The impact of cannabis is prevalent across the globe, with each culture having its own unique purpose for the mystifying plant.
The devil’s herb, ganja, hippie lettuce, Mary Jane, chronic, and my personal favorite, wacky tobacky; are just a few of the connotations cannabis has been called in the last century.
No matter where you are in the world, everyone knows someone who partakes in the controversial plant’s properties; whether you’re rolling a spliff in the UK, buying weit from a dispensary in the Netherlands or performing a ritual burning of bhang at a Shinto Temple in India.
Besides cannabis’ obvious medical uses, spiritual purposes, anxiety reducing attributes and the hemp leaf’s resource potential; it’s easy to ponder how this plant went from being an advantageous resource to a villainous gateway drug.
The short answer is racism.
For an incredibly thoughtful look into marijuana’s relationship to racial injustice, I would have to direct you to my fellow writer, Lily Adami’s article which breaks down the history of marijuana and its xenophobic roots.
As someone who grew up in the United States, my relationship with psychoactive drugs like cannabis was decided for me by my high school health teacher.
Teacher described cannabis as a mind-altering agent that, although not addictive, was habit-forming and could easily lead to other addictive drugs and possible dependency.
Whether it was the teenage rebellion, political passion or just attention seeking behavior, I always considered myself at the forefront when it came to questioning certain perceptions my school deemed “evil.” Whether it was preaching women’s rights or pointing out racist bigotry, I have always been on the soap box yelling about something or the other.
More so than that, I was curious, it was impossible not to be. Being told what the drug was by someone else wasn’t enough for me and being warned to stay away from it only made me more curious.
The first step for me to develop an opinion on my own was to try this perplexing drug. Unfortunately, I was a shy, gangly freshmen who had the unfavorable habit of looking utterly confused at all times. Finding someone to sell drugs would have been a difficult operation, in retrospect, it was probably for the best.
So instead, I researched the drug and looked for perspectives that had been purposely withheld from me in my health class.
This led to the rabbit hole of cannabis and its cultural significance around the world. The most interesting fact I uncovered was the spiritual undertone of weed among specific cultures – a far cry from the synthetic, psychoactive substance I imagined in my head.
India: Divine intoxication in India
Historically and continuing today, cannabis has been a customary part of life in India where it’s associated with medical, spiritual, and social customs. According to a legend written in one of the four holy books known as Vedas, the Indian god Shiva is chronicled as the Lord of Bhang. Bhang is orally administered and can be made from the wet resinous cannabis leaves, milk, and spices. The Shaivite tradition voices that followers should use bhang as an offering to Shiva, it is seen as a symbolic surrender of life’s intoxications to the divine. One could argue that historically, bhang is to India what alcohol is to Western society.
Africa: Ancient Egyptian’s magical medicine
Egyptians have grown cannabis for over a thousand years and have been considered a weed-friendly civilization since the pharaohs dominated the world. The Ebers Papyrus mentions multiple different spells that Egyptian doctors used to cure illnesses. Cannabis is also represented in Egyptian hieroglyphics, these ancient artists most often carved images of the Egyptian Goddess Sheshat, the deity of record-keeping, with a seven-pointed leaf above her head, some believe this leaf to be the hemp leaf on cannabis.
South America: Poor man’s opium in Brazil
In the 14th century during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, Angolan slaves were stolen from the southwest African coast and exported to South America to work on sugar plantations in Brazil. Records indicate that some plantation owners allowed their slaves to grow maconha (cannabis) between rows of sugar cane. The slaves would be permitted to smoke and daydream when they weren’t working between harvests. Eventually cannabis became known in Brazil as the “opium of the poor.” Cannabis usage remained confined to the lower social classes of Brazil. The influence of cannabis in South America remains credited to the African Angolan’s culture and spiritual practices. This led to the ritual of Catimbo, which includes worship of African deities and the use of cannabis for magical practice or medicine.
It’s normal to perceive other cultures as bizarre to one’s own but I also think it is easy to ignorantly assume that we all associate the same convictions in good and evil. Immersion into another culture tests one’s own cultural beliefs and give the freedom we need to form an opinion for ourselves. I don’t know about you, but I think burning some wacky tobacky with a Buddhist monk in India sounds like a better way to curve my innate child-like curiosity more than just taking my health teacher’s word for it.