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A Brief History of Marijuana: From Babylon to the 19th Century

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The history of cannabis is fascinating and still unknown to many, many people. Today we are going to briefly talk about some of the main historical data about the use of marijuana up to the 19th century.

Hemp was already known to the Assyrians – Mesopotamian Empire, XV century BC – who used it as incense in religious ceremonies. The Holy Book of the Persians (6th century BC, today southwestern Iran) the Avesta, describes, for its part, the enervating effects of incense obtained with indica hemp.

If the cultivation of poppy flower seems to originate in Europe and Asia Minor, that of hemp refers to China. The first remains of that fiber (dated around 4000 BC) have been found there, a millennium later in Turkestan (Afghanistan).

A Chinese medical treatise – written in the 1st century, on materials said to date back to the legendary Shen Nung, written 30 centuries earlier – states that “hemp taken in excess makes monsters appear, but if it’s used for a long time it can help you to communicate with spirits and to lighten the body ”.

Nongjia - Wikipedia, la enciclopedia libre
Shen Nung (also known as Shennong) was a legendary emperor onf ancient China, whose existence is doubted: The only real fact is that he liked weed a lot

The use of hemp in India also dates back to time immemorial. In an ancient treatise, the Atharva Veda tells a legend according to which the plant sprouted when ragweed drops fell from the sky. Brahmanic tradition believes that it streamlines the mind, granting long life and enhanced sexual desires.

Also the main branches of Buddhism celebrated its virtues for meditation. In medical uses, the plant was part of treatments for fever, eye pain, insomnia, dysentery and flu.

The first Mesopotamian reference to hemp does not occur until the 9th century BC, in times of Assyrian rule and makes mention of its use as ceremonial incense. The open brazer to burn incense was already frequent among the Scythians (Iranian-speaking people, who disappeared in the second century BC), who threw large pieces of hashish on heated stones and sealed the room to prevent the smoke from escaping.

The ancient Egyptians used a similar technique to make kyphi, another ceremonial incense loaded with hemp resin.

Mini Papyrus Plants: Found in the West section of the House of Ladies,  frescos of massive, three stemmed, blo… | Ancient greek art, Egyptian art,  Ancient egypt art
This is what a marijuana plant looked like in ancient Egypt: The color blue represents heaven and the cosmos!

According to paleo-botanical data, the cultivation of hemp is also very old in Western Europe. In the 7th century BC. the Celts – located in old Europe – exported from their enclave of Massilia (today Marseille, France) ropes and hemp tow to the entire Mediterranean.

Remains of pipes and hemp robes used by the Druids (Celtic priests who are experts in medicine) have been found, which indicates that this culture also knew the use of hemp.

It is undoubted that this plant seems the one used by ancient greeks to mitigate the penalties of Telemachus (Trojan War), and that was well known to all the peoples of antiquity.

And its properties so praised that the Hindus, just as the Incas did with coca plant, give it a divine origin. They explain that advised by the god Vishnu, all the lesser gods and demons met one day to obtain the elixir of immortality.

The result, which would take pages to explain since, according to legend, it was not easy to achieve, it turned out to be the indica hemp from which the hashish was extracted. In other words, the resin that is extracted from the leaves and female inflorescences of indica hemp, which is consumed chewed or smoked.

In addition to wines and beers, the Greeks used hemp and other nightshades for ceremonial and recreational purposes, sometimes using incense or hot stones. They also knew an extract of hashish with wine and myrrh to stimulate private meetings.

In ancient Rome, on the other hand, although the main plants were the poppy (such as opium) and the vine, we know that in the times of the Caesars it was not uncommon to smoke female hemp flowers (marijuana) in meetings to “incite hilarity and enjoyment ”, a custom that could have come from both Athenian and Celtic civilizations.

This drug of the gods was later used by the “Old Man of the Mountain” to form the most faithful and courageous of armies. A real suicide squad that, in exchange for the surrender of his life, received the desired daily ration of hashish.

Order of Assassins - Wikipedia
This calligram was the “logo” of the Ismaili order Asāsiyyūn (Yes, the same guys who inspired the famous “Assassins Creed” video game saga).

Just because indica hemp is a plant limited, in the wild, to certain Asian and African regions, it does not mean that it is difficult to grow in other nations.

In fact, its cultivation is especially easy in those regions that have warm climates.

Another form of marijuana use is hashish, very popular in the Middle Eastern countries of Africa, especially popular since the rise of Islam.

Although neither in the Koran nor in the Sunna (set of traditions) do they mention hemp, in Arabic from the 11th century the plant was called bangah – a name almost identical to Sanskrit word “bhang” – and it was recommended in the pharmacopoeia for various specific uses, and also as playful drug.

When it is associated with opium and, other times, with alcoholic beverages, it is then given in liquid form (like the “special wine” of the Thousand and One Nights) and is not only used as marijuana or hashish that can be consumed by inhalation or ingestion.

Rhazes, the Arab doctor, attributes to him the ability to cope with severe cases of melancholy and epilepsy. In extra-therapeutic uses, during the classical era of Islam, it was a drug of groups determined by religious faith and social status: peasants, day laborers and urban servants preferred it, and that is why haschisch al-harafish, “rogue herb” , is also haschisch al-fokora, “herb of the fakirs”, used for ecstatic dance and meditation by practitioners of Sufism, a mystical doctrine of Islam that had its origin in the 7th century AD.

The predominant criterion on the use of hashish, (at least until the middle of the 13th century), is expressed by Al-Ukabri – a scholar in poetry and law – through a small treatise on the drug:

You should know that Islamic law does not prohibit the consumption of cordial drugs, with effects like those of hashish. And since there is no news about its illegality, the people consider that it is allowed to use it, and they use it ”.

Some drug historians argue that any of these groups can serve as an example to understand the decline of the Arab countries, but there are other experts in the field who disagree on this statement.

Regarding the use of marijuana in Europe after the Renaissance, it is necessary to highlight that the first modern studies on the use of hemp as a medicine were made by the scholars who in 1798 accompanied Napoleon Bonaparte in his conquest of Egypt (Silvestre de Sacy, Rouyer and Desgenettes).

These scientists studied marijuana in the “battlefield”, leading to fruitful observations, and took samples that were later analyzed by the famous Lamarck in Paris at the end of the 18th century.

In 1800, Napoleon Bonaparte prohibited the use of hashish throughout Egypt, to avoid “violent delusions and excesses of all kinds.” The main purpose of this ordinance was to arouse the curiosity of some French doctors.

Napoleón Bonaparte. Biografía
After years of historical studies and scientific research we finally know what Napoleon kept in his vest: C’est Le weed, bro!

By 1839, Dr. O’Shaughnessy, a British professor teaching in Calcutta, India, published the first article on the analgesic, antispasmodic and muscle relaxant properties of cannabis.

In the following sixty years, more than one hundred scientific studies on this plant and its properties were published. Until 1937, when it was banned in the United States, it was the mandatory component in more than thirty pharmaceutical preparations.

For decades, all scientific work on its curative and pharmaceutical uses was disavowed by different governments, if not clearly boycotted.

Considering that hemp is a way of knowing the mind, and can be the object of scientific investigation, the psychiatrist J. Moreau de Tours who ended up surrounded by a group of writers and artists – “Le Club des Hachischiens” – with some of the most famous french artists and writers of that century like Gautier, Charles Baudelaire, Delacroix, Nerval, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Victor Hugo and even Balzac.

The most famous result of these elegant stoner sessions will be several articles by Baudelaire, published under the generic name “Artificial Paradises.

In 1857 H. and T. Smith managed to concentrate the first active element of marijuana with the help of an alkali. They found that the residue was devoid of nitrogen, contrary to most of the known alkaloids.

Later, Cahn obtained this active element, which in its pure state was given the name of canabinol. Todd and Addams continued their work and isolated another alkaloid, cannabidiol.

Canabidiol (CBN) does not produce any of the psychological effects of marijuana. You have to add four hydrogen atoms to find the active properties again.

The difficulty of mastering a pure alkaloid, a problem posed to chemists, drove marijuana out of modern psychopharmacology, after the trials attempted by Dr. Moreau de Tours in 1845 to treat hallucinations by means of hashish.

Continuing with the nineteenth century, among physicians, the drug’s prestige failed to establish itself remotely similar to that of other drugs.

It was a crude substance, whose active principle was undiscovered, typical of primitive medicines, although some doctors recommended laudanum(pharmaceutical preparation based on opium) but hashish as an analgesic, hypnotic and antispasmodic.

The famous german philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche himself sometimes used the substance, and was convinced that it allowed us to approach “the prodigious speed of mental processes.”

That really is a mustache, Fred!

But no text of the period will have the solidity of the seven volumes of the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission, published by the English government in 1894; their complete report ends like this:

Considering the issue in a general way, it should be added that in India the moderate use of hashish and marijuana is the rule, and that excessive use is exceptional. Moderate use produces practically no harmful effects, and the disorder caused by excessive use is almost exclusively confined to the consumer himself: the effect on society is seldom appreciable”.

Depending on the tastes and the countries, cannabis is used in different ways: resin, which contains about 40% of active element, or flowers and leaves whose percentage rarely exceeds 10 percent.

In Nepal, for example, they are content to rub the heads of hemp between their hands, they fall over the edge of a metal barrel. The flowers and leaves destined to be smoked are simply dried in the shade, rubbing them between the hands and breaking them into very fine pieces.

The marijuana that is smoked, eaten or drunk can be the subject of many preparations: in India different drinks are made such as famous “bhang“, to which pepper, aromatic herbs and sugar are added, the “poust” that is prepared with water, or the “louki” that contains alcohol, as well as the “mourra” made with tincture of opium.

But we will talk about the use of traditional methods of ingesting marijuana in the form of edibles on another occasion.

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