Long before Prohibitionist lawmakers demonized and disallowed cannabis, the shelves of apothecaries far and wide glittered with bottles and jars of what was once the third-most used herb in compounded medicines.
And if it weren’t for the diligence of an underground network of collectors spanning many decades – along with the more recent efforts of a group of advocates in Seattle, WA – evidence of America’s cannabis-friendly history may very well have been extinguished altogether.
Now, the fruits of those efforts are on display at the Cannabis Museum in Seattle.
The museum – currently housed at the retailer Dockside Cannabis – is a veritable treasure chest of pre-Prohibition items including bottles of cannabis tinctures and elixirs, posters, packaging and photographs.
While the federal government of the day ordered pharmacists and homeowners to destroy these items once Prohibition hit, a wide-reaching net of controlled substance artifact collectors ensured not all was lost.
To Don E. Wirtshafter, the attorney and cannabis advocate who spent the last 40 years collecting much of the museum’s stock, the exhibit serves as a reminder that cannabis was once widely accepted as a mainstream medicine.
“For hundreds of years until cannabis was banned in 1937, it was in common use. That fact, and the details of it and the science behind it, have been totally obscured from modern history by 80 years of Prohibition,” Wirtshafter told Civilized.
“It’s not in any museums, it’s not in any textbooks; it was not preserved other than through the efforts of a few collectors.”
The collection illustrates that the herbalists of yesteryear had cannabis medicine “dialed in very well”, explained Wirtshafter. A cannabis strain known as Cannabis Americana was carried in nearly every drugstore, he said, and pharmacists of the day knew exactly what form of the plants to prescribe for any number of ailments.
“They understood the difference between CBD and THC-bearing cannabis, and they understood that the two together were a powerful combination,” said Wirtshafter, adding that they also understood the process and benefits of decarboxylation.
“They understood all this 100 years ago and ... doctors knew what to prescribe for particular conditions that line up with what people claim works for those same conditions today.”
“It’s just shocking to see the mass quantities of [cannabis items] and see how they recognized medicine,” added the museum’s director of sales, Theresa Daniello.
All this meant that when the era of patent medicine rolled around and Prohibition was passed, many medical professionals were slow to let go of cannabis “because it was so effective”, said Wirtshafter.
“You just can’t find any negative stories about the use of cannabis. And [if they existed], you’d be able to find them because they exist with all other kinds of medications,” he said. “[Cannabis] had a reputation for being extremely safe; safe enough that by the 1920s and 1930s, it was dispensed from drug stores as an herb and smoked with a lot of regularity.
“We’ve lost many of the useful herbs from our culture by way of this purposeful intervention. Cannabis just happened to be the worst victim."
Beyond simply offering a peek into the past, museum preparatory Joe Brumfield hopes the exhibit helps “change minds.”
“This is the definitive proof that [cannabis] was always what it has become now,” said Brumfield, adding that this evidence is, in fact, what changed his grandmother’s opinion about the modern-day cannabis movement.
“It really shows the local culture before the apothecary became the drug store,” added Wirtshafter, “before the real drugs came out of it and we were given a bunch of chemicals.”
Banner image from the Dockside Cannabis Museum Facebook page