The act of smoking marijuana with the intention of effecting a change in the user's consciousness first became defined as a social problem in the late 1910s and early 1920s, when early reports of a "drug" being carried across the border by Mexican immigrants surfaced in states in the Southwest. However, long before that time Americans had been quite familiar with other usages of the multifaceted cannabis plant.
Hemp was one of the first crops cultivated by the early colonial settlers. Used in making paper and sturdy garments, many of the early colonial legislative bodies encouraged its growth as a cash crop. In fact, in 1762 Virginia imposed penalties on those who did not produce it.
One of the early colonists who grew hemp was George Washington. In his diary entry of August 7, 1765, Washington noted: "began to separate the Male from the Female hemp at Do--rather too late." And two days later: "Abt. 6 o'clock put some Hemp in the Rivr. to Rot--." And in September of that year, our gentleman farmer chronicled: "Began to pull the Seed Hemp--but was not sufficiently ripe."
Washington's concern for separating the male plants from the female plants has led some to believe that our first chief executive was using the hemp for psychoactive purposes. But since George was putting his hemp into the river to rot rather than drying the plant, one is led to believe that the father of our country was merely soaking and not smoking his pot. Separating the male from the female is flimsy evidence that Washington desired a resin-soaked female plant for personal recreational or medicinal use. In all likelihood, he was stashing the strong fibrous male plants and discarding the psychoactive females.
From 1629, when it was introduced in New England, until the invention of the cotton gin and similar machinery, hemp was a major crop in the United States. And as its utility for clothing and the like diminished, the resilient marijuana plant appeared in a new form--as a medicine for a wide variety of ailments. It was first recognized in 1850 by the United States Pharmacopaeia, the highly selective drug reference manual. In 1851 the United States Dispensatory, a less rigorous listing, recommended cannabis for a wide variety of disorders:
Extract of hemp is a powerful narcotic (used here to indicate sleep-producing substance) causing exhilaration, intoxication, delirious hallucinations, and, in its subsequent action, drowsiness and stupor, with little effect upon the circulation. It is asserted also to act as a decided aphrodisiac, to increase the appetite, and occasionally to induce the cataleptic state. In morbid states of the system, it has been found to cause sleep, to allay spasm, to compose nervous disquietude, and to relieve pain. In these respects it resembles opium; but it differs from that narcotic in not diminishing the appetite, checking the secretions, or constipating the bowels. It is much less certain in its effects, but may sometimes be preferably employed, when opium is contraindicated by its nauseating or constipating effects, or its disposition to produce headache, and to check the bronchial section. The complaints in which it has been specially recommended are neuralgia, gout, rheumatism, tetanus, hydrophobia, epidemic cholera, convulsions, chorea, hysteria, mental depression, delirium tremens, insanity and uterine hemorrhage.
Quite an impressive array. In fact, tincture of cannabis was produced by the leading pharmaceutical companies in the late 1800s, including Parke-Davis, Lilly and Squibb. A German firm even marketed cannabis cigarettes for use in combating asthma. The cigarettes also contained belladonna, and the more aware patients in the population rushed to their general practitioners, studied in the art of the wheeze.
In fact, for the early immigrants to the United States from eastern Europe, cannabis had traditionally played a major role in their folklore for centuries. In the fifth century B.C., the Greek historian Herodotus observed that the Scythians would hurl hemp seeds onto heated stones and then inhale the vapor to become intoxicated. This ritual would occur after a Scythian had died, and seems to presage the Irish wake. "The Scythians howl with joy for the vapour bath" was the way our ancient scribe put it.
Cannabis remained connected with the cult of the dead, even up to the present day in eastern Europe. The anthropologist, Sula Benet, reported that today in Poland and Lithuania, on Christmas Eve when the dead come back to visit, a soup made of cannabis seeds called semieniatka is served to the dearly departed. On Shrove Tuesday in Poland married women dance the "hemp dance," and young brides are sprinkled with cannabis seeds in lieu of rice. The creative Poles also use marijuana for divination, especially with respect to affairs of the heart. The eve of Saint Andrew's (November 30) is the best time to determine marital plans, and certain rituals, utilizing cannabis seeds, are believed to hasten the marital union. Benet, in an article in the anthology Cannabis and Culture, notes:
Girls in the Ukraine carry hemp seeds in their belts, they jump on a heap and call out: "Andrei, Andrei, I plant the hemp seed on you. Will god let me know with whom I will sleep?" The girls then remove their shirts and fill their mouths with water to sprinkle on the seed to keep the birds from eating them. Then they run around the house naked three times.
Benet also reported the wide use of hemp in folk medicine in Russia and eastern Europe. In Poland, Russia and Lithuania, hemp was used to treat toothache by inhaling the vapor from seeds thrown onto hot stones. Years later, in New York City during the 1920s, it was not uncommon for Russian and Polish immigrants to trek over to Nassau Street, buy bulk cannabis, return to their Lower East Side tenements, throw the cannabis on the radiator, and, using a towel to form a smoke chamber, inhale the fumes for respiratory ailments.
Although tincture of cannabis was widely used in America from the mid-1800s until 1937, very few reports of its psychoactive properties were made. Perhaps this was due to the psychological set of the patients; they were taking a medicine, not indulging in a vice. At any rate there were a few early psychic explorers, and the most famous of these was a young man who lived in upstate New York: Fitz Hugh Ludlow.
Ludlow was born September 11, 1836, in New York City and grew up in Poughkeepsie, New York. In 1855 he was attending college in Schenectady, New York and chanced upon an article by the writer and traveler Bayard Taylor. Taylor described his experiences with the fabled drug hashish, which, as we knowtoday, is a concentrated form of marijuana. It was the first personal account of hashish use by an American (which in France had reached semi-institutionalized status through the Club des Haschischins, whose prominent members included Baudelaire, Gautier, Dumas, Balzac and Nerval).
Being a curious lad, and fueled by the fantastic reminiscences of Taylor, Ludlow began to frequent the apothecary shop of his friend Anderson. The potions and utensils held a fascination for the twenty-year-old, and soon he was experimenting with consciousness alteration by inhaling chloroform. From chloroform, Ludlow advanced to ether, then opiates, "until I had run through the whole gamut of queer agents within my reach."
But then in 1855 a chance occurrence:
One morning, in the spring of 185--, I dropped in upon the doctor for my accustomed lounge. "Have you seen," said he, "my new acquisitions?" I looked toward the shelves in the direction of which he pointed, and saw, added since my last visit, a row of comely pasteboard cylinders inclosing vials of the various extracts prepared by Tilden and Co ... .
A rapid glance showed most of them to be old acquaintances. "Conium, taraxacum, rhubarb--ha! what is this? Cannabis Indica?" "That," answered the doctor, looking with a parental fondness upon his new treasure, "is a preparation of the East Indian hemp, a powerful agent in cases of lock-jaw." On the strength of this introduction, I took down the little archer, and, removing his outer verdant coat, began the further prosecution of his acquaintance. To pull out a broad and shallow cork was the work of an instant, and it revealed to me an olive-brown extract, of the consistency of pitch, and a decided aromatic odor. Drawing out a small portion upon the point of my penknife, I was just going to put it to my tongue, when "Hold on!" cried the doctor; "do you want to kill yourself? That stuff is deadly poison." "Indeed!" I replied; "no, I can not say that I have any settled determination of that kind"; and with that I replaced the cork, and restored the extract, with all its appurtenances, to the shelf.
Ludlow immediately consulted his Dispensatory and recognized the cannabis extract to be none other than the famed hashish that Taylor had described. So, sneaking a ten-grain pill, Ludlow began his experimentation. At first he observed no effects, and he gradually increased the dosage to thirty grains. And suddenly America's first recreational cannabis user found himself stoned:
Ha! what means this sudden thrill? A shock, as of some unimagined vital force, shoots without warning through my entire frame, leapingto my fingers' ends, piercing my brain, startling me till I almost spring from my chair.
I could not doubt it. I was in the power of the hasheesh influence. My first emotion was one of uncontrollable terror--a sense of getting something which I had not bargained for. That moment I would have given all I had or hoped to have to be as I was three hours before.
No pain anywhere--not a twinge in any fibre--yet a cloud of unutterable strangeness was settling upon me; and wrapping me impenetrably in from all that was natural or familiar. Endeared faces, well known to me of old, surrounded me, yet they were not with me in my loneliness. I had entered upon a tremendous life which they could not share.
What loneliness! This bookish son of a prominent abolitionist preacher continued his hashish adventures, using the innocent extract for phantasmagorical flights of imagination, voyages that took him from his drab, small-town environment to fabulous Middle Eastern, African and Asian lands, immersed in alien cultures. Ludlow gobbled up all the Tilden's Extract at Anderson's and, a few weeks later, scored a weaker preparation at another chemist's. So naturally, to compensate, he upped the dosage to fifty grains, and proceeded to freak out:
I do not know how long a time had passed since midnight, when I awoke suddenly to find myself in a realm of the most perfect clarity of view, yet terrible with an infinitude of demoniac shadows ... . Beside my bed in the centre of the room stood a bier, from whose corners drooped the folds of a heavy pall; outstretched upon it lay in state a most fearful corpse, whose livid face was distorted with the pangs of assassination ... .
But--oh, horror immeasurable! I beheld the walls of the room slowly gliding together, the ceiling coming down, the floor ascending, as of old the lonely captive saw them, whose cell was doomed to be his coffin. Nearer and nearer am I borne toward the corpse. I shrunk back from the edge of the bed; I cowered in most abject fear. I tried to cry out, but speech was paralyzed. The walls came closer and closer together. Presently my hand lay on the dead man's forehead. I made my arm as straight and rigid as a bar of iron; but of what avail was human strength against the contraction of that cruel masonry? Slowly my elbow bent with the ponderous pressure; nearer grew the ceiling--I fell into the fearful embrace of death. I was pent, I was stifled in the breathless niche, which was all of space still left to me. The stony eyes stared up into my own, and again the maddening peal of fiendish laughter rang close beside my ear. Now I was touched on all sides by the walls of the terrible press; there came a heavy crush, and I felt all sense blotted out in darkness.
I awaked at last; the corpse was gone, but I had taken his place upon the bier.
And so the first American bad trip was recorded. Ludlow continued his experiments with the extract, publishing the results in a widely read article in the September 1856 issue of Putnam's Monthly Magazine, and in his book, The Hasheesh Eater, first published in 1857 by Harper and Brothers.
Apparently Ludlow's experience was not an isolated one for long. In 1860 Mordecai Cooke, an English writer, noted in The Seven Sisters of Sleep:
Young America is beginning to use the "bang," so popular among the Hindoos, though in rather a different manner, for young Jonathan must in some sort be an original. It is not a "drink," but a mixture of bruised hemp tops and the powder of the betel, rolled up like a quid of tobacco. It turns the lips and gums a deep red, and if indulged in largely, produces violent intoxication. Lager beer and schnapps will give way for "bang," and red lips, instead of red noses, become the "style."
As a medicinal agent, marijuana generally fell into disfavor before the turn of the century. For one, it was insoluble, and therefore couldn't be injected. So there were delays of up to three hours when administered orally. Secondly, there was tremendous difficulty in standardizing the dosage, as different batches showed great variations in potency. Also, there were variations among individuals in their response to the drug. So, when the new synthetic drugs were introduced--drugs which, like morphine, were capable of administration by the newly discovered hypodermic syringe--cannabis use decreased.
However, as a recreational drug, cannabis was just beginning to be discovered by adventurous Americans. In 1876 the Turkish display at the Philadelphia Exposition featured hash-smoking, and by 1885 clandestine hashish clubs catering to a well-heeled clientele composed of writers, artists, doctors and society matrons had been established in every major American city from New York to San Francisco.
In 1883 H. H. Kane, writing anonymously in the November issue of Harper's Monthly, gave a lurid description of a Hashish House in New York. The naive author was taken by a friend in the know to a house on Forty-second Street, near the Hudson River. The house was run by a Greek and frequented by Americans and foreigners of "the better classes"--some masked, allgarbed in Oriental costumes, all indulging their "morbid appetites." Kane recalled his entry into this strange world:
A volume of heavily scented air, close upon the heels of which came a deadly sickening odor, wholly unlike anything I had ever smelled, greeted my nostrils. A hall lamp of grotesque shape flooded the hall with a subdued violet light that filtered through crenated disks of some violet fabric hung below it. The walls and ceilings, if ever modern, were no longer so, for they were shut in and hung by festoons and plaits of heavy cloth fresh from Eastern looms. Tassels of blue, green, yellow, red and tinsel here and there peeped forth, matching the curious edging of variously colored beadwork that bordered each fold of drapery like a huge procession of luminous ants, and seemed to flow into little phosphorescent pools wherever the cloth was caught up. Queer figures and strange lettering, in the same work, were here and there disclosed upon the ceiling cloth.
And that was just a description of the hall, while Kane was still straight! Once at the end of the hall, they were greeted by a "colored" servant, where they exchanged their clothing for long silk gowns, tasseled smoking caps, and noiseless slippers. After paying two dollars each, they received a small pipe filled with gunjeh (potent marijuana) and then repaired to one of the many smoking rooms, outfitted with numerous pillows and divans. Finally our adventurers were ready to smoke. With his companion acting as a guide, Kane began the smoking ritual:
... As I smoked I noticed that about two-thirds of the divans were occupied by persons of both sexes, some of them masked, who were dressed in the same manner as ourselves. Some were smoking, some reclining listlessly upon the pillows, following the tangled thread of a hashish reverie or dream. A middle-aged woman sat bolt upright, gesticulating and laughing quietly to herself; another with lacklustre eyes and dropped jaw was swaying her head monotonously from side to side. A young man of about eighteen was on his knees, praying inaudibly; and another man, masked, paced rapidly and noiselessly up and down the room, until led away somewhere by the turbaned servant.
Like Ludlow before him, Kane did not know his limitations, and soon was hallucinating strange visions. At the end of his trip he saw a "thousand anguished faces" toiling at the bottom of a flame-encrusted abyss. Incarnate spirits of individuals who sought "happiness in the various narcotics." Their task in this netherworld? "To be obliged to yield day by day their lifeblood to form the juice of poppy and resin of hemp in order that theirdreams, joys, hopes, pleasures, pains, and anguish of past and present may again be tasted by mortals." After awakening from this reverie in a cold sweat, Kane left his companion and hightailed it for home.
The dirty streets, the tinkling car-horse bell, the deafening "Here you are! twenty sweet oranges for a quarter!" and the drizzling rain were more grateful by far than the odors, sounds, and sights, sweet though they were, that I had just left. Truly it was the cradle of dreams rocking placidly in the very heart of a great city, translated from Baghdad to Gotham.
And again, like Ludlow before him, Kane ended his adventures on a moralistic note. Consumption of cannabis for the purpose of idle recreation was clearly a costly endeavor to Kane, one approached and evaluated with mixed feelings.
REEFER MADNESS. Copyright © 1979 by Larry Sloman. Introduction copyright © 1983 by William S. Burroughs. Afterword copyright © 1998 by Michael Simmons.