Sign the Resolution for a Federal Commission on Drug Policy
Contents | Feedback | Search | DRCNet Home Page | Join DRCNet
DRCNet Library | Schaffer Library | Major Studies | Licit and Illicit Drugs
by Edward M. Brecher and the Editors of Consumer Reports Magazine, 1972
Marijuana is the popular name for a plant, Cannabis Sativa, also known as hemp. Marijuana is also the common name of the drug prepared by drying the leaves and flowering tops of the plant. The leaves and tops contain several members of a group of chemicals known as the cannabinoids. Hashish is the drug produced by drying the resin exuded by the marijuana plant. The resin is richer in cannabinoids than the leaves and tops one gram of hashish is said to have the effectiveness of five to eight grams of marijuana but the potency of both marijuana and hashish varies widely from sample to sample. One of the cannabinoids, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, was for a time believed to be the major active ingredient; the role of THC in the marijuana experience, however, is now in question.
Under the name Extract of Cannabis, marijuana was once widely used medically in the United States, and it still has minor medical uses in other countries. though sometimes classed as a hallucinogen (LSD-like drug), marijuana is in fact unique, both chemically and in psychological effects produced. Hallucinogens are not a common effect of the drug, but (like alcohol hallucinations) a symptom of overdose.
Marijuana and hashish are commonly smoked in the United States; they can also be taken orally in foods or beverages. They are not addicting. Neither tolerance nor withdrawal symptoms have been reliably reported. The lethal dose is not known; no human fatalities have been documented.
The "weed" that in the United States and Mexico is commonly called marijuana, hemp, or cannabis is in fact a highly useful plant cultivated throughout recorded history and perhaps much earlier as well. There is only one species its scientific name is Cannabis sativa which yields both a potent drug and a strong fiber long used in the manufacture of fine linen as well as canvas and rope. The seeds are valued as birdseed and the oil, which resembles linseed oil, is valuable because paints made with it dry quickly.
Since cannabis is the only plant that yields both a drug or intoxicant and a useful fiber, its early history can be readily traced through references to a plant that yields both.
A Chinese treatise on pharmacology attributed to the Emperor Shen Nung and alleged to date from 2737 B.C. contains what is usually cited as the earliest reference to marijuana. According to one tradition, it was Shen Nung who first taught his people to value cannabis as a medicine. 1 Shen Nung, however, was a mythical figure, and the treatise was compiled much later than 2737 B.C.
The first known reference to marijuana in India is to be found in the Atharva Veda, which may date as far back as the second millennium B.C. 2 Another quite early reference appears on certain cuneiform tablets unearthed in the Royal Library of Ashurbanipal, an Assyrian king. Ashurbanipal lived about 650 B.C.; but the cuneiform descriptions of marijuana in his library "are generally regarded as obvious copies of much older texts," 3 says Dr. Robert P. Walton, an American physician and authority on marijuana who assembled much of the historical data here reviewed. This evidence "serves to project the origin of hashish back to the earliest beginnings of history." References to marijuana can also be found, Dr. Walton adds, in the Rh-Ya [sic], a Chinese compendium dating from the period 1200-500 B.C.; in the Susruta, an Indian treatise originating before 400 A.D.; and in the Persian Zend-Avesta, originating several centuries before Christ. 4
The ancient Greeks used alcohol rather than marijuana as an intoxicant; but they traded with marijuana-eating and marijuana-inhaling peoples. Hence some of the references to drugs in Homer may be to marijuana, including Homer's reference to the drug which Helen brought to Troy from Egyptian Thebes. 5 Certainly Herodotus was referring to marijuana when he wrote in the fifth century B.C. that the Scythians cultivated a plant that was much like flax but grew thicker and taller; this hemp they deposited upon red-hot stones in a closed room producing a vapor, Herodotus noted, "that no Grecian vapor-bath can surpass. The Scythians, transported with the vapor, shout aloud." 6
Herodotus also described people living on islands in the Araxes River, who "meet together in companies," throw marijuana on a fire, then "sit around in a circle; and by inhaling the fruit that has been thrown on, they become intoxicated by the odor, just as the Greeks do by wine; and the more fruit is thrown on, the more intoxicated they become, until they rise up and dance and betake themselves to singing." * 7 Other passages assembled by Dr. Walton from Pliny, Dioscorides, Paulus Aegineta, Abu Mansur Muwaffaq, The Arabian Nights, Marco Polo, and others leave little room for doubt that marijuana was cultivated both for its fiber and for its psychoactive properties throughout Asia and the Near East from the earliest known times to the present.
* The use of marijuana on a campfire has also been reported from Africa; 8 the high price no doubt inhibits similar use in the United States today.
Like the ancient Greeks, the Old Testament Israelites were surrounded by marijuana-using peoples. A British physician, Dr. C. Creighton, concluded in 1903 that several references to marijuana can be found in the Old Testament. 9 Examples are the "honeycomb" referred to in the Song of Solomon, 5:1, and the "honeywood" in I Samuel 14: 25-45. (Others have suggested that the "calamus" in the Song of Solomon was in fact cannabis.) 10
The date on which marijuana was introduced into western Europe is not known; but it must have been very early. An urn containing marijuana leaves and seeds, unearthed near Berlin, Germany, is believed to date from 500 B.C. 11
Cloth made from hemp (cannabis), we are told, "became common in central and southern Europe in the thirteenth century" and remained popular through the succeeding generations; fine Italian linen, for example, was made from hemp as well as flax" and in many cases the two fibers are mixed in the same material." 12 Nor were Europeans ignorant of the intoxicating properties of the plant; François Rabelais (1490-1553) gave a full account of what he called "the herb Pantagruelion." 13
The use of marijuana as an intoxicant also spread quite early to Africa. In South Africa, Dr. Frances Ames of the University of Cape Town reports, marijuana "was in use for many years before Europeans settled in the country and was smoked by all the non-European races, i.e. Bushmen, Hottentots and Africans. It was probably brought to the Mozambique coast from India by Arab traders and the habit, once established, spread inland....
"The plant has been used for many purposes in South Africa. Suto women smoke it to stupefy themselves during childbirth; * they also grind up the seeds with bread or meahe pap and give it to children when they are being weaned." 15 A 1916 report noted that marijuana smoking was not only permitted but actually encouraged among South African mine workers because "after a smoke the natives work hard and show very little fatigue." The usual mine practice, the report continued, was to allow three smokes resembling "coffee breaks" a day. 16 Farther north, "the lives of some tribes in the Congo center on hemp, which is cultivated, smoked regularly and venerated. Whenever the tribe travels it takes the Riamba [a huge calabash pipe more than a yard in diameter] with it. The man who commits a misdeed is condemned to smoke until he loses consciousness." 17
* The use of marijuana to ease the pangs of childbirth has been discussed in the United States as well. In 1930 a Pennsylvania physician sent this query to the Journal of the American Medical Association:
"If cannabis is taken to a point of intoxication during labor, what effect will it have on labor and on the newborn child?"
The AMA's consultants replied:
"... Its chief effects are on the central nervous system. There is a mixture of depression and stimulation similar to that occasionally seen under morphine. Soon after its administration the patient passes into a semiconscious state in which judgment is lost and vivid dreams occur. The sensation of pain is distinctly lessened or entirely absent and the sense of touch is less acute than normally. Hence a woman in labor may have a more or less painless labor. If a sufficient amount of the drug is taken, tile patient may fall into a tranquil sleep from which she will awaken refreshed. Some degree of tolerance for this drug is rapidly acquired and death from acute poisoning is rare. As far as is known, a baby born of a mother intoxicated with cannabis will not be abnormal in any way." 14 This opinion, of course, is subject to qualification today. The effect is not similar to morphine, and tolerance is not acquired.
Most Americans today think of marijuana as a substance to be smoked; but countless other ways of using it have also been developed even its use as a flavoring or seasoning for common foodstuffs. Nowhere have the modes of use multiplied more lavishly through the centuries than in India; Colonel Sir R. N. Chopta, Director of the Drug Research Laboratory, Jammu and Kashmir, and his son, Dr. I. C. Chopra, a pharmacologist, have described some Indian modes of use in the United Nations Bulletin on Narcotics (1957).
Three separate grades of marijuana product have traditionally been recognized in India, the Chopras point out: 18
Bhang, a weak preparation of the leaves and flowering tops of the plant roughly comparable to marijuana grown and harvested in the United States.
Ganja, a significantly stronger preparation, which includes some of the potent resin as well as the leaves and flowering tops roughly comparable to potent marijuana imported into the United States from Mexico or Vietnam.
Charas, the highly potent resin in pure or almost pure form the product known in the United States and elsewhere as hashish (or "hash"). The effects of charas are roughly comparable to those of the weaker forms but it is said to take from five to eight grams of bhang (or of American-grown marijuana) to equal the effect of one gram of charas or hashish. (These estimates were made before reliable methods of measuring potency were developed, and may be subject to revision.)
Bhang and ganja are used primarily by the lower classes in India those that cannot afford alcohol. "The low cost and easy availability of these drugs," the Chopras report, "are important factors in their use by the working classes, whose economic condition is low in this country. Cannabis drugs are perhaps the only narcotic drugs which fall comfortably within their meagre means, and they make use of them as occasion arises. A dose worth an anna or two (one or two U.S. cents) is often sufficient for producing the desired effect" not only for the purchaser but for one or two of his friends as well.
The two stronger forms, ganja and charas, are smoked much as marijuana is smoked in the United States: "The smoke is retained in the lungs for as long as possible and is then allowed to escape slowly through the nostrils, the mouth being kept shut. The longer the smoke is retained, the more potent are the effects obtained. Experienced smokers are able to retain the smoke for quite a long while." 19
The weakest marijuana, bhang, is in India customarily eaten or drunk in a variety of forms. The Chopras explain that it is "always taken by mouth either in the form of a beverage or a confection.... The simplest bhang beverage Consists of a drink made by pounding bhang leaves with a little black pepper and sugar, and diluting with water to the desired strength. Various kinds of special beverages arc prepared by the middle and well-to-do classes by the addition of almonds, sugar, iced milk, curds, etc....
"Bhang leaves are sometimes chewed for their sedative effects. This is done particularly at times when it is inconvenient for the habitué to prepare the beverage, as, for example, when traveling. During cold weather, when the system does not require large quantities of fluid or in the case of mendicants (sadhus and fakirs) who cannot afford the expense of preparing the beverage, the chewing of leaves may be substituted for the beverage. On festive occasions bhang may be incorporated in a variety of sweetmeats. Ice-cream containing bhang is also sometimes available in large towns during the hot weather." 20
Like marijuana smoking in the United States today, the eating and drinking of bhang in India is almost always a social occasion, indulged in primarily among friends. "Even up to the present day," the Chopras wrote in 1957, "at the occasion of some festivals, a large iron vessel full of a bhang drink is sometimes kept for public consumption. It is rare to find habitués indulging in these drugs without company, except in the form of pills or sweets or at other occasions when company is not available. Our experience is that even those who have bought their own supplies always enjoy them in company if possible." 21
Marijuana is also commonly used in the Hindu (Ayurvedic) and Mohammedan (Tibbi) systems of medicine in India; and it has ceremonial significance. "In Bengal, for instance," the Chopras report, "the custom still persists among certain classes of offering a beverage prepared from the leaves of the cannabis plant to the various family members and to guests on the last day of Durga Puja... which is the biggest Hindu festival in that state' It is also taken by certain classes on the occasion of the Holi and Dewali festivals, marriage ceremonies, and other family festivities.... Assam is the only state where bhang is practically not used at all at present, probably because of the prevalence there of the use of opium." 22
The Chopras in addition report a use of bhang resembling the chewing of coca leaves among the mountain people of South America (see Part V):
Cannabis drugs are reputed to alleviate fatigue and also to increase staying power in severe physical stress. In India, fishermen, boatmen, laundrymen and farmers, who daily have to spend long hours in rivers, tanks and waterlogged fields, often resort to cannabis in some form, in the belief that it will give them a certain amount of protection against catching cold. Mendicants who roam about aimlessly in different parts of India and pilgrims who have to do long marches often use cannabis either occasionally or habitually. Sadhus and fakirs visiting religious shrines usually carry some bhang or ganja with them and often take it. It is not an uncommon sight to see them sitting in a circle and enjoying a smoke of ganja in the vicinity of a temple or a mosque. Labourers who have to do hard physical work use cannabis in small quantities to alleviate the sense of fatigue, depression and sometimes hunger. A common practice amongst labourers engaged on building or excavation work is to have a few pulls at a ganja pipe or to drink a glass of bhang towards the evening. This produces a sense of well-being, relieves fatigue, stimulates the appetite, and induces a feeling of mild stimulation, which enables the worker to bear more cheerfully the strain and perhaps the monotony of the daily routine of life. 23
In addition to these common uses of bhang in moderate doses, resembling American uses of caffeine and nicotine, marijuana products are sometimes taken in larger doses, the Chopras note, "to induce a state of intoxication which will excite emotion and give a sense of bravado so that daring acts will be committed." They add that "indulgence in cannabis drugs, unlike alcohol, rarely brings the habitué into a state of extreme intoxication where he loses entire control over himself. As a rule, the intoxication produced is of a mild nature, and those who indulge in it habitually can carry on their ordinary vocations for long periods and do not become a burden to society or even a social nuisance." 24
Finally, the Chopras report that cannabis, presumably in the form of charas, can be "employed to produce a state of intoxication so intense that the individual may lose all control of himself." This use, they add, is rare; "these drugs are not often indulged in to such an extent as to constitute a definite abuse and menace." 25
Marijuana appears to occupy fourth place in worldwide popularity among the mind-affecting drugs preceded only by caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol. As in the cases of caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol, attempts have occasionally been made to suppress the traffic in marijuana and to eradicate its use, sometimes by means of extreme penalties. Thus the Emir Soudoun Sheikhouni of Joneima in Arabia is said to have ordered in the year 1378 that all hemp plants in his territory be destroyed and that all marijuana eaters be imprisoned. He further decreed that anyone convicted of eating the plant should have his teeth pulled out. Many were in fact punished in this way. But fifteen years after the Emir's decree, Dr. Louis Lewin reports in Phantastica, "the use of this substance in Arabian territory had increased." 26
No successful effort to suppress marijuana use has been found in a review of the historical literature for this Report. In the early 1950s, a report to the United Nations estimated that there were then 200,000,000 marijuana users in the world. 27 In 1969, Dr. Stanley Yolles of the National Institute of Mental Health estimated the number at between 200,000,000 and 250,000,000. 28 Thus, if there have in fact been any successful antimarijuana drives through the centuries, they have almost certainly been successful only on a small scale or for a limited period of time.
1. Robert P. Walton, Marijuana, America's New Drug Problem (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1938), p. 2.
2. Richard Brotman and Alfred M. Freedman, "Perspectives on Marijuana Research," prepared for Center for Studies in Substance Use; unpublished, p. 7.
3. Robert P. Walton, Marijuana, America's New Drug Problem, p. 6.
4. Ibid., pp. 2, 3, 5.
5. Ibid., p. 6.
6. Ibid., p. 7.
7. Ibid., p. 8.
8. Ibid., p. 23.
9. C. Creighton, "On Indications of the Hachish-Vice in the Old Testament," Janus, 8 (1902): 241-246, 297-303.
10. Melvin Clay, "The Song of Solomon," in The Book of Grass: An Anthology of Indian Hemp, ed. George Andrews and Simon Vinkenoog (New York: Grove Press, 1967), p. 19.
11. Robert P. Walton, Marijuana, America's New Drug Problem, p. 17,
12. Encyclopaedia Britannica 11th ed., s.v. "Hemp."
13. François Rabelais, "The Herb Pantagruelion," trans. by Samuel Putnam, in The Marijuana Papers, ed. David Solomon (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1966), p. 105.
14. "Queries and Minor Notes," JAMA, 94 (1930): 1165.
15. Frances Ames, "A Clinical and Metabolic Study of Acute Intoxication with Cannabis Sativa and its Role in the Model Psychoses," Journal of Mental Science, 104 (1958): 975-976.
16. C. J. G. Bourhill, "The Smoking of Dagga (Indian Hemp) Among the Native Races of South Africa and the Resultant Evils"; unpublished dissertation, Edinburgh University, 1916, cited by Ames, "A Clinical and Metabolic Study," p, 976.
17. Louis Lewin, Phantastica: Narcotic and Stimulating Drugs: Their Use and Abuse (1924), trans. 1931 (New York: Dutton 1964, reprint), p. 109.
18. I. C. Chopra and R. N. Chopra, "The Use of Cannabis Drugs in India," United Nations Bulletin on Narcotics, 9 (1957): 13.
19. Ibid., p. 8.
20. Ibid., p. 7.
22. Ibid., pp. 10-11.
23. Ibid., p. 13.
25. Ibid., pp. 13-14.
26. Louis Lewin, Phantastica, p. 107.
27. J. Bouquet, "Cannabis," United Nations Bulletin on Narcotics, 3 (1951): 31.
28. Stanley Yolles, Testimony in Narcotics Legislation, Hearings before the Subcommittee to Investigate juvenile Delinquency of the Committee on the judiciary, U.S. Senate, 91st Congress, 1st Session, September 17, 1969 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1969), p. 267.
Contents | Feedback | Search | DRCNet Home Page | Join DRCNet
DRCNet Library | Schaffer Library | Major Studies | Licit and Illicit Drugs