The Prehistory of Marijuana (Part I)
I recently wrote about what I called “the dark ages” of marijuana history from about 1900 until 1970 and the Foundation Myth , pointing out how sketchy the record is. Now I want to look at the earlier period, before 1900, where hard facts are almost non-existent. The record is so sparse, especially before about 1820, that I call it marijuana’s prehistory. Searching this era calls less for the skills of the historian and more for those of the anthropologist, ethnologist, or even the archeologist.
One of the surprising features of this story is that, before about 1900, the tale of marijuana looks more like the story of four separate plants instead of one about four uses of one plant. Hemp (fiber), hashish (cannabis resin as intoxicant), cannabis (medicine), and marijuana (smoked cannabis) came into Western life through separate routes and before at least 1850 no one seems to recognize these to be different uses or cultivars of the same plant.
Cannabis seems to be a native of the steppes of Central Asia, from which it spread in both directions. It was used medicinally, religiously, and recreationally in both China and the Indian Subcontinent as early as the middle of the second millennium BCE. But the first mention in the West came in 430 BCE, when Herodotus described the Scythians (a nomadic horse people of the Steppes) inhaling the fumes from hemp seeds burned on braziers inside tents. I have found no other reference to hemp or cannabis as a medicine or intoxicant in European literature until the middle of the seventeenth century CE.
Islam exploded out of Arabia and spread from Western China through West Asia and North Africa to the Iberian Peninsula in the seventh and eighth centuries CE. Islam forbade the use of alcohol, so cannabis became the intoxicant of choice through most of this territory. Islamic rulers remained in Iberia until the end of the fifteenth century and used North African Berbers as their military force for most of this time, but no record of cannabis in Iberia exists. It seems to have stayed in Africa.
From the last days of the Roman Empire until the middle of the nineteenth century hemp was the face of cannabis known in the European world. Wind-driven ships were the engine of both commerce and war during this period, and hemp drove these ships. They were rigged with hemp ropes and hemp sailcloth; and a single ship would have miles of rope and acres of sails. The word “cannabis” comes from the Dutch word for canvas. This hemp was so important that, in the reign of Elizabeth I, England started requiring all farmers to grow hemp, and that law extended to the North American colonies. At least three American presidents – Washington,
Jefferson, and Madison grew hemp commercially.
Some extrapolate from these facts and argue that these men also used cannabis as an intoxicant, but that use is unlikely. Modern hemp variants of cannabis are so low in psychoactive cannabinoids that they cannot be used as intoxicants. One expert has claimed that it would take a hemp cigarette as large as a telephone pole to get one high. Our ancestors, while not modern geneticists, were excellent farmers. With well over a thousand years of experimentation, they would have developed strains of cannabis favoring fiber over cannabinoids, just as they had already developed maize and wheat from unpromising grasses; and historical hemp (the precursor of modern hemp plants) would have had its psychoactivity bred out of it hundreds of years ago.
This assertion is supported by strong negative evidence. I have found only two European references to the medical or intoxicating effects of cannabis before 1800.
Richard Burton, in his Anatomy of Melancholy (1638, originally in Latin), makes passing reference to the beneficial effect of hemp on his melancholy, but his language is so indirect and metaphorical and the reference is so casual that explication of what he means is practically impossible. Identification of his drug with the fiber hemp plant is at best problematic. Most important is that none of his contemporaries identified his hemp with the fiber plant.
Robert Hooke, in his diaries for 1689, makes two mentions of a sea captain held captive in Ceylon for twenty years who talked about the Indian use of a hemp-like herb and seed called “Gange” in Portugese and “Banga” in Chinese. Hooke reported those conversations to the Royal Society that December, but then the subject drops from the record. Hooke, the first secretary of the Royal Society, carried on an extensive correspondence with all of the leading scientists and medical scholars in Europe and England. He was also an infamous hypochondriac and delighted on dosing himself with all kinds of medicine. If anyone in Europe had suspected any relationship between Gange and European hemp, Hooke almost certainly would have at least tried it, and probably, conducted serious experiments. Here the silence of the record screams that no one recognized the identity of the two plants.
The only sustainable conclusion is that the use of cannabis as an intoxicant traveled no further west than the Scythians, and from 430 BCE until after 1800 CE, Europe had to do with alcohol, opium, and tobacco as intoxicants.
After 1800, Napoleon’s army returned from Egypt bearing hashish to Paris and Dr. O’Shaunessy informed the British medical society about the medical use of cannabis in India. Our story will continue with those tales.
 See “End of an Era…?”, August 15, 2009
 Hooke, while one of the prominent scientific writers of his age, was notoriously lax with the language in his diary. The actual text paraphrased here was “the intoxicating herb & seed like hemp by the moors called Gange is in Portuguese Banga; in Chingales.”