Cannabis Prohibition Part 1: The Early Years

As we’ve discussed here previously, the cultivation of cannabis has an extensive history reaching past the 1st century. The debate around the ‘morality’ and ‘values’ associated with cannabis use have been present just as long. The evolution of cannabis in society has forced a long debate and is emblematic of wider drug persecution, drug prohibition, and particularly cruel drug enforcement laws. 

The modern conversation surrounding Cannabis has paved the way towards the discussion for legalizing and regulating vastly different but culturally tied substances. The closest analog here is psilocybin, which has begun to trail close behind cannabis in the push for legalization in the United States. This modern discussion has framed a misconception that prohibition started in the mid 20th century. But governments around the world have been trying to stomp Cannabis use out for centuries. All of the terrible points in its history share stark evidence of bias around class and ethnic disparities. Just as the more modern War On Drugs has done the most harm to the working class and people of color, the far reaching history of cannabis prohibition has bitter rhymes as it persecuted religious and ethnic minorities, and those precarious people at the bottom of the ladder.  The idea that cannabis is a threat to the order of society has been a permissive perspective, and the ruling class has often sought to outlaw its use as a tool of suppression and control. 

Ancient China was likely home to the original cannabis farmers. The Chinese were the first to note the psychoactive effects of the plant and the first to outlaw its use. The rise of Taoism in 600 BCE brought with it a cultural rejection of mood-altering substances. To this day in China, cannabis culture has failed to decouple itself from harder drugs like opium. There is no greater evidence to this than the fact that possession of cannabis in China is punishable by the death penalty. Talk about crime and punishment. 

Just a historical stone’s throw away from China is the history of cannabis prohibition in Muslim society. Hashish, still a common export out of Afghanistan and many other Middle-Eastern states, had wide spread growth during the rise of Islam in 700 CE. Books from the time refer to the cannabis crop as the “bush of understanding” and the “morsel of thought.” Traditionalist Muslims believe that Muhammad prohibited the use of cannabis, but the definition of the term intoxicants can be debated. If the plant can bring one spiritual clarity, is it intoxicating? There was greater confusion and obfuscation of the role cannabis had in Muslim society when theologians began associating the plant with the dreaded mongol empire. This link pushed the idea that its use would disrupt labor and sow seeds of discord in the working class. 

Sufi Muslims historically have had a different relationship to cannabis. Sufi mystics believed that spiritual enlightenment could be reached by altering the mind. Cannabis could help that process of transcendence along by putting one in a calmer and creative state. The Sufis have historically been members of the lower, working class. Religious association with cannabis resulted in further persecution of the plant as Sufi populations faced governments that sought to quell the religious sect.

In 1253 Sufis cultivated cannabis in Cairo, Egypt. The Egyptian government sought to persecute the religious population, and in the process destroyed the cannabis farms. But that did not stop the Sufis. They moved farming elsewhere, forming contracts with farmers in the Nile River Valley to grow it for them. This pact survived for a time, until 1324 when the Egyptian government once again destroyed the crop throughout the valley. 50 years later, in 1378, this would happen again, though this time the assault was more precocious, resulting in Egyptian troops razing entire farms and villages. But as often happens, the demand for cannabis only grew, and so the process of cultivation and persecution continued.

Christianity also had its early cannabis prohibition. In the 15th century Pope Innocent VIII issued a papal decree, banning the use of cannabis along with many other psychoactive drugs. The cultivation of cannabis was largely driven by Pagans. The ban resulted in a vicious cycle, cannabis was banned in to persecute non-Christains, and the persecution of non-Christians resulting in attacks on other cannabis users. Those who broke the law were either imprisoned or killed. A rough cycle for sure.

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