A new analysis of early 17th-century tobacco pipes from an English town known as Stratford-upon-Avon gained worldwide attention recently. Four of the clay pipes were obtained from the gardens of William Shakespeare, and a sophisticated chemical analysis of the residues found the presence of cannabis.
It was among many types of plants smoked by folk of the Elizabethan era. One can imagine the setting—a Shakespearean play being performed to an audience smoking pipes, getting high and enjoying the greatest playwright of their time. Or garden parties at Shakespeare’s home, where intellectuals and artists pondered the issues of their time while toking up.
The man himself viewed cannabis as a mind-stimulating substance that could foster creative writing. Perhaps some of his greatest lines came about by “invention in a noted weed,” as Shakespeare wrote.
While artists have recognized the creative potential of cannabis for centuries, people all over the world have used it for a wide variety of purposes, including medicinally. In fact, it appears that hunter-gatherers are unconsciously using medical cannabis, and have been for many generations.
Washington State University researchers studied a foraging tribe called the Aka that dwell in Congo basin, representing one of the last hunter-gatherer societies left in the world. They found that the more hunter-gatherers smoke cannabis, the less they are infected by intestinal worms.
It may not sound like much, but it offers an alternative hypothesis to explain human drug use.
“The prevailing explanation is that recreational drugs “hijack the pleasure centers of the brain,” making people feel good. But they also trigger mechanisms that tell us we’re consuming something toxic, tasting bitter and making us feel sick.
“So we thought, ‘Why would so many people around the world be using plant toxins in this very ‘recreational’ way?” said Hagen. “If you look at non-human animals, they do the same thing, and what a lot of biologists think is they’re doing it to kill parasites.”
“In the same way we have a taste for salt, we might have a taste for psychoactive plant toxins, because these things kill parasites.”
Cannabis could have arrived to the Aka with traders at around the first century A.D., or it may have been brought by European colonization in the 17th century. Maybe Shakespeare and the Aka descendants shared some bud from the same crop.
In any case, these studies highlight the fact that cannabis has been used for beneficial purposes by all sorts of people for a very long time. Whether stimulating creativity leading to the Enlightenment, or warding off parasites in the tropical rainforest, cannabis has had positive influences throughout human history.
Cannabis was even known to the mysterious Scythians of the Russian steppes. They were fierce nomads that lived from the ninth century BC to the fourth century AD and built no cities. Recent excavation of a grave mound, known as a kurgan, contained a small trove of gold objects. Gold vessels with intricate inscriptions contained jewelry and a sticky residue which was determined to be cannabis and opium.
“The researchers believe the opium was used in a tea of sorts and consumed, while the cannabis was smoked. The find corresponds to the writing of Greek historian Herodotus, who described occasions where the Scythians burned a plant to produce a smoke that made them shout out loud.”
These discoveries add to the expanding encyclopedia of historical medical cannabis use, which includes ancient China, Egypt, India, and Greece, as well as medieval Islam.
Medical cannabis was used in the US until 1941, when the federal government became hysterical over the plant and began outlawing it. The American Medical Association tried to prevent government from going down this ludicrous path.
Dr. William C. Woodward told Congress in 1937 that “The American Medical Association knows of no evidence that marijuana is a dangerous drug” and warned that prohibition “loses sight of the fact that future investigation may show that there are substantial medical uses for Cannabis.”
Now, as more and more states are legalizing medicinal and even recreational cannabis use, the federal government will not be able to cling to its immoral, baseless prohibition. If only Shakespeare were still around, he could take a toke and write a fine tragedy.