The U.S. government’s War Department (predecessor of the Department of Defense) used to order Army medics to carry cannabis in the field. No joke! Weed was among the government-issue (G.I.) medical supplies listed in historical documents maintained by the surgeon-general. It was used to treat minor ailments, such as headaches and insomnia, and was provided in tablet form for ease of transport.
Many people who have studied the inclusion of cannabis in G.I. Army supplies limit their knowledge to a fairly obscure sentence in a 2008 book by Brendan Koerner on World War II. In that sentence, Koerner notes that cannabis was standard issue in the U.S. Army during World War I. Rather than limiting ourselves to that single source, however, we dug deeper into actual U.S. military archives to consult authoritative sources on the matter. As it happens, the weed requirement predates World War I by quite a bit. Look what we found!
Surgeon-General Tells Army It Has to Carry
At least as far back as 1892, the U.S. government’s surgeon-general required the Army’s medical department to keep cannabis in its inventory. A standard supply table documented for 1892/1893 specifies that a cannabis indica tincture is to be provided in a 1-milligram tablet in 100-tablet bottles: one bottle for populations of 100 to 600, and two bottles for populations of 800 to 1,000. The surgeon-general obviously wasn’t trying to get soldiers high (that’s a different article), but it was codified in official documents that cannabis was of indispensable medicinal value.
The U.S. Army’s medical department was told by the U.S. surgeon-general in 1892/1893 to keep tablets of cannabis indica tincture (fourth from bottom in the list above) among the department’s standard medical supplies. (Source: U.S. National Institutes of Health, https://digirepo.nlm.nih.gov/ext/dw/100969324/PDF/100969324.pdf)
War Department Says Government Falls Short in Scoring Pot
For a War Department financial report for fiscal year 1897, the surgeon-general tasked medical professionals with evaluating the therapeutic value of medicinal tablets that had been kept in inventory for long periods of time. From Page 415: “During the year an investigation was made into the efficiency of those medicines that have for some time past been supplied to Army medical officers in the tablet form.”
Dr. William M. Mew, employed by the Secretary of War’s chemical laboratory, conducted tests on a long list (see pages 416 to 417 in the report cited above) of tablets. Cannabis was processed into tablets in the interest of extending its shelf life and facilitating shipping and handling. Dr. Mew was dismayed to find that cannabis had been kept on the shelf long enough to become inert, rendering it ineffective. On Page 420 (yes, really), he said, “More frequent purchases of … cannabis indica … are desirable.” In other words, a U.S. government medical expert said the government wasn’t buying enough weed – and shame on the government, tout bout!
In the above 1897 War Department financial record excerpts (cover page on top), Page 416 (bottom left) specifies “cannabis indica” in the Drug column of the table as a standard issue Army medical supply. Page 420 (bottom right) from the same report provides Dr. Mew’s conclusion in the second-to-last “That” statement before the new subsection begins. (Source: Google Books, https://books.google.com/books?id=m6UdAQAAIAAJ&pg=PA419&lpg=PA419&dq=%22cannabis+indica+tincture%22+and+%22War+Department%22&source=bl&ots=e1DdTDSLfo&sig=ACfU3U0mDfD9oECPGzR_UMaAY_Uu8kkunw&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiX2NTY1qmCAxUMlWoFHfHwBPIQ6AF6BAgKEAM#v=onepage&q&f=false)
Cannabis Still a Friendly as U.S. Fights Abroad
According to Brendan Koerner, author of “Now the Hell Will Start: One Soldier’s Flight from the Greatest Manhunt of World War II,” the aforementioned cannabis tablets were still standard issue during World War I (1914-1918).
From Page 129: “The medics of the American Expeditionary Force, meanwhile, were lugging a form of marijuana to Europe: the War Department recommended that for every thousand men in the field, Army medics keep a bottle of ‘Cannabis indicæ tincture’ tablets on hand, for the treatment of headaches, insomnia and cramps.”
Although online research failed to turn up a corroborating source for Koerner’s claim, one can assume that Koerner’s assertion – in light of U.S. Army history – is likely accurate. Once again, it’s clear that the surgeon-general wasn’t trying to get soldiers stoned (and once again, that’s another article). However, it does show unequivocally that the U.S. government was still a canna-phile as recently as the late 1910s.
U.S. Government Doubles Down on Demonizing Cannabis
Despite cannabis’s longstanding support from the U.S. government, at least as concerns the U.S. armed forces, things shifted in the post-World War I era. As we explain in our article on “Reefer Madness” (1936), this was a result of the plant’s entanglement in politics. The partnership between government and ganja was decidedly broken up by the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, and things progressed downhill from there. In our comprehensive analysis of the Controlled Substances Act’s handling of cannabis as a drug, we show how the contradictory nature of the plant’s role in contemporary U.S. society is muddled.
Developments Defy Predictions, Leave Future Uncertain
Political, economic and social developments in the U.S. centered on cannabis are flourishing in the 2020s. So, who knows whether cannabis will be withheld from the people in perpetuity. Keep an eye out for updates from Head as we root for the U.S. government and ganja to get back together!
Kathleen Hearons is a writer, editor, linguist and voice over actor from Los Angeles. She specializes in creative writing and research-intensive analysis and reporting.
Sources and Suggested Reading
Annual Reports of the War Department for the Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1897: Report of the Secretary of War, Part 1 – Miscellaneous Reports. (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1897). War Department Document No. 51, Office Secretary of War. Accessed November 4, 2023. Excerpt: https://books.google.com/books?id=m6UdAQAAIAAJ&pg=PA419&lpg=PA419&dq=%22cannabis+indica+tincture%22+and+%22War+Department%22&source=bl&ots=e1DdTDSLfo&sig=ACfU3U0mDfD9oECPGzR_UMaAY_Uu8kkunw&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiX2NTY1qmCAxUMlWoFHfHwBPIQ6AF6BAgKEAM#v=onepage&q&f=false.
Favorito, AJ. “HHS Recommends Marijuana Be Deregulated to Schedule III.” Head Magazine. Accessed November 4, 2023. https://headmagazine.com/hhs-recommends-marijuana-be-deregulated-to-schedule-iii/.
Hearons, Kathleen. “Reefer Madness: The Real Story Behind the Anti-Cannabis Classic.” Head Magazine. Accessed November 4, 2023. https://headmagazine.com/reefer-madness-the-story-behind-an-anti-cannabis-classic/.
Hearons, Kathleen. “The Illogic of Illegal Weed: A Comprehensive Analysis.” Head Magazine. Accessed November 4, 2023. https://headmagazine.com/the-illogic-of-illegal-weed-a-comprehensive-analysis/.
Koerner, Brendan I. “Now the Hell Will Start: One Soldier’s Flight from the Greatest Manhunt of World War II.” New York: The Penguin Press, 2008.
War Department Exhibit, Medical Department United States Army, No. 8, Standard Supply Table of the Medical Department United States Army. World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, Illinois 1892-1893. By direction of the surgeon-general, U.S.A., Assistant Surgeon U.S. Army, in charge of Medical Section, Louis A. La Garde. Accessed November 4, 2023.