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Major Studies of Drugs and Drug Policy
Legislative Options for Cannabis - Australian Government

Chapter 3.


Cannabis in history

From its earliest recorded uses, cannabis has been important in commerce and warfare. Its fibrous stems have been used to make textiles, paper, ropes and bowstrings. Cannabis has been employed as a medicine and as a psychoactive drug for social and religious purposes. Cannabis seeds have been used as an ingredient in the manufacture of soap, lamp oil, paint and varnish ([4]Abel 1980, p.x) and as bird seed.

According to[5] Abel (1980), the earliest recorded use of cannabis occurred in Taiwan, approximately 10,000 years ago. It also appears to have been used in China as early as the second century BC for clothing, shoes, bowstrings and for its anaesthetic properties. In India, it is known to have been utilised for its psychoactive properties in religious ceremonies and was an ingredient in three preparations - bhang, ganja and charas. Its use has been documented in Asia Minor - in Turkey - as early as 1,000 BC. Both the Greeks and Romans recorded its efficacy as a medicine - especially for treating earache. One particular example of its use in the Middle East must be detailed because of its influence on misconceptions about the properties of the drug. Between the 11th and 13th centuries AD, a sect known as the Assassins, followers of Hasan-ibn-Sabah, dominated the Middle East through a reign of terror. Marco Polo reported that the Assassins used a drug. He did not identify hashish as this drug and it appears, in any case, that the drug used by the Assassins was not used to rouse them to bloody deeds. However, in the 19th century a number of European writers claimed that the word 'Assassin' was a derivation of the word 'hashish'. A link was thus forged and popularised associating cannabis and violence; an association that was repeated in the 20th century in the anti-cannabis writings of Harry Anslinger, chief of the United States Federal Bureau of Narcotics [6](Abel 1980).

In the Middle Ages cannabis was used for its psychoactive effects as well as commercially. Its use as a mind-altering drug was widespread in Egypt and seems to date from around the 13th century. In medieval Europe cannabis appears to have been employed as a folk medicine, particularly for the treatment of toothache and rheumatism, and in childbirth. Its role in witchcraft resulted in a Papal fiat in the 15th century which condemned witchcraft and the use of hemp in the satanic mass [7](Abel 1980). Its major use in Europe during the Middle Ages and into the time of the colonial expansion of the European powers was to produce ropes and cordage - especially for ships' rigging and anchor ropes. In Italy, hemp was a major crop, particularly important in establishing states such as Venice as seafaring powers. The Venetians operated a state-run hemp factory as a way of achieving quality assurance.

The historical importance of hemp is evidenced by a decree issued by Henry VIII in 1533 that 'for every sixty acres of arable land a farmer owned, a quarter acre was to be sown with hemp. The penalty for not doing so was to be three shillings and four pence' [8](Abel 1980, pp72-3). Hemp cultivation was clearly a vital ingredient in enabling aspiring maritime powers to exploit the riches of the New World. However, despite the threat of penalties, the British had little success in stimulating the production of cannabis domestically. They were more successful in their American colonies:

'During the 17th century Indian hemp was the basis of the American Colonialists' trade and commerce, and so great was the need to equip the British Navy that James I issued a Royal Decree to instruct colonialists to increase their hemp production' [9](Hindmarch 1972, p254). It appears that more widespread use of cannabis in Europe for its psychoactive effects dates from the period of colonial expansion.

Interest in cannabis and other drugs was stimulated by the diaries and journals of travellers who described the use of cannabis and other drugs in Africa, India and Asia Minor, and by reports from soldiers in colonial armies who experimented with cannabis while serving overseas. One of the first Western publications on drugs was Garcia Da Orta's Colloquies on the Simples and Drugs of India published in 1563, which described the effects of bhang (a concoction containing cannabis). This publication was followed by several other books by European adventurers published in the latter part of the sixteenth century. These works were not only important in spreading knowledge of cannabis' psychoactive properties, but in popularising misconceptions about the drug.

For example, a widespread belief that the effects of consuming opium and bhang (which contained both opium and cannabis) were identical can be dated from this period. It appears both in the works of the Dutchman John Huyghen van Linschoten and the Portuguese Fray Sebastien. The linkage between cannabis and violent and dangerous behaviour also dates from around this time - in particular, from the writings of the Orientalist Silvestre de Sacy. Colonial expansion and colonial wars also brought with them new understandings in Europe of the medical uses of cannabis. [10]Abel (1980) claims that by the 17th century 'the medicinal properties of the plant were fairly well known to the medical profession' (p116) and by 1682, cannabis seeds were listed in the New London Dispensatory as a remedy for coughs and jaundice.

In addition to increasing interest in cannabis being shown by scientists and doctors, hashish (and other drugs such as opium) became known to European students, writers and artists. In England, Egyptian hashish sweets such as Turkish Delight were eaten by university students. In the 19th century, hashish was used by the French Hashish Club which numbered among its members Theophile Gautier, Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo and Eugene Delacroix. While not so popular among English writers and artists, it was used around the turn of the century by the Decadents including WB Yeats and Ernest Dawson. For French and English writers, hashish, like other drugs, was taken to give them new experiences to write about, as a plot device, and it was employed to enhance creativity.

Another important aspect of the colonial experience in the spread of cannabis to Western Europe is seen in the work of W.B. O'Shaughnessy, an Irish doctor posted to India who is credited with introducing cannabis to Western medicine [11](Abel 1980). While in India he experimented with cannabis in the treatment of a wide range of diseases including rheumatism, cholera, tetanus and epilepsy, and was enthusiastic enough about its usefulness to commission its conversion to a form suitable for medicinal use. This extract was widely prescribed for childbirth, migraine, insomnia, coughs and the treatment of opium withdrawal [12](Abel 1980).

However, Western use of cannabis for medicinal purposes did not extend much beyond the first few decades of the 20th century. The medical profession turned its attention to other drugs and other methods of administration. The science of organic chemistry enabled drugs like morphine and cocaine to be isolated, and chemical synthesis of drugs such as heroin to occur [13](Musto 1991). The hypodermic syringe was invented in 1845 and enabled more efficient administration of drugs. Morphine was isolated in 1803 and unlike cannabis was water soluble and thus injectable [14](Abel 1980).

Further, the growth of the pharmaceutical industry enabled the new drugs to be mass produced, advertised and distributed [15](Musto 1991). In addition, the strength of commercially available cannabis varied considerably, and administration of the same amounts of the drug appeared to elicit different responses in different patients. There were reports of adverse effects in patients [16](Manderson 1993).

In contrast, drugs like morphine and later heroin were enthusiastically embraced by doctors because they were fast-acting, and provided reliable and very effective pain relief. Some use of cannabis for medical purposes did remain. Until the late 1930s 'Parke Davis, Eli Lilly and Squibb ... marketed preparations of cannabis extract and promoted them for the treatment of asthma, tension and pain' [17](South Australia 1978, p98). Cannabis appeared as 'extractum cannabis' in the United States Pharmacopoeia until 1942 (Australia 1977). In Australia, tincture of cannabis was used until the mid-1960s [18](Caswell 1992).

Medical and scientific interest in cannabis has largely been dormant until recently. In the United States renewed attention is being given to its possible therapeutic properties, particularly as an anti-emetic for cancer chemotherapy patients and as an agent for reducing intra-ocular pressure in glaucoma sufferers ([19]Trebach & Zeese 1990). Some scientific debate is also occurring in Australia [20](Caswell 1992; see also [21]Appendix 1).

If non-medical consumption of cannabis in the 19th and early 20th centuries was regarded as a problem at all, it was in respect of its use by colonised peoples and minority groups. However, in relation to colonised peoples, the attitudes of the Western powers were far from consistent. For example, cannabis was widely used in India and Egypt - both subject to British rule. In Egypt, local officials and foreign rulers, including the Turks, attempted to suppress its use in the 19th century. The British, who received no revenues from Egyptian cannabis production, supported these attempts.

The situation was more complex in India. The British government initially appears to have had little interest in cannabis use among Indians. British complacency was no doubt largely due to the fact that, since 1798, the government had licensed the manufacture and sale of hemp drugs in India and received considerable revenues as a result. However, pressure from local Indian administrators and later from their British counterparts - concerned that cannabis use was contributing to crime, illness and social unrest - finally resulted in the establishment of the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission in 1893. The Commission reported in 1894. Loss of revenue if cannabis were to be banned was a factor in the Hemp Commission's conclusion that prohibition would not be justified. Other important considerations for the Commission were lack of evidence about the ill effects of cannabis, the difficulties of enforcing prohibition and the important place of the drug in the religious and social life of the sub-continent.

The use of cannabis by Black Africans was largely ignored by the colonial powers. However, South Africa had concerns about cannabis use among Indians brought to work in the colony. In 1870 a law was passed forbidding the smoking, use or possession of hemp by Indians.

In the United States, anxiety about cannabis use was associated with its possession by poor ethnic groups. It appears to have been used first by Mexican refugees fleeing into the south-western states from the 1910 Revolution. The earliest US laws proscribing the use of cannabis can be found in those states. Cannabis use later spread to the Black population. By 1937 there were prohibitions on cannabis across the country.


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