A short history of cannabis


What  this article aims is to stake  claim for the importance of cannabis historiography, which has been ignored by both mainstream and radical historians by and large. For example Edward W. Said’s book, Orientalism, which is a postmodern historical analysis of the Orient and how the cultural image was constructed by the West in a period of colonialism never mentions the cultural importance of drugs. In this way my attempt to show the venerable history of cannabis in today’s age when it is disparaged by anti-cannabis propaganda. To cast a critical eye over some of the myths of cannabis, as a love and peace drug, when it has been associated in fact and legend with war as much as peace. And I also I hope this acts an inspiration for further research , in part as a way of understanding in philosophical terms that drug use is not an aberration, but a part of human history from prehistoric times. It is a cliché of pro-cannabis literature but its truth is made apparent by linking the prehistory through the ages to how it entered western culture. There is a linking thread which today’s propaganda attempts to deny. History is a struggle of ideas about what kind of history we choose to record, an invisible history which needs to be made public.

The first symposium on the historiography of drugs was held in San Francisco in 1967. It was argued by Holmstedt that the work stretched bacI5 to J.J. Moreau’s Du Haschish et de l’alienation mentale’, published in 1845. More than 150 years since the publication of Moreau’s work it is perhaps time to start taking cannabis seriously. It is too important not to.

This is an attempt to piece together the remains of that evidence to produce a sketchy history of how cannabis came to be used as a drug across Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa in a process lasting thousands of years, and how it was rediscovered in the first “Cannabis Renaissance” by writers and scientists in the 1840s as a result of the colonising work of Britain and France. This history specifically focuses on the discovery of cannabis, not the history of hemp. As a result I do not attempt to explore the history of cannabis in any”, great depth in the New World’. Rather it is a brief outline of how the historical and geographical progress of the

It is true that cannabis, as hemp, has long been grown in western Europe, but was rarely used as a drug like alcohol was and so never gained such respectability. 4Consequently, Islam or Hinduism, cannabis has always been1vulnerable to attacks from the dominant cultural institution of the Church. The nicely named Pope Innocent VIII banning of the use of hemp in satanic mass is one end of to twisting historic thread which connects up with the Victorian evangelical pressure which led to the Indian Hemp Commission being set up to the Prohibition era in the States to the leading anti-cannabis crusaders (sic) today.


Early Neolithic shamanistic use and nomadic role

North-east Asia plays an important part in the history of the spread of cannabis use. Over six thousand years ago the Neolithic people in what is now China used the plant widely as part of their shamanistic culture. This culture was first discovered in the Honan province by archaeologists earlier this century and became known as the Yang-shao culture. However, its lasting impact came not with its influence on Chinese civilisation, but their dispersal across Asia – taking cannabis use culture with them. “The great mobility of the nomadic tribes to the north of China apparently assisted the movement of the plant to western Asia and from there to India, where its use as a drug intensified. While shamanism, and the use of cannabis in particular, were on the upswing in these other Asiatic locales, hallucinogenic practices slowly declined in China beginning with the Age of Confucius”. (Hui-Lin Li)

Hemp and medicinal uses in Chinese civilisation

What you did see was some of the most important hemp uses, in mixing it with mulberry pulp to make paper (a discovery which did not find its way to the Arab world until 9 century AD) and in all other hemp uses from cloth to rope. More relevantly perhaps is the Chinese study of its medicinal properties, one of the most amazing being the emperor Shen-Nung from 24 century BC who tested different plants on himself for their therapeutic qualities – including cannabis. Its therapeutic qualities were developed in the second century AD by surgeon Hua Tuo who developed the use of cannabis resin and wine as a form of anaesthetic.

Why cannabis never really caught on

Hun-Lin Li, the author of ‘The Origin and Use of Cannabis in Eastern Asia’, argues that the reason for this decline in shamanistic use with the first Chinese dynasty of around 2,000 years BC was due to the strong sense of uniformity and continuity in the new Chinese culture. So he argues that cannabis was frowned upon because of the “fantasy, unreality and sometimes violence caused by cannabis would disrupt family life”, whereas “the sedative

effect of opium is more compatible, especially in view of the large size of families where several generations live together.” Though this argument from the 1970s seems more to do with the anti-cannabis propaganda of the time than historical reality it is true that cannabis as a drug, despite the shamanistic roots in the region, never caught on as a mass drug. “The Chinese experiment with marihuana as a psychoactive agent was really more of a flirtation than an orgy. Those among the Chinese who hailed it as the ‘giver of delight’ never amounted to more than a small segment of the population.” (Ernest L. Abel, ‘Marihuana, The First Twelve Thousand Years’ PDF)


The link between the nomadic tribes which lived in prehistoric China and the Ayrans which invaded India around 2,000 BC is supported by a number of studies into the subject. Though an Indian civilisation already existed at the time of the Ayran immigration they brought a sophisticated cannabis use culture which left a distinctive hallmark right up to the present day.

The greatest embodiment of that culture was the Vedic religion, and in particular the rituals associated around the god Shiva – the Lord of Bhang -, which entailed generous consumption of cannabis. In a striking parallel to the Haydar myth describing how the Islamic Sufi sect discovered cannabis it is believed by followers of Shiva that the god brought the plant down from the Himalayas. Like the Sufi myth Siva goes off into the countryside and rests under a cannabis plant. There his curiosity is aroused and on eating the leaves becomes converted to the plants wonderful properties. In fact you could say there is a little of the Newtonian apple falling on the head kind of parable in the story too. Interestingly this story of Shiva first came to western ears at the hearings of the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission, when a magistrate called Grierson said the tale came from an old Hindu poem.

The religious veneration of cannabis or bhang is contained in the four holy books, the Vedas, believed to have been written sometime between 2,000 and 1,400 BC – the first clear mention being in the Atharva Veda believed to have been written around 1,300 BC. But, as Abel notes, the drug only became a part of everyday life in the 10 century AD. Part of the reason for this may lie in the fact that the Vedic philosophy (which in turn became a central part of Hindu philosophy) was ascetic in nature consuming cannabis for a purpose, religious insight and ecstasy, and not for pleasure in itself. The western image of Shiva as the goddess of cannabis is a character of the eastern culture, leaving out the ascetic in pursuit of the romantic association with the east.

And of course western notions of eastern cannabis history fail to appreciate the way complex caste culture led to and regional diversity in Indian society are mirrored in the diverse ways the Vedic cannabis culture. As P.J. Morningstar notes in her study of traditional Hindu beliefs: “Differences in roles of Brahmans and lower castes and of householders and renouncers are expressed in the differences in preparation of bhang and ganja.”

It is interesting to note that cannabis only became used more widely around 10th century AD – a period coinciding with the influence of Muslim traders in Indian society. As in the case of early African cannabis use, smoking cannabis as a popular means of imbibing it, was a late comer. Before then people used a cigar called a Dhumararti, a cigar made by coating a six inch hollow reed with herbal paste. When it had dried the reed was removed, and the cigar smeared with ghee. The hookah, a Muslim invention, possibly led to the invention of the chilam, the mouthpiece of the hookah being used as a pipe on its own.

Before the grand Indian Commission Report the first European reference to cannabis use in India was by Portuguese physician Garcia de Orta (born in 1501) who enlisted into the Portuguese civil service in order to go to India and learn more about drugs sailed to India in 1554. Though nearly every copy of his study ‘Colloquies on the Simples and Drugs of India’ were burnt after Da Orta was exposed by anti-Semitics as a ‘closet Jew’ the book published in 1563 was crucial in persuading the medical profession that cannabis was worth taking seriously as a therapeutic agent. The first Englishman’s account of the Indian use of cannabis was by Captain Thomas Barney, who visited India between 1669 and 1679, who like Da Orta realised the effect of the drug varied from individual to individual.

But it was the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission study , finally published in 1893 which marks the height of western interest in cannabis use in India. Not surprisingly it is not well known that the British government was quite happy to let Indian people use cannabis, so long as they paid tax on it back to the Crown. Even when one governor general of India tried to go on a crusade against it, the Board of revenue won the day in a set of political priorities not unlike today over tobacco and alcohol. But with the revival of Christianity in Victorian Britain so came increasing concern about cannabis in the second half of the 19th century. It was this concern, both from local Indian officials and crusaders in Britain .

When the Commission was set up in 1890 it is interesting, as Abel points out, that the original terms of the Commission’s enquiry included consideration of the danger prohibition opposed to general discontent and if prohibition was imposed whether it would lead to greater alcohol and other drug use. In its survey it found bhang, the cheapest cannabis preparation was the most widely used – bearing out the fact that cannabis was in fact most widely used by poorer people. So despite the moral clamout from campaigners back in England and the colonial officials in India the Commission decided prohibition was not a good thing, and that a safer cannabis use culture was best served by taxation which would control use.

South East Asia

The importance of the Indian influence in the spread of cannabis can also be found in its introduction to South East Asia. Marie Martin’s study, ‘Ethnobiological Aspects of cannabis in South East Asia’, suggests a strong chance that cannabis originally came from India. In this, again the link is made through the linguistic connection, the name cannabis is given throughout the region being the sanskrit ‘gunja’. “For the inhabitants, it would be the Indians who brought in the plant. In Vietnam, one of the names of the species is gal ando, or Indian grass-cloth plant, and as we shall see the Sanskrit name is widespread throughout the peninsula.” (Martin)

However, whether this was the dominant force for the growth of cannabis use is difficult to say without primary evidence to back it up. Martin conjectures that cannabis may also have been brought by Arab conquerors in the 13 and 14th century and by the Spanish and Portuguese colonialists in the 16th and 17th century.

The Middle East

“Wine is the drink of the rich and powerful while hashish is the friend of the poor, the Dervishes and the men of knowledge, i.e. all of those who came not blessed with earthly goods and social power.” (poet Foruli, from Greek study)

Perhaps the greatest cannabis use culture in ancient times grew up in the Islamic world. Though Abel finds little surviving evidence pointing to the use of cannabis in the first three centuries of Islam, and there is precious little mention of it in the Koran, it began to be mention in literature from around the 12 century onwards. One of the most comprehensive of these writings was at the hand of 20-year old Al-Badri, whose study highlights the great diversity of Islamic cannabis culture. Badri’s book ranges from detailed account of users liking of sweets to the heady mixture of hashish and homosexuality – despite the fact he distanced himself from the references to homosexuality just as Rosenthal in his study produces a fascinating account of hashih society only to decry “hashish addiction”. As poet Abiu Nuwas wrote (Abel. P20 notes), what was better than “A handful of hashish, a pound of meat, a kilo of bread, and the company of a willing boy.” His study also reveals how cannabis use and the language of its users varied according to their professions. In parallel to the way drugs are given – street names and scientific names today the drug was also given the more formal tag ‘qinnab’ – from which the present word cannabis derives.

Academic assessment of how cannabis came to play a large part in Islamic culture focuses on the role of the mystic Sufi sect, the hippies of Islam as Abel puts it. The Sufis of Khurasan brought their cannabis culture with them to Egypt in the 12 and 13th century. The Sufis, like the Ayrand Vedic myth surrounding Shiva, believed their very own religious leader Haydar discovered cannabis by accident in a depressed wander when he came across the plant, ate it, and after no doubt a little nap recovered sufficiently to order his followers to consume the holy plant. As Rosenthal suggests the use of cannabis spread from the Sufis to the fare who became the rulers of Iraq, to Syria and Egypt.

Another theory for the spread of Sufi-originated cannabis use culture was the Mongol invasion in the 11th century. Rosenthal notes that in the 13th century Islamic culture historian Ibn Taymiyah believed the Mongols, who came west from China through Persia, brought cannabis with them. However, Rosenthal believes it was more likely that the mongol invasion pushed the cannabis use culture before them. Certainly, this line of conjecture holds true for an earlier invasion which leads to one of the greatest legends of cannabis use – that of the Assassins. In the 11th century a nomadic tribe of Turkish origin, the Sunni believing Seijuks, came north-east in an invasion of Shi’ite northern Khorasan (see page 98 Irving for map) – close to where Sufi-using cannabis culture developed. The invading Seijuks forced the inhabitants of the area to retreat, a section of whom withdrew to the mountainous region of Alamut, between the city of Qazvin and Caspain.

Here was the headquarters of the Ismalis, the inspiration for Marco Polo’s legend of the Old Man of the Mountain and later was recounted by 19th century French academic Sacy de Silvestre and apparently regurgitated in the Tales of Arabian Nights and Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo, in the story of Sinabd the sailor and for Coleridge’s Kubla Khan. Briefly put the legend was that these assassins were so effective as they used cannabis to spur on their troops. The soldier was taken to the hideout, drugged and allowed to have a great time in the place, and then taken out again. This paradise on earth was used as the psychological means for inspiring great feats of association.

Dispute over the strict validity of the legend lies in part in Sacy’s attempt to link the word assassin and hasashiyah, or hash eater (a term of abuse in polite Islamic society). While the Ismlais certainly existed as a military guerrilla force, the connection with hash is more questionable. As Rosenthal argues the reason for the choice of the term Hashishiyah might have been the disreputable character attributed to hashish eaters, rather the sectarians’ use of the drug -. Whatever the truth of the Assassins’ use of cannabis, their murderous reputation even worried the Mongols who invaded Persia in the early 13th century. The fourth Great Khan, Mongke, gave his brother Hulegu charge of an army with the specific task of wiping out the Assassins – and wipe them out they did, to the thanks of the Persian authorities. “In truth the act was the balm of Muslim wounds and the cure to the disorders of the faith,” said Persian historian Juvaini after combing the Assassins library at Alamut. (Irving)

It is particularly in Egypt that the tale of Sufi cannabis use, official attitudes and Islamic doctrinal attitudes to the drug seems to have been played out in the first recorded example of prohibition and its after effects. Abel’s account of the Sufis provocative role in 13th century Egyptian society is well worth reading. In it he records how the gardens of Cafour in Cairo (like the Zurich park of today) were used as a gathering place by Sufis who used to not only smoked cannabis but also grew it in the area. In 1253 AD in the first move against the Sufis the cannabis plants were chopped, gathered and burnt. Though the effect, as Ethan Nadelamnn described as the “push-down, pop-up” effect of prohibition, was simply to drive cannabis growing to the edge of the city. Where the cause of cannabis growing was taken up by farmers who translated the greater risk into profit, and started growing it as an agricultural crop. Indeed the practice was eventually accepted and the farmers paid a tax only for a new governor to decide in 1324 to enlist the army to destroy the crop – leading to the bribing of officials. In turn the authorities reacted even harsher, by rounding up the hashish users (mainly Sufis but also scholars) in the centre of Cairo and pulling their teeth out. Nevertheless, as night follows day, the hash business was thriving again by the end of the 14th century. And, as Rosenthal records, for a brief period in the early 15th century the policy changed once more and cannabis was again used freely in public.

As with the modern western history of cannabis prohibition part of the reason for the twisting policy was cultural and partly legal. In cultural terms the fact is cannabis was used by a periphery group, and looked down on by polite Egyptian urban society – as now cannabis was too often seen as a lower class drug, and therefore worthy of control, as a means of controlling the poor. In legal terms, as with today, there was dispute as to the legal or illicit status of the drug. Then, as with now, most of the legal establishment lined up with the political establishment and ruled it as illegal, even though there was no authoritative text ruling on its legal status. This accounts in part, as Rosenthal points out there was a great deal of confusion over its legal status, despite some jurists attempting to link it with the illegal status of alcohol – just as it is currently linked with the illegal status of cocaine or heroin. It was and is just as arbitrary.


Cannabis is not a native plant to Africa. It is likely it was brought to the continent by Arabic traders from as early as the 9th century. While archaeological evidence for the use of the plant as a drug in Africa has been found in sites dating back to 13 and 14th century Ethiopia the best accounts for the spread of cannabis has been discovered using linguistic mapping of the evolution of the word for cannabis as it spread through East Africa. This provides a telling argument also for why cannabis was not found in West Africa until well into the 20th century.

A fascinating account of the introduction by Arab traders and migration of cannabis use through East Africa is provided in Brian M. Du Tort’s study, ‘Dagga: The History and Ethnographic Setting of Cannabis sativa in South Africa’. Tort argues convincingly that cannabis was introduced through trading routes between Arabia and the East coast of Africa. Though Abel argues, drawing on the Ethiopian findings, that cannabis spread south, taken by Bantu people, and then to the Hottentots, the evidence is not as compelling as Tort’s I would suggest.

One of the first routes from the coast, along the Zambezi river, also is reflected in cultural evidence of early cannabis use. The Thonga tribe in a complicated saliva contest distinguish between ‘makhafula’ that is white saliva, and ‘ntjutja’ of black saliva – that produced by smoking cannabis. But it was down to the Hottentot tribe of West Africa to give cannabis the phrase daxab, which became the commonly used name dagga in use today. Tort suggests that if you accept dagga as the oldest word for cannabis then its derivation is likely to be Arab rather than Indian.

Another possible piece of evidence to suggest the Arabic link is the use if Arab style water pipes by the hunting tribes of West Africa. Indeed like the legend of the assassins who smoked hash before going into battle, the African warrior tribe under Chief Sebitware used it, as David Livingstone noted, “in order that they might make an effective onslaught.” Despite this observation Stanley, Livingstone’s partner, saw cannabis as physically weakening their baggage bearers work rate. The modern myth that cannabis is a ‘love drug’ is as culturally constructed as science fiction!

Like the Arabs’ use of the hookah, the Indian use of the chilum, African cannabis consumption reflected local materials and practice. Numerous designs were used in pre-colonial times, representing the diversity of African society – the gourd water pipes which acted like hookah, others made with the use hookahs made of ox or antelope horns and even one design made using a carved out rectangular block. However, for me the most ingenious pipe was an improvised affair using the earth to fashion a pipe. This was recorded in use by the Batapins of present day Botswana in the early 19th century, who “dug a hole in the ground in the shape of a basin, in which they formed with their finger, a round passage, down one side and up the other, in the shape of an inverted bow, this they arched over with clay, and filled their tobacco (or rather wild hemp) with a lighted cylinder at one end, and putting their mouths close to the other sucked out the smoke”. (Tort)


European use of cannabis in history is a process of discovery and neglect, discovery and renaissance. Its earliest use was recorded by the ancient Greeks, written in earthy tones by medieval writer Rabelais, before being rediscovered by the French intellectuals after Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798. The unintended Napoleonic rediscovery of cannabis was immensely important in its impact on western Europe. It inspired numerous articles, the first thorough western scientific studies since the Arab studies, and resulted in another masterpiece of cannabis literature – again written by a Frenchman – in Baudeliare’s ‘Artificial Paradises’.

The ancient Greeks weren’t reported to be seriously interested in the benefits of cannabis it has to be said. It is mentioned in passing by the historian Pliny and the Greek doctor to the Roman army, Dioscorides. Despite these erudite references there is one story in particular by a Greek writer which is particularly important to the early history of cannabis use. It is Herodotus’ 5th century story of central Siberian Scythian use of the plant in ritual custom. The Scythians are loosely categorised as part of the Ayran nomads of central Asia. Around the 7th century BC the Ayrans occupied a huge swath of territory from northern Greece to central Siberia. Herodotus’s account that cannabis was used in a ceremony to mark the first anniversary of the death of the chief. It called for the death of 50 of the chief’s former bodyguards, and horses. They were all slit open, stuffed with herbs, arranged around the chief’s tomb on a stake, and left to rot.

In this ritual the remaining tribe members were the lucky ones in more than one sense of the word – they got to let themselves go in an intense cannabis ceremony. Into a small tent hot stones were placed, and then cannabis seeds thrown on to them, after which people simply crawled in and got stoned. The great thing about this tale is that its not myth, but fact. As Abel notes in 1929 archaeologists found the remains of just such a ceremony in the Pazyryk valley of central Siberia. However, in a theme common to the history of cannabis where history is lost and regained over many centuries the significance of Herodotus’s history of the Scythians was pointed out by several historians. First Engelbert Kaempfer in the 16 the century, Count Jan Potocki in a book published in 1802 but it was with German historian Niebuhr with an essay in 1811 that the significance of the story was finally established. Indeed, Niebuhr believed the Scthians shamanistic ritual shows the imprint of Mongolian cannabis culture. (Ginzburg).

It was not only Herodotus who referred to the use of cannabis though. Pultarch refers to the story in his writings and Greek doctor Dioscrides, in a text which became a benchmark for medicinal study for centuries to come, refers to the drug. Overall though the use of cannabis was not widespread and probably only started to grew with the medieval Ottoman invasion – but even then principally amongst the Muslim population.

Sula Benet’s study of the ‘Early Diffusion and Folk Uses of Hemp’ argues a powerful case for suggesting that cannabis was introduced into Europe by the Scythians referred to by Herodotus. In particular she sides with academics who have studied the Bible and found references to the herb in the Old Testament – suggesting the Scythians borrowed their cannabis culture from the people of the Near East, when they migrated to the biblical lands of Palestine. Indeed, she suggests that the word cannabis comes from the Hebrew word ‘ikaneh’ meaning aromatic. And that later editions of the Bible referred to herb, when previously they talked about cannabis.

s a result of their migration to Palestine the nomadic Sythians played a crucial role in spreading the use of cannabis. Benet points to Palestine’s geographical centrality in terms of trade routes between Egypt and Asia, and the fact the Scythians carried it northwards to the Caucasus region in the North and westward into Europe. It is for this reason of the Scythian influence that cannabis rituals are found in central and eastern European peasant culture, long before it was rediscovered by French physician and satirist Francois Rabelais in his writings of the 15th century.

Despite advancing a single diffusion theory Benet concludes her study by admitting there were probably many sites of origin. Certainly, as Mickel notes, there is evidence to suggest the Scythians of central Asia were influenced by Mongolian culture as much as by Palestian near Eastern culture. Secondly, there is vigorous dispute over the so-called cannabis quotes in the Bible. Certainly Abel suggests the idea that “kaneh” was cannabis is itself a mis-translation, that it in fact more likely refers to a sweet smelling plant – sugar cane. And that the first unmistakable reference to cannabis in Jewish culture was not until the middle ages, with the publication of the Talmud. “In the most recent attempt to infuse marihuana with biblical authority, the Old Testament has been tickled, teased and twisted into surrounding secret references to marihuana that it never contained.”

The witter Rabelais, who I introduced earlier, plays an important part in the historiography of hemp and cannabis because of his status as a writer in his own right, and as the first mention in western European Renaissance writing. Referred to as ‘pantagruelion’ through the Third Book of Pantagruel Rabelais takes the ancients’ writings on plants like cannabis with a pinch of salt. Rabelais’s remarks, as Jaubert said in 1856, were “seasoned with a witty irony on the subject of the credulity of the ancients regarding the properties of the plants.” So it is all the more impressive that he accords cannabis the distinction it deserves. “For just as Pantagruelion is the embodiment of all jovial perfection – a fact of which none of you drinkers, I take it, is in doubt – so in the Pantagruelion, I recognise so many virtues, so much energy, so high a degree of perfection, and so many admirable qualities that if it and its qualities had been known at the time when the trees, according to the Prophet’s narrative, were engaged in electing a king of the forest to rule them, it would, undoubtedly, have carried off a majority of the votes.” (p156, Putnam translation copy).

Rabelais’s observations on cannabis were primarily though related to hemp and its use in all manner of industry and transport. The introduction of cannabis on a mass scale into western Europe was a result of colonial expansion of the European powers. While many individual writers in the 16th and 17th century brought back fantastical tales of the East the first official study, nearly a hundred years before that of Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt, was undertaken at the behest of the king of Denmark. In 1759 five scholars were sent by the king of Denmark to explore the isolated region of Arabia then known as the ‘Incense Trail’, now known as Yemen, to learn about the people and culture. The only one who returned, mathematician Carsten Niebuhr, in his 1772 book Travels in Arabia, recounts tales of cannabis use by the Sufis.

ut it was left to another Frenchman to play a crucial role in the rediscovery of cannabis as a drug at the end of the 18th century – Napoleon. This rediscovery was a result of Napoleon’s imperial conquest of Egypt in 1798, . As Edward Said points out in ‘Orientalism’, “dealings with the Muslims were only a part of Napoleon’s project to dominate Egypt. The other part was to render it completely open, to make it totally accessible to European scrutiny. From a land of obscurity…Egypt was to become a department of French learning”.

However, what Said fails to mention is that the impact of Napoleon’s imperial conquest and the manner in which it were to be accomplished was an unintended disruptive act introducing cannabis to western European culture on a scale as never before. The first sign of this impact was its introduction to French troops to cannabis (“the first large group of Europeans to turn on” – Michel), which led to the banning of its use by Napoleon in 1800 – but it was too late. Just as important was the scholarly interest in cannabis, driven by the style of Napoleon’s colonial invasion of Egypt. Foremost in this regard is Sacy de Silvestre, the founding fathers of Orientalist study. It was Silvestre, who in 1809, first argued the link between hash and the tale of the assassins – and so fired up the romantic imagination of both writers and scientists alike. Mickel suggests the potency of the assassins and hash myth is attributable to the western attitude to the Orient of the time. “Exotic in the true sense of the word, it provided an escape and an exhibition (supposedly from history) of the intense faith which the Romantics so earnestly sought.” And so in turn, the discovery of cannabis culture plays a forgotten role in the historical constriction of the ‘Orient’ in western eyes as a “place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences.” (Said)

The embodiment of this view of Oriental cannabis culture was the Paris-based Hashish Club, which itself became a potent myth in western drug culture experiments. Supplied cannabis by scientist Dr Jacques Moreau the these writers included Theophile Gautier, Alexandre Dumas, and of course Charles Baudelaire who became a member of the club in 1844.

Baudelaire’s ‘Artificial Paradises’ occupies an ambivalent position in the history of drug literature. On the one hand it is hailed as a creative masterpiece. But Baudelaire’s own opiate dependency became mixed up with his depressive views about hashish, which he regarded as a source of dependency in creative endeavour. It is for this reason why Baudelaire was denounced by writers at the time, like Flaubert, and more recently by Michel who asks acidly: “Why does the greatest book about hashish written in the West, end in an excruciating sour, bourgeois homily against the ‘vice'” (Michel). Not only that but Baudelaire was very much an elitist when it came to cannabis culture. “There are types in whom the drug displays only raucous foolery. They have a very gross hashish ‘high’, as it were.” The impact of cannabis in western Europe was not confined to the literary and scientific community. One of the more interesting facts Terrene McKenna digs out in his drug historiography, ‘Food of the Gods’, is that during the 1848 Paris revolution student revolutionaries carried banners demanding the free availability of cannabis and ether.

The fascination with cannabis was much slower to reach Britain despite the colonial involvement in the regulation of the Indian cannabis market. For example an article in the 1858 Little’s Living Age Magazine comforted readers that: “The English are in no danger of becoming a nation of opium or hashish debauires”. Where it did show was in the medical world, with O’Shaughnessy’s 1843 publication of the therapeutic uses of cannabis following work in India. And in the scientific world, where most spectacularly a group of Cambridge University scientists in the 1890s managed to extract one of the basic constituents of cannabis – and called it cannabinoid. Unfortunately two of the three scientists were blown up in a laboratory experiment and the survivor nearly died in an ether accident when he fell asleep under the influence of the drug, only to wake up to see his laboratory in flames!

In conclusion

One of the striking themes of the history of cannabis is how it has been spread by migration and colonial adventure. Another common theme is the use of cannabis by outsiders, from Sufis in medieval Islam, to the bohemian writers of 1840s Paris. It has long been regarded as a problem by the alcohol consuming upper classes, whether in leading to feckless behaviour as the explorer Stanley believed, or in conflict with Islamic law.

Some curious historical threads appear through the overview of pre-20th century cannabis history. One is the recurrent role of Egyptian cannabis culture, from the first examples of prohibition in the gardens of Cafour through to Napoleon’s invasion and the unofficial importation to the West by French troops. It is ironic then to note that it was an Egyptian delegate to the League of Nations Second  Opium Conference   who  persuaded  delegates  to ban the  use  of  cannabis,  along with opiate drugs.  “Let the League of Nations help us  then  in  the struggle we have undertaken against this scourge, which  reduces man to the  level  of  the brute and deprives  him of  health and reason,  self-control and honour.” The rest, as they say, is history.

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