003: The Early History of Cannabis in America (19th Century – 1970s) with Adam Rathge

003: The Early History of Cannabis in America (19th Century – 1970s) with Adam Rathge


Cannabis usage in America didn’t start a few years or even a few decades ago. In fact, cannabis has a long, storied history including a period of extensive medical use before the prohibition that is just now coming to an end.

Few know more about this history than Adam Rathge. Adam Rathge holds a Ph.D. in American history from Boston College and has written extensively on the history of cannabis and marijuana in the United States. He served as a contributing editor to the Alcohol and Drug History Society’s Points Blog and is the author of numerous articles about cannabis. When he’s not writing, Adam is Director of Strategic Operations and Projects for Enrollment at the University of Dayton, where he also teaches undergraduate courses in the Department of History. 

Today, Adam joins our podcast to talk about the rise and fall of cannabis in the 19th and early 20th centuries, what ultimately led to the prohibition of marijuana across the United States, and what he’s thinking about as we continue to advance as a country toward full legalization.


  • How cannabis was introduced into American medicine in the 1830s and 40s – and how early medical journal articles set the stage for regulation, rather than prohibition. 
  • What led to recreational cannabis use in the 1910s and 1920s – and how this led to fears of insanity and so-called “reefer madness.” 
  • Why cannabis fell out of favor as a medicine in the early 20th century and how racism and xenophobia played major roles in both  early prohibition laws in states such as Arizona, Utah, and Texas and the 1937 Federal Marihuana Tax Act. 
  •  The reason Adam sees medical and adult cannabis use potentially undermining one another – and the concerns he has with these markets overlapping, especially as major corporations get involved.


“In the 19th century, we have this classification of cannabis alongside arsenic and chloroform and opium and all these other drugs. That can be both helpful and harmful right there. They’re both medicine and poison.” – Adam Rathge




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Read the Transcript


Welcome to The Green Repeal, the podcast that helps marketing and advertising experts navigate the business world of cannabis as it marches towards federal legalization. Join me, Rick Kiley, and my co-host Jeff Boedges, as we interview economists, historians, entrepreneurs, legal experts, and more. Each episode will take you behind the green and help you and the companies you serve successfully overcome the challenges of marketing a product in a heavily restricted industry. This is your guide to cannabis marketing and advertising. This is The Green Repeal.

Rick Kiley: Hello, everyone, and welcome back to The Green Repeal. In our third episode, we look back, way back, much further than we thought actually at the early history of cannabis in America. There’s a lot of great stuff here, including something for all the Harry Potter fans out there. Our guide today is Adam Rathge who holds a Ph.D. in American history from Boston College and has written extensively on the history of cannabis and marijuana in the United States. He served as a contributing editor to the Alcohol and Drug History Society’s Points Blog and is the author of numerous articles about cannabis. He’s got a book in the works as well, which we’ll go deeper into some of the content we discussed today. When he’s not writing, Adam is Director of Strategic Operations and Projects for Enrollment at the University of Dayton, where he also teaches undergraduate courses in the Department of History. Adam’s a wealth of knowledge. We are lucky to chat with him. We hope you enjoy.


Rick Kiley: Hello, everyone. Welcome back to The Green Repeal. This is Rick Kiley and I’m here with Jeff Boedges and we have joining with us Adam Rathge. Adam is a Ph.D. He got his Ph.D. in American history from Boston College. He writes and teaches about the history of cannabis and opioids currently at the University of Dayton and we are excited to talk to him about this story of the cannabis industry. Adam, welcome. 

Adam Rathge Thank you. Thanks for having me. Glad to be here. 

Rick Kiley: So, beyond what I just said, do you want to share a few more words about who you are, what you’re doing? Do I miss anything? 

Adam Rathge No. Yeah, it was pretty good. So, like you said, I got a Ph.D. from Boston College. Primarily, my research has been on the history of cannabis and, well, say cannabis and marijuana, in some senses in the history two different things for a while and particularly, I’m focused on the 19th Century and early 20th Century of that history. So, essentially, pre-federal prohibition up to federal prohibition and maybe slightly beyond is my area of focus, but the sort of mid to late 19th century, early 20th is really my area of specialty. 

Jeff: Well, good. For me, that’s kind of surprising. Like Custer like riding around like with cannabis or what was going on? I didn’t really know that cannabis went back that far in the US as far as like having a documented history. 

Adam Rathge Yeah. So, I don’t have any record of Custer riding around.

Jeff: But look into that, would you please? Thank you. 

Adam Rathge Sure. Yeah. I mean, if you’ve watched Dazed and Confused, of course, Martha Washington was a hip, hip lady. 

Jeff: Right. 

Adam Rathge Yeah. So, yeah, I mean, if the question is sort of when does this start in the US? Ostensibly, you could start with the introduction of hemp into the British colonies and America in the 1600s, but I suspect that’s not exactly entirely useful to you or your audience. 

Rick Kiley: Yeah. I think when did it start to become prevalent something that the government had an eye on? I guess like when did really the story of cannabis coming to be prevalently used either for medically or recreationally in this country and what were those early years like? 

Adam Rathge Yeah. So, for me, the real starting point in my mind for something like that, and for what I think your listeners would be interested in, really starts with what I would call the formal introduction of cannabis into American medicine in the late 1830s, early 1840s. 

Rick Kiley: Wow. 

Adam Rathge There’s certainly scattered references to cannabis or hemp or Indian hemp or these types of names prior to that point but it’s at that point that sort of professional medical journals in the US begin engaging with research on cannabis medicines that’s being conducted by a man by the name of William O’Shaughnessy in British-held India. And O’Shaughnessy essentially kind of tapped into what is a very ancient cannabis culture in India and saw some possible use for cannabis as a medicine. And so, he conducted a handful of experiments, publishes in some essentially medical journals of the British Empire. And perhaps surprisingly, given the time period, late 1830s, 1840s, in a rather quick prompt fashion, American medical journals and physicians are quickly picking up this research. It’s not much of a lag, six months, a year, two years. And they basically, initially just reprint the articles, and then some of the journals will start commenting on them. And so, for me in my research, if you start to read these early reviews of O’Shaughnessy’s work in the 1840s, and then you follow the professional medical discourse on cannabis in the United States, up through say the end of the 19th century into the early 20th century, what you’ll find is some really important debates and patterns of thought that emerge around cannabis that I would argue very much, laid the foundation for its at least initial regulation and then certainly its subsequent what we would think of is more of a prohibition than regulation. 

And so, these 19th-century medical journals are essentially what they do, what they did for me anyway and the research that I’m working on is they eliminate an initial skepticism of cannabis medicines by American physicians. So, they first are sort of like, “Is it really capable of everything that Shaughnessy is claiming?” And that’s followed by what I would call documented problems with uncertainty of either the potency or the preparation of cannabis. There’s certainly an emergence of the discussions around the dangers of what they termed cannabis poisoning, or cannabis overdose, which was a sort of set of clearly commonly documented symptoms that followed cannabis use. Not always, of course, but in certain cases. And so, to kind of say this is the start, right? So, by tracing the development of these ideas from, say the 1840s, my research is sort of undermined this notion that cannabis was something of say a 19th-century wonder drug liberally used for a wide variety of ailments or something. If you start to google this on the internet, you’re going to get some variety or degree of like…

Rick Kiley: Like snake oil salesmen kind of thing? 

Adam Rathge Well, in the 19th century, cannabis was used in all kinds of medicines, and it was used for this wide variety of ailments and physicians were doling it out and everything was fine. And sort of, there’s this idea that like the 19th-century golden era of cannabis use, and that there were like no problems. In some degree, that’s not true of what you’ll find on the internet. It’s very true in the academic literature to this point as well. Not a lot of people spend a lot of time on the 19th century but it was sort of portrayed as sort of kind of a renaissance golden era. Yeah, there were a couple of things here and there but by and large, it was widely used and widely available and no real problems. But what my research found is that, in fact, it’s during this period that American physicians and not just American physicians. This is happening elsewhere in the world. Well, they classify cannabis as a hypnotic, an analgesic, a narcotic, a toxicant, a stimulant, a poison. It’s getting all kinds of classification.

Jeff: Got a little bit of everything, man. 

Adam Rathge Yeah. Not surprisingly, given what we know now. So, while it’s true that there were physicians over the 19th century who did recommend medicinal cannabis, they rarely if ever did so unequivocally, and most 19th century physicians in my mind would have agreed that cannabis had a place in the nation’s Materia medica, that is to say like, it has a place here as a medicine. But they also believed that it was a potentially dangerous drug and ultimately, it needed regulation. So, that’s kind of my long way of saying the start of this, for me, is really what that introduction of O’Shaughnessy’s work in the late 1830s, early 1840s and then the real evolution of that, say, really picking up in the 1860s. And certainly, by the end of the 19th century, you have pretty widespread agreement on a lot of the stuff from the American sort of medical establishment, so to speak. 

Jeff: Adam, what were they prescribing cannabis for in the 18th century? 

Adam Rathge I mean, really, you name it. It was probably – and, again, that wasn’t uncommon for the 19th century. We have to frame that question through a lens of a world at least through the 1860s that they didn’t really have professional medicine in the way that we think of it now or a pharmaceutical industry that was in any kind of organized fashion or…

Jeff: Reputable fashion. 

Adam Rathge Not just local pharmacist making their own preparations. 

Jeff: Because there were opium dens back there certainly. 

Adam Rathge Yeah. So, opium is certainly the most used medicine. You know, arsenic, chloroform, all kinds of what we might see as sort of natural. 

Jeff: Arsenic sounds a little loose string. 

Rick Kiley: Why? They were even using like cocaine and stuff.

Adam Rathge Yeah. 

Jeff: Coke as in Coca-Cola. 

Adam Rathge Cocaine comes out of the market in 1890s. 

Rick Kiley: Okay. Sorry. I’m off by 40, 50, 60 years. 

Adam Rathge Roughly contemporaneously with heroin, so to speak. It’s about a decade apart though. So, for cannabis, the big ones were tetanus, like tetanus, lockjaw, kind of muscle relaxation type of things like that. Arthritis has a moment. 

Jeff: I could see those being an actually fairly effective treatment for those things. 

Adam Rathge Right. Again, given what we know now or that where the research is headed now, epilepsy, seizures were certainly. 

Rick Kiley: Yeah. 

Jeff: Yeah. And they still treat it today. 

Adam Rathge There’s certainly I’ve seen in American medical journals about like childbirth and labor pains, provided in those scenarios.

Jeff: That’s a little weird.

Rick Kiley: Well, they didn’t have the spinal yet probably. 

Adam Rathge Yeah. And so, the other thing to keep in mind here is that all of these things are, by and large, almost universally these are liquid preparations. So, there’s no real evidence at all that anyone is smoking marijuana or smoking cannabis in the 19th century in the United States. So, that’s certainly something to keep in mind. These are medicinal tinctures or fluid extracts or… 

Jeff: So, then we’re able to actually extract back then. It wasn’t just making tea. They weren’t like steeping it in water and then serving it that way. 

Adam Rathge Yeah. And if you read the medical journals, there’s lots of debates on the best way to do it and what actual alkaloids or chemicals you’re actually extracting, and none of this is to say that they were very good at that in the sense that and as we can get into here, one of the biggest problems was the limited or lack or unable ability to standardize any kind of preparation. And so, you might have one bottle on the shelf that’s totally inert and the one behind it is going to knock your socks off. And so, like I said, we can get into how that influenced the trajectory, but that led to a lot of ink spilled I guess around cannabis in these medical journals because there were certainly people in the camp that said, “This whole like great sensation around the world cannabis is going to change the world argument is not true. I’ve never seen it work.” And so, these are obviously people who are getting poor preparations or inert preparations. 

Rick Kiley: So, is that really what started us on the road towards the drug becoming more vilified was the fact that there was like this lack of consistency? Consistency and oversight, I guess, are kind of the two things that popped into my mind. 

Adam Rathge Yeah. So, I think it’s important that we understand that cannabis is regulated. In some cases, maybe even you could say prohibited without certainly prohibited without a physician prescription or possession is illegal without physician’s prescription. 

Rick Kiley: Even in the 1800s. 

Adam Rathge Yeah. Or certainly, by say Massachusetts passes that possession law in 1911. But in the late 18th century or late 19th century, you have a broad range of regulations that we would not certainly see as prohibition now, but they were regulatory measures around labeling or adulteration. The number of times you could renew a prescription, the age you had to be to have sold to you, those types of what we see as maybe consumer protections that did regulate and circumscribe how available it was. 

Jeff: That is so surprising to me though, Adam, because I think about like when you read like all the muckraking books about the meatpacking industry just for example, where it was completely unregulated and really a mess and needed a lot of – there were consumer protections that were definitely needed that weren’t putting until the 1930s in the United States. So, it somewhat boggles my mind that there was enough, I guess, awareness and wherewithal from the local governments to actually say, “Oh, we are going to provide some type of consumer protection.” It just seems way ahead of the curve given what else was out there. 

Adam Rathge Yeah. And I think you’re right to point that out and the driving force maybe ironically, maybe not ironically, is actually the professionalization of medicine and pharmacy, and to some degree to a lesser extent, perhaps, of the pharmaceutical industry. And so, physicians and pharmacists essentially spent the middle portion and really into the late 19th century carving out their professional space. As I mentioned earlier, we have to be careful about the way we talk about these terms. But American medicine, so to speak, and pharmacy, these things emerge, as we sort of know them in the 19th century. And so, physicians are trying to carve out their space to say, “We are the gatekeepers to protect consumers from this market that is becoming increasingly complicated complex. They’re getting this broad, diverse, array of products, etcetera.” While they’re doing that, pharmacists are going, “Wait a minute. They’re going to make us irrelevant.” And so, pharmacists are trying to carve out their space, professional space, as the sort of gatekeeper of these medicines that are going to actually get out. 

And so, we emerged with the system that we have now, which is that you see the physician and they write the prescription but it’s the pharmacist that actually gives it to you or creates or invents or pulls it out. The pharmacists were especially under pressure as well because they, prior to this, had been sort of apothecaries and actual druggists. And with the emergence of what we might see as like standardized medicine for over-the-counter stuff that was already made, you know, a pharmaceutical company. It’s pre-packaged, free delivery, whatever. That really undercuts your ability to carve out some kind of professional space that says I’m special and I have this gatekeeper status. 

Jeff: So, the original druggist were like mixologist. 

Adam Rathge Happens early in the medicine, in the medical field, but what’s happening as a result of sort of changes of in medicine writ large and there’s a struggle between what we call maybe orthodox physicians, and then sort of home remedy folks, holistic, and obviously, the sort of orthodox wins out in the grand scheme, homeopath. There’s a bunch of homeopathic medicine happening at the same time. So, all of these things are playing out at same time and as a result, you get, “Well, we need to regulate this,” and by regulating it, they actually gain their professional status. And so, these things are all tied up in the history of the moment, but I think you’re right to note that this happens before, maybe consumer protection in meatpacking or these types of things. That might have been maybe a little bit harder to trace or that there wasn’t the attempt to carve out that professional space. 

Jeff: There weren’t a lot of professional, you know, meat-ist. 

Adam Rathge Yeah. Exactly. Yeah. Maybe the butcher, I guess, but they didn’t come together like the American Medical Association.

Rick Kiley: It is like the worst term we’ve come up with so far, a meat-ist. 

Jeff: I’m getting new cards made. They’re going to say “meat-ist”. 

Rick Kiley: So, you’re saying the first real law, I mean, I guess this could be wrong that you mentioned this law in 1911 you said that was passed in Massachusetts, was that the first real law that was passed around consumer usage of ownership of, possession of that was put forth in this country? 

Adam Rathge No. So, it may be the first and it’s sort of written in such a way that possession of not just cannabis, but a list of drugs or what they might call for lack of a better term we’ll say drug. It was a list of these things and possession of them was prima facie evidence of breaking the law unless you had a physician prescription. And so, basically, if you didn’t have the prescription, you had broken the law. And so, if by no means the first regulation so there are regulations across the 19th century at the state and mostly at the state level, but handful of local things. 

Rick Kiley: Right. Because when you like google marijuana being illegal or any sort of thing, the first one that pops up is this 1937 Federal Marihuana Tax Act. I say the huana because it was spelled with an H and not with a J but you’ve written and I read some of your – you’re writing about this that really wasn’t the first thing and I guess this 1911 possession law is one thing, but there were a lot of events that contribute to sort of the outlaw I guess on a federal level. So, maybe what we can try to do is like talk about how did we get from this point of uses a medicine, starts to get regulated. This law is introduced about possession, that sort of thing, but how did we get to the point from where it was, let’s say medically permissible in the 1800s, early 1900s, to the point where we get to like, “No, no, no usage at all in 1937. We’re passing this Tax Act. It is no good anywhere?” 

Adam Rathge Yeah. And so, I think these are sort of tied together. I don’t know that I ever got back to your vilified question. I think the two things are connected, right? So, the 1937 is the first thing that comes up on the internet because that’s the sort of the peak vilification of marijuana and that has been the focus of both academic research and, of course, the sort of internet legalize it, man, kind of box I guess you might say. Those two things are connected in my mind, but they’re also connected to this much longer history in the sense that. So, in the 19th century, we have this classification of cannabis alongside arsenic and chloroform and opium and all these other drugs. That can be both helpful and harmful right there. They’re both medicine and poison. In the 19th century, that’s like sort of duh. They’re just together. And so, that early classification combined with its lack of standardization and cannabis preparations or the potency of cannabis medicines is what ultimately lands it alongside those other drugs in these sort of prescriptive 19th-century regulations. 

And as I mentioned, we would not think of those as like the prohibitions of the war on drugs. These are labeling laws and packaging laws and prescription refill laws and transaction of the minor laws and these kinds of things. But understanding those regulations and how they evolve reveals both the vilification or how marijuana became vilified in the early 20th century, as well as how there was this sort of legal framework in place. And so, in the 19th century, cannabis and these other drugs are conceptualized as pharmaceuticals that are both helpful and harmful. So, throughout the period, drugs like cannabis and you guys both mentioned cocaine, the opiates, they occupy the same sort of social-cultural space that’s both medicine and poison. Two sides of the drug are intertwined. They can be helpful. They can be harmful. So, we have to regulate them and make sure we try to slant towards the good side. By the early 20th century though, we begin to see what I would call a bifurcation of those two sides. And so, what I mean by that is we see the emergence of our present-day division of drugs into legitimate and illegitimate categories, each requiring different methods or modes of regulation. 

And so, this in large part is a result also of the bifurcation of the drug market into what we would call licit and illicit substances. And so, the sort of shorthand for this is what we would call like an angels and demons view of drugs, meaning that the drug itself is either good or bad. It’s not the 19th-century view, which is that it can be good or bad. It’s both. And so, that shift, that bifurcation really became the foundation of the war on drugs that they are these drugs over here that are always illicit and always bad, and they are demons, and we must prohibit them. And then we have this whole other class of licit drugs that are used in medicine and are good, and they need to be regulated but differently in different places. 

Jeff: Isn’t it interesting, though, that alcohol avoided that because alcohol definitely has good and bad. 

Rick Kiley: Well, what’s this whole period called prohibition?

Adam Rathge Yeah, yeah. 

Jeff: Absolutely. 

Rick Kiley: But I guess it rode the wave. It didn’t exist in both spaces. I think it’s got to be a matter of like the incentives though, right? Like so you talked about these druggists and people earlier and the reason some of these like laws got created, perhaps were so that everyone could carve out sort of their economic, their space, so that they could create their professional. So, I guess where did the incentives change? Like, obviously there’s incentive for somebody, some people some group to say, “No, we need to make these drugs totally, totally harmful because we’re going to benefit.” Like, these things don’t happen with at least it’s my view without economic incentive. So, I don’t know if you agree with that or what, but like, what were the incentives that were driving us this way? 

Adam Rathge Yeah. So, I think you’re right and to an extent, I don’t think it’s certainly universally economic. But because you have to remember by the 1910s, 1920s, we’re talking about that meatpacking yellow journalism, progressive era moment when the United States sort of has this, again, progressive era zeal that we can solve all these problems. And so, I think there are economic incentives, but there was also just this sort of cultural and social moment where we said, “Maybe we should just say these are just bad right over here and that will be good for the whole, right, if we just say, these don’t have maybe the same view of them.” And I think so the example here would be like both cocaine and heroin. They come on to the market marketed as medicines, as pharmaceutical products. 

Jeff: They were marketed to be good for children with teething pain. 

Adam Rathge To some degree, yes. I mean, that was certainly part of it. 

Jeff: Yeah. 

Rick Kiley: I always thought that was whiskey.

Jeff: A little bit harder. Yeah. 

Adam Rathge Right? We’ll try anything. 

Rick Kiley: We’ll try anything that these kids will stop crying. 

Adam Rathge So, they come on to the scene as sort of this medical miracle and then it turns out that heroin is addictive and it’s just as addictive as the opiates before it and it’s a problem or cocaine gets used. And here’s where I was headed with the sort of bifurcation. The breakdown happens when something like cocaine that hasn’t been. In some senses, it still has medical use. It escapes the medicine cabinet, so to speak. And so, it begins being used in ways that don’t have…

Jeff: Legitimate.

Adam Rathge That don’t have accepted medical value, right?

Rick Kiley: Right. 

Adam Rathge And so, at that moment, it sort of breaks that divide. And so, now we have these things that are being used outside of the medical context and that’s sort of the impetus if it’s licit/illicit. So, if you’re using it outside of the medicinal context, it is now always illegal and always prohibited and always X. So, we split. And so, we try to bring this back to cannabis. By the 1910s and certainly by the 1920s, cannabis is so very rarely used in medicinal context that essentially it has no defenders left. And so, it’s not even used as much as it was say on the 19th century. It has lost out to sort of the laboratory medicine, the sort of emergence of a pharmaceutical industry that provides you a dose, that’s the same every time and this kind of thing. It’s driven, its declining use is driven by these changes in American medicine. It changes in the pharmaceutical industry. The rise of these standardized laboratory medicines. And so, it has a limited space to occupy any place in the licit market because there’s no real accepted medical value anymore. They’ve moved on to other things. This is the era of the emergence of aspirin. And so, this decline, and this is where we run into the vilification space and kind of tie this all together. That decline in medical use in the early 20th century is all coincides with the introduction and spread of recreational marijuana use in the form of smoking. 

And so, these two things are essentially happening coinciding. And so, at that moment, we start to see the emergence of the vilification, which is back to a couple of questions ago. The vilification, that becomes the foundation upon which marijuana use in the United States emerges in the early 20th century. And so, it has no more accepted value at the same moment that it sort of arrives “from Mexico” as marijuana used in a form that has no accepted value and really cannabis writ large doesn’t have any accepted medical value. And so, there’s a whole another piece of the story, of course, which is marijuana carries a very sinister reputation in Mexico, where it seen as a drug that would drive users to violence and insanity. I’m not the expert on that piece of this as Isaac Campos, who’s a professor at the University of Cincinnati, who’s written extensively on marijuana in Mexico. Probably most excessively in his book called Home Grown. So, at the moment in the United States when it loses his medical value has no more defenders has sort of fallen off the radar from a medical standpoint, here comes marijuana smoking, not only the form of delivery, but also its reputation in Mexico, the companies that which is that it will drive you to madness and violence. 

And so, the key intersection here for me is that my argue, sort of my research argues that the 19th century medical and literary views of cannabis intoxication, the things we talked about earlier, that were seen as a problem and led to its regulation in the 19th century, things like distortions of space and time, excitation, hallucinations, synesthesia, disordered or uncontrollable thoughts and actions, these kinds of things were documented over and over and over again in the medical journal. That kind of stuff merges so easily with perceptions of Mexican marijuana as a source of violence and madness. And so, with few medical defenders and limited declining medical use, and then you add to this, the belief by say 1920s that school-age children are taking up marijuana smoking, the vilification process faces almost no pushback because all of this is sort of swirling at the same time and coming together at this critical moment. And by the 1920s, there’s nobody standing up and saying, “Wait, we can’t do this because cannabis cures all these diseases or whatever.” 

Rick Kiley: Right. Because you got better medicine. You’ve got all that stuff out there. 

Adam Rathge So, that all kind of comes together at the same time. And that, by the 1920s, leads, to regulations at the local level. So, New Orleans is the big prominent example of this. They pass a series of marijuana laws. And then the state of Louisiana follows up three years later or something like that. And so, that happens across the country in the 1920s and 1930s and by the time that the federal government gets involved in the 30s, most states already have some kind of regulation, if not prohibition. And so, the focus on that ‘37 Tax Act is sort of misses everything that comes before it. And in some senses, you can say, well, it’s a no brainer, that it happens at the federal level eventually. The hard part for the federal government was figuring out how to pass a federal regulation on something that could ostensibly grow in every state in the union because the way the federal government had prohibited, say heroin or cocaine in the 1914 Harrison Narcotics Act was via the taxation power. So, control the interstate commerce. 

And so, if you have a substance that can be grown in all these states, how do you say we’re going to regulate interstate commerce? Because you could just grow it in state and not move it over state lines. So, that was really the constitutional questional hurdle for cannabis regulation at the federal level, and it’s probably why it took so long, to be honest. But they found sort of their saving grace in a Machine Gun Law in the 1930s that the Supreme Court upheld. And so, which is based on a transfer tax purpose. And so, that’s how the federal marijuana Tax Act actually gets done, but prior to that, almost every state had done something. 

Rick Kiley: Right. So, there’s two things I want to talk about here. You mentioned New Orleans and I read an article that you wrote where a lot of this vilification also was supported by a pretty effective I think PR campaign and some terminology that I think will make all the Harry Potter fans out there kind of turned to an eyebrow. So, the word that people were referred to for smoking pot was they were called what exactly? Let’s give them the word. 

Adam Rathge Yeah. In New Orleans, marijuana users were called muggle heads. 

Rick Kiley: Muggle heads. 

Adam Rathge Muggle heads. 

Rick Kiley: So, not people without magical powers, but people who thought they could have magical powers. 

Adam Rathge Yeah. 

Rick Kiley: But actually, that was the problem. They walk around saying, “I’m going to turn you into a toad.” More likely, “I can fly.” 

Jeff: No, no, you can’t. 

Adam Rathge Yeah. So, that emerges from I guess, I mean, just the street lexicon. A muggle was essentially a marijuana cigarette.

Rick Kiley: Got it. 

Adam Rathge And so, you become a muggle head. I guess it’s the sort of the original version of like crackhead. 

Jeff: Or head. Just head. I mean, we use the term head. 

Rick Kiley: Yeah. Headshots. You have all sorts of stuff. We could use tin head. Oh boy. Makes you think. 

Jeff: Fishhead. It’s really a different thing. 

Adam Rathge Go back way in the 1920s apparently. 

Rick Kiley: Not so far. I wonder if JK Rowling is aware of this terminology or just as surely coincidental? 

Adam Rathge Yeah. Hard to say. 

Rick Kiley: Hard to say. 

Jeff: We’ll get her on the show. 

Rick Kiley: Yeah. She’ll be our guest. 

Adam Rathge I’d be happy to appear with her. 

Jeff: Great. 

Rick Kiley: Next week on The Green Repeal, JK Rowling defends our muggle head issue. So, that’s a really just a funny tidbit and I like that but I think you argue against this and you’ve said a lot of things about it but the gentleman who really brought that 1937 Federal Marijuana Tax Act forward, his name is Harry Anslinger and a lot of people believe or write that his motivations were very racial in nature. And I’m wondering if you can kind of talk about whether or not you think that that was a large factor, a non-factor, part of what’s going on because, I mean, it sounds like what you’re saying is a lot of the groundwork had been laid. There was no one to stand up and say, “Hey, this cannabis has a place in our society and that’s okay,” and he just sort of like jumped on it. I wonder if you could talk about that a little bit. 

Adam Rathge Yeah. I think before I say anything, let me preface it with like I hope that I don’t come off as an Anslinger apologist because Anslinger could be easily described unsavorily in all kinds of context, not the least of which that was he a racist? Wasn’t he a racist? Who knows? Probably was, I guess, I don’t know. It’s hard to say. 

Rick Kiley: Seems like it. 

Adam Rathge So, I certainly don’t want my research or anything in the interview to come off as saying that racism or xenophobia was not part or even maybe a key part of the emergence of federal marijuana prohibition or even further than that, they didn’t play a role in some of the state-level regulations. Because I think it did especially because it was so intimately connected with Mexicans and Mexican immigrants when sort of this sort of recreational marijuana use emerged in 1910 and 1920. So, I do think that it’s an important piece to this puzzle, but as you mentioned, the beginning with that, starting with that, focusing on say 1910 to 1937, if you did that, you would come to the conclusion that racism was really, really integral to this process. The thing for me is that if you go back further than that, if you go to the 19th century, you find plenty of regulations and plenty of people saying cannabis needs to be regulated alongside these other drugs and maybe more to the point. So, if we started 1910, usually the way the sort of racism Mexican xenophobia argument is laid out as, well, if you look at all these states that passed regulations in the 1910s and 1920s, it appears that they emanate north from the southern border with Mexico, and that it’s sort of like just follows Mexican migration or something, which, despite not being how Mexican migration work. 

Jeff: Some things never change.

Adam Rathge You have all of these sort of outlier unexplained prohibitions or laws that happen. Massachusetts being maybe the best example of this, right? There is census data, right? And there are no, I won’t say no. There are very few if any Mexicans roaming around in Massachusetts in the 1900s and 1910s. And so, how do you explain Massachusetts being maybe the first, if not the first, seems to be the first at least in this context, passing this series of laws aimed, not aimed directly at cannabis, but including cannabis in the law, right? Because there is no xenophobia. There’s no xenophobic racist reaction to Mexican marijuana smokers in Massachusetts in 1911. It’s driven by sort of the aggressive regulatory zeal and the sort of foundational long-term view that cannabis is like these other drugs and should be regulated as such. And so, that would be sort of the big picture way to talk about that say, is racism involved? It’s not. Undoubtedly, in other places in Arizona, Utah, Texas, there’s better evidence that sort of just blatant racism did play a role.

But there are all these other places that it doesn’t seemingly and so, to rectify that, we have to wrestle with the fact that it’s not just racism. California is a great example of this because California is also very early at the state level passed this law, but there’s very limited, if any evidence that it was Mexican immigration that drove that regulation or drove the inclusion of cannabis into that regulation. And so, there’s a state that does have a border with Mexico that would in all likelihood have experienced this sort of influx and xenophobic reaction. And there’s not a ton of evidence to say that that’s what drove the inclusion of cannabis in the law. The other interesting thing for me, given the 19th century trajectory is that almost, I’m trying to think of when the first time marijuana gets used, I think, is 1919 in Texas. So, prior to that, every state, so Maine, Indiana, Massachusetts, California, I can’t think of them all at the moment off top of my head, but none of those laws use the word marijuana. 

And so, it would be hard to say that like if there’s this angst xenophobic racist reaction to marijuana, but they wouldn’t use that word. And so, I think it’s both. I think it plays a role. I think certainly Anslinger is quoted as saying less than savory things about Puerto Ricans and Mexicans and African Americans. But I think it’s just a piece to the puzzle. 

Rick Kiley: But you mentioned that it was really like the PR around the behavior that cannabis was being caused in Mexico as being part of the vilification process. I mean, I believe correct me if I’m wrong, isn’t Anslinger the one who coined the term reefer madness? Like, isn’t that all around this sort of like bad behavior? So, I’m just curious as to like, do you think that that public perception, I guess, what is the public perception PR around the vilification of like, I mean, I think, very squarely Mexican usage of marijuana in this early 20th century. That was part of everyone getting on board with it. It doesn’t seem like the economic incentives make sense like what we’re talking about like, this part seems very socially and politically motivated. We’re trying to, you know, an us versus them kind of thing. 

Adam Rathge Yeah. I think I’m not aware that he coined the term reefer madness. I think it’s actually a title of a film. Well, it’s originally called, like, Tell Your Children and I think…

Rick Kiley: I got to check out that Wikipedia page again. 

Adam Rathge Then it becomes the term reefer madness but that’s essentially shorthand for these outlandish things that people would do under marijuana intoxication. And, some of that might be violence. Some of that might be sexual predation. Some of that might be accidental suicide. 

Jeff: Can I ask you just a couple questions down that line of reasoning. So, leading up to the prohibition of alcohol in the United States, basically, a lot of that was driven by the indigence of men who would go to work, get their money, and instead of going home and like supporting their wife and children would go to the pub and blow it all on booze. And these guys, not only would they get drunk and not do their family duties or take care of their family duties, they may also just decide to sleep on the street or in the park. They really were not behaving well on what seems to be a fairly wide scale. Was marijuana anything like that? Was there like a lot of people walking around with whatever indications made for reefer madness back then? Again, I can’t remember ever reading a newspaper article about somebody who got really stoned in 1910 and then went and robbed the bank or something.

Adam Rathge Well, there’s actually plenty of them and Anslinger was famous for spreading them. In fact, he sent out basically a bulletin to the Federal Bureau of Narcotics agents across the country, saying anytime marijuana might be connected with a crime or murder or violence or whatever, you basically need to file a report and send it back to Washington DC. And so, he’s got, and I’ve been to his papers. They’re held at the state. He has a relatively famous what people refer to as his gore file, which is essentially just a file in a filing box full of these supposed murderers and horrible things that people under the influence of marijuana did. Now, we can certainly argue about whether those are true or not true whether marijuana was at all involved or not, but that is sort of – that’s where we like sort of reefer madness shorthand comes in. That was the spiel that he was spewing in the mid-30s. 

Adam Rathge He was spinning it. He was definitely spinning it for his own gain, for his own political gain likely. 

Rick Kiley: Sorry. I just looked it up. Reefer madness came out in 1936. 

Jeff: The movie? 

Rick Kiley: The movie, and it was originally a propaganda film financed by a church group, under the title, Tell Your Children, and it was supposed to be a morality tale about the dangers of using cannabis. So, I got that wrong. Sorry.

Adam Rathge That’s okay. He picked it up. 

Jeff: There goes your Ph.D. 

Adam Rathge The film and these stories are kind of part and parcel of the idea that marijuana use will lead to all these horrible outcomes, right, whatever that might be. And so, no one has done this research. It probably would be very difficult to do in the United States but Isaac Campos who I mentioned earlier, he has done this research in Mexico in the 19th century, in early 20th century, and Isaac’s conclusion was sort of that marijuana got this reputation for madness and violence, not non-coincidentally, right? It was often used in situations like soldier’s barracks, prisons, and violent places that, obviously, also had certain characters. So, there are lots of qualifiers here. But Isaac would argue that it is not the cause of. There was sort of this cultural text that marijuana did this. And so, in some ways, it becomes like this massive placebo effect in that it gets the reputation and then when you use it, it leads to the outcomes. 

Rick Kiley: Right. So, we have a correlation argument that’s been turned into a causation argument, right? 

Adam Rathge Yeah, in some way. So, Isaac is very careful to not say marijuana does this but he breaks it down as sort of marijuana can be a psychomimetic drug and can cause hallucinations and these types of things and you wrap that up with a set and a setting and a cultural context and you might get these outcomes more often than you might otherwise. And so, that’s kind of a long way of saying, certainly there are people reporting that marijuana is doing these things in the United States. Now, if we go back to New Orleans, what’s interesting there is the focus is not on Mexican marijuana users. The focus is not on violence or madness or depravity. It’s on this supposed, according to newspapers and law enforcement and local parent groups and whatever, it’s on the idea that young people are using it and that is leading them to have negative outcomes right there. They’re starting to skip school or they don’t come home or better up and some of those tropes are also those alcoholic tropes you just talked about. So, unraveling all that is not easy. 

But in New Orleans, the angst is all around young children using marijuana. And the article you mentioned that I wrote, I went and I basically scanned the newspapers for a decade and found every instance I could find of a marijuana arrest and kind of track any demographic data that was provided in the arrest record and I matched where the arrest happened, where the person lived, if their address was given, how old they were, the race, etcetera, all this kind of stuff. And what limited data there is, there’s a few hundred of those, points to that maybe these people weren’t totally off on their belief that the sort of typical user was the late teens, early 20s, white male. 

Jeff: Things have changed a lot.

Adam Rathge And so, there’s another place where maybe another big counterweight to it’s all about Mexican xenophobia racism where the angst really did just seem to be about school children and particularly white school children. And of course, that doesn’t mean that that’s not racist right there. There’s a racial bent to that that we need to protect the white youth and keep them in the bubble and all that kind of stuff. 

Rick Kiley: It’s never a problem until it starts happening to white kids. 

Jeff: Yeah. So, it sounds like you’re saying that New Orleans was the moral compass for the US as they still are today largely. 

Adam Rathge Yeah. Certainly, on the cannabis crusade, they take the local issue to the state level first, and that state responds and passes a law in 1924. They actually leveraged pretty hard on their actual senators, US senators as well have emerged anything in the 20s. But Norland definitely pushes for a federal cannabis law or at least help so to speak with the marijuana cannabis problem with marijuana problem in New Orleans. And you see similar things pop up elsewhere in the country. So, like Cincinnati, there’s a local investigation in the 1930s that is alleged to have found again widespread use among school children. And the report also suggested that it was quite easy to acquire marijuana on the street in Cincinnati. And so, you have these kinds of areas where again it’s not all wrapped up in the sort of xenophobic reaction to Mexican immigrants. It’s more around these other schoolchildren angst or protecting white school children angst which again is not to say that doesn’t have its own little racist box or race-involved box around it. So, I think those things are all kind of tied together. 

But if we loop this back to Anslinger, I think my estimation and my argument and my research and what I would write or publish would be this key in many ways was, of course, overzealous, hyperbolic, again, plausibly racist but in many ways, he just becomes the orchestra conductor for all these things that are already floating around out there and he just he brings it all together. And perhaps most importantly, for my argument, if you look at some of the things he says, and writes, or in his speeches, he often uses phrases that you might see from the sort of medical literature on canvas in the 19th century, early 20th century. And so, again, I think he’s just grafted a lot of these things together. And sort of put that out there is this sort of reefer madness. Everything is, he kind of tied it all together and made marijuana sort of public enemy number one and it wasn’t his creation, let’s say. He certainly kind of tapped into all of these things that were going around and he whips up this sort of more nationwide media hysteria. And so, that we can give him full credit for but, yeah, there’s a lot of other pieces to the puzzle that are underlying that type of thing. 

Rick Kiley: Yeah. Cool. I just had like a couple more questions and we’ll finish up here. I’m just as a historian and don’t need to spend a lot of time on this but when people come in and they talk to you about this, do you find yourself correcting some misconceptions? Like, what are some of the things that people think I imagine like it was all racially motivated in 1937 Federal Marijuana Tax Act like that might be one of them, but like is there anything else that you just find yourself correcting because most people get wrong? Your opportunity to set the record straight. 

Adam Rathge Yeah. I mean, certainly, that’s the one I like trying to hammer home with my own research is that it’s not just all about the 1910s, 1920s, 1937 Marijuana Tax Act and that there is this much longer history to cannabis regulation. I think you could make a very clear argument that there is a long, long precedent for what we today would call medical marijuana in the United States. There’s a much smaller precedent or a much more muddy precedent for any kind of recreational use. But so, there’s this really long trajectory of, yeah, maybe, there’s something to this, maybe there’s medicinal uses here, but we need to kind of keep it in a box and have medical oversight in this kind of stuff. So, I think those would be the two big ones. I think an interesting takeaway for me is with the rollout of expanded medical marijuana and certainly with recreational marijuana. In a place like Colorado where they roll things out and then it sort of was like, whoa, we’re all caught off guard by people, for lack of a better term, overdosing on say edibles or something. And they’re having these not so fun experiences because they’ve taken too much or the packaging was incorrect or 100 grams and 10 grams or something.

And so, there’s just some really interesting as a historian parallels to, well, if you just taking a look at what they did in the 19th century and people laying it around, having certain symbols on like we’re debating now what’s the universal symbol for like it has THC in it. These are not sort of new debates. These are not new conundrums. The 19th century they were trying to solve these same problems around restricting to certain population, certain ages. So, that’s a really interesting piece for me. And then I think just a long-term history of the way that that 19th-century framework or skeleton provided the foundation upon which full-blown prohibition was built. And so, a great example of this would be in 1937 and this kind of maybe ties these two things together these last couple question. 

In 1937, they have a conference on cannabis Sativa L to basically debate on how the federal government’s going to do regulation. And Anslinger asks Dr. Carl Voegtlin I think, I’m probably mispronouncing that, he’s a pharmacology expert at the National Institute of Health. And so, he asked him, point blank, “Does marijuana lead to insanity?” And Voegtlin in my estimation responds, rather ambiguously, but in a way that I nonetheless think illuminates this sort of long-term framework understanding of medical view or clinical view of cannabis and Voegtlin says, “I think it is established. It is an established fact that prolonged use leads to insanity in certain cases, depending on the amount taken, of course. Many people take it and do not go insane, but many do.” There you have in 1937…

Rick Kiley: So, maybe. 

Adam Rathge Right. 

Jeff: Definitely, maybe. 

Adam Rathge But that’s sort of that fundamental undergirding, right? He’s in the medical world. He knows the literature, he knows all this kind of stuff, and in 1937, so for me, that’s where it’s sort of hard to say, well, Anslinger just like engineered this whole thing. So, here’s the guy that the pharmacology expert at the National Institute of Health kind of telling him that, “Yes, marijuana could cause insanity.” And so, it’s not just Anslinger and the reason he’s saying that it might cause insanity is part and parcel with the sort of 19th-century medical literature, this view of Mexican marijuana, madness and violence and that kind of thing. And so, for me, all those pieces of the puzzle have never been put together in sort of one history of cannabis/marijuana through say 1937.

Rick Kiley: I smell a book, Adam. I keep saying. 

Adam Rathge It is. It’s out there. It’s a computer file.

Rick Kiley: Well, good. So, it sounds like you are, in fact, paying attention to what’s happened today, like as a historian and history always tend to repeat itself. So, you mentioned like the packaging and mislabeling and people not really knowing what’s inside some things being a problem that existed. I mean, what 160, 170 years ago, and we’re still running into that today. I mean, assuming you’re paying attention, is there anything else that you look at today and you’re just like has caught your eyes like what you find interesting about? I guess, this podcast is called The Green Repeal. It’s about sort of chronicling what we feel is probably going to be the path to ultimate federal legalization. As this stuff that we’ve talked about getting wound up and prohibited, is there anything you find interesting about, I guess, the unwinding, if you will? 

Adam Rathge Yeah. I think though, there are two big things for me. One is how do we simultaneously operate both a medical cannabis market and a recreational cannabis market? Because on the surface, certainly to an uninitiated and maybe to initiated people, being able to acquire what is ostensibly the same or similar products in both markets would seem to me to undermine the medicinal claims being made by the medicinal marijuana market. If you can sort of just go to the gas station, obviously, it’s more regulated than that, but like for hypothetical purposes, you can just go to the recreational shop and buy it, buy the same thing that you wouldn’t need to go through medical hoops and whatever to get. That sort of seems to be a tension that seems to be in the market. And to me, from the historical bent, that’s an ironic or unfortunate outcome in the sense that it was the medical marijuana, the push for medical marijuana, that has opened the door for recreational use to expand. And so, how do we operate simultaneously both markets, I think, is an interesting conundrum to me without maybe undermining one or the other.

The other big piece for me is I think there’s certainly compelling cause for concern about what may or may not emerge around consolidation of the industry into sort of what people would say of massive corporate interests. From a historian’s perspective, there is pretty clear historical precedents, one of which you mentioned alcohol, the consolidation of the alcohol industry. Tobacco would be the other obvious one, where massive consolidation led to some not great outcomes for certainly certain parts of those user populations. And, there’s a pretty clear argument that, you know, I forget what it is. It’s probably not even 80-20, but we’ll call it 80-20 rule that 20% of your user base provides 80% of your profit. And so, the concern there, of course, is that if there’s this sort of massive consolidation or corporate corporatization that you’ll end up with all those great things about corporations, efficiencies, and marketing and all this kind of stuff which will essentially build and cater to in some ways that sort of heavy user 20% population, which will obviously have dire effects on that 20%.

You know, so those two things I think are the interesting kind of quagmire conundrums, how do we proceed with having two markets overlapping in some ways, and then what’s the proper amount of consolidation or how large can any entity become? You know, I think of [Mark Clayman – 1:01:43] who just passed away used to talk about it as the hope would be that the cannabis industry would look a lot like the wine industry in a sense. That might not be even true anymore. They would have tons and tons and tons of both mom and pop, small, mediums, some big, some large multi, whatever. You would have so much so many producers and so many kinds of vendors that you would never really get true domination of the market. And I guess the third thing I said too but I’m going to say a third…

Rick Kiley: Good things come in threes, man. 

Adam Rathge Yeah. What, if anything, or how do we proceed in a way that might be equitable or perhaps lack of a better term, to people who have faced prison or jail time or whatever for marijuana crimes in the past. And then in some places, in some states, those people are barred from even being in the market now that it is legal. So, how do we rectify or how do we work around things like that where it’s like this person went to jail for something we say now is not a problem but also they’re barred from joining that now legal industry because of that past. And so, that to me is also one of those big kind of conundrum questions around how do we proceed and how do we go forward.

Rick Kiley: Yeah. Well, the states that are looking to legalize on adult-use right now are all dealing with that issue. And it is interesting the fact that it seems that you can get a vertically integrated license right now does I think support your concern that there could be significant consolidation as well. I guess we’re all going to have to keep an eye on those things as we move forward. 

Jeff: I’m pretty sure we can trust the big corporations to do what’s right. I’m going to go out there. Yeah, I’m going to say that. 

Rick Kiley: Yeah. 

Adam Rathge Yeah. 

Rick Kiley: They’re never going to sell that database of cannabis users to anybody for anything. Well, I think we’ve been talking for a while, Adam. When you get that book to press and print it, you should come back and talk to us again. I really love talking about it. You have a wealth of knowledge. I’m sure we could fill 10 hours. 

Jeff: Yeah, I think we have another show with you and future Adam. 

Rick Kiley: Holy moly. 

Jeff: Yeah. Because I really want to get into the brands and what kinds of things were happening back then or was it all licit and brown bag. I’d love to hear more about that. 

Adam Rathge Yeah. You’re right. There were brands. Parke Davis sold a one-ounce package of loose cannabis in the 20th century. 

Rick Kiley: Boom. 

Jeff: Yeah. 

Adam Rathge It happens. 

Rick Kiley: And we have to get JK Rowling on. 

Jeff: Yeah. 

Adam Rathge That’s right. 

Jeff: Yeah. So, three episodes then. 

Adam Rathge In all seriousness, happy to come back anytime. I’m very glad you all are going let’s say this deep, this far back to peel back these layers before proceeding on to the contemporary, questions and issues. So, certainly, my props to you for taking the time to do the research and dig deep. 

Jeff: Thanks for being on. 

Rick Kiley: Thanks for joining us today. 

Jeff: Yeah. Amazing. 

Adam Rathge Yeah. It’s a pleasure. 

Rick Kiley: Cheers.


Rick Kiley: Thanks for listening. If you enjoyed today’s episode of The Green Repeal, hit the subscribe button so future episodes are automatically downloaded directly to your device. And if you want access to today’s show notes, including links to all the resources mentioned, visit SOHOExp.com/GreenRepeal.