Monday, September 7, 2009

The Prehistory of Marijuana, Part II: 1800=1900

The Prehistory of Marijuana, Part II:
1800 – 1900

In 1800 Europe and the United States were still living in a world of hemp. In addition to ropes and sails, the American Declaration of Independence and Constitution were both printed on hemp paper, as was all paper money until the 1930s. However, hemp was about to lose its dominance over the world of cannabis.

Napoleon over-extended himself by trying to expand his French empire into Egypt. The British destroyed his fleet at Alexandra and he was unable to fight his way home through the Levant. He sneaked home, leaving the army behind in Egypt. When they straggled home, they brought hashish – the psychoactive resin of the cannabis plant – with them. And with it, they brought the legend of the Assassins.

According to the legend, The Old Man of the Mountain was the ruler of a small citadel high in the mountains of Asia Minor who used hashish to control a band of thugs and murders by dosing them with hashish – hence the name “Hashishins” – to go out and raid and kill on his orders. The story is implausible to anyone familiar with hashish, although it does resonant with the stories a century later of drug fiends high on marijuana. A fuller version of the story discovered later is that the Old Man would dope boys with hashish until they fell asleep. He would then move them to his secret, lush garden, where they would awaken to beauty, bird songs, wine, and beautiful maidens. With the promise of greater rewards in heaven and similar hash-fuelled revels after missions, they would do his bidding. Here, the resonance is with current day jihadists and suicide bombers who carry out their missions with promises of virgins in the afterlife.

At any rate, by 1820, hashish had become the center of several of the most stylish Parisian literary and social salons, and most of the lions of French arts and literature participated. The hashish was usually consumed as an ingredient in confections. This fad did not last long, most Parisians preferring wine or absinthe, with its hallucinatory wormwood extract, but a few persisted in using hashish and some rare hashish houses operated in New York in the decades after the Civil War.

One American devotee wrote a memoir of his experiences, Confessions of a Hashish Eater. The book is, frankly, a rip-off of the earlier and better known Confessions of an Opium Eater, an English work that supported its author through multiple editions for over fifty years. The Hashish Eater did, however, recognize the identity of hashish and cannabis and he tells of his first, early experiments as a college student in a local druggist’s shop. He moved from college to the big city and from cannabis elixirs to hashish confections.

Where did the Hashish Eater get the cannabis he experimented with? In the 1830s, a doctor named O’Shaunessy was serving with the British army in India. Toward the end of the ‘30s he wrote two articles for the British Medical Journal about the use of cannabis in native Indian medicine. This age had already discovered quinine in an indigenous tree-bark remedy and isolated morphine from opium poppies. People were ready to hear about other native cures and soon cannabis preparations were common at druggists on both sides of the Atlantic.

Cannabis’ time in the spotlight was short-lived. The active chemicals are fat-soluble, making alcohol-based elixirs problematic and making dosage irregular, depending largely on the state of the patient’s digestion at the time. (This problem still makes oral preparations of cannabis hard to use.) By the end of the Civil War, injectable morphine was readily available for the treatment of both pain and gastric disorders. In 1913, Congressional investigators working on the proposed Harrison Narcotics Tax Act recommended that cannabis not be included. They found only six or seven cannabis preparations for sale and only two of those were not for external use. The primary use of cannabis was in corn plasters. Although it remained in the U.S. Pharmacopeia until 1942, its medical heyday was long past.

Hemp also ran into hard times. The onslaught of steam ships in the second half of the nineteenth century destroyed hemp’s main market. Cheap methods for making woodpulp paper in continuous rolls for the new steam presses drove hand-laid hemp paper from the market. Hemp also required large amounts of hand labor for production, and effective machines were not developed until the 1930s. When the hemp growers lost the use of slave labor, costs made hemp an uneconomic product. The final blow was when the U.S. acquired the Philippine Islands after the Spanish-American war, and cheap Philippine sisal replaced expensive American hemp.

By 1900 cannabis had almost disappeared from the U.S., but a rebirth was waiting in Mexico. As a small child in West Texas, I learned the innocent little folk song, “La Cucaracha”. But I was an adult before I learned that the verse
La cucaracha, la cucaracha,
ya no puede caminar
porque no tiene, porque le falta
marihuana pa' fumar.
Translated into English as “The cockroach cannot walk/ because he has no/marijuana to smoke”.
How marijuana got to Mexico is a mystery. The primary theory is that it came with salves from sub-Saharan Africa who had used it at home. The main problem with this theory is that the slaves were stripped totally naked before being loaded on ships and were not allowed to bring any possessions. My hypothesis looks instead to North Africa. Many sailors on both Portuguese and Spanish ships were from North Africa – Columbus’ first voyage carried several. Hashish was common in both Morocco and Algeria, and those sailors could have carried their private stashes, including seeds.
In either case, whether cannabis came up the coast from Brazil or into the Caribbean and Mexico from North Africa, Mexico is where their traditional method of using tobacco – smoking – was applied to cannabis and it was given the new name “marijuana”.
From Mexico, as recounted in the earlier piece “End of an Era…?”, smoked marijuana entered the U.S. through the two gateways of Southwestern agricultural labor and the docks of New Orleans. The rest, as they say, is history.

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