WRITE ABOUT WHAT you know,’ is the advice our Enghsh teachers always give us. And I wonder how many spWheads have, at some time or another, found themselves musing after their fifth or sixth fat one how cool it would be to write a definitive history of marijuana. No, like, seriously, right, just think what fin you’d have researchmg it and, like, you could write it all off against tax and there’s so much to sav – I mean you’ve got the Assassins and, er, Howard Marks, and wasn’t George Washington a splifiead or am 1 thinlung of someone else?
Bad luck guys. Martin Booth has beaten vou to it with Cannabis: A History, and I’m afraid it’s so good that no one wdl need to do another for at least f3iy years. I don’t know whether he’s a vothead or not but he certai& writes like one: close attention to mesmerising: detail. fantastical ” digressions, lots of jokes and wry asides that give you the giggles. There are so many brilliant bits that I iust don’t know where to begin.
How about the amazing true story of how it was that hashish first caught on in modern Europe? It turns out it was all the fault of Horatio Nelson. In August 1798, he destroyed the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile, thus strandmg Napoleon’s invasion force in Egypt for rather longer than they’d intended to stay. Stuck in a country where alcohol was unavailable, the troops soon acquired a taste for the local intoxicant instead. When finally they &d get back to France, they brought their habit with them.
It’s strange when you think about how lightweight the French are about dope-smoking (and drugs generally) these days, but in the early nineteenth century they were the only halfway-serious dope fiends in the whole of Europe. After the soldiers came the writers, led by the expounder of ‘art for art’s sake’, ThCophile Gautier, who in the 1840s founded the legendary Club des Hachichins.AnyonewhowasanyoneinFrench literature was a member, from Baudelaire to Hugo to I Balzac, and possibly even Dumas and the paynter Delacroix. Instead of smoking it, they ate their hashish in the form of dawamesk, a green North Mican paste made of hash, almond paste, pistachios, sugar, orange, cloves and Spanish fly. Afterwards they’d lounge around and discuss their experiences in what was arguably the world’s first chili-out room: a lavishly appointed apartment on the Ile Saint-Louis with velvet curtains, gilded walls, oriental trappings and a red-and-whiteflecked marble mantelpiece with a clock in the shape of an elephant carrying a castellated howdah on its back.
In Britain, hashish was rather slower to catch on, possibly because opium, Coleridge’s and De Quincey’s drug of choice, was more fashionable. Although explorers like Sir Richard Burton dabbled in hashsh in the Middle East, it wasn’t until the turn of the century that it attracted much interest. Yeats and Maud Gonne used it to tnr to make themselves telepathic; Aubrey Beardsley took it for the first time before going out to dinner with chums including Ernest Dowson. ‘Luckily, we were in a cabinet or I think we would have been turned out,’ Dowson wrote, ‘for Beardsley’s I laughter was so tumultuous that it infected the rest of I us – who had not taken haschish & we all behaved like imbeciles.’
The Americans, on the other hand, were well ahead of the game. George Washinton is said to have you’ preferred hemp leaves to alcohol, as, supposedly, did presidents Madison, Monroe, Jackson, Taylor and Pierce. By 1864, The Gunjah Wallah Company of New York was making America’s first cannabis candy – ‘the Arabian Gunje of Enchantment confectionised – A most pleasurable and harmless stimulant’. So innocuous was the drug’s reputation that Louisa M Alcott (author of Little Women) even wrote a short story about it, in which the hero takes hashish to give himself the confidence and eloquence to win the heart of his lady love.
Then it all went pear-shaped. The man generally credited with blackening the name of cannabis is Harry J Anslinger, head of America’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Anslinger became fixated on the drug, renaming it ‘the Killer Weed’ and building it up with statements like, ‘If the hideous monster Frankenstein came face to face with the monster marihuana, he would drop dead of fright.’ He introduced the first federal legislation against marijuana, encouraged, it is said, by powerful business tycoons (including William Randolph Hearst), whose petrochemical and paper industries stood to lose if ever the hemp industry took off.
Among Anslinger’s favourite targets were jazz musicians, partly because they were mainly responsible for its spread across America, partly because their arrests would make headlines. But the tide was against him. In 1943, Fats Waller cut a disc, released to the US Forces and completely overlooked by censors, of a song beginning ‘Dreamed about a reefer five feet long’. And when Anslinger’s highest-profile catch, Robert Mitchum, was first convicted, then acquitted on appeal, of marijuana possession, his film cimpany kept the acquittal secretlest it damage his louche reputation.
But the schism over whether cannabis is a deeply wondedbl or truly dream thing is almost as old as the drug itself. Islamic scholars. too, are divided on the subject. Tradtionalist theologians beth at it is one of the khamr (intoxicants) forbidden by the Koran. Permissive Muslims argue that the Prophet was only intending to stop the faithhl resorting to substances that promoted violence, like alcohol – whereas hash induces peacefulness and does not truly intoxicate. That, incidentally, is why scholars believe it’s extremely unlikely that the Assassins (or Hashshashin) who terrorised the Middle East in the Middle Ages ever took hashish. The habit was merely ascribed to them by Crusaders who were unfadar with the drug’s effects but determined to find a rational emlanacon for the Assassin cult’s devotion to death.
There’s enough fascinating material here to keep potheads rambling for months and months; and if you are a non-user. the book is so accessible and broad in its scope, I can’t imagine for a moment you’d find it less than involving. If there were space, I’d include dozens more of Booth’s extraordinary tales. As it is, I’ll give you just one: the sad and instructive tale of the Bashilange tribe from the western shores of Lake Tanganyika.
Once reputed to be fierce warmongers and slave traders, in 1850 they discovered cannabis and formed a religious cult around the drug. Under its beneficent influence, these belligerent people became placid and for the first time enacted a system of laws. Unfortunately, as they mellowed, the nearby tribes which had once paid them tribute now reg”a rded them as weak and refused to comply. The cannabis cult ended twenty years after it had begun and the tribe returned to its old warlike ways.