. Pot Night

A Short History of Cannabis

Pot Night - The Book, Channel 4 Television, 1995

Neil M. Montgomery

Although hemp has been discovered, woven into cloth, at archaeological sites dating back 10,000 years, the first written record of its use is found in Shen Nung's pharmacopoeia. Regarded as one of the fathers of Chinese medicine, Shen Nung is credited with developing the science from the curative power of plants. Hemp was so highly regarded in China that they named their country 'Land of Mulberry and Hemp', and its cultivation is still intensive there. In early Taoist ritual, the recommended addition of cannabis in incense burners was said to produce mystic exaltation and contribute to well-being.

In common with the practice of medicine in the rest of the ancient world, the early Chinese based their doctrine, in part, on the concept of demons. So too in Japan: Shinto priests used a gohei, a short stick with gathered hemp fibres at one end, to drive away evil spirits. In addition hemp clothes were always worn during Japanese religious ceremonies because of hemp's association with purity.

Zoroaster (c. 628-c. 551 BC), the Persian prophet, is responsible for the earliest mention of the plant's use as a sacrament. He gave hemp first place in the sacred text, the Zend-Avesta, which lists over 10,000 medicinal plants. For the Zoroastrians - among whom may have been the biblical Magi - cannabis was considered the chief religious sacrament of the priest class.

In India, hemp is still made into a drink that is reputed to have been the favourite beverage of the god Indra. Tradition maintains that Indra gave marijuana to the people so that they might attain elevated states of consciousness and delight in worldly joy anf freedom from fear. Perhaps the cannabis drink known to have been made in the ancient Thebes around 2000 BC was used in the same way.

Later in India, in c. 1000-500 BC, cannabis was mentioned in the Atharva-Veda, a collection of Hindu magic spells, as 'sacred grass' and regarded as the 'source of happiness', 'joy giver' and 'liberator'. (Shen Nung had also viewed cannabis as a 'liberator'.) According to Indian tradition and writings, Siddhartha used and ate nothing but hemp and its seeds for six years prior to announcing his truths and becoming the Buddha in the 5th century BC. Today in the Tantric Buddhism of Tibet, cannabis plays a very significant role in the meditation ritual - a practice known since 500 BC, when cannabis was thought of as a most holy plant. One of the prized varieties of hash today is the potent Nepalese 'temple ball'.


2700 BC CHINA Listed in Shen Nung's pharmacopoeia 200 BC ISRAEL Used as a medicine by the Essenes
2000 BC EGYPT Made as a drink in ancient Thebes AD 700 MIDDLE EAST Brought divine revelation to Sufi priests
1000 BC INDIA Used as a herbal medicine AD 1200 EUROPE Banned as a medicine by the Inquisition
500 BC PERSIA The principle sacrament of the Zoroastrians AD 1480s ITALY Criminalised by Pope Innocent VIII
500 BC TIBET Considered a most holy plant AD 1835 FRANCE Club des Hashichines established
450 BC SCYTHIA Inhaled as an intoxicating incense AD 1895 BRITAIN The Indian Hemp Drug Commission Report published in seven volumes

Cannabis also has links to Christianity through the Ethiopian Coptic Church, held to have been established by St Mark in AD 45. The Copts claim that marijuana as a sacrament has a lineage descending from the Jewish sect, the Essenes (who are considered responsible for the Dead Sea Scrolls), with influences that go as far back as neighbouring Thebes. It is the Coptic view that cannabis played an important role in early Christian and Judaic rituals as a sacrament burned in tabernacles, to commemorate such times as the communication with God on Mount Sinai by Moses, and the transfiguration of Christ.

References to being spiritually illuminated in a cloud of smoking incense could have parallels with the use of cannabis by the Scythians of Central Asia, as described by the Greek historian Herodotus in the 5th century BC. After observing them throwing hemp on to heated stone, he wrote:

As it burns, it smokes like incense and the smell of it makes them drunk, just as wine does. As more fruit is thrown on, they get more and more intoxicated until they jump up and start singing and dancing.

Evidence for the use of cannabis has been discovered in frozen Scythian tombs:along with the plant was found a miniature tripod-like tent over a copper censor in which the sacred plant was burned - a tabernacle. Does this throw a different light on the 'burning bush'?


Many users of cannabis today recount feelings of 'oneness with God', 'peace and tranquillity', 'reduced anxiety', 'a greater understanding of life' and a 'greater appreciation of music and art'. Spirituality and music in particular seem inextricably linked to cannabis culture - from Scythian partying to black soul and jazz, Sixties' rock'n'roll, and the Rasta influences of today. The Sufis, African dagga cults, the Cuna Indians of Panama, the Cora Indians of Mexico, Ethiopian Copts, Taoists, Scythians, Buddhists, Essenes, Hindus, Zoroastrians and Rastafarians have all used cannabis in religious ceremonies, many regarding it as part of their culture and an important sacrament.

During the Middle Ages, while adopting wine as a sacrament, the Inquisition, instituted by the Roman Catholic Church, outlawed cannabis ingestion: anyone found using the herb to communicate with God or heal others would be branded a witch. In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII singled out cannabis as an unholy sacrament of the Satanic mass. Yet while the Church persecuted cannabis users in Europe, the Spanish conquistadors were busy planting hemp around the New World to provide raw materials for, among other things, sails, rope and clothing.

The 18th century brought a new era of civilisation. 'Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness' was the call of the colonists in America; 'Liberty, equality, fraternity' was the cry of the revolutionists in France. Hemp farming was promoted by almost every US President until it was prohibited as a source of medicine and fibre. In Paris in 1835, the Club des Hashichines was founded, boasting members such as the poet Baudelaire who described in detail the effects of smoking hash.* World fairs and international expositions from the 1860s to the 1920s often featured Turkish hashish smoking parlours, and by 1883, such parlours were open in virtually every American city - in 1920, there were more than 500 of them in New York alone. In 1895, the Indian Hemp Drug Commission published its report in seven thick volumes. The commission concluded that cannabis has some medical uses, no addictive properties and a number of positive emotional and social benifits.

In the southern United States and in South Africa, oppressive racist regimes linked the 'vicious insolence' of black people with marijuana and jazz music. In New Orleans, whites were concerned that black musicians, rumoured to smoke marijuana, were spreading a powerful new voodoo music that forced even decent white women to tap their feet. Harry Anslinger, heading the newly formed Federal Bureau of Narcotics, kept files on - and assigned agents to tail - virtually all jazz and swing musicians, including Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. Anslinger insisted that 'this Satanic music and the use of marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes.'

This legalised racist persecution, combined with newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst's anti-hemp campaign, tolled the death knell of legal cannabis in the United States. With the commercial sabotage of the hemp industry on his agenda, Hearst's newspapers promoted for three years the image of lazy Mexicans smoking marijuana in a 'yellow journalism' campaign that made the American public frightened of marijuana - a Mexican slang word for cannabis. Few people realised that 'marijuana' was the same as the hemp that had been farmed for years, or the same as cannabis, extracts of which they had been given as cure-alls since childhood. In 1937, massive and prohibitive tax was put on hemp, effectively destroying that industry in the United States. Over the decades that followed, the various states of the Union passed increasingly draconian laws against cannabis production, supply and use.

When 'flower power' arrived in the 1960s, once again marijuana and music connected with the current culture, this time one of peace and love. The rise in the use of cannabis was accompanied by regular media reports of pop groups smoking marijuana. In 1980, like Louis Armstrong in Los Angeles exactly 50 years before, Paul McCartney spent ten days in prison (in Japan) for possession of cannabis.

Cannabis became illegal in the UK in 1925 with the adoption of the second Opium Conference in Geneva where, despite hesitation on the part of the uk, the exasperated rantings of the Egyptian delegate about the evils of marijuana resulted in the inclusion of cannabis in the opium laws. Several attempts to repeal the law - backed up by reports that repeat the findings of the Drug Commission Report on Indian hemp of 1895 - have failed.

Current research into cannabis is beginning to reveal scientific evidence to support what many cultures throughout time have known, and its benefits and associated problems are being brought once again into the public arena.

*"The hallucinations begin. External objects assume monstrous forms. They reveal themselves to you in shapes never before witnessed. Then they become deformed and transformed, finally entering your being or rather you enter them. The most singular ambiguities, the most inexplicable transpositions of thought take place. The sounds are coloured, the colours are heard as music. The musical notes are numbers and you solve at hair-raising speeds enormous arithmetical problems as the music unwinds in your ears. You are sitting down and smoking; you think you are sitting inside your pipe which is smoking you; you exhale self in the form of blue-tinted clouds." - Charles Baudelaire on his experiences at 'Le Club des Hashichines', Paris. From Hashish Wine Opium by Theophile Gautier and Charles Baudelaire.


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