Crazy Cows, Flea Detectives, and Protesting Songbirds: Exploring the “Animal Turn” in Cannabis History

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Bob Beach. Beach is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Albany, SUNY. 

The study of non-human animals has become an exciting new direction in history and the broader humanities. In a 2016 issue of Perspectives on History, environmental historian Dan Vandersommers has gone so far as to label this new development “the Animal Turn.” He argues that the impact of animals on human history defies sub-field categorizations, because the very development of organized human societies has been so reliant on intimate human/animal relationships that intersect with too many different fields to ignore.

In my own research, I’ve seen limited examples of these non-human relationships in the history of cannabis in the United States. The brief discussion that follows will demonstrate a range of roles and limited agency for non-human animal actors in these stories. We can also see how human observers have exploited (directly and indirectly) these non-human animal actors in various ways

As discussed in Isaac Campos’s book Home Grown (see pp. 208–17), the accuracy of many newspaper stories reporting on the supposedly hazardous effects of the cannabis plant on cows, horses, goats, and hogs are questionable. These tales arose from a confusion in the Mexican press during the 1920s between marijuana and several other types of “locoweeds.” The stories then spread across the border into the United States in subsequent years. The articles I’ve found, indeed, fail to clearly establish whether or not marijuana was the plant ingested by animals, but the stories do reflect official efforts to pursue and eradicate wild (and clandestine) growth of cannabis throughout the United States after the 1930s.

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Toxicology, Conspiracy, and History

After John Crawford, III, was shot dead in a suburban Ohio Wal-Mart by police who mistook a toy gun he was holding for a real one, the Montgomery County coroner’s office received his body for post-mortem examination. The coroner also received the body of Angela Williams, a 37-year-old white woman who had been shopping at Wal-Mart at the time of the shooting, and who suffered a heart attack while fleeing the scene and died hours later. Autopsies performed on these two victims of accidental homicide included routine toxicological tests we might logically expect to be identical. Yet, according to the reports, “B Service” testing for alcohol and illicit drugs was requested for Crawford, while “A Service” was requested for Williams.

At the Montgomery County coroner’s office, both A and B Services include a simple test for the presence of alcohol and a type of screening, known by its acronym ELISA, for drugs of abuse. (This method is unsophisticated enough to be available in an affordable home drug-testing kit.) However, the B Service package requested for Crawford also included the more sensitive and pricey test for “basic drugs” by GC/MS, a technique known as the gold standard in toxicology. GC/MS is commonly employed to confirm the presence of cannabinoids after a positive ELISA result, and to quantify estimated levels in the blood. Crawford tested positive for THC, which was confirmed by GC/MS to be at levels consistent with recent use of marijuana in a living person. For good measure, the county also confirmed this positive finding with a urine test.

Even though B Service is a more time-consuming set of tests, and in spite of the fact that Crawford and Williams were killed on the same day, Crawford’s report was completed and signed by the deputy coroner more than two weeks before Williams’. Crawford’s report was almost certainly considered during the secret proceedings of the grand jury that declined to indict Crawford’s shooter, Beavercreek Police Officer Sean Williams. When Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine released Crawford’s toxicology report to the public the day after this decision, the Dayton Daily News led its article with the finding that Crawford had marijuana in his system at the time of the shooting. Montgomery County Coroner Kent Harshbarger told the News that Crawford had used marijuana in the past several hours before his death, calling it “acute use, that is recent, (within) hours.”

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John Crawford, III

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