Cannabis Pioneers – From Ancient History to the Modern Era
Cannabis use has been stigmatized in the United States since the late 1930s, and has been listed as a Schedule I drug (making it, in the government’s eyes, legally on par with heroin and methamphetamines) since the 70s. Because of this, many Americans may not know the stories of some of the world’s celebrated cannabis pioneers.
There are prominent figures in cannabis culture throughout all of human history – and now that restrictions are beginning to lift and more people have access to CBD and other cannabis products, we believe it’s past time to shine a light on those who came before us. Here are some stories of the most important, the most knowledgeable, the most celebrated, the wildest, the well-known, the mythological, and the weirdest cannabis figures, from ancient history up until now. We know there’s no way to cover every awesome historical figure who used cannabis – if you know of someone we missed, send us an email and we’ll look into adding them to this list!
Emperor Shennong (28th century BCE)
If you’ve read all of the Fairwinds CBD blogs, this name might look familiar to you. Emperor Shennong (the Divine Farmer) is one of the most prominent figures in the history of medicinal cannabis use, and he may not have even really existed. In ancient Chinese history, there are Three Sovereigns – three legendary, mythological emperors who ruled for generations and influenced Chinese medicine/culture heavily.
Emperor Shennong is said to be the founder of Traditional Chinese Medicine, the man who discovered tea, and among the first to recognize the value of the cannabis plant. Whether such a man actually lived or is simply representative of a shift in culture during that time is unknown, but it’s undeniable that the influence of this mythological emperor lives on; the oldest surviving Chinese pharmacopeia is called the Shennong Ben Cao Jing (translated, “Divine Farmer’s Materia Medica”). The Shennong Ben Cao Jing mentions 365 medicinal herbs and their healing properties – one of which is cannabis.
Hua Tuo (~140-208 CE)
Another name you may recognize if you’ve read our previous blogs, Hua Tuo was a Chinese surgeon during the early Common Era. Practicing in the late second century, Hua Tuo is celebrated in Chinese culture as being the first known physician to use a form of anesthesia during surgery. His original formula is thought to have been a mixture of cannabis leaves and wine; in fact, the word for anesthesia in Mandarin (“mazui”) still contains the root word for hemp – “ma”!
A celebrated God of Hinduism and a crucially important component of Indian culture and history, Shiva is known for many things – not the least of which is His affinity for bhang (a traditional drink in India, made from crushed cannabis leaves and flowers mixed with a liquid, usually milk or tea). According to Hindu legend, Shiva once wandered off into a field to calm down after an argument with His family. He took a nap under a flowering plant, and, upon waking up, decided to try the flowers. After doing so, He experienced an instant rejuvenation and began to share His experience with others. He is frequently depicted alongside the cannabis plant, or drinking/preparing a mixture of Bhang.
Dr. William O’Shaugnessy (1809-1889)
An Irish physician, Dr. O’Shaughnessy made a massive impact on medicinal cannabis use in America and the United Kingdom, from the mid-1800s up through cannabis prohibition in the US in 1937. During the 1820s, O’Shaughnessy was sent to Calcutta with the British East India Company; as a member of the Medical and Physical Society of Calcutta, he published a paper discussing some of the potential medical uses of cannabis. Most notably, O’Shaughnessy became celebrated for calming a child’s epileptic seizures by administering a cannabis tincture!
After leaving Calcutta in 1841, O’Shaughnessy continued his research and writings on the efficacy of medical cannabis; this is when cannabis really began to enter the “public domain” and its use became fairly prevalent in Western societies. O’Shaughnessy is thought to be the man responsible for first bringing cannabis into the spotlight here in the United States. Additionally, the etymology of the word “indica” is thanks to him! Named for the cannabis brought over from India, with “indica” being Latin for “of India.”
Sir J Russell Reynolds (1828-1896)
Sir Reynolds may not be a name many are familiar with, but we bet you’ve heard of who he worked for: Reynolds was one of the Royal Court physicians for Queen Victoria. Rumors abound regarding the Queen’s use of cannabis tinctures to treat her menstrual cramps (and later, menopause symptoms); however, these stories have proven essentially impossible to corroborate. While there may be no way to confirm if the Queen herself medicated with cannabis, there is plenty of confirmation that Sir Reynolds was aware of its intrinsic value! In 1890, he wrote that “When pure and administered carefully, it [cannabis] is one of the most valuable medicines we possess”. So even though we might not be able to confirm that one of the most well-known regents in modern history used cannabis, it’s promising to know that its medical use was wide-spread and accepted throughout England during her reign.
Dr. Raphael Mechoulam (1930-)
One of the most unbelievably important figureheads in the evolution of cannabis history, science, and culture – and one of the only ones still alive today – is Dr. Mechoulam. An Israeli scientist and Holocaust survivor, Dr. Mechoulam was the first to: identify the ECS (Endocannabinoid System), identify the structure of CBD (cannabidiol), isolate Δ9-THC (Delta-9 Tetrahydrocannabinol), identify Anandamide (one of the body’s two endocannabinoids)… the list of his priceless contributions to the understanding of cannabis goes on long enough that he deserves his own movie – and he’s got one. If you’re interested in learning more about this amazing pioneer, you can find an extremely informative documentary about his life and work, The Scientist, on YouTube!
Dr. William C Woodward (1867-1949)
During the late 1920s and throughout the 30s, support for cannabis prohibition was taking off in the US. Through the efforts of men such as William Hearst and Henry Anslinger, and via propaganda such as the film Reefer Madness, cannabis was becoming successfully stigmatized as “harmful” after decades of effective use as a medicine throughout the nation. And in 1937, the first federal law against cannabis was passed despite the concerns of the AMA (American Medical Association) and Dr. William C Woodward in particular.
In fact, Dr. Woodward delivered an impassioned speech to Congress in opposition to this law being passed. His full statement can be found online, but to us, the standout phrase is this: “To say, however, as has been proposed here, that the use of the drug should be prevented by a prohibitive tax, loses sight of the fact that future investigation may show that there are substantial medical uses for cannabis.” His words went unheeded by the US government and stringent laws were passed, but his wisdom has lived on in cannabis activists ever since. We hope that were he alive today, Dr. Woodward would be proud to see how far cannabis legalization has come.
William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
Whether or not the world’s most famous playwright actually smoked cannabis himself or not remains unknown, but what we do know is that four pipes from the 17th century that were unearthed on his Stratford-upon-Avon property were recently tested and found to contain traces of compounds with chemical structures very similar to that of THC. There’s no way to confirm if Shakespeare himself smoked, if someone smoked cannabis out of a pipe at his property, or if someone nearby saw a convenient place to bury a pipe they were no longer using – but the simple presence of this paraphernalia around his home seems to have been enough to catapult The Bard into cannabis stardom.
Maya Angelou (1928-2014)
Before the release of her incomparable autobiography I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings in 1966, Maya Angelou was first visited by what she referred to as her “cannabis muse” two decades earlier in 1946. When she was a waitress, Ms. Angelou first tried smoking cannabis with some customers. After smoking a joint, she wrote in her journal that “From a natural stiffness, I melted into a grinning tolerance… for the first time, life amused me” – just one more anecdotal example of the amazing capability cannabis has to help people cope with trauma*. Maya Angelou remained a regular cannabis consumer throughout her incredible writing career, frequently citing cannabis as one of her biggest inspirations.
President James Monroe (1758-1831)
Almost all of the founding fathers of the United States grew hemp on their plantations in the late 1700s (it was actually frowned upon not to during America’s earlier days) but none of them are confirmed to actually have been consumers of cannabis themselves, be that for medicinal reasons or just for recreation.
The same can’t be said for James Monroe, who is rumored to have first been introduced to the wonders of hashish when he was the US Ambassador to France – and said to have continued enjoying to smoke it up until his death. This statement is the closest we have to a real corroboration of any of the founding fathers smoking cannabis, and it’s likely the most concrete proof we’re going to get. And in our opinion, whether or not these early presidents smoked is less relevant than the fact that they saw the undeniable value of hemp as a crop.
President John F Kennedy (1917-1963)
Though there may not be much in the way of concrete evidence of the American founding fathers using cannabis, there is plenty of proof that presidents from a more recent era imbibed. President Kennedy’s
admittance of using cannabis to help alleviate his chronic back pain isn’t really shocking on its own, but what truly cements his place on this list is the fact that he was said to kick back with a joint every now and then – in the White House. It’s rumored that he once smoked three consecutive joints with a friend of his and said, after burning down all three, “Suppose the Russians did something now…”.
This is one of the most important steps towards normalization that we can think of! No one bats an eye if (and when) the leader of the free world drinks a glass of Scotch from an artistic glass decanter in the Oval Office – we truly feel it should be the same in regards to smoking a joint or taking a bong hit here and there.
Pharaoh Ramesses II (1279-1213 BCE)
Cannabis was used for medicinal purposes throughout many ancient Egyptian dynasties; one of our most notable mentions of cannabis in ancient history comes to us from an Egyptian document called the Ebers Papyrus. Cannabis pollen and flowers were found with the mummy of Ramesses II, which many view as evidence of the Pharaoh being partial to the plant – likely for religious/ceremonial reasons. Cannabis was used frequently as both a medicinal and spiritual tool throughout several generations and dynasties of ancient Egypt.
Sultan Abdulaziz I (1830-1876)
The 32nd emperor of the Ottoman Empire, Sultan Abdulaziz, was the first to visit many Western countries, including the US. During the Centennial Exhibition of 1876 in Philadelphia (the first official World’s Fair to take place in the US), Sultan Abdulaziz is said to have brought plenty of cannabis paraphernalia and gifts with him in order to share the culture of his homeland. Alongside demonstrations of how to best use a hookah, cannabis smoke was shared amongst Americans who had never experienced it before. The exhibition was so popular that, after this World’s Fair, Turkish-style smoking lounges began to open all across the northeast US. Supposedly, there were over 500 lounges in New York at one point!
Dr. Francis Crick (1916-2004)
One of the people who discovered the double-helix structure of DNA in 1952 (Francis Crick, a Nobel Prize winner) was a huge supporter of ending cannabis prohibition. If you ask us, he pretty successfully kicks the “cannabis consumers can’t be successful” stigma right off of its pedestal. There are stories that, in his later life, he also regularly partook of LSD; depending on who you ask, you may even hear that he was high when he first discovered that double-helix.
While that’s all speculative, there is plenty of concrete evidence in support of his cannabis use. He was one of the founding members of SOMA (the Society Of Mental Awareness) and was one of their signatories on an infamous full-page ad they placed in the New York Times which stated that the laws against cannabis were “immoral in principle and unworkable in practice”; he also helped formulate a THC tincture for SOMA, as tinctures were at that time still available by prescription.
Carl Sagan (1934-1996)
The world’s most celebrated astronomer since Galileo and the man behind the original ‘Cosmos’ series, Carl Sagan should be on every list of important cannabis figures. In 1969, when he was 35 years old, Sagan wrote an anonymous letter under the name “Mr. X” in which he outlined why he personally appreciated the effects of cannabis, and why he felt its use should be encouraged, not prohibited. He wrote that when high on cannabis, he was able to experience far more insight into social issues, gain a better understanding of music and art, and more capably experience “an area of creative scholarship very different from the one I am generally known for.” The authorship of this powerful essay remained unknown until after Carl Sagan’s death; however, the message it carries rings true regardless of its writer.
Club Des Hashishins (founded 1844)
In mid-19th century France, authors & writers were partial to joining clubs and coalitions together – a place to discuss ideas, share stories, and get together with other creative minds. One of these clubs was a bit different than the norm, and open only to the open-minded. Club des Hashishin held monthly gatherings in an old Parisian hotel; here they would drink strong Arabic coffee “liberally mixed” with hashish. While there are records of other drugs being experimented with at these meetings, the main thing consumed was cannabis. Notable members of this group included Alexandre Dumas (author of, most notably, The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo), Charles Baudelaire, Victor Hugo (the writer of Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame), and Honore de Balzac.
An incomprehensive list
This short list of notable people throughout history who used cannabis is definitively not complete. Since the plant continues to face such a stigma (as it has for decades at this point, making the negative associations deeply ingrained in society), there is no way to know how many important historical figures tried cannabis or consumed it regularly – but our hope is that seeing a list, brief though it may be, of intelligent, celebrated individuals who smoked weed helps do its part to end the stigma we continue to fight against in the legal cannabis and hemp industry.