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Smokers - A HISTORICAL GUIDE

Smokin Moose

Fallen Cannabis Warrior
Smokers: a historical guide

Cannabis's influences on the world's historical development are many and varied. From classic literature and royal families to the design of album covers in the latter part of the 1960s, few aspects of life have passed untouched by the smoke of the noble weed. Here, roughly in chronological order, we present ten of these toking individuals or groups for your enjoyment...

* The Hashishin
* The American Indians
* William Shakespeare
* Queen Victoria
* Lewis Carrol

* 1950s America
* 1960s rock music
* Bob Marley and reggae
* The Magic Roundabout
* The modern day

The Hashishin

The alteration of consciousness through the repeated consumption of vegetable or plant products - e.g. drug taking - has been around as long as humanity has. Traces of cannabis have been found in human remains dated around 2,000 years before Christ's birth. Of all the great smokers of antiquity, though, I have chosen to highlight the contribution of the Hashishin, if only because they are at once the most famous and most notorious - and perhaps least understood.

Led by Hasan Al Sabah, the "Old Man of the Mountain", the Hashishin were a cult based at the mountain fortress of Alamut, located in what is modern-day Iran. By all accounts (including that of Marco Polo), these people - from whose name the modern term assassin is derived - were a pretty scary bunch. Hasan's followers were a band of fearless political killers, and his method of indoctrination was pretty unique. He constructed a secret garden furnished with all the paradisical delights of paradise - women, great food and, of course, hashish. After the would-be assassins had experienced a few days of this mediaeval rock star lifestyle they were cast out with a mission, and the promise that if they completed it successfully and then committed suicide, they would return to the paradise.
Hasan wondered whether the customs officers would work out where he'd hidden his stash

Of course, this tale has been used since to demonise hash smokers, by pointing to this association with what, let's face it, were some of the world's first terrorists. However, those who do so miss the crucial point - that it was only when these assassins stopped smoking that they turned into ruthless killers. I would guess that lying in Alamut caned as a lord is not a lifestyle particularly conducive to doing anything bar calling for another bowl of olives when you got the munchies. The moral is clear - smokers are in fact the good guys. It's only those who don't smoke who get violent and anti-social.


The American Indians

After a long day riding across the praries of the American west, the tribes liked nothing more than to lounge around in their wigwams smoking the appropriately-termed "Peace Pipe". Lassitude and relaxation would then spread through the tribe, because after all, living in the bounteous, beautiful and unspoilt New World must have been such a trial for the psyche. "Medicine men" - note the term - were charged with ensuring that the spiritual health of the tribe was maintained, by the cunning tactic of smoking themselves into a stupor at their regular festivals under the pretence that they were communing with the ancestors.

As they shared a friendly smoke, Big Chief Skinning Up was unaware that Hank had already discovered oil beneath his wigwam

For a more serious and very interesting discussion of the origins of "drop-out culture" in North America see the book Gone to Croatan: Origins of the Drop Out Cult by Ron Sakolsky (AK Press).



This sort of lifestyle, of which your average Sociology student would be proud, did the American Indians very well for thousands of years. Unfortunately it had ultimately tragic consequences, as while the inhabitants of the chilled-out New World were communing with their inner beings, the straight-laced and ultimately fascist residents of the Old one were getting on with raping and pillaging the environment in the name of "civilisation" and "industry". Despite occasional attempts by these muggles to drop out and find their heads in Indian culture (see: Kevin Costner), the invading forces were no match for the rather-too-blissed-out local braves. Smoking for peace was thus replaced for a century or so by the imperialist, non-intoxicating expansion of mainstream American culture: until the 1960s, anyway. Big Chief Skinning Up changed his name to Big Casino Boss and replaced his wigwam with a condominium in Palm Springs.



William Shakespeare
Will pondered long and hard over where he could score an eighth near the Globe that evening

When, last year, researchers thought it would be a wheeze to analyse the 400-year-old ash from pipes found in William Shakespeare's garden, little did they realise their despearate attempt to squeeze funding out of the "blood-from-a-stone" academic system would have such revealing results. Though their findings were the subject of a brief cover-up involving Kenneth Branagh, the Daily Mail and the Royal Family, smokers around the world smiled with wry amusement when traces of cannabis were found amongst the detritus. Stratford's most (or indeed only) famous son may well have enjoyed a puff or seven of our favourite drug.

The study mentioned here really did take place. See here or here for details.


Though "serious" (i.e., non-smoking) Shakesperian scholars pooh-poohed the idea that Will might have puffed the weed now and again, boringly retorting that there was no proof Shakespeare himself used the pipes found under his patio, those of a smoking persuasion suddenly viewed in a new light the torture they'd gone through in English classes during adolescence. A Midsummer Night's Dream was not a eulogy to the Elizabethan monarchy, but the results of a heavy night's smoking involving Will and that Bacon chappie. It also explained why such an undoubtedly talented playwright would have occasionally lapsed into writing characters such as Launcelot Gobbo. We can picture the scene. "Forsooth, good friend, I am caned and require sustaining vittals if I am to complete this Act before dawn. But first, I think it would be amusing to have a speech from a Fool again. 'Tis strange how only under the influence of this noble weed does my writing truly achieve the freedom of expression needed to craft my popular Fools." "Er, yes, right Will."


Queen Victoria

Yes indeed: Britain's most revered and commemorated monarch was quite the drug user. Cannabis, laudanum and other opiates; all were ingested into the royal body at regular intervals. Before any monarchists here or elsewhere get apopleptic about this slur, it's worth pointing out that the Queen was not, at the time, engaging in any illegal behaviour: the red mist of prohibition had yet to descend on Britain, and these and other remedies were much prescribed to personages at all levels of the society. Victoria reportedly suffered from bad period pains, and was willing to try a bit of herbal medication to relieve them. Good for her.
Whilst enjoying a salsa dip, Vicky pondered from where she could get her next puff

One does wonder however whether the Queen got anything more out of her medication than just release from PMT. All that jollying around with John Brown in Scotland might in fact have been helped along by a good old-fashioned release of endorphins provoked by a few smokes with the ghillie. What with this, Lewis Carroll's clear indulgences (see below), other celebrity users such as Coleridge, Sherlock Holmes (OK, I know he's fictional) and the prevalence of opium dens in most major towns and it is no wonder Queen Victoria was not amused. Like many others in the society over which she ruled, she probably just didn't get the jokes as quickly as she might have.


Lewis Carroll

You've doubtless already noticed that this site's logo is lifted from this man's Alice stories, and not just because the caterpillar is so obviously a caner. Think about the other references. For instance, Alice is exhorted by a curious foodstuff to "Eat Me", at the start of her travels. Already she and the reader are being subtly reminded of the infamous munchies. "Off with their heads!" screams the Queen of Hearts, as she seeks to have the Knave punished for scarpering with the space cakes. The Cheshire Cat wears the permanent smile of the slightly blitzed. And no-one who wasn't spliffed up could have written Jabberwocky. "Gyre and gimble in the wabes?" Please!
Lewis was too caned to show much excitement over his invention of the word 'borograves'

The Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson - as Carroll was properly known - is perhaps more notorious these days for his rather enthusiastic interest in prepubescent girls. However, just as that can more charitably be considered an expression of charming innocence, so should his clear interest in cannabis be re-evaluated as representative of a more relaxed time. What with that and Queen Victoria's use of the "royal weed", we should in fact see the Victorian era as a smoking Golden Age. A shame about the sexual puritanism, but you can't have everything.

1950s America

Cannabis smoking had been around in America as long as people had (see above) and this noble tradition was maintained throughout the 19th century, with many reports of hash smoking houses in large cities such as New York and San Francisco, and into the early 20th century in the jazz houses of New Orleans. There it would have doubtless flourished quietly and out of sight were it not for the great sea change in American culture which occurred just after the Second World War, a strange time in which everyone who was not white, clean-cut and had a nice lawn was immediately demonised. Cannabis, of course, being associated with distinctly nonconformist groups such as the aforementioned black jazz musicians was the subject of hilarious warnings aimed at discouraging nice white youth from going anywhere near it - though, as any sensible person would see, iconic propaganda-art such as that shown below was surely more likely to lead any self-respecting horny teenager to desperately crave a joint...
Be honest, would this put you off smoking? Or this?

Celebrity pot busts such as that of, most famously, Robert Mitchum were the Establishment's way of trying to ensure that said clean-cut white youth did not endanger the soul of white America by corrupting itself with the wicked weed. Judge the success of this policy for yourselves...

1960s rock music

When someone - whose name has unfortunately been lost to history - passed George Harrison a spliff in 1966, little did he or she know of the consequences to come. The Beatles mellow out, sod off to India to jam with the Maharishi, and release Revolver, complete with sitars, and caned doodles on the cover. Suddenly everyone with pretensions to rock stardom in the latter part of the 1960s is toking down and recording eleven-minute songs with titles like "Interstellar Overdrive" (see Pink Floyd pic below). Nor did high-profile rock star busts such as that of the Rolling Stones (the infamous "Mars Bar" incident - of course no-one has ever ventured the rather more boring but more plausible theory that all they were doing with said Mars Bar was relieving some desperate munchies) do the drug's burgeoning profile with teenage youth any harm.
Roger Waters was worried that the tropical hand-expanding disease he'd caught on their tour to South America would hamper his guitar-playing

With a little bit of acid as well to heighten the high, the ensuing "Summer of Love" produced some undoubtedly brilliant music - see selected discography below. And as weed spread through the counterculture on both sides of the Atlantic, other seminal moments such as the campfire scene in Easy Rider firmly rooted the 1960s pothead in world history. However, like every other extended dalliance with herbal inspiration, there were also some dreadful moments of embarrassing tedium. Who now remembers the seminal Moby Grape? Who has ever sat through the Monkees' Head in one sitting? Who does not await with dread the thirteen-minute drum solo awaiting in every prog rock happening of the early 1970s? (Note to younger readers: only Mogwai do this sort of thing nowadays, so you are spared this particular drug-related horror.)

Worth listening to: The Doors, Love, Nick Drake, the soundtrack from Woodstock (except for Ravi Shankar's ragga), the Beatles' "A Day in the Life".

Avoid like the plague: any drum solo (particularly "Moby Dick" off Led Zeppelin 2), Ravi Shankar's twenty-minute ragga from Woodstock, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Genesis.


Bob Marley and reggae

When, in 1972, Bob Marley became the first man on Earth to have a spliff surgically grafted to his face, this turned out to be a stroke of marketing genius. A musical form that rich white youth had yet to properly discover was suddenly turned into a hip form of countercultural expression (to the surprise, but also the commercial benefit, of the Rastafarians who had been happily toking away for years). Subsequently, no Island Records album cover was complete without artists such as Peter Tosh sporting a bifter the size of a small Caribbean atoll, and naive white folks suddenly decided it would be cool to grow dreads, use the word 'ganja' without really knowing what it meant and visit the Notting Hill Carnival to photograph jolly officers of the Met cavorting with voluptuous Caribbean ladies.

The association between reggae and weed is not just a photographic one, however. As weed enhances physical sensations, it also gave the artists an excuse to turn the bass up to woofer-shattering levels. Despite punk rock's stated antipathy to "pot" (with Sid Vicious sneering once, "only hippies smoke pot" - this from a man who allegedly knifed his girlfriend in a heroin-fuelled stupor and clearly has his finger on the pulse of drug discourse), musicians such as John Lydon and Jah Wobble returned from trips to Jamaica with psychological addictions to both weed and interminable bass solos, so anyone who saw Jah Wobble's bowel-loosening "dub symphony" Solaris knows what to blame now.

Essential listening for all would-be Rastas: Peter Tosh (especially the album Legalize It), Lee 'Scratch' Perry, Bob Marley and the Wailers, anything with the word 'Jah' in the title. Entirely non-essential listening: UB40.


The Magic Roundabout

The French are not normally a nation associated with herbal intoxicants, preferring their enlightenment to come in the form of wine, absinthe, or similar. Perhaps for that reason, but more likely the usual Anglo-Saxon cultural insularity, the obvious drug messages in Serge Danot's children's cartoon went unnoticed for long enough to get them past the "moral" Rotweillers at the BBC and, to the delight of smokers everywhere, transmitted to the youth of 1970s and 1980s Britain.
Dylan crashes out and misses seeing Florence's celebrated one-off nude scene


Most obvious of all, of course, was Dylan the reefer-rollin' rabbit (above). Permanently caned, he stumbled through the cartoon world, frequently doing stoner-type things such as falling asleep under trees just as the parties were getting going and saying "yeah man" a lot. (Rumours that Dougal was his dealer have never been substantiated.) A young Ann Widdecombe was reportedly traumatised by the realisation that Dylan was actually a drug-user, and never quite recovered. Other more stable personalities recognised however that Dylan was in fact a perceptive piece of social commentary, and anyway man, just look at those groovy colours.


The Modern Day

When potheads of the 25th century sit around the fire and smoke their weed by telekinesis, they might well relax and look back at cannabis's place in history. Perhaps they will say that the dawn of the 21st century marked perhaps the first time in the drug's history where cannabis had become mainstream. Then one of the party (probably the Politics student) will object that this is an offensively Western-centric position: only the dominant straight white culture of the late 20th century was so much in denial about the fact of sensible drug use to assign all of it to the (undesirable, or exploitable) "counterculture". Then someone else will tell that person to stop talking so much crap and pass the bong. All are right, in some ways.

This man gets another mention on this site here. His own web site is here.

The hair and the spliff were a good start but there was a fatal flaw in Howard's attempt to pass as a genuine Rastafarian

In Britain, at least, there are genuine signs in 2002 that "cannabis culture" is not only finally emerging into open view, but is becoming tolerated even by previously hostile elements in society: not so much the police (who to be fair have never really appreciated the fact that the social and economic costs of prohibition fall mainly on their shoulders), but successive politicians seeking a quick vote, and the right-wing press that stoke the fires of prejudice in order to do little more than warm the cockles of their editors' reactionary opinions. Recent statements by the government, the ubiquity of "cannabis celebrities" such as Howard Marks (left), and a rising popular movement which just might make prohibition collapse through being unworkable - hurrah! Sense and sensimilla!

What does the future hold? Anything you like... if you assert your own autonomy and identity. So smoke away and make the 21st century more mellow than it started off. Enjoy.
 
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