History of Marijuana

The Unexpected History of Ganja

When you hear the term ‘ganja’, the first thing that comes to mind might be Rastafarianism. Rastafarianism is a religion that began in Jamaica in the 1930s, combining Protestant Christianity with mysticism and a pan-African political consciousness. Rastas use ganja (cannabis) as part of a spiritual, meditative practice. Interestingly, however, the word ‘ganja’ does not originate in the Caribbean. Rather, ‘ganja’ is of Sanskrit origin, an Old Indo-Aryan language from the Indian subcontinent.

So how did a word with Indian roots become so prevalent in a primarily Jamaican religion? The answer lies in the importance of cannabis to aspects of Hindu culture and society and British 19th century imperial policy.

Hinduism and Cannabis

Hinduism is a diverse religion from the Indian subcontinent, dating back as far as the 2nd millennium BCE. Many of its holy texts are written in Sanskrit. Several of these texts identify cannabis as sacred, leading one scholar to assert that “Hindus regard cannabis in much the same way as Christians regard the holy sacrament of wine.” The importance of cannabis to parts of Hindu society can also be seen in local religious practices throughout the Indian subcontinent. In several cities and regions, deities are offered cannabis as part of religious ceremonies.

The British Empire, Slavery, and Indentured Servitude

The British Empire formed the link between the Indian subcontinent, and, hence, Sanskrit-based words for cannabis, and the Caribbean. By the late 18th century, Britain had gained strategic control over parts of India, further consolidating its control throughout the 19th century. In 1833, Britain outlawed slavery. Consequently, the empire’s colonies, especially its rubber and sugar plantations, needed laborers.

Britain looked to the Indian subcontinent for manpower. Indians were taken abroad, often as indentured laborers, to plantations in a variety of locations, including Jamaica. Between 1845 and 1917, Britain brought nearly 40,000 Indian indentured laborers to the country.

Ganja and Rastafarianism

The interweaving of Indian and Jamaican cultures that followed brought the word ‘ganja’ to Jamaica. By the early 20th century, smoking ganja had become common practice among young, black Jamaican field workers. The black-power, pan-African message of Rastafarianism found fertile ground among this disenfranchised population.

As many of these workers were displaced and moved to poor, urban areas, the message of spiritual ganja-use, pan-Africanism, and black liberation grew stronger. Jamaica’s elite felt threatened by this movement, and in 1948, ganja was made illegal. Thus, by the mid 20th century, ganja had become an integral part of the anti-establishment movement that is Rastafarianism.

Evolution of Cannabis

A Literary History of Cannabis in the United States: Racism, Classism, and the Beats in Post-WWII America

Cannabis has a long history in literature. From Shakespeare’s “noted weed” to the experiments of the French Romantics with hashish, many famous writers have used cannabis in their creative toolkit. In the United States, however, cannabis has a somewhat sordid literary history.

Racist and Classist Propaganda

Following the Mexican Revolution of 1910, much of the United States saw an influx of Mexican immigrants. These migrants brought their social and cultural customs with them, including the use of cannabis as a medicine and a relaxant. Following this wave of migration, xenophobic and racist anti-Mexican sentiment went on the rise in the American public. As Mexicans were demonized, so was cannabis. Anti-cannabis campaigns spread fear of the “Marijuana Menace” and the Mexicans associated with it.

With the advent of the Great Depression, fear and prejudice of other marginalized groups in the United States also became associated with cannabis. Racist and classist research linking marijuana-use with crime and socially deviant behaviors emerged, primarily perpetrated by “racially inferior” and underclass communities.

New York, Cannabis, and the Beats

Enter Mezz Mezzrow, born Milton Mesirow. Mezz was a jazz musician from Chicago who took up in New York City, eventually becoming the main marijuana supplier of Harlem. His network introduced cannabis as a meeting place for cultural and social exchange. Mezz saw the cannabis scene as “an uncanny injection of Mexican rural life into the urban United States”. Others saw it as the “wedding ring” of an interracial marriage, linking black, hispanic, and white Americans in a culture of marijuana and jazz. As in many cultural interactions, however, this site of cultural exchange was also one of appropriation. Mezz Mezzrow, a white man, co-authored his memoir, Really the Blues, in language meant to imitate black American speech.

This underground scene became the backdrop into which the New York Beats dove in their early years. The Beats were a group of writers centered in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York City who sought to break out of the social confines of their generation, in both literature and society. Many of the New York Beats met at Columbia University in the early 1940s. Here, they sought a “New Vision”, rebelling against the social norms of university life. This led them to New York’s underground, the first time that these largely white, middle class writers explored “the underground black, hip culture that preexisted before [their] generation.” Many read Really the Blues.

Cannabis was central to New York’s underground. It was the glue that held the vocabulary, interpersonal networks, and social environment of the scene together, forming an aesthetic that the Beats would later spread to mainstream America with their counterculture movement. This movement would change American society forever. Cannabis formed the site of cultural exchange and appropriation that would allow this movement to flourish, making it possible for the Beat revolution to take place.

Historical Cannabis Use in China

Hemp has a long history in China. At one point it was so prized that the Chinese called their country “the land of mulberry and hemp.” Cannabis was a symbol of power over evil and in emperor Shen Nung’s pharmacopoeia it was called the “liberator of sin.” The Chinese believed that the legendary Shen Nung first taught the cultivation of hemp in the 28th century B.C. Shen Nung is credited with developing the sciences of medicine from the curative power of plants. So highly regarded was Shen Nung that he was deified and today he is regarded as the Father of Chinese medicine.

A Chinese Taoist priest wrote in the fifth century B.C. that cannabis was used in combination with Ginseng to set forward time in order to reveal future events. It is recorded that the Taoists recommended the addition of cannabis to their incense burners in the 1st century A.D. and that the effects thus produced were highly regarded as a means of achieving immortality. In the early Chinese Taoist ritual, the fumes and odors of incense burners were said to have produced a mystic exaltation and contribution to well being.

Historical Use of Cannabis

For more than 6,000 years, cannabis and humans have crossed paths. The oldest archaeological record of cannabis was in central Europe in the Bylony culture. Archaeological evidence points to shamanic purposes as a historical use of cannabis. Cannabis may, in fact, have been the first cultivated plant. Cannabis Sativa seeds were recovered in Neolithic band ceramic in Thüringen, Germany. In addition to shamanic use, it was used for paper, textiles, food and medicine throughout human history.

The ancient emperor, Shen-Nung (c. 2700 B.C.), is known as the Father of Chinese medicine. he was concerned about the suffering of his subjects, and looked to plants for cures.  According to legend, Shen-Nung tried poisons and their antidotes to experience their effect and then compiled the medical encyclopedia called Pen Ts’ao. The Pen Ts’ao lists hundreds of drugs derived from vegetable, animal and mineral sources. Among these drugs is the plant cannabis, known as Ma. Ma was a unique plant because it was considered both feminine, or yin, and masculine, or yang. Realizing that the female plant produced more medicine, the Chinese cultivated it instead of the male plant. Ma was used to treat female troubles (menstruation), gout, rheumatism, malaria, beriberi, constipation and absentmindedness. A famous physician, Hua T’o (110 – 207 A.D.), was known to use Ma-Fei-San (hemp boiling compound), with wine to anesthetize his patients during surgical operations on the abdominal organs.

Many other cultures have a history of cannabis use. The Scythians, an Iranian tribe inhabiting large areas in the Eurasian steppes from the 7th century B.C. up until the 4th century A.D. used cannabis for fiber and oil. According to Herodotus, a Greek historian, there was evidence that they used it as a narcotic in their steam baths. In India, historical medical literature has some of the earliest accounts of its medicinal utilization. It was used in combination with henbane as an anesthetic for surgery. They also used cannabis preparations externally as antiseptics and analgesics.

In Hellenic and Arabic medicine, cannabis extracts were used for irrigation of diseases of the anus and as compresses for sore toenails. Arabic medical traditions used cannabis both externally and internally for a variety of conditions – for example, an ointment combined with fat was applied antiseptically. In Egypt, according to Rhamses’ papyrus, cannabis was used for the washing of sore eyes.

The medicinal properties of cannabis became part of Western medicine in the mid-19th century when cannabis strains from Egypt and India were imported by the French and British. Between 1840 and 1940, English, Irish, French and North American physicians and pharmacists used various cannabis preparations for pain relief and other conditions including malaria, rheumatism, migraine headaches, gout and glaucoma. Cannabis was in the Canadian pharmacopoeia until it was added to a list of restricted drugs in 1923 with its possession, cultivation and distribution becoming illegal.