WA: Rich History Of Cannabis On Display At Seattle Museum


Prior to 1937, marijuana was considered medicine, and its versatile parent plant, hemp, was grown and refined for the production of paper, textiles, clothing, biofuels and more.

But that all changed with a variety of state and federal bans, and today, most cannabis products remain illegal, at least at a federal level.

When Prohibition hit, the federal government instructed pharmacists and homeowners to dispose of their now-illegal inventories of tinctures and elixirs. Most did, but not everyone got the message, or cared to follow the rules.

Don E. Wirtshafter, an attorney and cannabis advocate from Ohio, has spent the last 40 years gathering pre-Prohibition cannabis items like bottles, posters and other packaging, which can be seen at the Cannabis Museum, an attraction currently housed at Dockside Cannabis, a retailer in Seattle’s SODO neighborhood.

“They took all of these medicines out of the drug stores, thousands of products,” he said. “Through good luck and good help, I found these bottles, containers and advertising that marked the first golden age of the cannabis apothecary, 1850 through 1937.”

Much of his collection includes hand-blown bottles and containers that have been preserved by an underground network of controlled substance artifact collectors.

Wirtshafter continues to gather and curate these items for the Seattle location and a few private collections in other countries.

The Seattle museum was chosen because of his connection to Aaron Varney, one of the owners of Dockside Cannabis. Both are also board members with the Center for Study of Cannabis and Social Policy, a non-profit educational program based at Seattle University.

Wirtshafter said cannabis was the third-most used herb in compounded medicines for nearly 60 years, and nearly every corner drugstore once carried Cannabis Americana, a strain grown by pharmaceutical companies. It was even cheaper than tobacco.

He said medical authorities also recognized the value of cannabis as something with healing properties.

“Pharmacists understood the difference between THC and CBD and used them for different diagnoses,” Wirtshafter said. (The letters are different compounds in the marijuana plant: THC generally provides more relaxation/highs, while CBD provides more pain relief.)

Wirtshafter said many of the bottles are also significant for historical reasons because they show some recognizable names in today’s pharmaceutical circles such as global manufacturers Eli Lilly and Parke-Davis.

In the late 1890s, both companies combined forces to breed cannabis at Eli Lilly’s Greenfield, Ind., farm, creating the Cannabis Americana strain.

The 1910 Parke-Davis catalog lists Cannabis Americana at $1.65 per pound, which was packaged in one-ounce packets or small cardboard boxes. This strain was popular until Congress enacted nationwide cannabis prohibition in 1937.

Wirtshafter said Eli Lilly and Parke-Davis worked together 15 years to try to create a pure CBD variety and a pure THC variety, but were ultimately unsuccessful.

Tinctures were also very popular, pre-Prohibition, which consisted of the plant extracts in an alcohol solution. Early tinctures could be manufactured elsewhere or blended at a local apothecary to the prescribing physician’s preference.

Wirtshafter said tinctures could be potent, enough to make someone sick if abused, but the herb itself wasn’t dangerous. Because of the uncertainty, tinctures were required to be labeled ‘poison.’

Even in the 1920s and 1930s, when social forces were organizing against marijuana while easing up against alcohol, the American Medical Association was continuing to support further research and use for cannabis.

Henry Anslinger, who Wirtshafter called the “first drug czar,” led the efforts to get Congress to issue the ban on cannabis.

“He created the cannabis scare in the 1930s while the AMA was saying, ‘wait, this is useful stuff,’” Wirtshafter said.

Wirtshafter will be traveling overseas soon to add to his collection. He said he has already collected more than 60,000 items that once promoted cannabis as medicine, textiles and more, and plans to rotate new items into Dockside for display.

“This is just a sneak preview of where we’re going with the museum,” he said.

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