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"Liberty is the only thing you cannot have unless you are willing to give it to others."
William Allen White
"The only solution to the drugs problem is the legalisation of all drugs."
Sergeant Gordon Payne, Southampton Police
"Things alter for the worse spontaneously, if they be not altered for the better designedly."
Francis Bacon

A Brief History of Cannabis Prohibition - Part 1

By Drew Whitworth

Prehistory and Mediaeval Times
The use of cannabis in textile production, in medicine and for recreational purposes have all been documented from as early as 2,000 years or more before the birth of Christ. Herodotus wrote of it in 450 BC; Buddha was said to have eaten it; the Romans went to war with the Carthaginians over its trade.

It was first cultivated in Britain as early as c. 400 AD, and in c. 800 AD, the prophet Mohammed, while prohibiting the use of alcohol (an edict which in principle survives to this day), was tolerant of its recreational use. Of all cultures of this time it was probably the Hindus who were most enthusiastic about the use of cannabis - ganja is a Sanskrit word, and many sacred Hindu texts and rites referred to the drug in favourable terms.

The first clear prohibitions arrived in the Middle Ages. In 1484 the Pope, Innocent VIII, outlawed it - some Moslem leaders had done the same not long before, perhaps influenced by their fear of the hashishin cult. Maybe to spite her Papist rivals, Queen Elizabeth I actually released a decree compelling large landowners to grow the plant, though this was more for its agricultural and industrial uses (particularly the manufacture of paper) than any desire to help her subjects get off their faces on a regular basis. Even so, there was still no outright prohibition in the laws of most countries of the world, to almost all of which, by this time, the plant had spread. In the 1600s the British (including the Pilgrim Fathers) took cannabis with them to the New World and created huge hemp plantations in what became the United States. The Declaration of Independence was written on hemp paper.

Therefore, there is almost no record, throughout the 3,500 year period I've summarised above in two paragraphs, of any attempt to restrict personal use of cannabis (nor indeed any intoxicating substance). Did this mean the world was more tolerant then? In some ways, yes - but the draconian penalties imposed on transgressors in other areas of the law (e.g., the death penalty for poaching) shows the real attitudes of the time to "crime". That is, that the activities of the "poor" are of interest to law-makers only when they threaten the activities, lifestyle or (most importantly of all) the property of the "rich".

Until the dawn of the Victorian era, the primarily agricultural basis of society and the specialisation of war-making (with small professional armies and no widespread mobilisation of the "general public" at times of war) meant that it wasn't of any great consequence to the propertied classes what the poor got up to in their evenings. Come the industrial era, however, and the extreme increase in the need to mobilise the general public whether to go and work in factories or to be enlisted as soldiers, this tolerance was heading for a rapid nosedive - though not as immediately as you might think.