These Antiques Tell the Story of American Medical Marijuana Before Prohibition

The legal history of medical cannabis is complicated, to say the least.

Today, medical cannabis is legalized to some degree in all but three states (Idaho, Nebraska and South Dakota). But the story of medical cannabis in America does not begin in 1996, when California became the first state to legalize medicinal use. Medical cannabis has a long history in the US, with common usage dating back to the 19th century.

“For a time, cannabis was used for just about everything,” said Andrew Garret, an antique cannabis collector based in Oklahoma. “Prior to Aspirin, marijuana was one of the only effective painkillers. So you can imagine how popular it was as an additive.”

To celebrate that history, Garret and a small group of collectors got together 20 years ago to form the “Antique Cannabis Museum,” a community in which they gather and share their rare finds and accumulated knowledge of medical marijuana.

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“The rest of them have either moved on or died,” he told Civilized. “I’m the only one still hanging on.”

The museum, he notes, is not actually a physical location. He and his colleagues simply felt the name sounded more “official.” So instead of hosting exhibits in a building, Garrett displays much of his collection on his website, the Antique Cannabis Book, which now documents over 2,000 pre-prohibition medical cannabis products.

“The internet is just a more effective place for it,” he explained. The website features a wide variety of early medicines, supplements and remedies carefully catalogued, with detailed notes on each entry.

The Collection

The majority of Garret’s collection is dedicated to “legitimized” medicinal cannabis. That means products that were manufactured and sold with proper licenses—not the homebrew remedies, which he says were quite common in the past. His collection goes back as far as the late 19th century. And while it's largely comprised of old newspaper advertisements and medicine bottles, it also includes powders, veterinary medicines and some original written prescriptions as well.

“There was no real agreement at the time for what you could use medical marijuana for,” he said. “A book would come out listing 20 or so uses, then another would come out months later with an entirely different list. Because of this lack of agreement, its use became rather widespread across a variety of different products.”

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Only don’t expect to find much in the way of dusty joints or wilting cannabis plants. As Garret explains, the cannabis content in these medicines was relatively minute, usually acting as a supplemental sedative or pain reliever. That's why many of the apothecary jars, tins and bottles displayed on the site list only a small percentage of cannabis in their products. For example, Victor - a cough syrup for infants - states that it contains only “1- 4 grains” of cannabis indica listed alongside the syrup’s other, more prominent ingredients, such as chloroform and "sweet spirit of nitre" (aka ethyl nitrite, which was banned in America in 1980 because it causes methemoglobinemia).

Among the most striking items in the collection are those produced by companies who remain giants in the pharmaceutical industry today, like Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson. That’s right - even the company behind the Band-Aid was once engaged in the cannabis industry, selling a callus and corn remover that advertised its cannabis content directly on the package.

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The End of an Era

The collection begins to tamper down around the early days of cannabis prohibition, which Garret named the "Reefer Madness” era after the sensationalist titles often seen in anti-cannabis propaganda and entertainment at that time.

According to Garret, the catalyst for this was the creation of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1930. The bureau was formed by the administration of President Herbert Hoover and run by avowed cannabis detractor Harry J. Anslinger. As Garret points out, much of the early propaganda surrounding the supposed dangers of marijuana (which Garret extensively tracks on his site) begins to propagate the media round this time.

“It seems that the doctors, who had been prescribing cannabis for their patients for almost a hundred years, had all failed to notice that many of their patients were going around grabbing axes, meat cleavers, whatever and chopping innocent people to death,” Garret writes on his site. “Or at least that was what the newspaper headlines, spurred on by the narcotics police and government officials, would have had us believe.”

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With public opinion quickly turning against the drug, Anslinger drafted the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which federally prohibited possession or transfer of cannabis. After being passed by Congress, the Act effectively brought an end to legal medical marijuana in the country.

According to Garret, the early anti-marijuana legislation did not severely impact most of the brands that were using cannabis in their products at the time. The majority of these medicines only used cannabis as a supplemental component and were able to cheaply and easily replace it with other sedatives, like codeine, once prohibition was in place.

“Most of the companies were hardly affected at all,” he said. “It was very easy for them to just take the stuff out of their products and supplement their effects with opioids. It was just a matter of switching A for B. So what if people were killed? At least the companies were being compliant.”

The cannabis and hemp farmers, on the other hand, were not so lucky.

“For the farmers, it was disastrous,” he said. “I mean, they suffered greatly under prohibition. They lost a major crop. It wiped a lot of farmers out.”

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Changing of the Tides

Today, Garrett believes the interest in antique cannabis materials has begun to wane since he first endeavored to undertake the project. Partially, he believes that a rise in forgeries found on online auction sites like eBay have poisoned the hobby.

“For a while, there was a small community of collectors for antique medical cannabis,” he recalled. “I’ve seen bottles go for well over $1000 dollars. But, that demand led to a huge rise in fakes, and the fakes just drove everyone away.”

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To him, these fakes are not just an affront to those paying top-dollar prices to collect them. They also muddy the waters of history, and make it more difficult for collectors to establish a coherent historical record.

However, Garret believes that marijuana reform has also led to decreased interest in the hobby. Now that legalization is finally beginning to make its way across the country, he concludes that those in the industry don’t have much interest in looking back on the history of cannabis, opting instead to focus solely on the future.

“Now, you can go up the road to your local dispensary and its legal,” he said. “You can openly buy and discuss it now. Why would you want look back on a time when you couldn’t?”

All Images from the Antique Cannabis Museum, used with permission.

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