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January 1, 2006 - The Statesman (India)

Spice Of Life - Cannabis

By Pjo Taylor

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Almost a forbidden subject these days, but the stuff has such a long history that I feel justified in touching on the subject.

The argument nowadays is whether it is a medicine or a harmful addictive drug, and if you go back into historical record you'll find there has always been this dual role, this struggle between good and evil.

I first came to hear of it when studying the medieval Latin text known as the "Itinerarium". This was the very detailed account of the journey of King Richard I of England (otherwise known as the Lionheart) to the Holy Land at the end of the twelfth century, in what came to be known as the Third Crusade.

I'll not go into detail on the crusades: they are a very controversial issue and would take many pages to explain, but I'd like to tell you of an incident that befell the King: or, to be more accurate, of something which the sycophantic monk who wrote the Itinerarium chose to include in his story of the King's adventures.

He said that Richard went alone into the hills of northern Syria, and by appointment met one Hassan, (otherwise known as the Old Man of the Mountains) the leader of a band of desperadoes known as the Assassins (hence the word?), who had the most miraculous power over his followers who believed he held the key to Paradise. To prove his power to Richard, he called up his second in command and gave him a simple order -- to jump off the edge of the precipice, to certain death on the rocks below; the man did not hesitate, but jumped at once. Why?

Because Hassan had used a most unusual method of indoctrination in the initiation ceremony that all his followers had undergone.

The man had been given vast quantities of hashish (again a verbal connection, for the plural of hashish is hashashin?), and had awoken to find himself surrounded by beautiful young women by a stream that ran not with water but with wine. When he'd slept that off he found himself back on the mountain with the boss. Do you believe it? No, nor do I, But Hassan was an historical personage, and the suggestion is there that hashish, marijuana, cannabis, grass, gunjah, hemp, call it what you will, was around at least eight hundred years ago and was recognised as being pretty powerful.

So powerful in fact that in India in 1894 it was described as "known as one of the most potent and maddening intoxicants, influencing the moral and social well-being of the people to a degree equal to if not beyond that of opium". It seems that the Indian variety of cannabis was infinitely more powerful than that grown in Europe.

It is not easy to trace the very earliest use of this drug. Its history is lost in obscurity.

The Greek writer Homer refers to "nepenthes" which "drowned all pain and suffering", and that might mean cannabis; certainly the father of medicine, Galenus, seems to have been well acquainted with its narcotic power.

A Chinese physician, living around 1,800 years ago, used cannabis on his patients to produce insensibility when performing painful operations; the Persians used it to excite the fanaticism of their soldiers, producing a pugnacity that struck terror into Muslims and Christians when opposing them. It was first introduced medicinally in Europe around 1850, but never really took on.

There has been a revival recently of interest in its use to allay pain in sufferers from arthritis I believe; so much so that it is actually being grown under licence and strict control in the UK at some unknown site. But in general terms it has had a bad press, and in most countries of the world it is classed as a prohibited drug; even the possession of a small quantity of the stuff, let alone its use, can attract very severe penalties -- death in some countries.

But in the West it continues to be used, though what the attraction is I fail to see: when I was young we got our kicks from a cup of coffee, and a laugh with our friends.

But then it's all very well to condemn when you've never been tempted.

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