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“Contested Cannabis: A History of Marijuana in Wisconsin and the Wider World”

Updated: Aug 13, 2023

Contested Cannabis Social Card

The American Institute of the History of Pharmacy (AIHP) is pleased to announce the completion of its digital exhibit, “Contested Cannabis: A History of Marijuana in Wisconsin and the Wider World,” funded in part by a generous grant from Wisconsin Humanities.

Drawing upon AIHP historical collections as well collections at the Wisconsin Historical Society, the exhibit uses objects and items—including children’s anti-drug coloring books, pro-marijuana festival posters, archived World War One-era medicinal cannabis correspondence, and other artifacts and texts—to investigate and analyze the history of cannabis, marijuana, and hemp in the state of Wisconsin and in the United States.

“Contested Cannabis” is designed to advance public debate by examining the legal, regulatory, and cultural history of cannabis—particularly in the Badger State. The exhibit explores and explains the history of cannabis, hemp, and marijuana through five themes: Taxonomy; Hemp Agriculture; Pharmacy & Medicine; Propaganda & Education; and De/Criminalization. “Contested cannabis” is hosted by the AIHP Digital Library, which features digitized versions of items, artifacts, and objects from AIHP historical collections.

In conjunction with the digital exhibit, AIHP will be hosting an online Zoom roundtable on the topic of “Contested Cannabis: A History of Marijuana in Wisconsin and the Wider World” on December 8, 2021 from 1:00–2:30 PM Central Time (2:00–3:00 Eastern Time). Free registration is available on the project home page.

Dane County Arrest

The first marijuana arrest in Dane County, Wisconsin, (in 1938) demonstrated some of the persistent inequities of the war on drugs. Image courtesy of AIHP Digital Library.

One of the topics investigated by the exhibit is the oft changing legal and regulatory status of marijuana, cannabis, and hemp in Wisconsin and the United States.

It discusses, for example, early marijuana arrests in Wisconsin after the state banned the possession of cannabis in 1936. The first marijuana conviction in Dane County—the home of Madison—happened in 1938. The article to the right documented the arrest and explained in headline form that “Colored Man Draws Maximum Sentence for Marijuana”—an early example of how the war on drugs has often targeted racial minorities.

The exhibit also features artifacts related to drug education campaigns. Two 1970s-era coloring books published by the Drug Enforcement Administration—and preserved in AIHP Historical Collections—warned children about the dangers of drugs.

In 1977, for instance, Katy’s Coloring Book About Drugs and Health taught children that “Drugs should only be bought from the pharmacist at the drug store” and that “Well people who foolishly take drugs for can can only become sick.”

Pages from 1977 DEA coloring book

Pages from Katy’s Coloring Book About Drugs and Health (Drug Enforcement Administration, 1977). Images courtesy of AIHP Digital Library.

The following year, Soozie Says, “Only Sick People Need Drugs!” quizzed children about “what to do if someone gives you a drug?”

Page from Soozie Says, “Only Sick People Need Drugs!” coloring book (Drug Enforcement Administration, 1978). Image courtesy of AIHP Digital Library.

“Contested Cannabis” also looks at the history of marijuana activism in Wisconsin, including the origins of the Great Midwest Marijuana Harvest Festival, one of the oldest pro-marijuana events in the country. The Harvest Festival, which has been held annually in Madison since 1971, got its start protesting the marijuana arrest of a prominent local activist.

First Annual Marijuana Harvest Festival

Poster from the first annual Marijuana Harvest Festival in Madison in 1971. Image courtesy of the Social Action Poster Collection at the Wisconsin Historical Society.

Footage from the First Annual Marijuana Harvest Festival in 1971 courtesy of Bob Wombacher on YouTube.

The exhibit investigates other topics like the history of hemp agriculture, which was an important cash crop for Wisconsin in the first half of the twentieth century; and the evolving use of cannabis and marijuana for medicinal and therapeutic purposes—including glimpses of early research into cannabis at the University of Wisconsin School of Pharmacy in the early twentieth century.

Eli Lilly to Edward Kremers

1918 Letter from Eli Lilly and Company to the University of Wisconsin Department of Pharmacy inquiring about supplies of American cannabis. Image courtesy of AIHP Digital Library.

Badger Hemp Important to Navy

1940 “Badger Hemp Important to Navy” article from the Milwaukee Sentinel. Image courtesy of the AIHP Digital Library.

Along with a historical timeline, the exhibit uses, images, artifacts, articles, and explanatory text to discuss the long history of hemp, marijuana, and cannabis in Wisconsin.

To supplement the digital exhibit, AIHP Historical Director Lucas Richert has organized the online Zoom roundtable, also called “Contested Cannabis: A History of Marijuana in Wisconsin and the Wider World” to further explore this important history with scholars in the field.

In addition to Dr. Richert, co-editor of the recent Cannabis: Global Histories (MIT press, 2021), speakers at the “Contested Cannabis” roundtable will include:

Dr. Emily Dufton, a drug historian, writer, and researcher based near Washington, DC. She is the author of Grass Roots: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Marijuana in America (Basic Books, 2017) and the author of the forthcoming Addiction, Inc.: How the Corporate Takeover of America’s Treatment Industry Created a Profitable Epidemic. Her writing has appeared in outlets like The Atlantic, the Washington Post, TIME and CNN. She is the managing editor emeritus of Points, the joint blog of AIHP and the Alcohol and Drugs History Society.

Dr. Natalie Schmitz, an Assistant Professor in the Pharmacy Practice Division of University of Wisconsin’s School of Pharmacy and the faculty leader of University of Wisconsin Carbone Cancer Center (UWCCC) Cancer Pharmacology Lab. Prior to joining UW, Dr. Schmitz earned her Master of Public Administration and PharmD at Drake University and then pursued her PhD in Experimental and Clinical Pharmacology at University of Minnesota while working as a Medical Cannabis Pharmacist. Dr. Schmitz has expertise in clinical pharmacology, pharmacokinetics, and cannabinoid therapies.

Gabriel Lake Carter, a graduate student in the Department of English at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. His research interests include the Rhetoric of Health & Medicine and Critical Drug Studies. He was primarily responsible for researching, writing, and gathering the images for the forthcoming “Contested Cannabis” online digital exhibit.

AIHP is grateful that generous funding from Wisconsin Humanities supported this project. Wisconsin Humanities is a non-profit organization whose mission is to strengthen the roots of community life through support of educational and cultural programs that inspire civic participation and individual imagination for communities across Wisconsin.



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