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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.

A Psychodynamic Amplifier

Portrayed as a magic carpet ride to a boundless beyond within, hashish had a mystique that fascinated the French reading public. Alexandre Dumas, a notorious hashish eater and the most popular writer of his day, introduced the green jam to thicken the plot of his classic novel The Count of Monte Cristo. The enigmatic count, who calls himself “Sinbad the Sailor,” offers a morsel of green paste to a wary visitor. “Taste this,” Sinbad implores, “and the boundaries of possibility disappear, the fields of infinite space open to you, you advance free in heart, free in mind... Taste the hashish, guest of mine—taste the hashish... open your wings and fly into superhuman regions.”

Sinbad’s obliging initiate is transformed by the drug: “His body seemed to acquire an airy lightness, his perception brightened in a remarkable manner, his senses seemed to redouble their power, the horizon continued to expand...” The hashish triggers a Dionysian gusher, an onrush of visual, musical, and erotic epiphanies, and when the dream passes, Sinbad’s guest awakens to find himself stuck in a dark cave on a remote island, yearning to return to that tumultuous zone of enchantment.

The longing for the infinite and the use of drugs to satisfy this perennial urge were prominent themes in the poetry and prose of Charles Baudelaire. Although he lodged for a while at Hôtel Pimodan, Baudelaire did not regularly attend meetings of Le club des Haschischins. Yet today Baudelaire is recalled as the writer most closely associated with the French hashish eaters. His books On Wine and Hashish and The Artificial Paradises are among the most admired of nineteenth-century drug writings.

Baudelaire praised the “superior sharpness” of his senses, “the glorious radiance,” and the keen appreciation of music that he experienced under the potent sway of hashish. “it is as though one lives several lifetimes in the space of an hour,” he mused. “It is like living some fantastic novel instead of reading it.” But Baudelaire was ultimately critical of the moral and social implications of consuming the green paste. Although he says there are no dangerous physical consequences from hashish, he contends that the psychological risks are serious: “You have scattered your personality to the four winds of heaven, and how difficult it is now to recover and reconstruct it.”

Referring to hashish as a “very tricky substance,” Baudelaire said it acts like “a magnifying mirror” that “reveals nothing to the individual but himself.” Hashish is psychodynamic, amplifying what already exists and drawing forth what is latent in the mind; thus it is important to be of sound mind and body, the poet advised, when embarking upon such an adventure. “Each man has the dream he deserves,” according to Baudelaire, who concluded that hashish is “nothing miraculous, absolutely nothing but an exaggeration of the natural.”

What did Baudelaire see when he gazed into the mirror of hashish? A pathetic syphilis-infected figure who botched a suicide attempt, an opium addicted alcoholic whose overbearing mother, a devout Christian, was obsessed with original Sin. Filled with self-hatred, Baudelaire projected his loathing onto “wretched hashish,” that “chaotic devil,” which he denounced after finding its effects too disturbing.

“I would have thought it better if you hadn’t blamed hashish and opium, but only excess,” Gustavo Flaubert wrote in a letter to Baudelaire. Flaubert noted in the same letter that psychoactive hemp preparations, mostly in the form of alcohol-based tinctures, were on sale at French pharmacies, which meant that those enthralled by the literature of hashish could easily obtain the drug for experimental purposes. Such a prospect dismayed Baudelaire, who argued, “if by means of a teaspoonful of sweetmeat man can instantly procure all the blessings of heaven and earth, then he will not be prepared to earn one thousandth part of the same by hard work.” in the end, he condemned the use of hashish as a doomed attempt to avoid requisite suffering.

While a growing number of French physicians utilized cannabis tinctures to treat patients stricken with various ailments, Dr. François Lallemand viewed the healing potential of hashish in broader social terms. A pioneer neuroscientist and Hashish eaters’ club member, Lallemand was the first person to study the frontal lobes of the human brain and link them to language cognition and speech. He also wrote a utopian novel, Hachych, which was quite popular in mid-1800s France. The narrative begins at a dinner party where a doctor, just back from Egypt, feeds hashish to his guests, who experience “political ecstasies” and visions of a perfect society. Prefiguring the countercultural upheavals of the 1960s, Lallemand depicted hashish as a mental detonator, a catalyst for revolution, an anarchist weapon against the bourgeoisie.

Arthur Rimbaud, the enfant terrible of French arts and letters, didn’t use cannabis until twenty years after Le club des Haschischins dissolved and most of its members had passed away. A child prodigy with a gift for verse, Rimbaud was the rebel incarnate, the wild-eyed mystic, a desperate vagabond forever in search of “christmas on earth.” He ran away from home and joined the Paris commune in 1871, but fled shortly before the bloody crackdown that put an end to the great working-class insurrection. “I had to travel, divert the spells assembled in my brain,” the teenage renegade declared in A Season in Hell. Sleeping in the gutter, filthy, famished, and lice-infested, he took hashish and other drugs, including absinthe, the very strong, very bitter, and very addictive green liquor made from anise and wormwood.

For Rimbaud, hashish was at best a circuit-scrambling means to an end, not an end in itself. “The poet,” he explained, “makes himself a visionary through a long, prodigious and systematic derangement of all his senses.” The notion of some pie-in-the-sky paradise in a mythical afterlife elicited scorn from the young Rimbaud—he was all about the urgent here and now, the trials and tribulations of the flesh. “Hell hath no power over pagans,” he proclaimed. Rimbaud got drunk and stoned with reckless abandon until he reached the point where he could say: “Finally I came to regard as sacred the disorder of my mind.”

Rimbaud stopped composing poetry at the tender age of twenty, but his feverish verse, along with provocative accounts from first-generation French hashish eaters, would continue to entrance the literary world for many years to come. These evocative authors employed literary license to articulate some of the stranger aspects of the high-dose hashish experience. Through their writings, a large audience in modern Europe first learned about hemp’s psychoactive properties. Around the same time, an awareness of cannabis as an inebriant was also starting to percolate in the United States, where homegrown hashish-swilling scribes were spinning a few yarns of their own.

Sex, Drugs, and the Occult

One morning in the spring of 1854, a precocious seventeen-year-old student named Fitz High Ludlow sauntered into his favorite hangout, Anderson’s Apothecary in Poughkeepsie, New York. Reeking of “all things curative and preventive,” the hometown pharmacy was “an aromatic invitation to scientific musing,” said Ludlow, the son of an Abolitionist preacher. Anderson took a liking to the young man and allowed him to rummage through the store for hours on end. Ludlow had already sampled several psychoactive compounds, including ether, chloroform, and laudanum, an alcohol-based opium tincture, when Anderson informed him that a new product had arrived, something called Tilden’s extract. it was made from Cannabis indica, otherwise known as Indian hemp or “hasheesh.” Ludlow picked up a vial of the odiferous, olive-brown elixir and sniffed its contents.

Tilden & co., the U.S. subsidiary of the Edinburgh-based Smith Brothers (widely known for its cough medicines), was among the first to market solid as well as liquid hashish preparations. The company catalog touted Cannabis indica for “hysteria, chorea, gout, neuralgia, acute and sub-acute rheumatism, tetanus, hydrophobia and the like.” But Fitz Hugh Ludlow, a quirky bookworm, was more interested in self-exploration than in using cannabis to cure a particular illness. He recognized that Tilden’s extract was, in essence, the same drug that he had recently read about in a story by Bayard Taylor, an American diplomat and travel writer, in the Atlantic Monthly. Taylor’s account of eating a generous lump of hashish in Damascus was the first article in a popular U.S. magazine that discussed the psychoactive effects of cannabis. “I was encompassed by a sea of light... a vista of rainbows,” Taylor rhapsodized. But after glimpsing paradise he got the willies and sank into an awful funk. Yet he did not regret trying hashish, for it revealed “deeps of rapture and suffering which my natural faculties never could have sounded.”

Ludlow took a cue from Taylor, whose experimentation with hashish was motivated not by hedonism but by a quest for knowledge, the desire to delve into unknown realms. For six cents, Ludlow purchased a box of Tilden’s extract from Anderson’s; no doctor’s note was necessary. Twice he swallowed the bitter potion to little effect. So Ludlow upped the dose substantially, and the third time worked like a charm—or at least it started out that way. He was “smitten by the hashish thrill as by a thunderbolt.” Sparing no hyperbole, Ludlow waxed euphoric: “A vision of celestial glory burst upon me... I glowed like a new-born soul.” But his mood quickly shifted. He suddenly noticed that the room was shrinking. People looked strange. Insane faces glared at him. The wallpaper came alive with satyrs. Panic set in. He oscillated wildly between deep beatitude and “uncontrollable terror.”

Still awestruck the next day, Ludlow vowed to conduct additional experiments with the amazing extract. At the time, few people in the United States knew anything about cannabis, which was neither a narcotic nor an anesthetic but a substance of a whole different caliber. Ludlow had no one to guide him through the seductive labyrinth of hashish. Relying on his own devices, he took the drug frequently through the summer of 1854 and experienced a “prolonged state of hasheesh exaltation.” Ludlow wasn’t trying to mitigate pain or overcome illness; he was trying, perhaps impetuously, to gain insight into himself. Occasionally after ingesting a modest dose of Cannabis indica, Ludlow felt an overwhelming universal benevolence, which he referred to as a “catholic sympathy, a spiritual cosmopolitanism.” He maintained that during high-dose hashish benders he underwent “metempsychosis,” the movement of the soul out of the body, and seemingly traveled to far-off lands without physically going anywhere. After scouring the astral depths and suffering “the agonies of a martyr,” he decided “to experiment with the drug of sorcery no more.”

Ludlow embellished his stoned adventures in his book, The Hasheesh Eater, which was published anonymously in 1857 when he was twenty, although subsequent editions included the author’s name. The book was well received among critics and inquisitive readers, from London literary salons to California gold camps. Some impressionable youth felt inspired to try the drug after reading Ludlow, including Brown University student John Hay, who later served as Abraham Lincoln’s personal assistant, and secretary of state under Teddy Roosevelt. (Lincoln’s widow was prescribed a cannabis tincture for her nerves after his assassination.) An instant curiosity, if not a classic, The Hasheesh Eater became the preeminent nineteenth-century American statement on the subject of mind-altering drugs. Ludlow was the first American scribe to stake his reputation on the claim that certain substances, especially cannabis, can enliven consciousness and arouse creativity—a belief that many young people would embrace with fervor in the 1960s. But Ludlow also warned of overindulgence with hashish and all drugs.

A rising star in the American literary firmament, Ludlow moved to Manhattan to pursue a career as a freelance journalist. He befriended a group of bohemian writers who hobnobbed at Pfaff ’s, a downtown restaurant, sharing tables with the likes of Walt Whitman and Mark Twain. Louisa May Alcott, the soon-to-be-famous author of Little Women, also caroused at Pfaff’s.

In 1869, Alcott wrote a short story called “Perilous Play,” which depicts the recreational use of cannabis. The story opens with a pronouncement by Belle Daventry, an attractive socialite: “if someone does not propose a new and interesting amusement, I shall die of ennui!” Dr. Meredith comes to the rescue, offering hashish pastries to Belle and her friends. “Eat six of these despised bonbons,” he promises, “and you will be amused in a new, delicious and wonderful manner.” When queried about the bonbons, the good doctor reassures her, “I use it for my patients. It is very efficacious in nervous disorders, and is getting to be quite a pet remedy with us.”

Hashish was quite the pet remedy for Paschal Beverly Randolph, a mercurial mulatto intellectual, unstable occultist, bathtub chemist, and self-proclaimed master of “sex magic.” A firebrand on the mid-nineteenth-century speaker’s circuit, Randolph bequeathed hashish to the twilight world of American spiritualism. He touted the drug as a wondrous means of inducing clairvoyance and astral travel. “It will burst upon you like the crash of ten thousand thunders,” he exclaimed, “and for hours you will be the sport of imaginations turned to realities of the queerest, strangest and weirdest, and perhaps terrific kind.”

Randolph first tasted “the medicine of immortality” while traveling in France in 1855. He became a regular user and an enthusiastic proponent of hashish, claiming it was food for the soul, a replenisher of vital forces. But the true recipe for the green paste was known only “by adepts,” according to Randolph, and it just so happened that he had access to an authentic source. At one point before the civil War, Randolph “was probably the largest importer of hashish into the United States,” his biographer, John Patrick Deveney, reports. Randolph was also the founder of the first Rosicrucian sect in North America. (credited with being a repository of esoteric knowledge, the Brotherhood of the Rosy cross debuted in Middle Europe in 1614 and has been the subject of conspiracy rumors ever since.) While ministering to his secret society, Randolph developed a formula for an Indian hemp concentrate and he created several patent medicines with cannabis as a key ingredient. During spirited lecture tours, he hawked his homemade hashish elixirs as “invigorants” and sex tonics for the erotically unfulfilled.

In large part due to Randolph’s efforts, hashish experimentation became de rigueur within spiritualist circles in the United States and abroad. Russian-born mystic Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, the mesmerizing grande dame of occultism, was a dedicated hashish imbiber. “Hashish multiplies one’s life a thousand-fold... it is a wonderful drug and it clears up profound mystery,” she enthused. In 1875, the year Randolph committed suicide, Blavatsky founded the Theosophical Society, headquartered in New York city, which would attract a worldwide following of eclectic spiritual seekers who were interested in everything from eastern mysticism and vegetarianism to Freemasonry and trance mediums. At times under the influence of hashish, Blavatsky wrote lengthy tomes filled with esoteric lore, introducing such concepts as karma, yoga, kundalini, and reincarnation to a Western audience. Replete with pagan legends, her books (The Secret Doctrine and Isis Unveiled) did not win over Bible Belt America. But Blavatsky, the most famous spiritualist of her age, was a big hit among U.S. and European devotees of the occult. She had a significant following in Paris, where a group of hashish-eating daredevils, under the leadership of Dr. Louis-Alphonse Cahagnet, had been experimenting with monster doses (ten times the amount typically ingested at the soirees of Le club des Haschischins) to send the soul on an ecstatic out-of-the-body journey through intrepid spheres.

It was via Parisian theosophical contacts that the great Irish poet and future Nobel laureate William Butler Yeats first turned on to hashish. An avid occultist, Yeats much preferred hashish to peyote (the hallucinogenic cactus), which he also sampled. Yeats was a member of the Hermetic order of the golden Dawn and its literary affiliate, the London-based Rhymers club, which met in the 1890s. Emulating Le club des Haschischins, the Rhymers used hashish to seduce the muse and stimulate occult insight.

Another member of the Hermetic order of the golden Dawn, Aleister Crowley, was a notorious dope fiend and practitioner of the occult arts. Crowley conducted magical experiments while bingeing on morphine, cocaine, peyote, ether, and ganja. He translated Baudelaire’s writings on hashish into English and published excerpts in The Equinox, his occult periodical. Dubbed “the wickedest man in the world” by Britain’s yellow press, Crowley came to the rather sober conclusion that a person’s reactions to mind-altering drugs were specific to the individual and influenced by cultural variables. This was the gist of an essay he wrote, “The Psychology of Hashish,” which quoted Fitz Hugh Ludlow’s evocative comment about how hashish “loosens the girders of the soul.” Crowley and H. P. Lovecraft, the American writer of supernatural fiction and another fin-de-siècle hashish eater, both greatly admired Ludlow’s book.

The occult revival in the late 1800s was nourished by widespread insecurity over rapid changes in Western society and persistent anxiety about the future of humankind. The industrial revolution had reshuffled the deck economically and psychologically—the means of production and consumption were transformed, communication quickened, geographical distances shrank, populations shifted, and the working poor demanded a more equitable distribution of goods and resources. it was a period of profound uncertainty, as many people struggled to adapt to a new environment in which traditional human relationships—as well as one’s place in the cosmos—were called into question. Doomsayers of every stripe had a field day. occultists gleefully anticipated that “a terrible joy,” in the words of Yeats, would soon “overturn governments, and all settled order.” Believing that the end of civilization was imminent, Madame Blavatsky prophesied that a global catastrophe would usher in a golden Dawn, after which the world would be governed by a beneficent psychic elite.

Whereas Blavatsky imagined a wondrous New Age emerging from the chaos, her contemporary Friedrich Nietzsche saw nothing but storm clouds of nihilism gathering on the horizon. Soon the ill winds of fascism would start to blow in Europe. Nietzsche, the German visionary, bemoaned the pervasive sense of alienation in modern society and the attempt by many to overcome it through intoxication, hedonism, disembodied mysticism, and “the voluptuous enjoyment of eternal emptiness.” But Nietzsche, who called alcohol and Christianity “the two great European narcotics,” was not averse to the therapeutic use of cannabis. “To escape from unbearable pressure you need hashish,” Nietzsche wrote.

For all its sociopolitical and metaphysical contortions, the nineteenth century was an era of great personal freedom with respect to psychoactive substances. There were no laws against using hashish in Europe and North America, where any respectable person could walk into a pharmacy and choose from a range of cannabis tinctures and pastes. After the U.S. civil War, gunjah Wallah Hasheesh candy (“a most pleasurable and harmless stimulant”) was available via mail order from Sears-Roebuck. The average American pretty much was at liberty to use any drug that he or she desired.

Initially disseminated through medicinal channels, hashish was embraced by prominent writers on both sides of the Atlantic. Irish playwright Oscar Wilde wrote about cannabis, and a hookah-smoking caterpillar graced the pages of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Robert Louis Stevenson (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) also experimented with psychoactive hemp. And so did Jack London, who described a hashish-filled evening: “[L]ast night was like a thousand years. I was obsessed with indescribable sensations, alternative visions of excessive happiness and oppressive moods of extreme sorrow.”

Inspired by first-person literary accounts and facilitated by local apothecaries, recreational use of cannabis among U.S. citizens slowly emerged during the patent-medicine era. in 1869, Scientific American reported, “The cannabis indica of the United States Pharmacopeia, the resinous product of hemp, grown in the east indies and other parts of Asia, is used in those countries to a large extent for its intoxicating properties, and is doubtless used in this country for the same purpose to a limited extent.”

Cannabis was on sale at the Turkish Hashish Pavilion, which generated a buzz during the American centennial exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. Within a decade, there would be discreet hashish dens operating in every major American city. “All visitors, both male and female, are of the better classes... and the number of regular habitués is daily on the increase,” H. H. Kane wrote of a New York city hashish parlor in Harper’s Magazine. Published in 1883, the article depicted well-heeled patrons lounging in luxurious, dimly lit rooms, munching on cannabis edibles, smoking hashish, and drinking coca leaf tea.

For the most part, psychoactive hemp products were eaten in nineteenth-century America and Europe, not smoked. The growing number of hashish users in the West as the 1800s drew to a close was partly attributable to the belated realization that they could achieve a milder, quicker, and more manageable high by inhaling cannabis fumes instead of guzzling a tincture or chewing a pastry. Adopted by urban America’s bohemian set, smoking hashish was not viewed as habit-forming or as an inducement to violence, addiction, or antisocial behavior; on the contrary, it was considered stylish and elegant. There was no stigma attached to cannabis and no cause for alarm until U.S. prohibitionists targeted “marihuana,” the alien scourge, during an early twentieth-century upsurge of nativism, scapegoating, and political repression.

Photo (partial) by © Quincey Imhoff

Martin A. Lee is the author of four books, including most recently Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana –Medical, Recreational and Scientific. He is the cofounder of the media watch group FAIR and the director of Project CBD, a medical science information service. He is also the author of Acid Dreams and The Beast Reawakens, and his writing has appeared in many publications, including The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Harper’s Magazine, Le Monde Diplomatique, Rolling Stone, The Nation,,, and

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