A clipping from the January 10, 1904 Boston Daily Globe.

The federal government essentially outlawed cannabis 85 years ago when it passed the 1937 Marihuana Act. Much like today, at the time, cannabis was used in a variety of ways, but smoking flower was often associated with Mexican immigration, amid a period of heightened xenophobia in the United States.

Despite the racial component to the history of prohibition, Massachusetts was the first state to actually outlaw the plant, over 2,000 miles away from the nation’s southern border.

There is certainly evidence of xenophobia in the Bay State in the first few decades of the 20th century, but the driving force toward cannabis prohibition came from old fashioned Boston puritanism.

Over 100 years ago, cannabis was still processed and used in a variety of ways, though those methods were often much more regional and/or cultural compared to today.

Back then, edible cannabis was often portrayed as dangerous and exotic in origin. Smokable cannabis was typically associated with minorities in the South, particularly immigrants from Mexico. In the United States, cannabis was more often used in patent medicines as concentrates or in alcohol-based tinctures.

In 1881, the Boston Daily Globe ran a report borrowed from a Maine newspaper that tells the tale of a young man in Lewiston, Maine, who regularly ate “hashish”.

“A young man of Lewiston, Maine, formerly a hashish eater, but who now calls himself ‘a brand plucked from the burning,’ writes to a local paper that the fantasia produced by the use of the drug is a mild form of insanity, and the end of a persistent hashish-eater is incurable insanity.”

The young man, whose name is not given, gave his description of how the drug caused him to lose control of himself.

“After a dose, the first effects noticed are the gradual weakening of the power of directing the current of thought,” he reportedly said. “Hallucinations follow, time and distances are enormously magnified, and a feeling of perfect happiness stews over the mind.”

A headline in the April 25, 1909 edition of the Boston Daily Globe described hash as the “Dream Food of the Greeks,” noting that it was “used by Turks and Egyptians instead of opium.”

A clipping from the January 17, 1910, Boston Herald .

A much earlier example can be found in an article in a November 1866 edition of the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, decried the dangers of “haschisch candy,” claiming that cannabis-laced treats continued to be enticing to consumers. The association of the drug with Asia made the drug even more appealing according to the article.

“How much of its celebrity is due to the imaginative and sensual nature of the Orientals [sic] and to the custom of mixing it with opium and other highly stimulating substances which prevails among them is uncertain, but we know that here its administration is seldom productive of the delights which are anticipated,” the article warned.

Portraying cannabis as exotic

The article continued its fanciful portrayal with a reference to 1,001 Arabian Nights that involved drugging a character with bhang, an Indian edible that typically involved mixing cannabis paste with milk or yogurt.

“It seems to have been often used in the East for the direct purpose of producing a helpless intoxication, for we read in the story of Aladdin Abushamat how his wife put some bhang into the cup of her father, and ‘he drank the cup, and fell down upon his back. She then came to Aladdin and said to him, Thine adversary is laid prostrate upon his back, so do with him what thou wilt; for I have intoxicated him, and stupefied him with bhang.'”

A headline in the April 25, 1909 edition of the Boston Daily Globe described hash as the “Dream Food of the Greeks,” noting that it was “used by Turks and Egyptians instead of opium.”

An article in the Boston Daily Globe in 1883 worried about how Indian and African immigration might bring more “hashish” into the country.

“The next thing in order for the guardians of the morals of society will be to start an ‘anti-hashich league’ if the reports be true that this ancient drug has at last found its devotees on our side of the Atlantic,” said the article.

To be fair, anti-Mexican accounts of pot smokers going wild were not completely absent, they were just for less frequent in northern papers.

The Boston Daily Globe borrowed a wire report from the Mexican Herald in 1904, which told the tale of two men who had spent the past few weeks smoking cigarettes that were mixes of tobacco and cannabis.

“Tuesday afternoon the two men smoked cigarettes composed of tobacco in smaller proportion than marihuana, and after a few minutes ran amuck,” said the article. “They went out into the street shouting, vociferating and attacking everybody. First they marched hand in hand, declaring that they were the bravest men on earth and would kill anybody who dared to say a word to the contrary.”

The two men ended up starting a big brawl, which they did not win.

“They were captured and sent to the hospital where they had to be put into straightjackets,” said the article. “It is feared that the two men, if they recover from their wounds, will lose their minds permanently, as is the case often with marihuana smokers.”

On the medicine show

“In the second half of the 19th century, cannabis became a popular ingredient in patent medicines. It was sold in pharmacies as ‘herbal packets’ or in alcohol-based tinctures as cures for migraines, rheumatism or insomnia,” wrote Eric Schlosser in Reefer Madness. He included “Dr. Brown’s Sedative Tablets” and “Eli Lilly’s One Day Cough Cure,” as examples of cannabis-infused patent medicines.

As late as December in 1905, the Boston Herald ran numerous advertisements for patent medicines in the formed of long essays along with more traditional display ads, including those for a “Golden Medical Discovery,” which could allegedly cure coughs and laryngitis, a fig syrup laxatives for children, and an essay for a particular coffee claiming that unlike competitors, their coffee did not lead to opium addiction.

Muckraking journalist Samuel Hopkins Adams wrote a series of articles in Collier’s Weekly in 1905, revealing that patent medicines frequently used opium, cannabis, cocaine, chloroform and other drugs without disclosing them as ingredients.

In response to public outcry over Adams’ reporting, along with the public’s response to Upton Sinclair’s food-safety-expose-turned-novel, The Jungle, the federal government passed the Food and Drug Act of 1906. Now that all products using cannabis had to list the ingredient on their label, anti-vice organizations such as Boston’s Watch and Ward Society could zero in on their chemical targets.

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Zack cut his journalistic teeth covering high school sports in the south before spending a decade covering local government, politics and the courts in the Boston, Massachusetts area. He's previously written...