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Written by John Rosevear   
Tuesday, 26 February 2013 00:00

"I would have thee, O Aze', decorated like a young pine tree with pieces of hemp hanging on the branches."

HEMP IS HISTORICALLY ENTWINED with the history of the world, but marihuana is not. Yet marihuana comes from the hemp plant. Discovering the intoxicating principle of the resin and flowering tops of the plant was quite probably an accident, and people may have been breathing the smoke from burning hemp long before they confined it to a censer or pipe. In America, the use of marihuana is quite a recent phenomenon—probably less than a century old.

The hemp plant, Cannabis sativa L., is thought to have originated somewhere north of the Himalaya Mountains, in China. Whether or not it began growing there or was brought into the country, no one seems to know. Hemp has an association with the Chinese Neolithic cultural tradition ( around 3000 B. c. ); chopstick usage and hemp cultivation are thought to have originated at roughly the same time.' Chances are that it grew in China a number of years before the people there began using it for any purpose.

At any rate, the legendary Chinese Emperor, Shen-Nung, encouraged his people to cultivate the plant, and records show that one hundred years later garments made from hemp clothed a great number of Chinese.2 Descriptions of hemp are found in the Rh-ya, a Chinese treatise from approximately 1500 B.c.3 The document states that one of the plants produces seed, the other pollen. About the same time a peculiar custom developed: snakes' heads were carved in the hard hemp stalks and the sticks used to chase away evil spirits by whipping the beds of sick people.4 Taxes to the government were paid in hemp stalks in 500 B.C. HoWever, if any of the ancient Chinese used hemp for smoking, it has yet to be discovered.

The first evidence of an intoxication with marihuana appears between the fifth and third centuries before Christ, when it was used by the Scythians in what is now the Altai Mountains region of Siberia. A tentlike device was employed by the natives to gather hemp smoke burned in a stone bowl, or censer.' Herodotus ( 484?-425? B.c. ) was the first author to mention hemp in Greek literature, noting that the inhabitants of Scythia and Thrace made clothing from it and also breathed the vapors of the burning seeds.

Unlike the Chinese, the people of India cultivated the plant more for the resin than for the fibers it produced. The Atharva—Veda ( 2000-1400 B.c. ) mentions the word "bhanga," and the Zend-Avesta, a Sanskrit work written several centuries before Christ, mentions hemp, called "cadaneh," and describes the intoxicating properties of the plants.6 The Fourth Book of Vedas, written around 1500 B.c., called hemp vigahia, the Source of Happiness, and anada, Laughter-Provoker. The celebrated work Pannina, written in 300 B.c., mentions "bhanga" in reference to the flowers of hemp. The Iranian tribes somehow taught the priestly class of India about the drug, and Yogas and other contemplatives either ate or smoked it to quiet the distraction of the world and put their thoughts into an egoless trance. As the common people learned how to use it, marihuana's popularity spread rapidly throughout India.

At the beginning of the Christian era, hemp and flax were the main sources of clothing for the known world, and the ships that sailed the seas had ropes and sails made from hemp. The Latin writers of the time, Lucilius, Pliny, Columella and Celsus, wrote of the textile properties of hemp but only touched on its medical uses. Galen didn't say much more about it, but Dioscorides, his contemporary, wrote of the soothing properties of the seeds, and even drew a rough sketch of the plant.

By 500 A.D., Cannabis had reached nearly all of Europe, save the western sections. Arab doctors were prescribing hemp and hemp seeds for a variety of ailments, and adding aphrodisiacs to it in some medicines. During the great split in the Moslem world, when the crusaders were beginning to win Jerusalem, hemp came to the attention of Hasan-ibn-Sabah. Called the Old Man of the Mountain, Hasan ( along with Rashid-ad-Din Sinan and Sheikh al-Jabal) gathered around him a group of young warriors, called fidawi or malahida. -Marco Polo wrote of how the fidawi were taken in by Hasan, shown a luxurious garden in the mountains of Alamut, given all the food, women, pleasures and hashish they desired, and told that they were in Paradise. Hasan then assigned to each of his followers a person to kill—with the provision that if the killing ( assassination) was successful, they could return and live as he had shown them; if the warrior died, he would still realize Paradise. Off went the fidawi with their daggers and garrotes, and threw the Moslem world into terror.? Today, hashish is still associated with killings and assassinations, although the relationship between crime and the use of the drug is questioned.

The Arabian Nights or Thousand and One Nights, tales collected during the period 1000-1700 A.D., have occasional mention of "benji" ( hashish ). The references are casual, with no explanation as to what "benji" is, which leads to the assumption that it was quite well known. Hashish use accompanied many Arabs into Spain in the 10th century, but did not gain a foothold, and left the country (by and large) when the invaders left.

Marihuana was known in the New World before the Conquest in 1509 A.D. The plant was part of certain religious rites and ceremonies practiced by the Aztecs. Montezuma II was known to take a few draws of a very pungent tobacco just after lunch and fall into a deep sleep. However, the historian Bernal Diaz does not identify the substance.8 Hemp appears to have been known in Chile and parts of South America by 1545 A.D.

When the English began to expand their shipping fleets in the late 16th century, hemp was an essential part of their sailing equipment. Strands of flax were too short to be of good use for ropes and sails, but hemp proved to be long, strong and flexible. It is stated that even after the ropes and sails were no longer serviceable, the material could be cut up and used for caulking. Hemp grew in abundance in the Baltic regions, but England had trouble with the Dutch fleets in a trade conflict. Seeking a new and better place to expand, the Sovereign Empire decided to try those new, unsettled colonies across the ocean, called America. Reports had stated that the climate and general agricultural characteristics of that country were perfect for hemp and flax, and in 1611, near Jamestown (Virginia ), the first Cannabis was grown in this country. Sir Walter Raleigh thought tobacco was more important than hemp, and tried to persuade Britain to concentrate on the people's smoking habits ( hemp was not smoked). But instructions were sent from King James I to the new settlers to produce "iron, cordage, hemp, flax, silkgrass, pitch, tar, potash, soap, ashes, timber, salt, and wine."9 In 1630, garments made from hemp were so popular in America that half the winter clothing and nearly all the summer clothes were made from it. With the advent of steam power for ships in the late 1700's and the invention of the cotton gin in 1793, the usefulness of hemp began to decline. We have no evidence that the intoxicating properties of hemp were known during this period in North America.

Meanwhile, Napoleon was charging across the Mediterranean into Egypt with a flock of scientists in his company. No hemp tissue was found in the tombs along the Nile, nor was there any evidence of hemp or marihuana in hieroglyphic texts. But the scientists did bring hemp samples back to Europe from the Middle East, and interest in the plant grew in Europe. Medical men began exploring the possible uses of Cannabis, and intellectuals joined them, although not exactly for scientific reasons. A little later the Club des Hashischins opened in Paris, founded by Charles Baudelaire and Theophile Gautier. Both men wrote about the effects of the drug.

In Egypt, the French clamped down on hashish use, moving the users from open streets into secret dens; in Paris, Baudelaire smoked pot and wrote of "the artificial paradise."

In America and England, hemp was not associated with marihuana until quite recently, although Fitzhugh Ludlow experimented with the Cannabis he had purchased at his local apothecary shop, imported from the Middle East, and other notables began trying a little of it now and again, among whom were John Stuart Mill, Walter de la Mare, Alexander Dumas and William James. Marihuana did not achieve any great American popularity, however, until the Mexican laborers began coming across the border, bringing their little bags of mota with them.

New Orleans is said to be the first American city to appreciate marihuana; in 1926 the city was "soaked" with the weed, from the criminal set to the social elite. Clumps of marihuana began appearing as a weed in many parts of the southwest. The habit of smoking the stuff went up the Mississippi River via steamboats, and in 1930 there was hardly a major city in the United States that did not have a few smokers.

One of the reasons marihuana went up the rivers of the United States was that sailors took to it immediately. The demand for marihuana grew so fiercely that the Mexican laborers could not keep New Orleans supplied. Shipments began arriving from Havana, Tampico, and Vera Cruz. Many sailors went to sea only to import marihuana. Prices at that time were $10 to $12 per kilo in Mexico ( a kilogram is 2.2 pounds), $35 to $50 in the states. Whether it affected the liquor consumption of New Orleans then is not known.

For some reason, marihuana got off on the wrong foot, and the news media quickly picked up the sensation and began writing about the "Marihuana Menace." By 1936, there was a growing concern about the use of the drug in this country: sixty per cent of the crimes in New Orleans that year were reported to have taken place while under marihuana's influence. And if that wasn't bad enough, nasty stories began being heard about marihuana being sold to school children. Time for legislation was ripe.

When lawbreakers were linked with marihuana it was not hard, with the help of the press, to commit an act of syllogistic argument, and so marihuana became the cause of the crime. A year later the Federal Marihuana Tax Act came into being, and all states have used it as a model for their narcotic laws.

The social reaction to the Federal Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 is difficult to describe. In the first place, there weren't many marihuana smokers around, and those who smoked seldom did so in public. So the law meant virtually nothing socially, although its aim was to have hemp-associated people register with the government. As a byproduct, it was designed to keep smokers to a minimum—or eliminate them completely. Quite the opposite took place, however. The smokers, upon hearing of the law, quietly locked their doors. Marihuana was then ( and is today) popular with musicians, and many musicians were ( and are) Negroes. Consequently, it entered the American Ghettos, and racial integration is one of the many reasons the practice has grown so popular.

There are other countries of the world where marihuana is illegal—but not quite as illegal as in the United States. It must be requested discreetly in the Latin countries, but it is available. It must be kept away from policemen's eyes in the North African countries, but if they see it a small fine on the spot usually takes care of the matter—unless a policeman has sold it to you. In Iraq, hashish is available in coffee houses, simply by request. In India, hemp usage is illegal' in many provinces, but it is a long-standing custom for laborers to drink a little bhang toward the end of the day as a refreshment. In connection with religious ceremonies, especially to the Gods Siva and Ganesh ( son of Siva), ganja and bhang are taken on certain festive days. Charas ( hashish) is rarely, if ever, used along these lines.

Since the Civil War, Kentucky's hemp industry, and the nation's, has declined steadily, and no new applications for hemp licenses have been received by the Treasury Department since 1960. A year after the Act was passed, the importation of hemp seed began (it is used on a grand scale as a bird feed—after being sterilized). Today the hemp industry is unknown, and any plants growing in the United States are either wild or illegal—or both. ( There is one exception, noted later.)

Robert S. deRopp, one of the noted doctors who has truly examined marihuana, recently said the following.

Scientists who have studied marihuana agree it is a very innocuous drug, nonpoisonous, nonaddicting, and does not even produce a hangover. As an example of prohibitive legislation at its worst, the Marihuana Tax Act can hardly be improved upon. It is founded on ignorance, nourished by superstition, and pervaded by a spirit of vindictive self-righteousness that places it on a level with the old laws relating to witchcraft. A myth, the Marihuana Menace, has been created that has about as much substance as a medieval succubus. In the name of this myth otherwise respectable citizens are thrown into jail like common criminals for 'having it in their possession, a relatively harmless weed. Even the most puritanical must have doubts about the rightness of legislation which makes unlicensed possession of a handful of hemp flowers equivalent, as regards the penalty it carries, to the crime of treason.10


1. Kwang-chih Chang, The Archaeology of Ancient China, Yale University Press, 1963, p. 55.
2. Norman Taylor, Narcotics: Nature's Dangerous Gifts, Dell Publishing Company, 1963, p. 12.
3. J. Bouquet, "Cannabis, Part 1," Bulletin on Narcotics, Volume 2, Number 4, 1950, p. 14.
4. Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Folklore, and the Occult Sciences, J. H. Yewdale, 1903, p. 805.
5. M. I. Artamanov, "Frozen Tombs of the Scythians," Scientific American, Volume 212, Number 5 (May 1965), pp. 100-109.
6. R. N. and G. S. Chopra, "The Present Position of Hemp-Drug Addiction in India" (A supplement to the Indian Journal of Medical Research), published in the Indian Medical Research Memoirs, Memoir 31, Thacker, Spink and Company, 1939, p. 2.
7. Philip K. Hitti, History of the Arabs, St. Martin's Press, 1956, pp. 446-447.
8. Bernal Diaz, The Conquest of New Spain, Penguin, 1963, p. 227.
9. James F. Hopkins, A History of the Hemp Industry in Kentucky, University of Kentucky Press, 1951, p. 7.
10. Dan Wakefield, "The Prodigal Powers of Pot," Playboy magazine, August, 1963, p. 103.


Our valuable member John Rosevear has been with us since Monday, 18 February 2013.

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