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Colonial staple to 'Reefer Madness'

The grass is no greener. But, over there you can smoke it. It's legal, at least somewhere in America. It's been a long, strange trip for marijuana.

Washington state and Colorado voted to legalize and regulate its recreational use last month. But before that, the plant, renowned since ancient times for its strong fibers, medical use and mind-altering properties, was a staple crop of the colonies, an "assassin of youth," a counterculture emblem and a widely accepted, if often abused, medicine.

On the occasion of Thursday's "Legalization Day," when Washington's new law takes effect, here's a look back at the cultural and legal status of the "evil weed" in American history.

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CANNABIS IN THE COLONIES

George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both grew hemp and puzzled over the best ways to process it for clothing and rope.

Indeed, cannabis has been grown in America since soon after the British arrived. In 1619 the Crown ordered the colonists at Jamestown to grow hemp to satisfy England's incessant demand for maritime ropes, Wayne State University professor Ernest Abel wrote in "Marihuana: The First Twelve Thousand Years."

Hemp became more important to the colonies as New England's own shipping industry developed, and homespun hemp helped clothe American soldiers during the Revolutionary War. Some colonies offered farmers "bounties" for growing it.

"We have manufactured within our families the most necessary articles of cloathing," Jefferson said in "Notes on the State of Virginia." ''Those of wool, flax and hemp are very coarse, unsightly, and unpleasant."

Jefferson went on to invent a device for processing hemp in 1815.

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TASTE THE HASHISH

Books such as "The Arabian Nights" and Alexandre Dumas' "The Count of Monte Cristo," with its voluptuous descriptions of hashish highs in the exotic Orient, helped spark a cannabis fad among intellectuals in the mid-19th century.

"But what changes occur!" one of Dumas' characters tells an uninitiated acquaintance. "When you return to this mundane sphere from your visionary world, you would seem to leave a Neapolitan spring for a Lapland winter -- to quit paradise for earth -- heaven for hell! Taste the hashish, guest of mine -- taste the hashish."

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MEXICAN FOLKLORE AND JAZZ CLUBS

By the turn of the 20th century, cannabis smoking remained little known in the United States — but that was changing, thanks largely to The Associated Press, says Isaac Campos, a Latin American history professor at the University of Cincinnati.

In the 1890s, the first English-language newspaper opened in Mexico and, through the wire service, tales of marijuana-induced violence that were common in Mexican papers began to appear north of the border — helping to shape public perceptions that would later form the basis of pot prohibition, Campos says.

"It relaxes you, makes you forget all the bad things that happen to a Negro," he once said. In the 1950s, he urged legalization in a letter to President Dwight Eisenhower.

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REEFER MADNESS, HEMP FOR VICTORY

After the repeal of alcohol prohibition in 1933, Harry Anslinger, who headed the federal Bureau of Narcotics, turned his attention to pot. He told of sensational crimes reportedly committed by marijuana addicts. "No one knows, when he places a marijuana cigarette to his lips, whether he will become a philosopher, a joyous reveler in a musical heaven, a mad insensate, a calm philosopher, or a murderer," he wrote in a 1937 magazine article called "Marijuana: Assassin of Youth."

The hysteria was captured in the propaganda films of the time, most famously, "Reefer Madness," which depicted young adults descending into violence and insanity after smoking marijuana. The movie found little audience upon its release in 1936 but was rediscovered by pot fans in the 1970s.

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MEDS OF A DIFFERENT SORT

Marijuana has been used as medicine since ancient times, as described in Chinese, Indian and Roman texts, but U.S. drug laws in the latter part of the 20th century made no room for it. In the 1970s, many states passed symbolic laws calling for studies of marijuana's efficacy as medicine, although virtually no studies ever took place because of the federal prohibition.

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LEGAL WEED AT LAST

On Nov. 6, Washington and Colorado pleased aging hippies everywhere, and shocked straights of all ages, by voting to become the first states to legalize the fun use of marijuana. Voters handily approved measures to decriminalize the possession of up to an ounce by adults over 21. Colorado's measure also permits home-growing of up to six plants.

Both states are working to set up a regulatory scheme with licensed growers, processors and retail stores. Eventually, activists say, grown-ups will be able to walk into a store, buy some marijuana, and walk out with ganja in hand, but not before paying the taxman. The states expect to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for schools and other government functions.

The Canadian Press


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