Cannabis historian Jamie Shaw reveals that the plant has been at the centre of cataclysmic events for centuries

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The history of cannabis has been intertwined with colonialism, repression, and racism dating back hundreds of years.

And the first war on drugs didn’t take place in modern-day America under U.S. president Richard Nixon. That's because nearly two centuries earlier, Britain and France were killing each other's soldiers and navy sailors over hemp.

These were just two of the fascinating insights into the history of cannabis offered up by Jamie Shaw, a partner at Groundwork Consulting, in a lively lecture last weekend at SFU Harbour Centre in Vancouver. It was part of Grassroots Expo 2018 for the Cannabis Curious.

Shaw, also a director of the B.C. Independent Cannabis Association, wove together several strands of history to demonstrate that the plant has been at the centre of many major events through the ages.

She pointed out that the word “ganja” originated in India. Legend has it that the Hindu god Lord Shiva created a cannabis-infused drink called bhang after discovering how it rejuvenated him. The holiday known as Holi occurs on the same day that Lord Shiva burned Kamadeva, the Hindu god of human love or desire.

“Holi is the Hindu name of a festival of spring and colour and love, during which cannabis drinks were often consumed—and still are,” Shaw said.

The 2016 video for Coldplay’s hit song, “Hymn for the Weekend”, captures the joy of Holi, when people smear one another in festive colours while engaging in zany fun.

Coldplay's "Hymn for the Weekend" captures the joyfulness of Holi in India.

It’s not just India where cannabis was a central part of life. Shaw said that in ancient China, the word for cannabis is pronounced “mah”. The symbol looks like cannabis drying in a shed. This was adapted for other Chinese words for narcotic, numb, paralysis, and limp.

“So all of these places had cannabis knowledge,” Shaw explained. “But none of them is where our knowledge came from.”

In fact, she said, it was the nomadic Scythian people who roamed through a vast area including Ukraine, Russia, and Central Asia from the ninth to seventh centuries before Christ’s birth. They had no written language, but they had a word for cannabis, which sounded like campis. Cannabis, as it was known in Latin, went by different, albeit similar-sounding names in various parts of Europe and Samaria: kanab in Persian, hannakisamong tribes in what’s now Germany, honnuk in Dutch, homp in Old English, and hempin English.

Shaw also linked the repression of cannabis to the Inquisition, which was launched by the Catholic Church in the late medieval period.

“It would start initially focused on members of the church who were considered heretical,” she said. “Over the next two, three hundred years, it would start to evolve. It would start to include Muslim people and Jewish people, and then it would start to be focused on witches.”

Shaw emphasized that those who became the top target held "healing knowledge". In other words, they used herbs, likely including cannabis, to address things like pain and coping with pregnancy.

“At least one member of the church knew that this was garbage,” she added. “While the church was burning witches, he actually burned his medical textbook, saying he knew everything not from the books but from the witches.”

His name was Paracelsus, a Swiss doctor and alchemist who practised in the early 16th century. He’s been credited as the father of toxicology, based on what he learned from witches.

Cannabis was in use in England that time, possibly by playwright William Shakespeare. Shaw said that this is because resin was found in tobacco pipes discovered in the bard's garden.

“We don’t know for sure that it was Shakespeare that smoked it,” she added.

Pipes found in William Shakespeare's garden were used to smoke cannabis.

It wasn’t until near the middle of the 18th century that cannabis became linked to colonialism. The London-based East India Company seized Bengal. That began the process of the British gradually taking over control of the Indian subcontinent.

“It would be very expensive, but they also had a trade deficit with China because they really liked tea,” Shaw said. “Tea was expensive and they were buying a lot of tea from China.”

The British lock on Bengal gave it a monopoly on opium production. So according to Shaw, they increased shipments to China from 15 to 75 tons a year to bring in much-needed revenue.

China responded by trying to outlaw opium. This occurred as prices were falling due to Americans breaking the British monopoly with product acquired from Turkey.

She noted that the British ramped up production of opium in the early 1800s as the Napoleonic wars got under way.

Britain needed hemp for its navy, Shaw stressed, and traditionally relied on Russia as its supplier. But that came to an end when Napoleon and the Russian czar signed a treaty in 1807.

Five years later, America and Britain came in conflict in the War of 1812, with the Americans burning hemp fields north of the border.

“Those Loyalists were given land in exchange for growing hemp when they lost the American colonies,” Shaw explained.

Meanwhile in the 1800s, China was trying to deal with its growing opium problem by destroying the drug on the docks as it arrived from British-controlled India.

That led to the first of two Opium Wars between China and the British, resulting in humiliating defeats for the Chinese and the loss of its autonomy over Hong Kong and several other seaports.

These colonial wars left a lasting mark on residents of China and their government until today.

“People get confused sometimes by the amount of blowback [against cannabis] from the Indian and Chinese communities,” Shaw said. “It’s because of how they were handled by the British. It’s because of what was done to them.”

Her lecture also delved into how cannabis was a convenient vehicle for authorities to target Latin Americans, African Americans, hippies, and Jews in America in the 20th century.

But there was one period when hemp made a comeback as an important fibre. That was during the Second World War after the Japanese took over the Philippines, depriving America of its supply of jute.

After the war ended, she said laws against cannabis became an easy way to target the African American community, in particular.

As Canada gets ready to legalize cannabis on October 17, Shaw isn't feeling any sense of complacency that this repression won't disappear anytime soon.

“The end of prohibition isn’t a win,” Shaw emphasized. “It’s a draw. And it’s a war that’s still going on.”

She closed by saying that if there was any take-away from her presentation, it should be to “respect each other and respect the herb.”

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