Thursday, July 02, 2015

Historical Context: Marijuana, Medicine and the Law

Happy 2nd of July dear Readers!  We hope you have been enjoying the infernal heat if you are in Oregon currently, and if not, I hope your temperatures have been more . . .  temperate.

July 1st marked a turn in legal policy for the State of Oregon in that Oregon has decriminalized the use and possession of marijuana.  Marijuana does however remain a schedule I drug according to the Federal Government.  In acknowledgement of the historical nature of this policy and policing shift I wanted to provide a glimpse into the past of this plant as provided by one of HC&A's rare books, so let me introduce:
Well-used copy
Marihuana: The Dangerous New Drug, written by Frederick T. Merrill of the Opium Research Committee of the Foreign Policy Association , Inc.  This 48-page book details the current (as of 1938) explosive use of Marijuana in the United States and includes a history of the drug's use in various cultures as well as an overview of the drug laws in various countries at the time.  Preparations of the drug in various forms (hashish, plant fibers and oils) complement the section on the "8 stages of marijuana intoxication," with the 8th stage including "hallucination; varied and often terrifying."

Marijuana forest
The most important part of this book comes from the section dealing with how the drug impacts social relations.  It is in this section that we can see the prevailing social attitudes and how they attempt to impose a racial correlation between marijuana use and violent crime.  Of particular note is this passage:

     "It has been estimated that as many as one-half the violent crimes committed in certain districts inhabited by Mexicans, Filipinos, Latin Americans, Spaniards and Negroes are attributed to marihuana abuse. The emotional temperament of these races appears to become completely unbalanced by the use of this drug." (Merrill, p.30).

    I think this passage nicely highlights the perceptions that law enforcement and the apparatus of justice in this country have operated under for the past 75 years, namely that this drug is so dangerous precisely due to who is using it.

Another aspect of this small treatise that begs examination is the language used to describe the phenomenon.  In several sections, the author refers to the people who use marijuana as "hemp-crazed," which would imply to a certain degree, that they were mad about rope or another non-psychoactive aspect of the cannabis plant.  Furthermore the language used to describe the effects of marijuana on the human body and mind seem to include enough hyperbolic terminology to almost be lurid.  For instance:

     "The first bodily reactions appear an hour or so after consumption in the form of muscular trembling, increased heartbeat, acceleration of pulse.  This is accompanied by a ringing in the ears, an intense feeling of heat in the head, dizziness, and sensations of cold in the hands and feet.  Constrictions in the chest, dilation of the eye pupil, and muscular contraction follow.  These physical reactions increase in intensity until either vomiting or complete stupefaction occurs.  Restless sleep, accompanied by bizarre phantasmagoria, then overcomes the victim." (p.12)

Quickly followed on page 14 by this observation:

     "The most common and noticeable aberration is the uncontrollable fits of idiotic laughter."

And then on page 15 with this incredible description:

     "Illusions pass into hallucinations which are often so terrifying as to cause acute mania.  In this condition, the subject may run amok, a terrible state of temporary insanity that has recently caused several horrifying murders in this country.  In this advanced stage amnesia usually occurs, and there is consequently no remembrance when consciousness returns of the acts committed.  Convulsive seizures or catalepsy sometimes climax such abuse."

What strikes me as unique about these observations is that they were uniformly retrieved from works by Dr. Jacques-Joseph Moreau, a member of the Club des Hashischins, a french club organized for the purpose of exploring the effects of drugs on people and included Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas and a number of other notable figures.  According to the Wikipedia article on Dr. Moreau, he was actually very interested in using psychoactive substances to treat mental illness.  So it is interesting that his work was used, perhaps out of context, by this committee to scare Americans into equating the use of marijuana with mental illness, crime and undesirable racial interactions.

Leaf and flower
As Oregon says goodbye to a century of prohibition-style laws related to this substance, it is important to remember that our ditching of these laws is not just a blatant excuse to enjoy something that many Americans currently enjoy anyways, but also that this changes the relationship of the law to the individual, effectively doing away with policies that appear to have a strong racial component in their historical development and application.

This item is available for research through the History of Medicine Room.  Please contact us for details.

Also, a Happy Fourth of July from all of us at HC&A to all of you!!