her life.
The tragedy occurred while the body of the father, who had been killed, was still in a hospital.
The mother was without money to buy other food for the children, whose ages range from 3 to 15, so they gathered some herbs and vegetables growing in the yard for their dinner. Two hours after the mother and children had eaten the plants, they were stricken. Neighbors, hearing outbursts of crazed laughter, rushed to the house to find the entire family insane.
Examination revealed that the narcotic marihuana was growing among the garden vegetables.
--New York Times, July 6, 1927
The Aztec Indians called the weed "malihua," and from this word eventually grew the word "marihuana," as the Spaniards then called the weed and as the weed is still known. The word "mallihua" or "mallihuan" comes from the combination of the words "mallin" (which means prisoner), "hua" (which means property or substance), and the termination "ana" (which means to seize or take possession of). Therefore, it would seem that when the Indians spoke of the "mallihua" or "mallihuan," they wished to impart the idea that the substance of the weed seized and took possession and made a prisoner of the person using the weed.
--From the papers of Harry J. Anslinger
The act of smoking marijuana with the intention of effecting a change in the user's consciousness first became defined as a social problem in the late 1910s and early 1920s, when early reports of a "drug" being carried across the border by Mexican immigrants surfaced in states in the Southwest. However, long before that time Americans had been quite familiar with other usages of the multifaceted cannabis plant.
Hemp was one of the first crops cultivated by the early colonial settlers. Used in making paper and sturdy garments, many of the early colonial legislative bodies encouraged its growth as a cash crop. In fact, in 1762 Virginia imposed penalties on those who did not produce it.
One of the early colonists who grew hemp was George Washington. In his diary entry of August 7, 1765, Washington noted: "began to separate the Male from the Female hemp at Do--rather too late." And two days later: "Abt. 6 o'clock put some Hemp in the Rivr. to Rot--." And in September of that year, our gentleman farmer chronicled: "Began to pull the Seed Hemp--but was not sufficiently ripe."
Washington's concern for separating the male plants from the female plants has led some to believe that our first chief executive was using the hemp for psychoactive purposes. But since George was putting his hemp into the river to rot rather than drying the plant, one is led to believe that the father of our country was merely soaking and not smoking his pot. Separating the male from the female is flimsy evidence that Washington desired a resin-soaked female plant for personal recreational or medicinal use. In all likelihood, he was stashing the strong fibrous male plants and discarding the psychoactive females.
From 1629, when it was introduced in New England, until the invention of the cotton gin and similar machinery, hemp was a major crop in the United States. And as its utility for clothing and the like diminished, the resilient marijuana plant appeared in a new form--as a medicine for a wide variety of ailments. It was first recognized in 1850 by the United States Pharmacopaeia, the highly selective drug reference manual. In 1851 the United States Dispensatory, a less rigorous listing, recommended cannabis for a wide variety of disorders:
Extract of hemp is a powerful narcotic (used here to indicate sleep-producing substance) causing exhilaration, intoxication, delirious hallucinations, and, in its subsequent action, drowsiness and stupor, with little effect upon the circulation. It is asserted also to act as a decided aphrodisiac, to increase the appetite, and occasionally to induce the cataleptic state. In morbid states of the system, it has been found to cause sleep, to allay spasm, to compose nervous disquietude, and to relieve pain. In these respects it resembles opium; but it differs from that narcotic in not diminishing the appetite, checking the secretions, or constipating the bowels. It is much less certain in its effects, but may sometimes be preferably employed, when opium is contraindicated by its nauseating or constipating effects, or its disposition to produce headache, and to check the bronchial section. The complaints in which it has been specially recommended are neuralgia, gout, rheumatism, tetanus, hydrophobia, epidemic cholera, convulsions, chorea, hysteria, mental depression, delirium tremens, insanity and uterine hemorrhage.
Quite an impressive array. In fact, tincture of cannabis was produced by the leading pharmaceutical companies in the late 1800s, including Parke-Davis, Lilly and Squibb. A German firm even marketed cannabis cigarettes for use in combating asthma. The cigarettes also contained belladonna, and the more aware patients in the population rushed to their general practitioners, studied in the art of the wheeze.
In fact, for the early immigrants to the United States from eastern Europe, cannabis had traditionally played a major role in their folklore for centuries. In the fifth century B.C., the Greek historian Herodotus observed that the Scythians would hurl hemp seeds onto heated stones and then inhale the vapor to become intoxicated. This ritual would occur after a Scythian had died, and seems to presage the Irish wake. "The Scythians howl with joy for the vapour bath" was the way our ancient scribe put it.
Cannabis remained connected with the cult of the dead, even up to the present day in eastern Europe. The anthropologist, Sula Benet, reported that today in Poland and Lithuania, on Christmas Eve when the dead come back to visit, a soup made of cannabis seeds called semieniatka is served to the dearly departed. On Shrove Tuesday in Poland married women dance the "hemp dance," and young brides are sprinkled with cannabis seeds in lieu of rice. The creative Poles also use marijuana for divination, especially with respect to affairs of the heart. The eve of Saint Andrew's (November 30) is the best time to determine marital plans, and certain rituals, utilizing cannabis seeds, are believed to hasten the marital union. Benet, in an article in the anthology Cannabis and Culture, notes:
Girls in the Ukraine carry hemp seeds in their belts, they jump on a heap and call out: "Andrei, Andrei, I plant the hemp seed on you. Will god let me know with whom I will sleep?" The girls then remove their shirts and fill their mouths with water to sprinkle on the seed to keep the birds from eating them. Then they run around the house naked three times.
Benet also reported the wide use of hemp in folk medicine in Russia and eastern Europe. In Poland, Russia and Lithuania, hemp was used to treat toothache by inhaling the vapor from seeds thrown onto hot stones. Years later, in New York City during the 1920s, it was not uncommon for Russian and Polish immigrants to trek over to Nassau Street, buy bulk cannabis, return to their Lower East Side tenements, throw the cannabis on the radiator, and, using a towel to form a smoke chamber, inhale the fumes for respiratory ailments.
Although tincture of cannabis was widely used in America from the mid-1800s until 1937, very few reports of its psychoactive properties were made. Perhaps this was due to the psychological set of the patients; they were taking a medicine, not indulging in a vice. At any rate there were a few early psychic explorers, and the most famous of these was a young man who lived in upstate New York: Fitz Hugh Ludlow.
Ludlow was born September 11, 1836, in New York City and grew up in Poughkeepsie, New York. In 1855 he was attending college in Schenectady, New York and chanced upon an article by the writer and traveler Bayard Taylor. Taylor described his experiences with the fabled drug hashish, which, as we knowtoday, is a concentrated form of marijuana. It was the first personal account of hashish use by an American (which in France had reached semi-institutionalized status through the Club des Haschischins, whose prominent members included Baudelaire, Gautier, Dumas, Balzac and Nerval).
Being a curious lad, and fueled by the fantastic reminiscences of Taylor, Ludlow began to frequent the apothecary shop of his friend Anderson. The potions and utensils held a fascination for the twenty-year-old, and soon he was experimenting with consciousness alteration by inhaling chloroform. From chloroform, Ludlow advanced to ether, then opiates, "until I had run through the whole gamut of queer agents within my reach."
But then in 1855 a chance occurrence:
One morning, in the spring of 185--, I dropped in upon the doctor for my accustomed lounge. "Have you seen," said he, "my new acquisitions?" I looked toward the shelves in the direction of which he pointed, and saw, added since my last visit, a row of comely pasteboard cylinders inclosing vials of the various extracts prepared by Tilden and Co ... .
A rapid glance showed most of them to be old acquaintances. "Conium, taraxacum, rhubarb--ha! what is this? Cannabis Indica?" "That," answered the doctor, looking with a parental fondness upon his new treasure, "is a preparation of the East Indian hemp, a powerful agent in cases of lock-jaw." On the strength of this introduction, I took down the little archer, and, removing his outer verdant coat, began the further prosecution of his acquaintance. To pull out a broad and shallow cork was the work of an instant, and it revealed to me an olive-brown extract, of the consistency of pitch, and a decided aromatic odor. Drawing out a small portion upon the point of my penknife, I was just going to put it to my tongue, when "Hold on!" cried the doctor; "do you want to kill yourself? That stuff is deadly poison." "Indeed!" I replied; "no, I can not say that I have any settled determination of that kind"; and with that I replaced the cork, and restored the extract, with all its appurtenances, to the shelf.
Ludlow immediately consulted his Dispensatory and recognized the cannabis extract to be none other than the famed hashish that Taylor had described. So, sneaking a ten-grain pill, Ludlow began his experimentation. At first he observed no effects, and he gradually increased the dosage to thirty grains. And suddenly America's first recreational cannabis user found himself stoned:
Ha! what means this sudden thrill? A shock, as of some unimagined vital force, shoots without warning through my entire frame, leapingto my fingers' ends, piercing my brain, startling me till I almost spring from my chair.
I could not doubt it. I was in the power of the hasheesh influence. My first emotion was one of uncontrollable terror--a sense of getting something which I had not bargained for. That moment I would have given all I had or hoped to have to be as I was three hours before.