Cannabis in History

One of the first crops to be cultivated by mankind, cannabis use is as old as agriculture. First grown for its fibres, the ancient Chinese used it to make rope, cloth and even paper. The earliest references to its psychoactive properties appear in the Atharva-Veda, a sacred Indian text dating back four thousand years. The world's first pharmacy book, published in China, recommends hemp as a remedy for just about everything - including, ironically, absent-mindedness.

The plant was probably introduced to Europe by the Scythians, a barbaric tribe from the Caucasus. The Greek traveller Herodotus (circa 500 BC) famously wrote of the Scyth warriors purifying themselves in steam baths filled with smoke from burning hemp seeds:
"They make a booth by fixing in the ground three sticks inclined toward one another, and stretching around them woollen pelts which they arrange so as to fit as close as possible: inside the booth a dish is placed upon the ground into which they put a number of red-hot stones and then add some hemp... immediately it smokes and gives out such a vapour that no Greek steam bath can surpass it... the Scyths howl with pleasure at these baths."
Herodotus' claims were recently born out by archaeological finds of tripods, braziers and hemp seeds, just as he had described, in frozen Scythian tombs in central Asia. Some sauna!

The Greeks and the Romans cultivated hemp mainly for medicinal use, although there are a few references to its use as a social lubricant at banquets "to promote hilarity and enjoyment". At this time, hemp fibre was imported from Gaul, for ropes and sails. Throughout the middle ages and into the Elizabethan era, hemp was grown in Europe and in Britain, where it fueled the massive demand from the British Navy.

While cannabis' therapeutic properties were being all but ignored by the Europeans, in India, entire systems of medicine were being built up around it. The herb's intoxicating effect was very closely tied to its remedial use. Because of its psychoactive properties it was prized more than ordinary medicines. It was prescribed for a variety of ailments, including dandruff, headaches, mania, insomnia, venereal disease, leprosy, whooping cough and tuberculosis.

Cannabis was introduced to modern Western medicine by W.B. O'Shaughnessy, a surgeon with the British East India Company, and professor at the University of Calcutta. In 1839, after investigating its use in India and validating many of its applications, he documented its properties as an analgesic in the treatment of rheumatism, and as a remedy for severe convulsions. His contemporary, Jean Joseph Moreau de Tours, a French psychologist, proposed it as a means to treat or mimic mental illness.

Interest in cannabis as a medicine spread from Europe to America, and very quickly preparations such as Brown Sequard's Antineuralgic Pills, and Ely Lilly's Dr Brown Sedative Tablets, became widely available in the shops. Sir John Russell Reynolds prescribed it to Queen Victoria for menstral cramps. Needless to say, its intoxicating nature didn't remain a secret for very long, and it was readily embraced by many people, including the hedonistic French poet Baudelaire, and the American writer Fitz Hugh Ludlow.

Until the early twentieth century, cannabis was perfectly legal. Doubts about social problems began to surface when, at the Second Annual Opiates Conference in 1924, an Egyptian representative complained that workers prefered to lie around smoking hashish than do anything constructive. (This sounds to Ephidrina more like poor labour relations than a serious drug problem.) In 1925, the Dangerous Drugs Act became law, and cannabis was made illegal in Britain, just thirty years after the Indian Hemp Commission declared that "absolute prohibition is out of the question".

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