Cannabis has delighted and inspired humans since prehistoric times. We should celebrate that.

Humans Getting High

Story Robyn Griggs Lawrence

Cannabis induces merriment, creativity, and divine inspiration. It gets us high. It helps us have fun. If we’re ever to win this legalization debate, we need a better word to encapsulate these blessings than “recreational.”

Delight Giver or Liberator of Sin?

Humans have been enthralled with cannabis’s gentle intoxication since the earliest foragers taste-tested sticky cannabis flowers and, if you believe ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes, subsequently invented religion.

In Cannabis: Evolution and Ethnobotany, Robert C. Clarke and Mark D. Merlin describe the cannabis plant’s most significant evolutionary trait as “the adaptation of the female inflorescence to exude large amounts of readily apparent and easily collected psychoactive resin.” Throughout the ages, humans have both reveled with and reviled the gift of those psychoactive crystals—almost exclusively for economic and political reasons as revolutions in thought and art have exploded during the intelligentsia’s cannabis (usually hashish-eating) binges.

Though cannabis was referred to in ancient China as “liberator of sin” and “delight giver,” it was never popular for its mind-opening qualities in that nation. In India, on the other hand, cannabis in various forms—ganja, the flowering tops; charas, concentrated resin; and bhang, a drink made from cannabis, spices, nuts, seeds, and milk—has been, for centuries, a staple for Hindus who are forbidden to drink alcohol. Believed to be Lord Shiva’s favorite food, bhang is deeply embedded in the rituals at holy festivals, weddings, and other celebrations.

Described in the ancient text Atharva Veda as an herb that relieves anxiety, ganja has been a part of daily life in India for thousands of years. Many Hindus drink bhang to relax and escape at the end of a long day, much like Americans drink beer. According to Clarke and Merlin, an 1894 Indian Hemp Drugs Commission report stated that cannabis use was generally accepted because it had positive effects like “raising a man out of himself and above mean individual worries.”

Branches of Bliss and Thought Morsels

Cultures and religions have been defined—and divided—by their intoxicants of choice throughout history. Early Christians ordained alcohol, and in 1484 Pope Innocent VIII decreed cannabis use cause for excommunication, despite what many believe to be the Bible’s blessing in Genesis 1:29: “Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, and to you it will be for meat.”

Perhaps Christians vilified cannabis because Mohammed’s followers reached for it instead of alcohol, which was forbidden to them. Cannabis is key to the myth of 11th-century Shiite zealot Hassan-Ibn-Sabbah, who reputedly lured male followers to a paradise and plied them with wine, food, women, and hashish before he forced them to kill infidels. (The word assassin is said to be derived from Hassan’s name, and centuries later, primo narc and “devil weed” hater Harry Anslinger referenced this pernicious urban legend during congressional testimony and in his famous article, “Marihuana: Assassin of Youth.”)

Arab legend credits 12th-century Islamic Sufi founder Sheik Haidar with discovering cannabis’s happiness factor after he ate some leaves while wandering in the Persian mountains, though hashish (sometimes known as “Haidar’s wine”) was widely used in the Middle East long before that. Travelers, scholars, and poets openly procured hashish—which early Arab texts refer to as “shrub of emotion,” “shrub of understanding,” “peace of mind,” “branches of bliss,” and “thought morsel”—in Egyptian bazaars. An Egyptian researcher who studied his ancestors’ predilection for hashish through 12th- and 13th-century poems found evidence of euphoria, sociability, freedom, jocularity, and amiability.

Not every story ended so well, however. “The Tale of the Hashish Eater” in One Thousand and One Nights, a compilation of Islamic Golden Age folk tales, tells of a man who’s beaten and ejected from a public bathhouse when he can’t hide the evidence of his hash-induced arousal. Despite the apologue’s unhappy ending, it sparked new literati interest in cannabis, largely for its aphrodisiac potential, when the Arabian chronicles were widely published in the West in the 18th century.

“Taste the Hashish!”

French physician Jacques Joseph Moreau publicly rediscovered hashish for Westerners in the mid-19th century when he asked novelists and writers to let him watch as they ate copious amounts during monthly “Club de Hachichins” meetings at a Paris mansion.

In a description of his first hashish experience with this society, published in 1843, novelist Pierre Jules Théophile Gautier described a scene in which everything seemed gigantic, flamboyant, dazzling, and mysterious. In his 1860 novel based on these experiences, Artificial Paradises, Charles Baudelaire describes musical notes that enter his breast like luminous arrows, blue and red sounds springing forth in electric sparks. (Some people think the crew may have eaten some opium with their hash.)

“Taste the hashish!” Alexandre Dumas goaded in his wildly popular novel, The Count of Monte Cristo, which describes hashish-induced erotic visions and music that sounds like “the seven choirs of paradise.” Dumas was an influencer, and his book was blamed for all sorts of sins. In 1854, the Mexico City El Correo de España reported that it had created “a veritable ‘hashishmania’ among the European cognoscenti.”

The craze jumped the pond when American writer Fitz Hugh Ludlow wrote about how hashish stops time and expands the mind in The Hasheesh Eater, published in 1857. Imbibers can reach “the soul’s capacity for a broader being, deeper insight, grander views of Beauty, Truth and Good than she now gains through the chinks of her cell,” Ludlow wrote.

“Beauty and Warmth from Gage”

Until Anslinger and his band of corrupt industrialists launched their propaganda campaign rebranding “marijuana” as a terrifying menace, cannabis tinctures and confections were readily available in the United States. The plant—referred to as “muggles,” “reefer,” “muta,” “gage,” “tea,” “Mary Warner,” “Mary Jane,” and “rosa maria”—was an essential component of the Jazz Age.

Jazz singer Cab Calloway praised the gage in the lyrics of “That Funny Reefer Man” and urged sisters to “light up on these weeds and get high and forget about everything” in “The Man from Harlem.” Louis Armstrong, who called cannabis “a friend” and said it was “a thousand times better than alcohol,” tooted its horn in “Muggles.” Fats Waller sang “got to get high before I sing” in “Viper’s Drag,” and even Benny Goodman serenaded it in “Texas Tea Party” and “Sweet Marihuana Brown.”

In the 1920s and 1930s, Harlem was packed with “tea pads,” reefer-friendly speakeasies where people could smoke and dance and talk. People shared joints in dance halls and theaters throughout the city. A 1932 Broadway musical included a musical number called “Smokin’ Reefers” that called cannabis “the stuff that dreams are made of.” Perhaps most presciently, that song admitted it was also “the thing white folks are afraid of.”

Muggles didn’t stand a chance once Anslinger set loose his brigade of yellow journalists. Newspapers across the country ran articles like a 1926 Chicago Herald-Examiner one about a hash eater in Topeka, Kansas, who ended up wandering along the highway, naked and blubbering about being a white elephant while swinging his arms like a trunk. “Marihuana did it,” the paper reported.

Anslinger and his goonies won. They got Satchmo, who said he was no longer willing to suffer the “drastic penalties” of prohibition in his later years after he was arrested while finishing a joint between sets.

“We had to put it down,” he told his biographer. “But if we get as old as Methuselah, our memories will always be lots of beauty and warmth from gage.”

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