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Updated: Aug 29, 2023

Editor’s Note: We continue this week’s posts from the recent Transatlantic History Conference. Today, I (Bob Beach) am presenting my own paper “‘From

1925‐1937.” The first two entries in the series are here, and here

My conference talk, in many ways is a postscript of sorts to Bradley Borougerdi’s talk. As the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, Western society did reform cannabis, removing the plant from its mysterious “Eastern” context and integrating it into modern “Western” society.

This process involved the extensive production of scientific knowledge about the plant in a number of different arenas. My research examines this knowledge production, and my talk introduced two knowledge arenas in which this knowledge was produced. I argued that despite the ostensibly objective knowledge produced in the natural sciences and medicine during this period, the old, orientalist, medico-literary knowledge remained a powerful factor in the ways that knowledge about cannabis was consumed.

My interest in studying knowledge production and consumption about cannabis began with my discovery of stories in newspapers, popular periodicals, and academic journals in the 1920s and 1930s reporting on the presence of wild cannabis plants routinely found growing in vacant lots in New York City. The 1920s were a high point of industrial hemp, when cannabis sativa was used in a number of industrial processes and contributed to the burgeoning consumer economy. This probably best explains the extent of wild hemp growth in the city.

But instead of making this fairly obvious conclusion, public officials blamed the presence of these plants on African-American and Mexican users of the social drug marijuana. Wild cannabis in New York provides an interesting lens through which to explain and understand the contested knowledge embedded in the cannabis plant during the first part of the twentieth century.

One knowledge arena framed cannabis sativa as an economic commodity. As cannabis became a more important industrial raw material, scientific literature included the plant in the category of “economic plants,” subject to extensive research designed to facilitate innovations in cultivation that would boost its effectiveness in the production process. John H. Schaffner published a number of articles that discussed the sex characteristics of the plant, and was successful in observing natural phenomenon and then developing laboratory interventions to both manage and manipulate them.

Other scientists studying cannabis examined the role of light and temperature in seed germination, plant growth, and recovery of damaged or ailing plants; the relationship between cultivation and soil chemistry; and the impact of human interventions on these biological and chemical processes.

This new modern, scientific discourse surrounding cannabis sativa seemed to reject the nineteenth century medico-literary discourse about the mysterious, orientalist origins of the plant. Indeed, few articles published in professional natural science journals in the period alluded to these factors. However as this scientific knowledge found its way into the public arena in popular scientific and agricultural journals, the orientalist troupe of racial degeneracy routinely crept in. These sections seemed to justify the modern study and use of cannabis in agriculture and in industry by contrasting it with the problematic recreational use by those in the East.

In many ways, medical knowledge was limited and framed by the scientific viability of the plant’s use in modern medicines during the early twentieth century. The inability to establish solid effective, toxic, and fatal thresholds with cannabis-based medicines shifted the medical focus from the promise of the plant as a medicinal product toward attempts to evaluate the manifestation of marijuana use on individual behavior.

At the height of reefer madness, these studies were more influenced by colonial discourse than by knowledge produced by American clinicians. A late, but nevertheless significant article, “Indian Hemp Insanity” published in the Journal of Medical Science in 1930 by Jal Edulji Dhunjibhoy, warned that excessive use of marihuana, “degrades the mind and character” of users and could “fortify [criminals] for crime.” As the thirties progressed, Dhunjibhoy’s article and others like it were used as a template to craft speculations about the emerging threat cannabis posed to the American social order.

Authoritative Knowledge

Authoritative Knowledge

A.E. Fossier, writing in the New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal, was the first to cite Dhunjibhoy’s article (Fossier cites it more than once). Fossier’s analysis of the toxic effects of marijuana echoes Dhunjibhoy’s findings and fail to provide first-hand evidence of his own. In large doses, continued use of the drug could lead to “complete loss of judgment and of restraint,” susceptibility to “the will of the mastermind,” and “inhibition for crime,” wrote Fossier.

What is most interesting about Fossier’s article (and others like it) is their medico-literary allusions to the mythology of the “hashashins,” an ancient Islamic military group– a popular bit of orientalist speculation familiar to drug historians who study the 1930s. In contrast, studies were being conducted that directly challenged the emerging consensus, both in the Panama Canal Zone and at New York’s Bellvue Hospital by Dr. Walter Bromberg.

In the context of a transatlantic graduate student conference, this research has opened new windows on the relationship between orientalist discourses in colonial science and the more modern, ostensibly objective, forms of knowledge produced in the scientific arenas of the twentieth century.

In an era that stressed the objectivity of progressive, modern science, it is fascinating (though not surprising) that seemingly scientific knowledge about cannabis that saw the plant as either an important industrial ingredient or a relatively harmless recreational drug, gave way to wild speculation about “others” growing and peddling a drug that turned innocent American children into crazed killers. Examining the dynamics of knowledge production and consumption, the subject of my dissertation research, may shed some light on this conclusion.

Reefer Madness

Wild Cannabis: Explained


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