The cannabis plant probably originates somewhere around Afghanistan and spread all over the planet at an amazing pace. Growing right in the middle of the Silk Route, traders carried it far and wide revering the plant as an excellent fibre and the seeds as a source of protein. But who’s to say the leaves didn’t make the long desert crossings pass that much easier?
Cultures all over the world used marijuana to get high and it was absorbed into many religious traditions. In India it became an aspect of Shiva and perhaps accounts for the almost permanently stoned expression of the blue-skinned God. The resin (charas or bhang) was mixed with milk and poured over huge phallic lingums in the temples dedicated to Shiva, the Lord of Bhang. Still today sadhus (Hindu monks) who belong to a Shivaite order have the right to smoke to their heart’s content.
The dervishes made plentiful use of hashish in the Muslim world though it was never quite clear what the Koran had to say about the matter. It wasn’t harem like alcohol but was still considered to be dubious. Hashish helped the dervishes in their ecstatic search for God but nowadays they generally rely upon dance, poetry and song to get high.
Hashish may also have given birth to the word ‘assassin’. Back in the 11th century the scourge of the crusaders was a man called Al-Hassam who commanded a Persian sect called the Ismailians. He was believed to have amassed an army of young men by drugging them unconscious and then bringing them to a garden full of beautiful, naked maidens – just as the Koran describes Paradise. Marco Polo passed through here and noted.
“When these young men woke, and found themselves in the garden with all these marvelous things, they truly believed themselves to be in paradise. And these damsels were always with them in songs and great entertainments; they; received everything they asked for, so that they would never have left that garden of their own will.”
Marijuana was widely used in Western medicine as a sedative and pain killer, renowned for it’s anti-spasmodic, calming and even aphrodisiac qualities. However along came the puritan American administration of the early 20th century and ruined everything. They demonised the herb by associating it with the decadent world of black jazz musicians who hoped to corrupt and deflower young, white women. The hysteria generated can be seen in the words of Harry Anslinger, head of the US Bureau of Narcotics 1930-62:
“How many murders, suicides, robberies, criminal assaults, holdups, burglaries and deeds of maniacal insanity it causes each year, especially among the young, can only be conjectured…No one knows, when he places a marijuana cigarette to his lips, whether he will become a joyous reveller in a musical heaven, a mad insensate, a calm philosopher, or a murderer…”
By the 1920’s it became illegal across the country in the same kind of moral panic that had caused opium to be outlawed, Pressure placed by America and Britain forced countries around the world to pass laws against the consumption or possession of dope. Still today for a country to be part of the World Health Organisation (and thus be eligible for all sorts of aid) marijuana must be an illegal substance. The alternative theory, that over two hundred governments democratically decided to pass laws against a herb with deep social and religious roots worldwide – not to mention it’s medical properties – is nothing short of absurd.
Still, things are changing with many governments across Europe deciminalising marijuana as they recognize that it’s a hopeless and rather pointless fight. Even in the draconian police state of the USA, marijuana can now be grown in California for those with, ahem, health problems.