In the Beginning Was the Weed

Photograph Source: adrienblanc – CC BY 2.0

The Washington state legislature has voted unanimously to ban the word marijuana from its legal code and replace it with the word cannabis. As reported on the website of Seattle’s KIRO-TV:

“The term ‘marijuana’ itself is pejorative and racist,’ said Washington state Rep. Melanie Morgan during testimony in 2021. Morgan is a Democrat representing the 29th Legislative District and sponsored the bill —House Bill 1210. Morgan discussed the history of the word, which originates from Spanish.

“’As recreational marijuana use became more popular, it was negatively associated with Mexican immigrants,’ Morgan said. ‘Even though it seems simple because it’s just one word, the reality is we’re healing the wrongs that were committed against Black and Brown people around cannabis.'”

Echoing this absurd PC claim, a Black woman whose family owns the Hollingworth Cannabis Company fed the KIRO reporter an absurd line:

“Hollingsworth says her mother taught her about the trauma behind the word. ‘She was the one who educated us on the term and how it was derogatory and we shouldn’t use it anymore,’ Hollingsworth said. ‘We have a lot of people, especially in the Black community that went to prison over cannabis for years… It’s really painful for people to hear that word and it triggers them.”

Does the beautiful, musical word marijuana really “trigger” people who have been in prison?  To do what? Want some? Or did Ms Hollingsworth see a chance to plug her brand when the reporter from Channel 7 called seeking a comment on the PC name change?

The word marijuana is not “pejorative. It’s Spanish by way of Mexico. It’s true that in the 1930s Harry Anslinger and local Law Enforcers referred to the herb as “marihuana” and demonized the people who smoked it (mainly African Americans and farm workers in the Southwest). And undoubtedly some prejudiced white Congressmen and their prejudiced white constituents supported prohibition because marijuana sounded like a Mexican import. But why should an unprejudiced person care about that in 2022?  So what if Anslinger intended “marihuana” as a slur? By treating it as a slur, the Washington state legislators honor hid memory. Maybe they’re so woke they’re suffering from sleep deprivation and can’t think straight.

The Obvious Disconnect

The word “Prohibition” was not invoked by the shrewd Treasury Department lawyer who in 1937 drafted “A bill to impose an occupational excise tax upon certain dealers in marihuana, to impose a transfer tax upon certain dealings in marihuana, and to safeguard the revenue therefrom by registry and recording.” Business owners who knew the herb by yet another name —hemp— were startled to learn that their products came from the deadly “marihuana” plant and would be affected by the looming ban. Their befuddlement is recorded in the Congressional Record.

Ralph F. Lozier, a former judge and Congressman, appeared as general counsel for the National Institute of Oilseed Products. His clients were mainly California companies that imported hempseed by boat from China: Pacific Vegetable Oil Corporationl, RJ Ruesling & Co, CB Jennings & Co, SL Jones & Co., El Dorado Oil Works, Durkee Famous Foods, Inc., Berkeley Oil & Meal Co., Western Vegetable Oil, Snow Brokerage, California Flax Seeds Products, Copra Oil & Meal, Pacific Nut Oil, Globe Grain & Milling, California Cotton Oil, Producers Cotton Oil of Fresno.  These were substantial businesses that did not want to see their operations disrupted by a prohibition bill.

Lozier began prophetically, “The measure before you is one which should not be hastily considered or hastily acted upon. It is of that type of legislation which conceals within its four corners activities, agencies and results that this committee, without a thorough investigation, would never think were embodied in its measure.”

But he then undermined his own point: “I want it distinctly understood that the organizations for which I speak want to go on record as favoring absolutely and unconditionally that portion of this bill which seeks to limit and the use of marijuana as a drug, or for any other injurious purpose. That portion of the bill, it seems to me, can merit the opposition of no right-thinking or right-acting man. I agree with the witnesses for the government that the use of the drug marijuana is a vicious habit that should be suppressed.

Thus the businessmen who sold hemp products would endorse the goal of marijuana prohibition without questioning its scientific validity —even though they were the ones who had some knowledge of the plant and should have known that the so-called dangers were being vastly exaggerated by the government. They evidently thought that seeking an exemption for themselves was a better tactic than challenging the rationale for prohibition. This type of opportunism —“goody-goodyism”— is still very common among drug-policy-reform advocates.

Lozier went on:

“We do know that the deleterious principle, element or radical which is the base of this drug is not to be found in the seed or oil, but in the flowering tops of the female plants, or in the resins therefrom. Every country has a little different name for marijuana. Respectable authorities tell us that in the Orient, at least 200 million people use this drug; and when we take into consideration that for hundreds, yes, thousands of years, practically that number of people have been using this drug, it is significant that in Asia and elsewhere in the Orient, where poverty stalks abroad on every hand and where they draw on all the plant resources which a bountiful nature has given that domain —it is a significant fact that none of those 200 million people has ever, since the dawn of civilization, been found using the seed of this plant or using the oil as a drug. Now, if there were any deleterious properties or principles in the seed or oil, it is reasonable to suppose that these Orientals who have been reaching out in their poverty for something that would satisfy their morbid appetite, would have discovered it; and the mere fact that for more than two thousand years the Orientals have found this drug only in flowering tops of the female plants and not in the seeds and oils, affords convincing proof that the drug principle does not exist in the plant except in the flowering tops.

“The seed of cannabis sativa is also used in a part of Russia as food. It is grown in their fields and used as oatmeal. Millions of people every day are using hemp seed in the Orient as food. They have been doing that for many generations, especially in periods of famines. But the authorities say that the narcotic principle is absolutely absent from the seed and absent from the oil in this plant…

“In the last three years there have been 193 million pounds of hemp seed imported into this country, an average of 64 million pounds a year. In addition, 752,000 pounds of hemp oil have been imported. It is a rapidly drying oil to use in paints. It is also used in soap and linoleum.”

Lozier foresaw onerous supervision and paperwork: “This bill is a world-encircling measure. This bill brings the crushers and importers of hempseed under its provisions and requires not only a license fee, which is nominal, but it provides for government supervision and it provides for reports… The books of the seed crushers would be subject to inspection. Under this bill the Government has a right to go into the factories and offices and make investigations… There is no more reason for the supervision of the hempseed crushing industry under this bill than there is for the supervision of the rye, wheat, or other grain from which alcohol may be extracted.”

The Congressman who emerged as Treasury’s key ally throughout the hearings was Fred Vinson of Kentucky (who would go on to become Secretary of the Treasury and then Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court). Vinson wheedled: “You admit that this plant can be grown from seed coming into the possession of your people, and that being true, do you not think it proper to provide for the exercise of the government’s function to do that which will prevent the further propagation of this plant in this country?”

Lozier explained: “These people buy these cargoes. They buy this product by shiploads, by trainloads, and by carload. They manufacture this oil and sell it in tank cars. They have been engaged in this business for years, and never, until the last three weeks, was any suggestion made that they were handling a commodity that was carrying a deleterious principle that was contributing to the delinquency of the people of the United States!”

Vinson was unrelenting: “If you admit that this marijuana is a menace to the youth as well as to the adult citizenship of this country, do you not recognize the power of the federal government to operate upon that drug?  If you recognize that, do you not also recognize in the Government the power and the right to prevent the illicit growth of that plant? I think that your people ought to hasten to join hands with the federal government to prevent the condition obtaining in this country that my good friend has depicted as existing in the Oriental countries.”

When the hearing on HR6385 resumed on April 30, a Baltimore seed merchant named Raymond G. Scarlett noted. “There are only two representatives of the seed industry here today because it so happens that our trade association, which represents 90 percent of the seed dealers in the country, is now in session in Chicago.”  The prospect of prohibition had taken them by surprise.

“We handle a considerable quantity of hempseed annually for use in pigeon feeds,” Scarlett testified. ” That is a necessary ingredient in pigeon feed because it contains an oil substance that is a valuable ingredient of pigeon feed, and we have not been able to find any seed that will take its place. If you substitute anything for the hemp, it has a tendency to change the character of the squabs produced; and if we were deprived of the use of hempseed, it would affect all of the pigeon producers in the United States, of which there are upwards of 40,000.

Scarlett was asked, “Does that seed have the same effect on pigeons as the drug has on individuals?”

He replied, ” I have never noticed it. It has a tendency to bring back the feathers and improve the birds.”

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Like Lozier before him, Scarlett didn’t point out the implications of his own knowledge: hempseed oil evidently contains some unique component or components very beneficial to birds. Instead he pointed out, “We are not interested in spreading marijuana, or anything like that. We do not want to be drug peddlers.” And he suggested a deal: “it has occurred to us that if we could sterilize the seed there would be no possibility of the plant being produced from the seeds that the pigeons might throw on the ground.”

A bewildered Congressman Disney of Oklahoma asked, “What is the relation between hempseed and marijuana?”

Scarlett replied, “Until Monday of this week we did not know that there was any connection between the two. When this bill came and we saw that it was called a bill to impose an occupational excise tax upon dealers in marijuana, we paid no attention to it. Nobody in the seed trade refers to hempseed as marijuana. Hempseed is a harmless ingredient used for many years in the seed trade. They say that hemp and marijuana are one and the same thing, but it was not until Monday that we knew they were.”

There followed a discussion in which five Congressmen groped confusedly for definitions of the subject at hand. Then came Joseph B. Hertzfeld, manager of the feed department of the Philadelphia Seed Company. He took the now-familiar schizoid approach: “I want to say at the outset, Mr. Chairman, that our firm is heartily in sympathy with the aims and purposes of this bill, and we have no desire to become parties in spreading this drug around the country. We have been manufacturers of feeds and mixed birdseeds for many years, and in those mixtures hempseed is a very important item. Hempseed is very beneficial because it adds the proper oil to the mixture and promotes the growth of feathers, and it is also a general vitalizer.”

Didn’t anybody see the obvious disconnect?  It’s “a general vitalizer” for birds, and yet it kills people?

Hertzfeld went on, “Birds lose their feathers and hempseed aids considerably in restoring the bird’s vitality quickly. Otherwise there is a delay of two or three months before the bird gets back into condition, and the use of hempseed helps to accomplish that purpose.

“I want to second what Mr. Scarlett has just said, and to express our willingness to have the seed sterilized so that it cannot be grown and thus cause any harm. This agreement which has been referred to, that we reached yesterday with Mr. Hester, is very satisfactory to us.”

But the inquisitors weren’t quite satisfied. Crowther of New York asked, “Would the sterilization prevent the germination remove such of the drug as exists in the hull or the outside cover of the seed? Someone testified that there are some particles of the resin on the outside of shell of the seed.”

Hertzfeld defended his product but ended on a plaintive note: “When this seed is matured and dry we grind the shell off in the threshing operation…  It has been used for various purposes for years, and I have never heard of any ill effects. On the contrary, it seems to be extremely beneficial. We would like to have the privilege of having the use of that seed until it is definitely proven that the sterilized hempseed should not be used.”

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Fred Gardner is the managing editor of O’Shaughnessy’s. He can be reached at