Paris in the mid-nineteenth century was an achingly cool place to be, emerging as the epicentre of the Romantic artistic movement that produced some of the greatest paintings and novels the world has ever seen. And while Parisian intellectuals gathered in cafes to discuss the latest artistic offerings, those at the forefront of the movement enjoyed their coffee with a generous lacing of cannabinoids at the fabled Club des Hachichins.
Possibly the world’s first cannabis club, this regular gathering of artists was without doubt the classiest crowd of marijuana connoisseurs ever to assemble, and included authors like Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas and Honoré de Balzac, as well as painters like Eugène Delacroix. Meeting between 1844 and 1849 at the Hotel Lauzun (by invitation only, of course), the artistic elites that made up the club were far too cool for spliffs, and used to drink spiced Arabic coffee laced with copious amounts of hash – or dawamesk, as it is known in North Africa.
From Napoleon To Les Miserables
Le Club des Hachichins owes its origins to Napoleon, who invaded Egypt in 1878. It was here that his troops first encountered hashish, and took a liking to it despite Bonaparte banning them from smoking or ingesting anything containing cannabis. As Napoleon’s men returned home to France, they brought their new discovery with them, giving the country its first taste of bud.
Parisian psychiatrist Dr Jacques Joseph Moreau was among the first scientists to take an interest in marijuana in the 1840s, and it was he who founded the Club des Hachichins by offering a cup of dawamesk to philosopher and journalist Théophile Gautier.
As one of Romanticisms leading lights, Gautier helped to popularise hash among the crème de la crème of the Parisian arts scene, many of whom joined him and Moreau for their regular get-togethers. In 1846, he published an essay in the Revue des Deux Mondes, entitled ‘Le Club des Hachichins’, in which he described the “greenish jam” that he and his contemporaries enjoyed with their coffee.
Gautier also describes his first taste of hashish, which Moreau handed to him before remarking that “this will be deducted from your share in paradise.”
A Truly Elite Membership
Among the club’s members was the famous poet Charles Pierre Baudelaire, who is said to have been reluctant to try cannabis and often attended meetings without actually consuming any. However, after finally sampling the dawamesk he penned a lengthy description of his experience, which was later translated into English by the legendary English eccentric Aleister Crowley.
The piece describes how he was initially overcome with the giggles, as he explains that “at first it is a certain hilarity, absurdly irresistible, which possesses you.” However, this soon gives way to what he describes as “a calm and motionless bliss,” whereby “pain, and the sense of time, have disappeared.”
As previously mentioned, Le Club des Hachichins was also frequented by Victor Hugo, whose most famous works include The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Misérables, as well as Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo. The latter of these novels, which was published during the club’s heyday, makes several references to the euphoric effects of hashish, even using it as a plot device to manipulate the actions of certain characters.
For example, when offering hashish to a guest, the Count of Monte Cristo exclaims: “That kind of green preserve is nothing less than the ambrosia which Hebe served at the table of Jupiter,” before adding “taste this and the boundaries of possibility disappear.”
Science Meets The Arts
While Le Club des Hachichins may have helped to inspire the minds of some of France’s greatest artists, it also left a scientific legacy in the form of Moreau’s book, De Hachish et de l’Alienation Mentale – Études Psychologiques (Hashish and Mental Illness – Psychological Studies).
Published in 1946, the work is one of the earliest analyses of the therapeutic potential of cannabis written by a Western scientist. In it, Moreau describes his observations of the effects of cannabinoids, explaining how they allow for new ideas to emerge and rigidly held beliefs to disintegrate. He therefore claims that cannabis could be used in the treatment of depression, by allowing sufferers to break free from their negative thought patterns.
More than 150 years later, contemporary psychiatrists are only just beginning to realise that Moreau may well have been onto something.