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Cultural History of Marijuana Use

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Marijuana has a rich history that spans the gamut from high social acclaim as a plant of great spiritual power to intense suspicion. The plant has been associated with ritual, religious, social, and medical customs in India for thousands of years. Marijuana is referred to as one of the five sacred plants suggested for freedom from anxiety in the Atharva Veda (circa 1400 BC), an ancient Indian text on healing (Abel, 1980). In Tibetan tantric tradition, marijuana is burned to drive out evil forces. Gautama Buddha is said to have subsisted on one hemp seed each day for 6 years preceding his enlightenment. Alternatively, the term “assassin” used in the English language is thought to have been derived from the word hashishin, which was applied to a murderous sect, which in its religious rites, used hashish for intoxication (Felter & Lloyd, 1898/1983). One of the few surviving books of the Zend-Avesta, ancient holy book of the Zoroastrians, Vendidad, translated as the “Law Against Demons,” calls bhanga a “good narcotic” that may allow some of the highest mysteries to be revealed. Chinese priest-doctors used marijuana stalks engraved with snake-like figures in their demon-ridding rites (Abel, 1980). There also is reference to marijuana in the Talmud, a holy book in Jewish culture. Marijuana is referred to in Mexico as “mota.” The Mexican phrase “esta ya le dio las tres,” or “you take three times (puffs)” of marijuana, refers to mota as the “opium of the poor” used as a hangover-free intoxicant, a “social lubricant and an antidote to drudgery and fatigue” (Lee, 2012, p. 39).

Marijuana leaf, or resin from the leaf and stem (hashish), is typically smoked. The resin and seed of the plant can also be eaten. Eating hashish was the preferred method of ingestion for centuries. Smoking of Cannabis was introduced to Europe only after Columbus returned with tobacco from his second trip to the New World (McKenna, 1992). Traditionally, the effects of smoking are thought to be more immediate. A variety of apparatuses and techniques are available for smoking marijuana. The favorite device for smoking marijuana in India is a chelum, a wooden, ceramic, or soapstone tube that is packed with herb. The Scythians, a nomadic Central Asian people, are credited with bringing marijuana to Eastern Europe around 700 BC (McKenna, 1992) and discovering that inhalation was the most effective way to appreciate the effects of the plant. Centuries later, Dr. William B. O’Shaughnessy, scientist and physician, is said to have introduced marijuana to England in 1842 in his Bengal Dispensatory and Pharmacopoeia (Block et al., 1998).

Marijuana seed has been used in traditional Chinese medicine. The ancient emperor Shen Nung (circa 2700 BC), patron of agriculture, is credited with the discovery of marijuana as a medicine. Marijuana seed, or “huo ma ren,” is classified as “moist laxative” in the Chinese Materia Medica (Bensky & Gamble, 1993). It is also used in patterns of yin (heat) deficiency with constipation, such as may occur in older adults after illness with fever and in women postpartum. Poultices of the pounded seed are used on wounds to clear the heat in the wound and promote healing. The ground seed is also known to be effective in lowering blood pressure in animals and humans (Bensky & Gamble, 1993). It is typically used with other herbs in formulation. The Chinese have historically used marijuana with wine to create an anesthetic called ma-yo when performing difficult surgical operations. According to Abel (1980), “The Chinese were well aware of marijuana’s unusual properties … many did not approve. Due to the growing spirit of Taoism which began to permeate China around 600 BC, marijuana intoxication was viewed with special disdain” (p. 13). By the first century of the Common Era, the Taoists had relented and, going along with their interest in magic and “seeing spirits,” people were once again adding marijuana seeds to their incense burners.

The Ohio State Medical Society conducted the first official U.S. government study of marijuana in 1860. They catalogued conditions that doctors had successfully treated with marijuana, from “bronchitis and rheumatism, to venereal disease and post-partum depression. The use of marijuana as an analgesic was so common that medical textbooks and journals identified several types of pain for which it should be administered” (Lee, 2012, p. 26). In Great Britain, “Sir William Osler, often called the founder of modern medicine, endorsed marijuana as the best treatment for migraine headaches” and Sir John Russell Reynolds, the personal physician to Britain’s Queen Victoria, prescribed hemp to the queen to relieve her menstrual cramps, calling it “one of the most valuable medicines we possess” (Lee, 2012, p. 26). Marijuana was used for such conditions as

Delirium tremens, neuralgia, gout, rheumatism, infantile convulsions, low mental conditions, insanity, etc., and in inflammatory conditions in cases where opium disagrees and is often preferable to opium. Acute mania and dementia, epilepsy … are among the nervous disorders in which it exerts a positively beneficial and soothing action … The drug is a useful hypnotic for the insane. As a remedy for pain, it ranks among the first; the more spasmodic the pain the better it acts. (Felter & Lloyd, 1898/1983, p. 425)

An alcohol tincture of marijuana leaf in sweetened water has been used medicinally to increase the strength of uterine contractions without adverse effects, as well as for menorrhagia and chronic cystitis. Herbalists use marijuana tincture in combination with lady’s mantle (Alchemilla vulgaris) and witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) to slow postpartum hemorrhage caused by uterine atrophy (Weed, 1986). “Impotence is said to have been cured by it. Cannabis has some reputation as a remedy for chronic alcoholism, and for the cure of the opium habit” (Felter & Lloyd, 1898/1983, p. 426). The Iroquois have used marijuana as a psychological aid for people who are recovering from illness but somehow do not think that they are getting well (Moerman, 1998).

In Ayurveda, a traditional medicine of India, marijuana is referred to as vijaya, siddhapatri, ganjika, bhanga, and hursini (Nadkarni, 1976). Bhang was a symbol of hospitality and given to guests. Sushruta, a renowned physician of ancient India, recommended marijuana to relieve congestion and regulate body fluids, and as a sleep and digestive aid, analgesic, and aphrodisiac. At the start of the 18th century, Gobind Singh, the Tenth Guru of the Sikh religion, gave bhang to soldiers facing dangerous missions (Abel, 1980). In Ayurveda, marijuana has been used in treating numerous infectious diseases (Touw, 1981). Some Indians regard marijuana as “sattvik nasha” or “peaceful intoxication.” To make thandi, an intoxicating drink whose effect lasts 3 hours without hangover, marijuana powder is mixed with equal parts black pepper, dried rose petals, poppy seeds, almonds, cardamom, cucumber and melon seeds, sugar, milk, and water (Nadkarni, 1976).

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