The stories behind historical writings
The earliest written accounts of the effects of cannabis on the psyche date back to about 4000 years ago in China. The first known pharmacopoeia, Pên-ts'ao Ching, describes how if cannabis is taken in excess it will produce hallucinations (literally 'seeing devils'), and if taken over a long time 'it makes one communicate with spirits and lightens one's body'. (1). A few thousand years later, the analgesic effect of cannabis and its distortion of the perception of time have been described (1).
It is worth noting that there was a fine line between medicine and magic in those days. Medicine was seen as a magical wonder, and shamanism was widely practised in Asian countries. Shamanism was also popular with nomads, and human exploitation of the plant continued to spread across the globe. A 3800-year-old Babylonian clay tablet suggests that cannabis was used as a remedy for grief and epilepsy in Sumer (Mesopotamia) (3). Later, the Atharvaveda Hindu scripture (ca. 1200–1000 BC) claims that cannabis can 'release us from anxiety' (9).
There was a fine line between medicine and magic in those days
The Greek historian Herodotus described the use of burnt cannabis flowers in funeral rites, where participants 'screamed with delight' (3). However, in 14th-century Egypt, people were warned that cannabis could lead to sudden death or insanity (2). The large variation in the potential effects of the plant were discovered early on.
In Europe however, the psychoactive effects were not particularly well known until the 19th century. Cannabis seeds were initially described as having a potentially beneficial effect on frightening dreams in depression (10). The Frenchman Jacques-Joseph Moreau (1804–84) experimented with cannabis on himself. He reported that the drug could produce a feeling of 'pure ecstasy', but also create disorganised thoughts and distort the perception of time (11).
The Irish doctor Sir William Brooke O'Shaughnessy (1809–89) studied the effects of Indian hemp while serving in the British East India Company in the 1830s (6). His research culminated in the first modern scientific article on cannabis use (12). In the introduction, he refers to the drug's apparent dual effect: in small doses it can act as a stimulant, such as on the appetite and the human organism in general, but in larger doses it can have a sedative effect and 'induce insensibility'. He goes on to explain: 'As to the evil sequelae so unanimously dwelt on by all writers, these did not appear to me so numerous, so immediate, or so formidable …'.
Queen Victoria used cannabis for menstrual pain, the cultural elite in France had their own hash clubs
Towards the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th century, cannabis became increasingly widespread and accepted in Europe. Queen Victoria (1819–1901) used it for menstrual pain, the cultural elite in France had their own hash clubs, and Duchess Elisabeth of Bavaria used it for coughs and as an appetite stimulant (11, 13, 14).
The eminent British neurologist Sir John Russell Reynolds (1828–96) summarised his experiences with cannabis in The Lancet (15). He cited his colleague, Dr Williams, who warned his medical students against the dubious effects and the risk of intoxication. However, Reynolds claimed that cannabis 'when pure and administered carefully, is one of the most valuable medicines we possess'. He reported a positive effect on 'senile insomnia' (delirious patients who wander at night), alcoholic delirium and melancholia. In contrast, he described the effect on mania as 'worse than useless'.