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Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana

Martin A. Lee

Award-winning investigative journalist Martin A. Lee takes us on an entertaining and informative ride through the complex landscape of the Great American Pot story.

Perpetual Giggling and Mental Exaltation

Smoking tobacco was a new phenomenon in Shakespeare’s time, having recently been introduced into English society. it was America’s gift to Britain— part of a transatlantic swap: Hemp found a home in the New World while tobacco traveled in the other direction. The highly addictive nicotine habit spread like wildfire across Europe. Concerned that tobacco was undermining the social order, several European states imposed draconian punishments on smokers (such as the slitting of nostrils in Russia and the death penalty in Ottoman Turkey).

In seventeenth-century England, puffing tobacco was initially equated with plotting against the state. But the tobacco craze was unstoppable. After trying unsuccessfully to ban it, the British monarchy decided that smokers should pay with their money instead of with their lives. Tobacco commerce was heavily taxed, quickly filling the state treasury. To maintain their profit, merchants in turn raised the price of tobacco, which became worth its weight in silver to an addicted populace. And if the drug dealers of yore were anything like those of today, it’s a safe bet that some cut their tobacco with less pricey leaf to boost their earnings. This could explain how traces of hemp, as well as coca leaf from Peru, ended up in the pipes found in Shakespeare’s garden.

Shakespeare never explicitly mentioned pipes, smoking, or tobacco in any of his plays or poems. There’s no proof that he smoked weed, “noted” or otherwise. But forensic science has shown that Shakespeare’s neighbors—and perhaps the Bard himself—were inhaling some odd herbal mixtures that included hemp. And they may not have known exactly what was in those mixtures.

English-language accounts of hemp’s utility as a medicine first appeared in 1621, five years after Shakespeare’s death. The English clergyman Robert Burton cited hemp as a remedy for depression in his book Anatomy of Melancholy. Nicholas Culpeper’s Compleat Herbal—the standard work on medicinal herbs for more than three hundred years after it was first published in mid-seventeenth-century England—recommended hemp for treating burns, gout, bowel problems, parasites, and skin inflammation, and as a general painkiller. (Culpeper remarked in his compendium that hemp was so well known among English housewives that he did not bother to indicate all its medicinal uses.) The New London Dispensary of 1682 added coughs and jaundice to the list of conditions for which hempseed decoctions were indicated, but warned that large doses had a side effect of filling the patient’s head with “vapors.”

The explorer Thomas Bowrey was the first Englishman to write about the recreational use of cannabis after he drank some bhang, a milk-based beverage infused with “gunjah” leaf and seed, while visiting India in the late seventeenth century. Referring to cannabis as the “admirable herbe,” captain Bowrey recorded in his journal: “in less than half an houre, its operation will Shew it Selfe for the space of 4 or 5 hours.” Bowrey indicated that his crewmen reacted to Indian hemp in different ways—the experience largely depended on the personality of the imbiber.

Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern botany, named the plant Cannabis sativa (sativa means “cultivated”) in 1753. in his “Dissertation on the Sexes of Plants,” the eminent Swedish scientist describes growing cannabis on his windowsill, an experience he greatly enjoyed.

In the month of April, l sowed the seeds of hemp (Cannabis) in two different pots. The young plants came up plentifully... I placed each by the window, but in different and remote compartments. in one of them I permitted the male and female plants to remain together, to flower and bear fruit, which ripened in July... From the other, however, I removed all the male plants, as soon as they were old enough for me to distinguish them from the females. The remaining females grew very well, and presented their long pistilla in great abundance, these flowers continuing a very long time, as if in expectation of their mates... it was certainly a beautiful and truly admirable spectacle, to see the unimpregnated females preserve their pistilla so long green and flourishing, not permitting them to fade, till they had been for a very considerable time exploded, in vain, to access the male pollen...

Erasmus Darwin, the mid-eighteenth-century English physiologist, doctor, inventor, and poet, experimented with breeding methods to maximize the size of his cannabis specimens. A founding member of the Lunar Society, a discussion group of innovative industrialists and natural philosophers, he was also the grandfather of Charles Darwin. Charles was a contemporary of William B. O’Shaughnessy, the Irish scientist and physician who introduced cannabis to modern Western medicine.

Dr. O’Shaughnessy conducted an extensive study of Indian hemp while serving with the British east India company in the 1830s. A man of many talents, he oversaw the construction of the first telegraph system in colonial India, a 3,500-mile endeavor for which he was knighted by Queen Victoria. O’Shaughnessy also taught chemistry and practiced surgery at the Medical college of calcutta. His interest was piqued by the Indians’ widespread use of “gunjah,” as he called it, for therapeutic, religious, and recreational purposes. “Almost invariably... the inebriation is of the most cheerful kind,” he observed.

Seeking the advice of native doctors and scholars, O’Shaughnessy traveled to Nepal, Afghanistan, and Persia, where four or five people often shared cannabis smoke from a hookah. “In the popular medicine of these nations, we find it extensively employed for a multitude of affections,” O’Shaughnessy reported. He watched Ayurvedic healers mix ganja resin with ghee (clarified butter), creating a green, gooey remedy that was administered as a nerve tonic in India. After testing ganja tincture on animals and sampling it firsthand to better understand its effects, he decided it was safe to undertake scientific experiments with human subjects.

O’Shaughnessy investigated the drug’s impact on various maladies and validated many of the folk uses of cannabis. He gave an oral extract to some of his Indian patients who suffered from rabies, cholera, tetanus, epilepsy, rheumatism, and other conditions that were very difficult to treat. The data he gathered from these clinical trials formed the basis of a groundbreaking forty-page monograph on the medicinal applications of Indian hemp. Published in 1842, it was the first modern medical article about cannabis to appear in a British scientific journal and it raised eyebrows on both sides of the Atlantic.

O’Shaughnessy noted the general effects of Indian hemp—“perpetual giggling,” “ravenous appetite,” “a sensation of ascending,” “mental exultation”— and emphasized its efficacy as a painkiller, a muscle relaxant, and “an anti-convulsive remedy of the greatest value.” in his paper, O’Shaughnessy also discussed ganja experimentation among his students that was not, strictly speaking, undertaken with a therapeutic intent. After swallowing “the spiritous tincture,” a retiring young Scottish pupil behaved like “a rajah giving orders to his courtiers” and expounded upon “scientific, religious and political topics with astonishing eloquence.” Likening his student’s behavior to the trance channeling of the Delphic oracles, O’Shaughnessy wrote that it “would be difficult to imagine a scene more interesting.”

One of the curious characteristics of this “powerful and valuable substance,” O’Shaughnessy observed, was the “contrary qualities” of medicinal hemp, “its stimulant and sedative effects.” He found that hemp “possessed in small doses an extraordinary power of stimulating the digestive organs [and] exciting the cerebral system,” while “larger doses induce insensibility or act as a powerful sedative.” O’Shaughnessy expressed concern that “the incautious use of hemp preparations” could trigger “a peculiar form of delirium.” Too strong a dose, he warned, might produce just the opposite of the desired medicinal outcome. The concluding sentence of his seminal study advised: “My experience would lead me to prefer small [emphasis in the original] doses of the remedy in order to excite rather than narcotise [sic] the patient.”

O’Shaughnessy was describing what would become known in modern pharmacological parlance as the “biphasic” effect, whereby smaller amounts of a particular substance pack a potent therapeutic punch while larger doses have the opposite effect. (A large dosage might even make matters worse by exacerbating onerous symptoms.) The less-is-more dynamic intrinsic to the curative properties of cannabis dovetailed in significant ways with homeopathic medical practice, which, strange as it may seem, utilizes remedies that are diluted to enhance their impact. This notion conflicts with the assumptions of the allopathic school that would come to dominate Western medicine. Allopathic logic maintains that if low doses of a drug act as a stimulant, then a larger dosage should stimulate even more. But that’s not how cannabis functions.

O’Shaughnessy respected the pioneering work of Samuel Hahnemann (1755–1843), the German founder of homeopathy, an alternative current within modern Western medicine. Hahnemann recommended microdoses of cannabis for certain people with nervous disorders. Drawing upon his analysis, the homeopathy journal American Provers’ Union published the first U.S. report on the medicinal effects of cannabis in 1839, the same year O’Shaughnessy presented his initial scientific findings to the Medical and Physical Society of Bengal.

In 1842, O’Shaughnessy returned to England with a stash of Indian hemp. He gave some to Peter Squire, a London pharmacist, who developed and refined an alcohol-based tincture under O’Shaughnessy’s supervision. Soon physicians in Europe and the United States were prescribing “Squire’s extract” and other cannabis concoctions for a variety of conditions, including nausea, delirium tremens, epilepsy, and painful spasms. Doctors often turned to cannabis preparations to treat ailments for which there were no known cures.

The U.S. Pharmacopeia first listed Indian hemp in 1854, along with a cautionary heads-up regarding the variable potency of cannabis products. By the end of the nineteenth century, more than a hundred articles had appeared in medical and scientific journals, documenting the benefits of this new wonder drug—or so it seemed at the time to many people.

The introduction of psychoactive hemp as a widely used therapeutic substance coincided with major changes in American medicine. Manufactured pills with precise dosages were replacing hand-me-down elixirs. And mom-and-pop apothecaries were becoming retail outlets for Eli Lilly, Parke-Davis, Squibb, and other fledgling U.S. pharmaceutical firms eager to sell their own cannabis cures along with a dizzying array of over-the-counter concoctions (including mixtures of cocaine, morphine, and Indian hemp). While the herb was usually ingested as a tincture, Grimault & Sons marketed ready-made cannabis cigarettes as an asthma remedy in the late 1800s. Indian hemp was a staple in most mustard plasters, poultices, and muscle ointments available in the United States. it was also a key ingredient in dozens of unlabeled patent medicines.

in 1860, the Ohio State Medical Society conducted the first official U.S. government study of cannabis, surveying the medical literature and cataloging an impressive array of conditions that doctors had successfully treated with psychoactive hemp, ranging from bronchitis and rheumatism to venereal disease and postpartum depression. The use of cannabis as an analgesic was so common that medical textbooks and journals identified several types of pain for which it should be administered. No less a figure than Sir William Osler, often called the founder of modern medicine, endorsed cannabis as the best treatment for migraine headaches. (in addition to easing headache pain, cannabis inhibited the nausea and vomiting associated with migraines.) And Sir John Russell Reynolds, Queen Victoria’s personal physician, prescribed hemp tincture to Her Majesty to relieve painful menstrual cramps. He also recommended the herb for insomnia. “When pure and administered carefully, it is one of the most valuable medicines we possess,” Reynolds asserted.

High on Hash

Dr. Jacques-Joseph Moreau de Tours, a trailblazing French psychiatrist, first learned about the mind-altering qualities of cannabis while traveling through the Middle east in the 1830s. in Egypt, a French colony since Napoleon invaded the country in 1798, Moreau was struck by the absence of alcohol and the prevalence of hashish (compressed cannabis resin), which Muslims from all walks of life consumed. The custom was particularly widespread among poor Arabs—the word hashishin became a pejorative for lower-class hashish users—yet few habitués seemed to suffer adverse consequences from the drug. Moreau concluded that hashish was a very safe substance: “[W]ine and liquors are a thousand times more dangerous.” Noting that many of the diseases plaguing Europe were rare among Egyptians, he surmised that their indulgence in hashish and abstention from alcohol had a beneficial impact on their health.

But French colonial authorities in Cairo thought otherwise. They were so disturbed by the scale of hashish consumption among the native population that they tried to impose a ban on its use. Their alarm grew as French soldiers posted in Egypt partook of the habit in increasing numbers, despite regulations forbidding such behavior. After their tour of duty, some troops returned to France with hashish in their pockets. it was another example of how the use of cannabis in Western societies came from the colonized and the enslaved— the subject peoples of Europe and America.

Dr. Moreau also brought hashish back to Paris, where he sought to unravel the “mysteries of madness” by administering it to mental patients and studying how they reacted. Hashish seemed to calm them down, the doctor noted: Some hospitalized insomniacs were able to sleep well thanks to cannabis and the bleakest moods of a few depressed patients seemed to lift. But the results were inconsistent and, more often than not, fleeting. Still, Moreau felt that hashish could be a significant asset in treating mental illness and he urged doctors to avail themselves of the experience. its greatest benefit, he maintained, was in enabling psychiatrists to gain insight into the mental worlds they were trying to comprehend and treat.

Walking the talk, as it were, Moreau found himself “rapt in a thousand fantastic ideas” after eating some hashish paste. Yet he never lost his lucidity or forgot that he had taken a drug. He was able to reflect upon his experience as everything unfolded, straddling a kind of double consciousness—stoned yet rational—while under the spell of cannabis. “To understand the ravings of a madman, one must have raved himself, but without having lost the awareness of one’s madness,” he wrote in Hashish and Mental Illness. Published in 1845, this landmark exposition postulated that insanity was caused by a chemical alteration of the nervous system rather than by physical damage to the brain. A large dose of hashish, according to Moreau, produced a model psychosis that temporarily mimicked symptoms of real mental illness.

J. J. Moreau’s Parisian hashish experiments were instrumental in catalyzing the development of psychopharmacology as a field of study. But it was outside the scientific milieu where Moreau’s project had a more immediate impact. He fed the cannabis-laced confectionary to poets, painters, sculptors, and architects, who were eager to explore the mental effects of hashish. Honoré de Balzac, Victor Hugo, Gustave Flaubert, Eugène Delacroix, Gérard de Nerval, and several other luminaries met each month at the elegant Hôtel Pimodan on Île Saint-Louis in Paris. They gathered beneath vaulted ceilings in an ornately decorated room with plush velvet curtains framing the door and tapestries on the walls. Dr. Moreau, the self-styled master of ceremonies, gave everyone a spoonful of greenish jelly paste made of pistachio, cinnamon, nutmeg, sugar, orange peel, butter, cloves, and, last but not least, hashish.

After everyone had eaten the green fudge—known as dawamesc in Arabic, which means “medicine of immortality”—they sat down for dinner. Some members of Le club des Haschischins, as it was called, wore costumes with turbans and daggers, lending an exotic ambience to the conclave. Dr. Moreau, outfitted in Turkish dress, played the piano. By the end of the meal, they were feeling the effects of the hashish. Before long the dining hall was filled with laughter—a sure sign that the medicine was working.

The Hashish eaters’ club was founded in 1844 by Moreau and his principal collaborator, Théophile Gautier, the French novelist best known for coining the bohemian battle cry: “Art for art’s sake.” Gautier wrote a famous essay, “Le club des Haschischins,” which described the proceedings in vivid detail. Gautier’s baroque raptures generated wide attention among French intellectuals and artists. Before long, the Hashish eaters’ club was the toast of Paris.

After the “convulsive gaiety of the beginning,” Gautier wrote of his initiation into hashish, “an indefinable feeling of well-being, a boundless calm took over... I was like a sponge in the middle of the ocean. At every moment streams of happiness penetrated me, entering and leaving through my pores... I had never been so overwhelmed with bliss.” Freed from his ego (“that odious and ever present witness”), he was seeing sounds and hearing colors.

“Soon the magic paste was completely digested and acted with more force in my brain,” he reported. “I became completely mad for an hour. Every kind of gigantic dream-creature passed through my fantasies: goatsuckers, fiddle-faddle beasts, bridled goslings, unicorns, griffons, incubi, an entire menagerie of monstrous nightmares fluttered, hopped, skipped, and squeaked through the room.”

The effects of cannabis, as Gautier discovered, could be quite capricious, especially when high doses are consumed. Whereas inhaling a few puffs of herb often produces a soft, dreamy, swimmy-headed high, eating hashish in sufficient quantities could precipitate a full-blown hallucinogenic experience more akin to magic mushrooms or LSD—with fast-moving kaleidoscopic imagery, physical rushes, flashes of insight, and, in some cases, intense anxiety and paranoia, although such feelings usually fade before the visions have run their course.

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