The first cultivation of hemp in the Americas seems to have been in Nova Scotia in 1606 and it subsequently became widely grown across North America for its use as a fibre. It seems, however, that there was no awareness of its psychoactive properties until the middle of the nineteenth century. In two books published in the 1850s the popular writer Bayard Taylor wrote of his hashish experiences in Egypt in a manner not unlike that of some members of the Parisian Hashish Club. Although rarely read today, his books were, for many of his numerous readers at the time, the first they had heard about the psychoactive effects of the hemp plant. The author of The Hasheesh Eater: Being Passages from the Life of a Pythagorean (1857), Fitz Hugh Ludlow, who is often considered to be one of the best writers on the subjective effects of hashish, never reached the contemporary audience that Taylor did, despite his posthumous fame.

It was not, of course, only writers that began to spread the word. Dubious figures in the unofficial world of medicine (better known as quackery) seized upon the 'new' drug and peddled it as an aphrodisiac. Ernest Abel has unearthed what must be one of the earliest and certainly one of the best lurid headlines concerning drugs. It is from the Illustrated Police News of 2 December 1876, and next to a drawing of elegant young women lounging in a swish apartment in a state of intoxication are written the immortal words: 'SECRET DISSIPATION OF NEW YORK BELLES: INTERIOR OF A HASHEESH HELL ON FIFTH AVENUE.'
It was not just the media but also the medical profession that were becoming increasingly aware of cannabis. Although doctors used it in treating many disorders (ranging from epilepsy and hysteria to alcoholism and asthma) the demonisation of drugs that began with opium was soon to spread to other psychoactive substances, including cannabis. As the anti-opium movement was intertwined with bigotry against the Chinese so with marijuana it was to be the turn of the Mexicans and then the Blacks. In 1915 California became the first state to make it illegal to possess cannabis. By the 1920s marijuana (called muggles or moota and later mezz, sassfras or tea; marijuana cigarettes or joints were known, as they still sometimes are, as reefers) had become a major 'underground drug'.
It was the first psychoactive substance (apart from alcohol) that became a common subject in modern popular music, with jazz classics from the 1930s such as Louis Armstrong's Muggles and Cab Calloway's That Funny Reefer Man topping the bill of marijuana-inspired fare. In opposition to the positive portrayal of cannabis in the jazz scene were wildly sensational accounts – supposedly based on fact – of the intimate connection of the drug with violence (drawing on the tradition of the Assassins, an Islamic sect who were supposed to take cannabis before committing murders) and sexual promiscuity. Finally, in 1937, through the considerable persuasive powers of Harry J. Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, the Marihuana (Marijuana) Tax Act became federal law and in 1956 the drug was incorporated into the more comprehensive Narcotics Act.
Although the most well-known anti-marijuana film, Reefer Madness, was designed to shock young people with its vivid portrayal of the drug menace, it seems to have had little effect. Today it is something of a cult movie (mainly among cannabis smokers!) since its plot of moral and social decline is so utterly unconvincing and ludicrous. A less well-known film about hemp was made by the US Department of Agriculture and was entitled Hemp for Victory (1942). It was made as a propaganda film to encourage the growing of the plant for its fibre by American farmers during the Second World War as, due to the conflict, sufficient overseas supplies were unavailable. Due to the controversy surrounding the psychoactive use of cannabis the very existence of the film was later officially denied; having seen it myself I can attest to its existence. Grifos was a name given to cannabis in the Caribbean and derives from the Spanish grifos, meaning 'crinkly', which some have seen as a description of the female plant's flower heads. The word found its way into America by its use among Puerto Ricans. In 1920s Harlem it became anglicised as 'reefers' but also continued to be known as 'griffs' or 'griff'. There are innumerable vernacular and slang names for cannabis. Among the most common are weed, blow, gear, grass, draw, smoke, shit and herb. Other terms have a more restricted use, as is the case with the name 'lamb's bread' used by Rastafarians, for whom it is a sacred psychoactive plant or entheogen. A number of medical uses for cannabis have made the whole debate about its legalisation a major issue. Cannabis is known to have real value not only in pain relief but also as a preventative medicine.

The Encyclopedia of
Psychoactive Substances

Richard Rudgley
Little, Brown and Company (1998)