The New York Times, December 13, 1970
What We Have Forgotten
A Pharmacologist's History
By SOLOMON JR. SNYDER
THERE was a time in the United States when extracts of cannabis were as commonly used for medicinal purposes as aspirin today. Not only was cannabis a medication that could be purchased without a prescription in any drug store (which is almost unbelievable when you consider that mere possession of marijuana is now a serious offense), but it was also prescribed by physicians as an important treatment for a large number of medical conditions, from migraines and excessive menstrual bleeding to ulcers, epilepsy and even tooth decay.
If cannabis was so widely and apparently successfully used, why is this hardly known today? Were there legitimate medical reasons for the fall-off in its employment by physicians, or did legal restrictions largely account for the dramatic changes in its availability? The answer is probably a combination of the two.
Cannabis, the generic name for marijuana, hashish and related products, has been in use legally or illegally for about 3,000 years. The story of its varying role in different cultures --- both as a medicine and as a mind-altering substance --- and its spread from country to country is a fascinating one, and provides, moreover, important perspective on the controversy over whether marijuana is a threat to the well-being of the young, on why the drug seems to divide the generations and on what, if anything, ought to be done about it.
Before beginning this chronicle of cannabis as a medicine (1) and as an intoxicant (11), we should clarify the sometimes confusing jargon applied to the plant and its derivatives. The source of this medicine, or "dope," depending on one's point of view, is the plant Cannabis sativa. There are male and female forms, although, as may seem fitting for the mascot plant of the unisex generation, it has recently been cultivated in a hermaphroditic variety.
The psychoactive ingredients have, for about a thousand years, been assumed to derive almost exclusively from the female plant. But in the past year. chemical analyses of the pure psychotropic (intoxicating) substances of cannabis showed that they are present in equal concentration in male and female plants, an' embarrassing revelation for hemp growers who have for years been discarding the male plants.
THE cannabis plant is also known as hemp, and its stalks have been a major source of fiber for cloth. beginning with the Chinese at least as long as 3,000 years ago. It grows freely as a weed in almost any climate, although the strains of plants grown in warmer climates produce move of the resin that contains the psychoactive material. The exact identity of this chemical was established in 1964 by Dr. Raphael Mechoulam in Israel, who showed it to be delta-l-tetrahydrocannabinol, and was even able to synthesize it from simple, basic chemicals.
Commonly referred to as "T.H.C.," the chemical in small doses produces a mild pat high, and in larger doses gives rise to hallucinogenic and psychotomimetic (resembling psychosis) effects similar to an L.S.D. trip. Despite this similarity, however, T.H.C. has no chemical resemblance to any psychedelic drugs such as L.S.D., mescaline or psilocybin.
Unlike opiate narcotics, moreover, cannabis is not physically addictive. Thus its consumers do not develop the compulsive craving that turns opiate addicts into thieves, prostitutes and pawns of organized crime. Also, no deaths have ever been reported from marijuana, in contrast to heroin, which sometimes kills because a fatal dose is not much greater than the amount needed to get high.
Why are some preparations of cannabis terrifyingly powerful and others pleasantly mild? This seems to depend on which part of the plant is used, The flowering leaves of ripe male or female hemp plants secrete a sticky resin which is the source of all, or almost all of the T.H.C. in cannabis. Marijuana, a Mexican term first applied to cheap tobacco and only in the late 19th century to cannabis, refers to preparations of leaves and stems of uncultivated plants chopped up into something resembling crude tobacco leaf--- with some seeds included. The T.H.C. content of marijuana is fairly low, and its effects are thus comparatively moderate. In the United States it is usually smoked or baked into cookies. In India the same preparation is called Mang and is legal. It is blended conventionally into a pleasant-tasting liquid concoction drunk at social gatherings and is also prescribed by physicians for a variety of medical purposes. The tops of cultivated plants are harvested in India and processed into a somewhat more potent material called ganja, which is usually smoked.
SOLOMON H. SNYDER, M.D., is a professor of psychiatry and pharmacology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. This article is adapted from a book he is writing about marijuana.
The most potent cannabis preparation is obtained by carefully scraping the resin containing T.H.C. from the leaves of the cultivated plants. This gooey material is then pressed into hard blocks and, eventually, smoked. in India it is known as charas, and in other countries as hashish, which is about 10 times as powerful as marijuana and is the only cannabis derivative that can produce hallucinogenic and psychotomimetic effects with any regularity. Even experienced potheads are cautious in their use of hashish.
1. THE "MIRACLE DRUG"
THE first reference to the medical use of cannabis is in a pharmacy book written about 2737 B.C. by the Chinese Emperor, Shen Nung, who recommended it for "female weakness, gout, rheumatism, malaria, beriberi, constipation and absent-mindedness." In China at that time, the hemp plant was also a major source of fiber for the production of rope but there is little indication that its psychotropic properties were of much interest. Its pain-killing powers were well-known to the Chinese physician Hoa-Gho, who mixed the resin with wine. This preparation, which was called ma-yo, was employed as an anesthetic in surgery.
Some years later cannabis extracts were introduced in India, where they have, for more than a thousand years, had medical applications. An Indian girl who worked for me as a laboratory technician tells a story of her experience with the drug: She came from a wealthy family in Bombay, which, when she was a little girl, sent her to the finest physician in the city because, apparently, the parents felt she was too skinny to attract a man. The doctor prescribed a glass of Mang before each meal, which greatly enhanced her appetite. By the time she was 17 she was voluptuous and eminently nubile, though not obese. Surprisingly, she cannot recall any psycbotropic effects, nor was she told by her physician to expect any.
The ancients in other countries seemed to know cannabis as a balm or, perhaps, an antiseptic (though, of course, they knew nothing about bacteria then). In the papyrus of the pharaoh Ramses, for example, washing sore eyes with extracts of the plant was recommended. In a folk remedy of the Middle Ages in Europe the dried leaves were kneaded and applied with butter to burns. Extracts were also used as drops for earaches and for preventing inflammation of ulcers, and there are even claims that women stooping due to a disease of the uterus were able to stand straight again after inhaling smoke from the plant.
Western physicians, however, remained largely ignorant of cannabis until 1839, when a 30-year-old British doctor serving in India, W. B. O'Shaughnessy, wrote a 49-page article in "The Transactions of the Medical Society of Bengal" describing his experiences with the drug. (The fact that we are able to pinpoint historically the introduction of cannabis into European medicine is itself notable, since most drugs seem to be gradually adopted by doctors after originating in folk medicine.) O'Shaughnessy reviewed the literature on the use of cannabis in Indian medicine during the preceding 900 years. A cautious man, he was not satisfied with the drug's well-documented record of safety and proceeded, in a series of animal experiments, to test its effects as well as the limits of the dosage. He found cannabis remarkably safe in animals, a conclusion which has been reaffirmed many times. In fact, despite many escalations of the dose he could not kill any mice, rats or rabbits. Then, Dr. O'Shaughnessy administered the drug to patients suffering from seizures, rheumatism, tetanus and rabies. His findings were that it relieved pain, was an anti-convulsant and acted as a muscle relaxant.
O'SHAUGHNESSY'S work excited the interest of clinicians throughout Europe, and soon there were descriptions of its application to a range of ailments, including menstrual cramps, asthma, childbirth psychosis, quinsy, cough, insomnia, migraine headaches, chorea and withdrawal from opiates. Some idea of this broad usage can be gleaned from 19th-century medical journals. One investigator wrote: "It acts as a soporific or hypnotic, causing sleep; as an anodyne in lulling irritation; as an antispasmodic in checking cough and cramp; as a nervine stimulant in removing languor and anxiety. Also, it raises the pulse and enlivens the spirits, without any drawback or deduction of indirect or incidental convenience; and it conciliates tranquil repose without causing nausea, constipation or other signs of effect or indigestion, without headache or stupor."
Such testimonials from the medical profession were by no means rare. Hobart Hare's "Standard Textbook of Practical Therapeutics" stated: "Cannabis is very valuable for the relief of pain, particularly that depending on nerve disturbances; it produces sleep; it gives great relief in paralysis and tends to quiet tremors; it is used in spasm of the bladder due to cystitis or nervousness; it is used in cough mixtures and does not constipate or depress the system as does morphine."
Since extracts of hemp from colonial India were the most abundant source of cannabis in the 19th century, British physicians were responsible for the first explorations of the medicinal uses of the drug. Of course, in those days, before the current era of super-specialization in medicine, individual doctors researched and treated patients with a wide variety of illnesses. Thus. men like Dr. J. Russell Reynolds, a physician to Queen Victoria, devoted 30 years to careful evaluation of cannabis under many conditions. He was particularly impressed with its ability to relieve pain; his observation that the drug was especially effective when an emotional or psychosomatic element aggravated an illness Is of special interest. Perhaps cannabis's tendency to release neurotic inhibitions and bring on euphoria, as well as its mild sedative action, was responsible for its unique ability to ease "nervous" pain. in much the same way today, a mild barbiturate together with aspirin and caffeine --- called Fiorinal --- constitutes a most effective anti-tension-headache cocktail. Thus, Dr. Reynolds especially recommended cannabis for migraine headaches. "Very many victims of the malady," he reported, "have for years kept their sufferings in abeyance by taking hemp at the moment of threatening or onset of the attack."
There are also indications that cannabis can help prevent future attacks. or at least reduce the frequency and severity of the headaches.
In modem medicine two different types of drugs are normally prescribed for these purposes: ergot derivatives such as ergotamine alleviate acute pain, and methysergide (Sansert) --- which is, interestingly, a close relative of L.S.D. and is hallucinogenic itself in bigger doses --- is used to ward off future headaches. Dr. Hare, a professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, concluded that cannabis can fulfill both roles.
ONE medical complaint that can benefit from a drug that relieves "nervous" pain is menstrual cramps, since relatively severe attacks are often emotionally caused. Indeed, cannabis was prescribed extensively for the cramps In the 19th century, and physicians soon discovered that it also relieved excessive menstrual bleeding, or "menorrhagia." Its successes here seem to have been spectacular. For instance, Dr. Robert Batho reported: "It [cannabis] is par excellence the remedy for that condition ... it is so certain in its power of controlling menorrhagia that it is a valuable aid to diagnosis in cases where it is uncertain whether an early abortion may or may not have occurred." How cannabis slows down menstrual hemorrhage is something of a mystery.
Like narcotic pain-relievers such as codeine, cannabis was also used frequently to control coughs. While today this may not seem to be so important, in the 19th century tuberculosis was the leading killer of the young and debilitated people of all ages with incessant, intractable coughing; any medicine that could ease the cough was thus a blessing.
Cannabis was introduced in the West at a time when opiates were prescribed freely and addiction was far more widespread than it is today. As a consequence, it was natural that the drug should be tested as an aid in withdrawing patients from opium, as well as from other addictive substances, such as alcohol and chloral hydrate. For example, Dr. Edward Birch reported in The Lancet: "I am satisfied of its immense value [in withdrawing patients from chloral hydrate or opium] ... the chief point that struck me was the immediate action of the drug in appeasing the appetite for the chloral or opium and restoring the ability to appreciate food."
The potential value of cannabis in helping to withdraw patients from alcohol or opium was rediscovered about 50 years later during an investigation of the marijuana problem in New York City sponsored by Mayor La Guardia in the early nineteen-forties. Doctors Samuel Allentuck and K. Bowman found that by substituting cannabis for heroin, "the withdrawal symptoms were ameliorated or eliminated sooner, the patient was in a better frame of mind, his spirits were elevated, his physical condition was more rapidly rehabilitated, and he expressed the wish to resume his occupation sooner." Other investigators. however, have said recently their experience is that cannabis is not effective as a means of easing off heroin.
One is struck by the suggestion of some researchers that besides easing the craving for an addictive agent, cannabis had a tonic-like action, raising the spirits of the addict and increasing his energy and appetite. In O'Shaughnessy's first report on its uses in medicine, he cited its value in controlling convulsions. (Convulsions resulting from many different causes in those days were lumped together, while today we can distinguish epilepsy from other causes.) There followed reports of cannabis treatment of chorea, resulting from rheumatic fever, in which wild flailing of the arms--- called St. Vitus's dance --- resembled convulsions.
However, its possible value in epilepsy remained buried for many years until routine screening of many substances in animals for anticonvulsant activity revealed an analogue of T.H.C., that is, a chemical similar to it in composition, which seemed to have anticonvulsant properties. At this time, the late nineteen-forties. the attacks of most epileptics could be controlled by diphenylhydantoin (Dilantin) or phenobarbital, which are still the major antiepileptic drugs in medical practice today. To see whether T.H.C. could help epileptics, two researchers --- Doctors J. Davis and H. Ramsey --- chose five institutionalized children whose attacks could not be controlled with phenobarbital, Dilantin or even a combination of the two. Given T.H.C., two of the five became almost completely seizure-free, and the other three did at least as well as they had on their previous drug regimen. The unavailability of cannabis or T.H.C. derivatives in the succeeding decade prevented any further medical investigation of this problem.
The major use in the 19th century was as a pain-killer or mild sedative-tranquilizer and, since in those days opium had been the most widely used drug for these purposes, most medical reports on cannabis concentrated on comparing the virtues and drawbacks of these two drugs. One of the most obvious assets of cannabis, apparently quite clear to 19th-century physicians--- but not yet clear to the United States Narcotics Bureau-was that prolonged use never led to addiction, nor did it result in tolerance to the drug's effects. This was commented on again and again in 19th-century medical journals, was confirmed in the investigations of Mayor La Guardia's committee and has been confirmed repeatedly in studies over the last three years using both crude cannabis as well as pure T.H.C.
In addition, cannabis products are far less toxic than the opiates. The latter drugs, including morphine and heroin, kill by depressing the respiratory centers in the brain, and do so in amounts only a few times greater than therapeutic doses. By contrast, cannabis may well be one of the least toxic drugs known.
What about effects on the vegetative functions of the body? Opiates slow down the churnings of the intestines and routinely produce constipation. Since opiate alkaloids retard the secretions of the liver and the pancreas, they slow down digestion. Opiates retard the flow of bile by constricting the bile ducts, so that the pressure inside them builds up --- sometimes causing severe colic pain; another unpleasant side effect is their tendency to cause nausea and vomiting. Cannabis produces none of these effects.
In one important way opiates are better than cannabis: they are stronger pain-killers. For the excruciating colicky pain produced by a kidney stone or the crushing chest pain of an acute heart attack, morphine is a blessing. For these situations, cannabis is a weakling.
Still, we have seen that the drug could be valuable in treating a number of conditions. Why has it been so neglected in recent years? Legal restrictions are at fault to a large extent, but they cannot be the sole reason. Well before the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, cannabis as a general medicine was already on the decline.
There had always been problems in prescribing the drug. For one thing, it is insoluble in water and so cannot be injected intravenously for rapid effect. When taken by mouth, moreover, it does not begin to go into action for one to two hours --- longer than for many other drugs.
Even more troublesome was the difficulty during the 19th century of obtaining standard batches of cannabis. Different batches can vary tremendously in their potency, probably because the amount of resin in plants depends on ripeness, humidity, soil characteristics, temperature and time of year. In the early days of cannabis in European medicine, the drug be came highly controversial on this account. On the one hand, highly reputed physicians were praising it as a, "miracle drug." But at the same time others could not duplicate the therapeutic successes of their colleagues and concluded, like Dr. J. Oliver, that cannabis "is hardly worthy of a place an our list of remedial agents."
It is possible that the "therapeutic failures" simply reflected weak preparations. This variability was well known even to O'Shaughnessy, who observed considerable deterioration of the drug's potency while transporting it from India to England.
Then, too, some of -the therapeutic successes of cannabis could possibly have been "placebo" responses suggested by the physician. This is especially the case with headaches, menstrual cramps and emotional ailments, which are particularly responsive to suggestion.
Dr. Reynolds, an astute clinician, also pinpointed another difficulty: the variability of individual responses to the same dose of cannabis. "Individuals differ widely," he said, "in their relations to many medicines and articles of diet, especially those of vegetable origin-such as tea, coffee, ipecac, digitalis . . . and cannabis." Anyone who has attended a pot party can vouch for this piece of wisdom.
One more possible drawback might be that patients treated for medical conditions with cannabis might get high and become potheads. Yet, it is striking that so many of the early medical reports on cannabis fail to mention the plants intoxicating properties. Rarely, if ever, is there any indication that patients --- thousands must have consumed cannabis in Europe in the 19th century --- were "stoned," changed their attitudes about work, love, their fellow men or patriotism. It is unlikely that the plants grown 50 to 80 years ago differed in chemical composition from those growing today. More likely, the difference is a matter of mental set or expectation on the part of the patient. When people see their doctor they want to be treated for a specific malady, and do not anticipate being "turned on" or "tuned in." And recent investigations have suggested that the mental effects of cannabis are quite dependent on the expectation of the subject.
In the mid 19th century none of the drug's difficulties seemed insuperable.
Variations in individual response and in the potency of different batches of the drug could be readily taken into account by starting patients with a small dose which might then be increased gradually. The one or two-hour delay before the drug took effect could be tolerated, since most of the conditions to be treated were not life-or-death emergencies. For the same reason, it did not seem too much of a nuisance that cannabis could not be dissolved in water and injected.
It was probably the introduction of a variety of new synthetic drugs that started the decline of cannabis. A major factor was the introduction of the hypodermic syringe into American medicine from England. This facilitated the injection of fast acting, water-soluble opiate drugs. a practice which soon became widespread. The great number of casualties in the Civil War spread the use of intravenous morphine rapidly. Although the danger of addiction had been well known since antiquity, somehow physicians managed to forget about it when they were presented with the convenient tool of injectable morphine. Opiate addiction became so prevalent among soldiers who had received it for their wounds that it came to be called the "soldiers, disease."
A few cautious physicians warned against what were soon to be the tragic results of this reckless prescribing of morphine. Mattison in 1891 reminded his colleagues of these difficulties- and recommended cannabis instead: "With a wish for speedy effect, it is so easy to use that modern mischief-maker, hypodermic morphia, that they [young physicians) are prone to forget remote results of incautious opiate-giving. Would that the wisdom which has come to their professional fathers . . . might serve them to steer clear of narcotic shoals on which many a patient has gone awreck." By contrast he felt that his experience confirmed that "cannabis indica is a safe and successful anodyne and hypnotic."
The new synthetic analgesics such as aspirin, as well as new sedatives such as barbiturates and chloral hydrate, also tended to replace cannabis. Just as with morphine, the new drugs were more efficient to administer than cannabis, and made more money for the manufacturers, but VW, too, had their drawbacks. Aspirin seems to be a less potent pain-killer than cannabis, and lacks its relaxing, sedative action. Barbiturates, Of course, can be addictive.
What is worse, the lethal dose of barbiturates is so treacherously close to the therapeutic doses that these drugs are the most frequently employed chemical means for committing suicide. Those who use them fairly indiscriminately for nighttime sedation, even if they are not barbiturate addicts, often risk death from accidental overdoses or the effects of combining barbiturates and liquor.
Some of the objections to cannabis extracts as medicine may soon be resolved by new research. Since the isolation and, synthesis of T.H.C. in 1964, doctors have been able to reproduce most of the known effects of cannabis quite reliably. Thus it can be given in absolutely pure form and in regulated doses with predictable effects.
What is even more interesting is the possibility of developing variations- of this molecule which may selectively retain certain of the actions of cannabis while discarding others. This is not mere speculation. Quite recently, Dr. Van Sim, a scientist at the Edgewood Arsenal near Baltimore, tried out several variants of the T.H.C. molecule on man. One of these markedly reduced blood pressure at doses which produced few if any mental changes. Dr. Sim suggested that this drug might be valuable for hypertensive patients.
Currently, several American drug companies are working feverishly to synthesize many new analogues of T.H.C., with the expressed aim of developing medicines for treating a variety of maladies. And all of this activity goes on despite the official status of cannabis as a "dangerous drug." It would be a good bet that the latter part of this century will witness the revival of cannabis in new forms as a valuable therapeutic agent.
II. THE "DELIGHT GIVER"
AINCIENT Chinese writings refer to cannabis as "the liberator of sin." Probably there was a certain amount of controversy over the plant's merits then, just as there is today: other (presumably "pro-pot") Chinese writers refer to cannabis as the "delight-giver."
As a mind-altering substance, cannabis seems to have come of age in India, where it certainly was used as early as 1000 B.C. and soon thereafter became an integral part of Hindu culture. Why the drug should catch on in India but not in China is unclear. Perhaps this has something to do with the difference in temperament of the Indians and Chinese -or their respective religions. One might be tempted to suggest that the placid, practical Chinese did not appreciate the euphoria produced by cannabis. Or maybe opium- was too well ensconced as their national vice.
Hindus used cannabis as an aid in meditation. Its religious role is suggested by passages in Indian folk literature, such as this one:
"To the Hindu the hemp plant is holy. A guardian lives in bhang . . . Bhang is the joy giver, the sky flier, the heavenly guide, the poor mares heaven, the soother of grief . . . No god or man is as good as the religious drinker of bhang. The students of the scriptures of Benares are given bhang before they sit to study. At Benares, Ujjain and other holy places, yogis take deep draughts of bhang that they may center their thoughts on the Eternal . . . By the help of bhang ascetics pass days without food or drink, The supporting power of bhang has brought many a Hindu family safe through the miseries of famine."
Even in India there seem to have been some angry discussion about the possible value or danger of cannabis. The writer of the paean above alludes to the controversy: "To forbid or even seriously to restrict the use of so holy and gracious a herb as the hemp would cause widespread suffering and annoyance and to large bands of worshiped ascetics deep-seated anger. It would rob the people of a solace in discomfort, of a cure in sickness, of a guardian whose gracious protection saves them from the attacks of evil influences ... so grand a result so tiny a sin!"
DISAPPROVAL of cannabis seems to have originated with the Christian missionaries and other Europeans. In a study of Hindu mystics, J. Campbell Oman noted that Christian missionaries often remarked, "Great numbers of Hindu saints live in a state of perpetual intoxication and call this stupefaction, which arises from smoking intoxicating herbs, fixing the mind on God."
Dr. George Morrison Carstairs, a professor at the University of Edinburgh and an authority on transcultural psychiatry, lived in a village in Northern India in 1951 and was struck by the attitudes of the ruling castes toward the two most prevalent forms of intoxication there. The Rajputs, or warriors, drank daru, a potent, distilled alcohol from the flowers of the mahua tree, and seemed to regard cannabis as fit only for sissies. The Brahmins, on the other hand, employed cannabis both in religious services and for social refreshment.
Rajputs, of course, represent the temporal aristocracy, as Brahmins do the spiritual. Until the social reforms of 1948, the rajas of the Rajput class exercised autocratic rule over innumerable small principalities. In their upbringing, they were taught to put great stress on bravery and ferocity in the face of danger, and though the test of real danger was seldom met, every young Rajput lived with the anxiety that some day be might not prove adequate to the occasion. As a result, the Rajputs in the village tended to be boastful, touchy and inclined to assuage their anxieties with drinking bouts, Dr. Carstairs reported. Although ostensibly they prided themselves on drinking with discrimination--- a fixed ration was allowed for each day--- restraint tended to be forgotten in the course of an evening.
The Brahmins unequivocally denounced the use of daru which they felt was inimical to their religious life, the first requirement of which was to "abhor meat and wine." Interestingly, Carstairs found that the gentle priests were far more vitriolic in their reviling of daru than were the Rajputs in their uninterested disdain for cannabis. The ruler of the village, a Rajput, thought himself a religious man and tried to reconcile his religious devotion with his drinking. This was vehemently rejected by the Brahmins, one of whom said: "He is all wrong; he is a bogus lecher always busy with wine and women. How can he find his way along this stony and thorny path?"
Brahmins -in the village would often visit a nearby pilgrimage center, where the chief object of worship was a large, black stone phallic symbol representing the god Shiva. The god was often cited as being a bhang drinker, and the Brahmins would attempt. to model themselves after him. In his visits to the temple, Dr. Carstairs would generally encounter large numbers of holy men staggering about "stoned out of their minds."
Dr. Carstairs was struck by how similar Western Europeans and Americans are, in their commitment to a life of action, to the Rajputs. All share an upbringing which values individual achievement highly and considers sensual indulgence to be not wholly wrong if enjoyed within socially prescribed limits. The Brahmin theme of surrendering volition is unfamiliar, threatening and distasteful to Westerners, except for the new drug generation. Because of this, Dr., Carstairs concluded:
"The present writer would have to say that of the two types of intoxication which he witnessed and in a measure shared, he had no doubt that that which was indulged in by the Brahmins was the less socially disruptive, less unseemly, and more in harmony with the highest ideals of their race; and yet so alien to his own personal and cultural pattern of ego defenses that he much preferred the other."
AFTER 500 AD., cannabis began creeping westward from India, and references in the Persian and other Arabian literature began to appear. One of the most fascinating stories about the use of cannabis in Moslem cultures was told by Marco Polo about a secret cult organized in the 11th century by a Moslem religious leader, Hasan ibn-al-Sabbah. Since religion and philosophy in those days in the Moslem world were political tools to be imposed by force rather than persuasion, Hasan trained his followers as an army and was successful in capturing a number of fortresses. He is best known for refining the practice of assassination to an art--- and herein lies the relevance of this tale to cannabis, as well as an interesting dilemma for philologists.
The assassins were specially recruited young men in their late teens and early 20's, who were well-treated, well-paid and sworn to total allegiance to Hasan. Marco Polo described a remarkable garden that Hasan constructed at his major fortress, the Alamut, where the young assassins were entertained under intriguing circumstances:
"He [Hasan] kept at his court a number of the youths of the country, from 12 to 20 years of age, such as had a taste for soldiering ... Then he would introduce them to his Garden, some four, or six, or ten at a time, having first made them drink a certain potion [hashish) which cast them into a deep sleep, and then causing them to be lifted and carried in. So when they awoke they found themselves in the Garden . . .
"When, 'therefore, they awoke and found themselves in a place so charming, they deemed that it was Paradise in very truth. And the ladies and damsels dallied with them to their hearts content . . .
"So when the Old Man [Hasan] would have any prince slain, he would say to such a youth: Go thou and slay So-and-So; and when thou returnest my Angels shall bear thee into Paradise. And shouldst thou die, nonetheless even so will I send my Angels to carry thee back into Paradise."
Most philologists seem to agree that the concept of assassination derives from Hasan ibn-al-Sabbah. There is however, dispute among them as to whether the word assassin comes from Hasan or from hashish. Some maintain that hashish itself derives from Hasan.
The descendants of Hasan survive today in colonies spread through Syria, Persia, Zanzibar and India. They are well-known to Westerners because of the fame of their leader, who claims direct descent from Hasan and is known as the Aga Khan. Cannabis must have been quite popular in the Arab world during the Middle Ages. For in the "Thousand and One Nights," which represent folk tales collected between about 1000 and 1700 A.D., there are many references to bhang, which the Arabians called beng, as well as hashish.
CANNABIS was probably brought to Europe by Napoleon's soldiers returning from Egypt. At least it is well documented that in Egypt, he discovered widespread use of hashish, particularly among the lower classes. Napoleon issued a proclamation prohibiting its sale or use.
Between 1840 and 1860 in Paris, a distinguished group of writers --- including Théophile Gautier, Charles Baudelaire and Alexandre Dumas became fascinated by the hashish experience. Their written descriptions probably still constitute the clearest, most thorough accounts of the effects of the drug on the psyche.
How did the "literary epoch" in the history of cannabis come about? Dr. Jacques Moreau de Tours, a prominent French psychiatrist at the Hospital of the Bicêtre who became interested in treating his patients with the drug, introduced it to the popular author Gautier, who was 24 years old at the time.
Gautier founded the famous Le Club des Hachichins at the Hotel Pimodan on Paris's isle Saint-Louis. There the patrons ate Dawamesc, a sweetmeat which had been advertised as an Algerian dessert delicacy to the romantic society of the day and which contained hefty quantities of hashish. The literary accounts of the club's members, accordingly, reflect high doses of cannabis. Gautier was the first to publish his experience, in a book called "Le Club des Hachichins":
"After several minutes a sense of numbness overwhelmed me. It seemed that my body had dissolved and become transparent. I saw very clearly inside me the hashish I had eaten, in the form of an emerald which radiated millions of tiny sparks. The lashes of my eyes elongated themselves to infinity, rolling like threads of gold on little ivory wheels, which spun about with an amazing rapidity... At certain moments, I still saw my comrades, but disfigured and grotesque, half men, half plants. The spectacle was so ridiculous that I writhed with laughter in my corner . . ."
Alexandre Dumas was impressed with how hashish enhances erotic sensations. He wrote this in "The Count of Monte Cristo" and thus anticipated Timothy Leary by 100 years in wrongly declaring cannabis an aphrodisiac:
"And then followed a dream of passion like that promised by the Prophet to the Elect. Lips of stone turned to flame, breasts of ice became like heated lava, so that to Franz, Yielding for the first time to the way of the drug, love was as a sorrow and voluptuousness a torture, as burning mouths were pressed to his thirsty lips, and he was held in cool serpentlike embraces."
But cannabis is not really an aphrodisiac. Since the drug makes perceptions more vivid, sex can become spectacularly beautiful or, in some cases, hideously repugnant.
ALTHOUGH the experience of the nineteen-sixties in the United States suggests that the mind-altering consumption of cannabis tends to catch on and spread like plague, the chronicle of the plant's first 3,000 years in other cultures bespeaks a slower rate. Before the Christian era and until about 500 A.D., it was employed for this purpose almost solely in India, and to a lesser extent in China. In the next 1,000 years or so, it reached the Middle East and Near East. Only in the 19th century did it become well-known in Europe. And we must wait until the 20th century for it to reach the United States.
Marijuana came to the United States from Mexico and Cuba. The weed was smuggled by Mexican laborers across the border into Texas. American and Mexican sailors were also go-betweens, buying the drug in the ports of Havana, Tampico and Veracruz for $10 to $12 per kilogram (2.2 lbs.) and selling it wholesale in New Orleans at $35 to $45 a kilogram.
The consumers in New Orleans were largely the poor and the Negro population. When reporters of The New Orleans Morning Tribune wrote a series on "the marijuana menace," the stories that generated the most alarm were those claiming that large numbers of teen-agers smoked "mootas," New Orleans jargon for marijuana cigarettes. The superintendent of the city's Children's Bureau told reporters that he felt many problem children living at the bureau had come under marijuana's influence (implicitly suggesting, that it had made them problem children) and that two of them had run away because they couldn't get their "muggles" (another slang word for marijuana) there.
At this stage, only 16 states had laws against the sale or use of marijuana, and these were laxly enforced. This was, after all, the era of Prohibition, and the police had more pressing matters to attend to.
In the mid-thirties, however, a major crime wave struck New Orleans. Searching for some explanation for an outbreak of holdups, one which, it was hoped, would not expose police inadequacies, Frank Gomila, the Commissioner of Public Safety, concluded: "The crime wave unquestionably was greatly aggravated by the influence of this drug [marijuana] habit. . . . Youngsters known to be 'muggleheads' fortified themselves with the narcotic [sic] and proceeded to shoot down police, bank clerks and casual bystanders. . . ." And state narcotic officers reported that in 1936, "60 per cent of the crimes committed in New Orleans were by marijuana users."
Soon newspapers throughout the country had taken up the story and sparked national concern. Nevertheless, neither the public nor law enforcement officers truly considered marijuana a serious problem. One index of how feebly the laws were enforced was the very low price of marijuana products, indicating that there was little risk of arrest from its sale. Even the Treasury Department in 1931 minimized its importance:
"A great deal of public interest has been aroused by newspaper articles appearing from time to time on the evils of the abuse of marijuana, or Indian hemp . . . This publicity tends to magnify the extent of the evil and lends color to an inference that there is an alarming spread of the improper use of the drug, whereas the actual increase in such use may not have been inordinately large."
Still and all, the continued publicity gradually pressured the Treasury Department's Bureau of Narcotics into drafting a national law. At the same time, the bureau conducted a national campaign against the drug, working with state legislatures in developing state laws for the regulation of marijuana, and providing information for magazine articles about the threat.
Harry Anslinger, the United States Commissioner of Narcotics, himself wrote articles designed to "educate" and terrorize--- the readers. For instance, in one piece he reported:
"An entire family was murdered by a youthful marijuana addict in Florida. When officers arrived at the home they found the youth staggering about in a human slaughterhouse. With an ax he had killed his father, mother, two brothers and a sister. He seemed to be in a daze . . . He had no recollection of having committed the multiple crime. The officers knew him ordinarily as a sane, rather quiet young man; now he was pitifully crazed . . . The boy said be had been in the habit of smoking something which youthful friends called 'muggles'...." . . ."
It is remarkable how many times potheads are referred to as "addicts" in the popular literature of the twenties and thirties, despite medical evidence, available then, that marijuana is not addictive. As to the details of Anslinger's lurid account, it takes little psychiatric acumen to appreciate that such a crime would not be committed by someone who was "ordinarily sane."
The proposed Marijuana Tax Act never faced any grave danger in Congress, since marijuana smokers of the nineteen-thirties --- the underprivileged, black derelicts of society--- were not represented in the hearings held in Congress prior to the final vote. The Congressmen were, moreover, assured by a Treasury spokesman that the bill would in no way "interfere materially with any industrial, medical or scientific uses which the plant may have." The reason that the Treasury felt that "medical uses" would not be interfered with was simply that the medical profession rarely used the drug at the time. Unlike the Harrison Narcotics Act, which made morphine and related narcotics available to physicians, the Marijuana Tax Act effectively banned cannabis as a medicine as well as an intoxicant.
Narcotics Commissioner Anslinger was the star witness at the bearings an the bill. He recited the well-worn tale of Hasan, hashish and the assassins. He introduced newspaper clippings that claimed cannabis caused crime, addiction and loss of reproductive powers. He said that it led to a "delirious rage after its administration" and that prolonged use invariably produced "mental deterioration."
With such impressive testimony, the bill sailed smoothly through committee. Only two minor inconveniences arose during the hearings. One had to do with the bill's provision that the seeds of the plant as well as the flowering tops which smokers used should be outlawed, because the seeds contained a small amount of the intoxicant and might be used for smoking. Violent objection to this provision came from, of all places, the birdfood industry. A representative of this industry appeared at the last minute in a rather excited state because, as it turns out, the bird-seed industry at that time was consuming about four million pounds of cannabis seed each year.
He observed that "it is a necessary ingredient in pigeon feed, and we have not been able to find any seed that will take its place. If you substitute anything for the hemp it has a tendency to change the character of the squabs produced." Congressman Doughton of North Carolina was curious about whether pigeons get stoned on pot. The manufacturers' representative answered, "I have never noticed it. But the seed does have a tendency to bring back feathers [which have fallen out] and improve the bird." The upshot was that the Government modified the bill. Since sterilized seed would do just as well for pigeon feed, but could not be used to grow the intoxicating plant, an amendment was passed exempting sterilized seed.
A less amusing series of objections to the bill remained. The final witness was Dr. William Woodward, the legislative counsel of the American Medical Association. This extremely conservative organization might be counted on to throw its weight behind a law to stamp out a purported menace to the nation's health. Accordingly, the Congressmen and the Narcotics Bureau must have been surprised by Dr. Woodward's testimony. He not only proceeded to criticize the provisions of the bill which were to deter future investigations into cannabis's medical uses, but also was harshly critical of the committee's procedures for obtaining evidence:
"We are referred to newspaper publications concerning the prevalence of marijuana addiction. We are told that the use of marijuana causes crime. But yet no one has been produced from the Bureau of Prisons to show the number of prisoners who have been found addicted to the marijuana habit An informal inquiry shows that the Bureau of Prisons has no evidence on that point.
"You have been told that schoolchildren are great users of marijuana cigarettes. No one has been summoned from the Children's Bureau to show the nature and extent of the habit among children. An inquiry of the Children's Bureau shows that they have had no occasion to investigate it and know nothing particularly of it."
Caught unawares after what had been a notably placid series of sessions, the Congressmen proceeded to badger and browbeat Dr. Woodward, questioning his qualifications (he was both a physician and a lawyer and spent five years working with the A.M.A., the Bureau of Narcotics and the American Pharmaceutical Association drafting a uniform narcotics act). "If you want to advise us on legislation," one committee member fumed, "you ought to come here with some constructive proposals rather than criticism, rather than trying to throw obstacles in the way of something that the Federal Government is trying to do."
Needless to say, the Marijuana Tax Act was passed by Congress--- originally with a maximum penalty of a $2,000 fine and/or -five years in prison. In 1956 penalties for sale or transfer were increased to a five-year mandatory sentence, and a third offense could bring prison sentences of up to 40 years and fines of up to $20,000. (In October, 1970, however, Congress passed legislation that raised penalties for professional pushers, but allowed more lenient treatment of others caught selling drugs, including pot. The law also cut the maximum penalty for those simply possessing marijuana to one year --- a sentence that may be suspended --- and permitted the judge to expunge the offense from the records in cases of first offenders.)
0ne conclusion we can draw from this brief history is that marijuana means different things to different cultures. It may be an essential to the Hindu, who values, above all else, the experience of nirvana. Yet the same drug seems anathema to the hard driving, traditionally prudish American. As cultures change, so may their attitudes toward mind-altering substances such as marijuana and alcohol. A thousand years ago bhang was almost a sacrament in India. Today, India is becoming more Westernized and the Government, reacting to international pressures, has imposed some legal controls on hashish.
In contrast, the United States, so long the land of the Calvinistic work ethic and of more or less covert violence may be becoming a more introspective country. The younger generation is more concerned with here and now self-awareness than with accumulating money for some future gratification. Humanistic ethical considerations, such as concern for one's comrades, are replacing abstract morality and competitive individualism. All of this suggests a more contemplative, less aggressive national ethos, the kind that has existed in Eastern countries such as India for many years, fostered there, perhaps in part, by cannabis.