Interviews

Dr. Barney Warf on the Geographical History of Cannabis

By David Jenison

Dr. Barney Warf on the Geographical History of Cannabis

Dr. Barney Warf is a University of Kansas professor who undoubtedly made many locals say, “I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” Teaching in the Geography and Atmospheric Science department, Dr. Warf is a cannabis advocate and an expert in its global distribution history. In 2014, Geographical Review published his in-depth study "High Points: A Geographical History of Cannabis" that tracks the plant’s journey from its Asian origin to its mass migration across six continents. The popularity of his research led to cannabis-themed talks for conferences, universities and community groups, but PRØHBTD spoke with Dr. Warf one-on-one to learn more.

You have said the Scythians played a key role in the diffusion of cannabis from India to the Middle East and into Eastern Europe. I was under the impression that the nomadic tribe first got cannabis from the Central Asian Steppe near Mongolia and Southern Siberia. Do we know which culture first started using and cultivating cannabis?

No one exactly knows. It was a long time ago, and the evidence is kind of fragmentary. The Scythians certainly had settlements of sorts, like temporary settlements, all throughout what is now Kazakhstan and Western China and up into Siberia. A number of excavations of their burial mounds called kurgans show warlords with their shields and weapons and then a pile of cannabis on their chest to accompany them into the afterlife. The Scythians also moved down into the Indus River Valley, and at times they would engage in raiding and at other times they were simply traders. It appears that both cannabis sativa and indica moved west under the auspices of the Scythians into Iran and into the Middle East, even into Greece and Poland and eventually into much of the rest of Europe. They were the primary vehicle.

Were the Scythians the first culture to start using and cultivating cannabis?

The Scythians? Oh, no. Well, that depends what you mean. In a certain sense, there were these nomadic tribes in addition to the Scythians who were using it on the fringes of the Gobi Desert in Western China. The Chinese actually learned about it from the Central Asian nomads, and a very rich tradition of cannabis use in China began, which was eventually stamped out by the rise of Confucianism.

The Scythians possibly harvested wild cannabis. Cannabis sativa evolved in the steppes of Central Asia, most likely around what is now Mongolia or so. Because they were a nomadic people, they didn't have time to sit and plant crops and harvest. The Chinese, in a certain sense, were probably the first culture to systematically raise domesticated cannabis and harvest it. That seems to be the earliest, by some accounts maybe 4,000 B.C. or so. There's a Chinese deity, the hemp goddess, and there were medicinal texts in Chinese, written reports of emperors using it for headaches and royal women using it during childbirth. This is long before the Scythians carried it into Eastern Europe, but there's overlap in the times here. There's some fuzziness regarding the dates. India, too, although I think Indian cannabis use was slightly later than in China.

Can you tell me about the hemp goddess?

The Chinese word for hemp is ma, and you have to be careful how you pronounce it because it's acommon word in Chinese and means different things. I have a little dog and pony show that I use based on this paper with PowerPoint slides. Magu was her name, and she was called the hemp maid, not the goddess. I guess I should say it right. From being a purely religious phenomenon, hemp apparently then began to acquire medicinal uses. There's a Chinese scholar named [Hui-Lin] Li who's done some extensive work on the history of cannabis in China.

When Confucianism arose, it disapproved of cannabis because it had this connotation of the Central Asian nomads. Confucianism is a very dour, conservative [religion]—not really a religion in the western sense, but we use the term anyway—that demands strict obedience to authoritarian rule of law and order. Confucianism strongly disapproved of cannabis use. That whole Chinese tradition began to fall apart in the 6th century AD. Still, for several thousand years, they were using it there.

If the original use was primarily religious, does any evidence suggest what made early civilizations view cannabis as a religious sacrament?

I'm not an expert on ancient drug use, but many cultures used drugs of different types for religious purposes. Think of peyote among tribes in the American Southwest. The idea of having a mindset that was out of the normal, like getting high, was often seen as a way of communicating with the spirit world. A way of having flashes of insight, inspiration, reading the future, communicating with the ancestors. It doesn't surprise me that there's this religious connotation to it. There was another tradition in India that largely revolved around the god Shiva that was similar in nature. These religious uses were very common.

Does the way in which the crop spread geographically say anything about its importance?

Yes, clearly crops can spread accidentally because seeds get picked up and inadvertently transferred somewhere else. I think in the case of cannabis, it's pretty clear that it was intentional and deliberate. It reflects the significance that the plant originally had for religious and medicinal purposes. It was important enough that the Scythians brought it with them into Ukraine and Eastern Europe where Herodotus learned about it from hanging out with the Scythians in the Crimean Peninsula. Over time, it gradually became more significant because it developed recreational uses as well.
It's one of the oldest cultivated crops that humanity has ever grown. It seems to me kind of silly to deny that significance and pretend that it's always been evil. In fact, the idea of making cannabis illegal is a fairly recent phenomenon. It's really in the 19th century that you begin to get some grumblings about it by the British. It's really in the moral panic of the early 20th century that it becomes demonized. For most of its history, it was not only legal but tolerated and even actively promoted by empires and corporations, like the British East India Company. I think all its history and geography reflect its centrality to many cultures, and the idea that there's something bad about smoking it is a more or less uniquely American kind of interpretation that then became globalized. It's still by far the most commonly used illegal drug in the world.

(Images left to right: 1862 Eugène Delacroix painting Ovid among the Scythians, Scythia map, hemp goddess Magu, the Hashashins, Hildegard of Bngen and a 1889 Arbuckle Bros. Coffee card for Russian hemp.)

You said the demonization of the plant is a recent phenomenon, but you also said Confucianism suppressed it in China. Were there any other examples of past cultures in which cannabis was viewed as an immoral evil?

Yes. I don't know about immoral, but there were certainly attempts to control it elsewhere. South Africa and Jamaica made it illegal before the United States did. There's some indication that in Medieval Egypt—I'm talking 12th, 13th centuries at the height of the Arab Empire—that one of the Caliphs of the Arab empire tried to, not make it illegal, but restrict its use greatly. It was apparently over concerns about widespread hashish smoking in Cairo and elsewhere. There was a short-lived war on cannabis that didn't get very far and eventually they just gave it up. Hashish is the purified resin of cannabis oil. You probably know the story of the hashashins, that legend?

Yes, the medieval assassins.

Right. How accurate that story is up for grabs. It may just be like an urban myth.

Do you think the word “assassins” came from the hashashins?

The word most likely did, although the connections between cannabis or hashish use and true assassins is a nice story. There are various versions of it about the old man on the mountain. He was a holy man who had visions of the future, but he developed a cult. The leaders of the cult would give young men hashish like, "This is what the afterlife is like if you carry out a suicidal mission." I'd like to see the historical evidence to that. There's so many myths and stories and gossip about cannabis that it's important that we stick to the facts.

In "High Points," you talk about how Russia was a major supplier of hemp. Why was Russia the major supplier, and did Russia’s dominance motivate other countries to encourage hemp farming?

First of all, let's be clear. Russia was a supplier of hemp rather than psychoactive cannabis. Hemp was in huge demand in the 18th and 19th centuries, largely for making sails and rope and things like that. There was even a very active hemp clothing industry throughout Europe and elsewhere. There were shortages of hemp, particularly in Western Europe. The Russian supply couldn't keep up with the demand, which is why, in part, the colonial governments began to encourage hemp growing. The French encouraged it in what is now Southern Quebec. British colonialists encouraged hemp growing in the Eastern U.S. The Spanish crown encouraged it in Venezuela and Colombia. Even in the U.S. during World War II, there was a Hemp for Victory campaign.

Russia may have been a supplier, but Russia supplied many things. It was a huge supplier of wheat for much of Europe up until the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. In growing hemp, many people—though not so much in North America as in South America—took to growing other kinds of cannabis as well, notably sativa. Indica didn't quite achieve the worldwide spread that sativa did until the British East India Company really began to promote it. There was some indica found in the Middle East and parts of Africa, but it was mostly sativa. I think we should just see Russia's role in light of its broader position as a supplier of crops and other kinds of commodities in the emerging capitalist world system at the time.

You have said that cannabis history in Europe hasn’t been fully explored. What are some other parts of European history that need deeper research?

My particular interest in that regard concerns the earlier period, before the Enlightenment going back to the Bronze Age and Medieval Europe. I touch on some of this in the paper, and I'm not going to claim to be an expert on the history of European cannabis use, but we know that there were cannabis cults in Greece and in the Greek-speaking world. We know that there was cannabis in Medieval Germany. I quote the famous nun, Hildegard Von Bingen, a 12th-century figure, talking about smoking cannabis. We know that Merovingian Queens were buried with it. We know that the Vikings carried it. We know that, by the 15th century, the pope was upset about it, and that's why they issued the papal edict saying cannabis was used by witches. There clearly is this unexcavated history, and not just of hemp. We know hemp was widely used in Europe. I'm talking about smokable cannabis. Typically, sativa and sativa L went hand-in-hand with one another, and I would love to see somebody write a detailed history of it in that regard. There's actually more known about the history of cannabis in Africa than there is in Europe.

What do we know about the history in Africa?

At one point, I was thinking of working on a paper on this, but I never got around to doing it. My references regarding Africa are kind of dated, so it tells me there may not have been a whole lot of recent work on this. What I would suggest, if you haven't read it yet, is this book by Clarke and Merlin called Cannabis: Evolution and Ethnobotany that came out two years ago. That had a whole lot of stuff on Africa in it that I found really interesting. It's not specifically about Africa. It's just they had some useful tidbits in there.

Do people ever look at you funny in Kansas for researching cannabis? It is a conservative state.

I'm in a little bit of a delicate position because I'm a professor, and I have some, I don't know, I have a position of some...

Security?

I'm respectable, right? For me, cannabis legalization is an important political issue, and I'm passionately political. I have chosen to come out as a cannabis user because I think that the more people who do—particularly people who have some visibility, not that mine is very much—are in a position to help normalize it and eliminate the stigma of using it.

I just reviewed a book on the history of cannabis for our leading journal in geography. In the very beginning, I just say, “I've got to come out as a cannabis user.” I'm like, "Yeah. So what?" It's sort of like gays coming out of the closet; well, I'm coming out of the cannabis closet, if you will. I'm not violating any laws. The last thing I want to do is get mixed up in some legal bullshit about this. It's not illegal to say you admire cannabis. In fact, its use is totally legal in four states and will soon be in many more. I've taken modest steps to make myself a crusader for cannabis legalization.

I've done my talks mostly in Lawrence. I don't know if you know Kansas at all, but Lawrence is a little blue island in an ocean of deep red. Kansas is a conservative and reactionary state, but Lawrence is a university town. It's actually a very liberal town. It always votes democratic in gubernatorial and presidential elections, but we're drowned out by the ocean of reactionaries around us. Here it's been very well-received. I got an enormous amount of media attention from this cannabis paper, but more important than my ego is that the movement to legalize cannabis has gained moral stature and political clout, and that's what it needs.

Main photo credit: Wikipedia.

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