Shakespeare and the Stigma of Marijuana

It is no secret that marijuana use spans the globe, but reach of the marijuana plant is probably much more vast than most imagine. America was actually one of the last cultures to inherit it. Along with its use though, the stigma related to its hallucinogenic properties has followed it hand-in-hand throughout centuries.

Perhaps the most interesting recent example is that Shakespeare himself has been discovered to have possibly used the very commonplace drug.

According to 2001 findings by Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt, several pipes were discovered in Stratford-upon-Avon that contained traces of nicotine and cannabis residue. A few of these were recovered from gardens that belonged to Shakespeare, something Greenblatt considered inconsequential. However, Francis Thackeray published an article in July 2015 that called for a greater consideration of these 2001 findings, citing them as important in “an effort to better understand Shakespeare and his contemporaries.”

Of course at this point in time it does not really matter if Shakespeare partook, his various works and their influence is undeniable. While whether or not the bard did consume marijuana will forever remain open for debate, it brings some interesting questions to mind about the history of marijuana stigmatization.

Perhaps one of the first attempts to denounce marijuana’s use as a hallucinogen came with the rise of Taoism around 600 B.C. In the simplest terms, Taoism contains a belief of duality—yin being the negative and yang being the positive. According to Ernest Abel, a professor at Wayne State University, “marijuana intoxication was viewed with special disdain” as it was a substance that contained yin and “enfeebled the body.”

Marijuana goes back even further than this, as the first record of marijuana might be as early as 2727 B.C., which was noted in the writings of Chinese Emperor Shen Nung. This origin is dubious as it could have its basis in myth, even though it is cited by the DEA Museum of Arlington, Virginia. Shen Nung’s status as an emperor is just as tenuous, as the first emperor of a unified China was Qin Shihuangdi from 259 to 210 B.C.

That said, Shen Nung is considered to be the father of Chinese medicine by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, and is assumed to be the author of Shen-nung Pen Ts’ao Ching—The Divine Husbandman’s Materia Medica. This is the earliest existing Chinese pharmacopoeia and contains what is possibly the first mention of marijuana used for medicinal purposes.

After making its way through Asia and the Middle East, marijuana was encountered by the Roman Empire when a Greek scientist employed by the Romans, Pedacius Dioscorides, wrote a Western version of the Pen Ts’ao. This was a medical text that was considered important for the next 1,500 years, and was the first Western text to note the medicinal properties of marijuana. Dioscorides’ text specifically noted marijuana’s efficacy for “treating earaches and in diminishing sexual desires.”

Jumping ahead to Shakespeare’s time, in 1563 Queen Elizabeth decreed that all landowners with more than 60 acres were to grow hemp. This led to problems though, as by the 1800s this led to complaints by colonial officials in India that it was being grown for intoxication purposes. In turn, this led to marijuana use being associated with insanity. Eventually smuggling problems surfaced, leading British officials to associate marijuana with criminal activity.

America’s turbulence with marijuana is just another note in its history, with the hysteria of reefer madness in the 1930s leading to marijuana prohibition. With time and scientific research on our side, though, the stigma has begun to abate and the majority of the American population is now in favor of marijuana’s legalization. Time will tell if the stigma has truly run its course.

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