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Experimenting with Cannabis: Science and Reefer Madness

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

Recent work on commodities, particularly Paul Gootenberg’s recent work on cocaine has highlighted the roll of knowledge formation in understanding the dynamics of commodity relationships. In his book, Gootenberg traced the commodity chain of cocaine as it was shaped through political, economic, and intellectual filters in Bolivia, Peru, Germany, the United States and elsewhere. Gootenberg’s work has broadened our understanding of this global commodity over a long period of time, and suggests that the nature of these knowledge filters shift as commodities cross temporal and geographical boundaries.

Historians who study commodities within more limited spacial and temporal boundaries can still find Gootenberg’s work useful. As Michael Pollan suggests in his recent work, The Botany of Desire, the meaning of cannabis was contested at the foundational level – of biology itself – as the plant was molded and shaped for a multiplicity of human uses. Taken together, the historical and intellectual approaches of these and similar studies can help us better understand how, during the first four decades of the twentieth century, cannabis was not merely transformed from an important industrial input to a dangerous recreational drug, but often held both distinctions simultaneously. Significant portions of this intellectual terrain have been mapped by historians (some on

Conrad Shepard

Conrad from HBO’s Weeds: homage to 1930s botanists?

this blog, here, here, and here) and by other scholars like Pollan. But one of the more neglected areas for analysis is the development of knowledge about the plant as a biological entity. As my research looks at the simultaneity of hemp and marijuana in New York, I suspect that due to their close proximity, these knowledge arenas are related in more ways than we are aware. For example, using the searchable full-text New York Times database, I was struck at how many times during the nineteen-twenties and thirties a regular series on hemp frills on women’s hats was featured in the same edition as stories about marijuana arrests with no mutual recognition. This gap needs to be filled (or at least explained) if we are to understand the whole story about reefer madness in the 1930s. Since my research is still ongoing, this post will be the first in a series of three posts connecting the biological experimentation on the plant in the laboratory with the domestic hemp industry after 1900 and the development of an illicit cannabis market in the 1940s and 50s around New York City.

Regular readers of this blog need no lengthy introduction to the historical uses of material hemp. In short, its more traditional uses as cordage and as a coarse fabric were expanded during the Industrial Revolution to include an array of new applications in fuel, paper, food and paint, in addition to its use in Western medicine. To be sure, however, hemp was never nearly as important to these new applications as they were, and remained, to the cordage industry. In the 19th century, much of the domestic crop was grown in Kentucky and surrounding states, but beginning after the Civil War, several related factors came together to severely hamper the domestic production of hemp by the end of the century. First, the loss of a reliable (read: enslaved) labor supply to do the backbreaking work involved in hemp production diminished the capability to support expanding domestic production. In addition, even as industrial innovations addressed the labor issue, the lapsing of key tariff protections for the industry and the expansion of the use of comparable crops, imported from the Philippines, Mexico and Indonesia, further limited domestic production.


A hemp farmer with his crop

As its industrial applications increased, the domestic hemp industry expanded, despite the limiting factors described above, through the end of the nineteenth century, but leveled off into the twentieth. There were brief revivals of hemp production during the World Wars, but another factor, the development of synthetic alternatives to hemp fiber, sounded the death knell for the domestic industry. During the down-cycle in the early twentieth century, the demand for efficiency in hemp production supplanted calls for its expansion. Hemp was added to the list of “useful” or “economic” plants that would come under the examination of botanists during the twenties and thirties. The examination of the botanical Cannabis sativa, led by John H. Schaffner, attempted to understand the plant as a biological entity that could be manipulated and developed by new agricultural techniques. These innovations would ostensibly guide hemp farmers in their efforts to increase the yield of their crops, as well as to prevent and manage problems caused by environmental factors.


John Schaffner in OSU Greenhouse, 1900

The most extensive aspect of these studies involved understanding the significance of its dioecious sex traits. Common interventions in hemp production involve segregation and management of the sex-specific plants. Schaffner’s studies pushed these interventions into the theoretical realm. Published in a number of botanical journals including Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club, The American Naturalist, and The American Journal of Botany, Schaffner’s experiments with the sex-characteristics of hemp were successful in developing laboratory interventions to both manage the sex traits in these plants, as well as in using artificial light and temperature control to manipulate them. Schaffner was not the only botanist to take up an interest in sex traits and characteristics in hemp, as the relationship between sex traits in dioecious plants and the cause of this distinction fit well with the emerging field of genetics.

Schaffner and other botanists were aware of the practical implications of this type of study. One of the more onerous tasks in hemp cultivation is the extremely time-sensitive and labor intensive task of separating male from female plants to discourage seed growth in favor of more durable fiber output (seeding drains energy and moisture from the plant, leaving more brittle fibers). The ability to change sex-characteristics in individual plants would be tremendously useful in making the cultivation of hemp more efficient.

Sex traits were not the only experiments done on hemp. Comparative studies involving hemp and other “economic” plants were published in The American Journal of Botany through the 1930s, likely spurred by the ecological crisis of the Dust Bowl. These were done to develop solutions to practical problems of crop cultivation, from the role of light and temperature in seed germination, plant growth and recovery of damaged or ailing plants, to the impact and effect of the relationship between hemp cultivation and soil chemistry, and the impact of human interventions on these biological and chemical processes. Schaffner, in addition to his role as a leading theoretical practitioner, was a leader in practical applications of this knowledge to the problems of hemp cultivation.

The question then becomes how much did this laboratory study translate into actual changes in agricultural techniques. This research has yet to be completed, but stay tuned for the answer in a future post. We can infer that these innovations did have some influence by looking at two contemporary studies of the Kentucky hemp industry, the first a doctoral dissertation written by Brent Moore in 1905, and the second a history of Kentucky hemp published by James Hopkins in 1951. While neither of these books mention botany specifically (Hopkins doesn’t cite any of the articles from botany journals), their work relies on individual farmers’ knowledge about the plant and the US Department of Agriculture, which itself probably used botany to inform its decisions, especially regarding strategic domestic crops.

The bigger question that this research formulates is about the relationship between cash-crop agriculture for industrial purposes and what could fairly be called cash-crop agriculture for the recreational market, which began to emerge in the 1930s. Most historians suggest that the sources for domestic use of the drug was largely imported from Mexico, but there are scattered reports that suggest that domestic crops, raised expressly for the New York recreational market, did exist. While the knowledge about growing the plant was likely developed through trial and error (as with hemp production), it would be interesting to discover just how many parallels exist between laboratory experiments on hemp in the 30s and the recreational cannabis culture of New York City.



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