Pubdate: Sun, 01 Jan 2006
Source: Statesman, The (India)
Copyright: 2006 The Statesman
Author: Pjo Taylor
Bookmark: (Cannabis)
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Medicinal)
Bookmark: (Opinion)


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

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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MAP posted-by: Steve Heath