By the mid-19th century, doctors and psychiatrists in Europe and America started to become aware of the pronounced psychoactive effects of cannabis. Although cannabis had been known and used as a folk-remedy and in medicine in Europe for several thousand years, it was only in the 19th century that reports from doctors in Bengal and Cairo first alerted the wider medical profession to the extraordinary effects that extract of the plant could have. These are the “hashish doctors” who led the way.
Several European and American doctors and psychiatrists experimented with high doses of hashish or hashish tincture, not only on their patients but also on themselves.
These bioassays on themselves allowed them to better understand the potential effects of cannabis and the mental workings of their patients. This kind of approach to a novel medicine is not, of course, followed today.
A significant consequence of these published reports by doctors of the effects of hashish was that several writers and researchers of the time, some already famous, also tried hashish and wrote about it. This provided the general public with information about fascinating experiences with cannabis.
Doctors in America Experiment with Hashish Tincture
In the mid-19th century, several European and American physicians published reports of their own experiences with hashish or hashish tincture, which were sometimes frightening and unpleasant, sometimes euphoric. The symptoms of their experiences were generally typical of high-dose cannabis inebriation: bewilderment of space and time, heightened sensory awareness, a dream-like state, enormous thirst, and appetite, occasionally anxiety or nausea, and in some cases pronounced sexual excitement.
Charles Bell was an American doctor who experimented with high-dose hashish tincture in the 1850s.
In his published reports, he describes his first experience (Bell 1857:212): “All ideas of time and space were especially bewildered, and I realized completely for the first time the ideas of some metaphysicians, that time properly speaking, has no existence except in connection with a succession of mental operations or sensations.” Bell recovered after a few hours and believed that hashish could be a helpful tool to study insanity.
Three American doctors performed an interesting experiment on themselves to determine whether locally grown hemp had the same effect as Cannabis indica (Hamilton, Lecohier, and Perkins 1913). They each, in turn, took a tincture of both Cannabis indica, which was known by them to be psychoactive, and on another occasion, a mixture prepared from locally-grown Kentucky hemp, which they called Cannabis Americana. The doctors found that preparations made from both kinds of plants, Cannabis indica and Cannabis Americana, had exactly the same effect. They concluded that differences in experience were primarily a result of the temperament of the consumer. “Twelve years experience in observing tests of Cannabis Sativa obtained from different countries, Africa, India, Germany, Greece and various localities in North America, has supplied data to prove that they all contain the same active constituent” (Mikuriya 2007:81).
The same conclusion was reached by other American researchers twenty-five years later (Walton 1938). Resinous extracts (by alcohol) were made from Kentucky hemp and consumed significantly by H. C. Wood, Dr. Thomas, and others. Walton also describes (Mikuriya 2007:100) the case of a woman in England who became very intoxicated after smoking the tops and flowers of hemp growing in her garden.
The Psychoactive Effects of European Hemp
Writing in Paris in 1895, Bosc de Vèze (2020:29) comments that hashish tincture was made from hemp from India, Algeria, Alexandria, and Constantinople. That preparations of tincture made from [local] hemp are much less active than Indian hemp. Meunier, who worked in a laboratory for pathological psychology at the École des Hautes Études in Paris, comments (1909:4) that European hemp has the same active principle (principle actif) as Cannabis indica, the only difference being that for a psychoactive effect, you need to use three or four times the quantity of European hemp.
These reports conducted by medical professionals are important because, through observation of others who had taken cannabis, confirmed in some instances through self-administration, they demonstrated that although hemp grown in Europe and North America may have been psychoactively weak, it is not the case, as some researchers currently claim, that Cannabis sativa produced industrially in Europe and America for hemp, before global prohibition in 1924, had no psychoactive resin at all; in reality, it was usually just weaker than cannabis found in India, Turkey, Egypt or elsewhere.
Hashish Trials by Doctors in Cairo and Paris
Besides reports on hashish published by physicians in the USA, experiments with hashish were conducted around the same time in Cairo and Paris. Between 1798 and 1801, Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt. The use of hashish was widespread in Egypt at the time (Meunier 1909:6). Some of Napoleon’s soldiers brought it back to France at the end of their tours of duty. Several French doctors stationed in Cairo also became intrigued by hashish.
During the 1830s and 1840s, two French physicians, Louis-Rémy Aubert-Roche and his colleague Joseph-Bernard Gastinel, who was stationed in Cairo, exported large quantities of hashish to France. Hashish, hashish tincture, and dawamesc (‘medicine of immortality,’ a preparation of hashish tincture, butter, nuts, honey, and spices) became widely available in metropolitan France, notably in Paris (Guba Jr. 2021:7). Aubert-Roche published an article in 1839 advocating the therapeutic use of hashish, and Gastinel, a professor of pharmacology in Cairo, also published articles on hashish and opium (Flaubert 1982 : 22n.4).
Jacques Moreau de Tours
The most influential of the European doctors who experimented extensively with hashish on himself and his patients was Jacques Moreau de Tours, a physician at the hôpital la Bicêtre in south Paris.
Moreau de Tours administered hashish many times to himself, his colleagues, and some of his mentally disturbed patients. As a result, his book, Du hachisch et de l’aliénation mentale, published in 1845, was very influential on the medical profession in Europe and the USA. (Guba Jr. 2021:12–15).
Moreau de Tours, who specialised in psychiatry, was particularly interested in the condition of ‘mental fixation’ (monomania), which affected some of his mentally disturbed patients. He grew cannabis at his hospital and made hashish tincture (Bosc de Vèze 2020:29). In his book, he describes taking large doses of hashish and how this helped him understand the workings of the mind of people with ‘fixations.’ He believed that hashish might relieve sufferers of the condition.
Club des Hachichins
Moreau de Tours also introduced hashish to members of the Club des Hachichins, which convened every month at the hôtel Pimodan on the Île Sainte Louis in the centre of Paris between 1844 to 1849 (see the blog’ Club des Hachichins’). Among the guests, who used to eat several grams of hashish in the form of dawamesc, in sessions in sumptuous surroundings, were well-known artists and writers, including Théophile Gautier, Charles Baudelaire, Gustav Flaubert, Victor Hugo, Honoré de Balzac, Alexandre Dumas, Gérard de Nerval, the caricaturist Honoré Daumier, the painter Paul Chenavard, and the sculptor Jean-Jacques Pradier and his wife.
Even though he frequented the club, it remains uncertain whether or not Moreau de Tours gave hashish directly to the guests himself (Solomon 1969:200) or whether it was delivered there by someone else. In a letter to Baudelaire, Flaubert mentions (1982 :21) that he has “some excellent hashish, prepared by Gastinel, the pharmacist.”
Gautier published a very flamboyant and exaggerated account (Jay 2010:88) of his experiences in the Club des Hachichins in Revue des deux mondes (1972 ), while Baudelaire also published an account of his experiences in the club with hashish in 1858, first as a long article in Revue Contemporaine, entitled ‘De l’Ideal artificiel.’ This article was subsequently published in 1860 (Baudelaire 1972 ) as a book, Les Paradis Artificiels, which was very influential at the time.
Hashish Research in Germany
Among those directly influenced by Baudelaire’s book to try hashish was Walter Benjamin (1892–1840), who avidly read Baudelaire’s account in 1919 (Eiland 2006:xii). Benjamin was a German, Jewish philosopher, essayist, and cultural critic (Marincolo 2015; Walter Benjamin 2018). Between 1927 and 1934, he experimented with hashish, opium, mescaline, and the opiate eucodal. These experiments were conducted in Berlin, Marseilles, and Ibiza, either alone or with other participants, including, at various times, the philosopher Ernst Bloch, the writer Jean Selz, the physician Ernst Joël, the neurologist Fritz Fränkel, Egon Wissing, and Egon’s wife, Gert Wissing. Even though Benjamin published essays on his hashish experiences when he was alive, the entire corpus of his notes and writings, On Hashish, was only published posthumously (Benjamin 2006).
Post War Studies
After World War 1, a flourishing research community in Germany included several doctors interested in studying the effects of psychoactive drugs. The modern pharmaceutical industry developed in Germany in the mid-19th century, and many of the most critical psychoactive medicines of the 20th century were created by German researchers or companies (Boon 2006:10). The physician Ernst Joël and neurologist Fritz Fränkel, who worked in Berlin, participated in sessions with Benjamin and supervised his hashish experiments; they also published their own account of hashish experience (Joël and Fränkel 1926).
Benjamin’s high dose hashish experiences (Benjamin 2006), both positive and negative, seemed like a waking dream. There was a transformation of reason, where the usual logic of causation did not apply. He was fascinated by the change of the normal relationship between subject and object and what he called a ‘functional shift’ in how we perceive things (Marincolo 2015:139). Curiously, Benjamin’s sister-in-law, Hilde Benjamin, was Minister of Justice in the German Democratic Republic and was fervently against drug use, which by then—after 1924—had become illegal, which she saw as a decadent ‘western’ vice (Richardson-Little 2021:212).
Pioneer research by physicians and psychiatrists in America and Europe, conducted before prohibition, revealed not only the potential of cannabis to treat a wide array of ailments but also the profound psychoactive effects that cannabis could have. These were only understood adequately at the time through researchers’ own experiences. This kind of research was possible during the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries because, at that time, it was not hampered by legal restrictions. Only in December 2020 was cannabis finally recognised by the UN as a substance that could have medical applications.
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