The history of cannabis includes several key moments—the Scythians in the Central Asian Steppe, the Pen Ts’ao Ching pharmacopoeia in Ancient China, Dr. O’Shaughnessy’s medical research in India, Dr. Moreau’s hashish eaters in Paris, Dr. Dre’s The Chronic in Compton—but the New World arguably played the largest role in how people consume cannabis today. Dr. Barney Warf, a professor in the Geography and Atmospheric Science department at the University of Kansas, is an expert on the geographical history of cannabis. He argues that the settlers, when introduced to a Native American custom, launched a smoking trend that would circle the globe. PRØHBTD asked Dr. Warf about key inventions in cannabis history, and he explained the New World’s influence.
The invention of the wheel and the domestication of the horse were major events that helped spread both language and cannabis. What other revolutionary changes played a transformational role in the distribution of the plant?
The wheel was invented in the Middle East, and it's not exactly clear who first came up with the idea, but it was adopted by many of the nomadic tribes of Central Asia. I emphasize the role of the Scythians in Central Asia, who were an Indo-European tribe. They were sort of predecessors of the Iranians today. They played a key role in the diffusion of cannabis from India to the Middle East and into Eastern Europe. There wasn't a lot of technological change going on at the time. The wheel was certainly one of the foremost of these. The chariot and wagons… it allowed trade along the emerging Silk Road routes to flourish rapidly.
The other innovation as far as cannabis is concerned is the pipe. Pipe smoking was virtually unknown in the Old World up until the 16th century when it was introduced from the New World. The one exception seems to be in Ethiopia where there are pipes with remnants of cannabis found in them, but it seems to be an outlier that didn't have an impact on anybody else.
Prior to the 16th century, they either cooked cannabis, like reduced it to an oil or baked it in goods or made a soup out of it, or they would build small fires in a tent and then keep the smoke confined in the tent. That's how the Scythians used it, as testified by Herodotus. The pipe diffused into the Old World much later—this is thousands of years after the wheel—but it greatly accelerated the popularity of cannabis smoking and made it much easier and spread its popularity. It increasingly began to shift from being a religious product, which it was in many cultures, to being a recreational one. In many cultures, it was reserved for religious occasions, like in much of India, for example.
You noted that pipe smoking started in the New World. Was there a particular situation that prompted colonists to try smoking the plant in a pipe?
I have a quote in the beginning of my paper [High Points: The Historical Geography of Cannabis] that says, “There was a great brown tsunami that washed up the Thames River” or something like that. Tobacco smoking became all the rage among European elites and increasingly among the working class over time. It didn't take much imagination to jump from tobacco to cannabis smoking in that way. One of the upshots was that, by the 18th and 19th centuries, many European intellectuals would get together and smoke in salons, which were places where educated men got together to exchange ideas and have political debates. It's kind of a famous institution of the European enlightenment. There was a whole Hashish Club in Paris that included a number of notable French writers and philosophers and what have you. Why the European tradition of cannabis smoking has received so little attention, I really don't know. Frankly, it just mystifies me.
The pipe quickly moved into China as well for smoking opium. Opium kind of displaced cannabis in much of Eastern Asia. Well, not displaced, Confucianism had made cannabis essentially extinct in China, Korea and Japan. Opium smoking, primarily among the elites, and up until the 19th century, kind of came to be a substitute there. Widespread pipe smoking as we know it is a fairly recent phenomenon historically. Cigarettes, of course, were a 20th-century invention.
The pipes became popular in the New World before it became popular in Europe?
Oh, yes, in both North and South America. Where exactly the pipe began in the Americas, I don't know. I'm sure some archaeologist has probably looked into it. There is the tradition of the peace pipe, for example, among North American tribes. In South America, they were smoking, but not tobacco. It was, I think, ayahuasca and other types of drugs. Pipe smoking was very much a New World creation. The Europeans learned about it from the Indians.
Image of street art in Nepal by Nowak Lukasz/Shutterstock. David Jenison (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD.