Can you imagine Victorian ladies in their petticoats smoking some ganja when their grandfather clock struck sixteen and twenty? Probably not. It’s more likely that you can picture them having tea with their opium pipe or with their tincture of laudanum. But, actually, cannabis has a long history in high society, particularly in nineteenth century British culture.
Despite the population being aware of the existence of cannabis, due to the maritime technology of the time, it was unlikely for this plant to be exported to England. If the plant was grown, it was mostly used for textiles. According to James Mills, professor at the University of Strathclyde and author of Cannabis Britannica, this was due to the climate in the United Kingdom and most of Europe being unfit for the plant to actually be useful for anything other than fibers. However, by the nineteenth century, shipping routes had been improved, as well as ships. But before cannabis became the Victorian miracle drug that everyone forgot, there were a couple of medical professionals who made it their life’s work to discover both its medicinal as well as its recreational uses.
The first was a British surgeon called Whitelaw Ainslie, who was stationed in several parts of India with the East India Company. During his time in Madras, he studied the use of cannabis by the locals, noticing how it wasn’t simply used for therapeutic purposes, but also for recreational intoxication. Ainslie was able to categorize the different forms and variants of cannabis, particularly ganjah and sativa.
However, if Ainslie was able to provide some insight into the types of cannabis out there, W.B O'Shaughnessy brought the whole craze back to England. A young Irish doctor who gained notoriety for his study of the treatment of cholera, he was sent to India, where he was posted with the Bengal Army and taught at the Calcutta Medical College. One of his interests was the use of traditional medicine such as Ayurveda as well as Islamic herbal treatments.
O’Shaughnessy began experimenting with the use of cannabis in different animals, documenting their reaction and side effects. In 1842 he published the Bengal Dispensatory and Companion to the Pharmacopoeia. Eventually he moved on to human trials, both on himself as well as medical students and others. The first cases were for the treatment of rheumatism, where the patients experienced both a sedative and a painkilling effect. The physician later noted how cannabis helped a patient with rabies drink water and eat, even if it did not cure the condition. The famed doctor would treat those suffering from cholera with cannabis to reduce the vomiting and diarrhea, as well as to help them rest. Tetanus and convulsions in children were also combatted with this plant-based tonic.
In 1841, O’Shaughnessy took a leave of absence and went back to England, taking with him samples of hemp and cannabis. During this time, one of his papers was published, causing this medicinal plant to be considered the new miracle drug. Queen Victoria herself was prescribed cannabis as a cure for menstrual cramps by her personal physician. Later on, it was also used for women with high-risk pregnancies and even at mental asylums.
So, with all these studies, papers, encyclopedias, and clinical trials presented, how did cannabis end up becoming the vilified substance that would be criminalized in the United Kingdom by 1928? Well, ultimately it was politics. Particularly politicians from the Temperance movement who sought to regulate the market and trade of cannabis between India and the UK. Eventually, cannabis stopped being a possible cure for many afflictions and was only seen as a substance that induced intoxication.
As scientists have recently re-opened the possibility of using this plant for purposes other than recreational, I can’t help but wonder how much would’ve been discovered and cured by now if science hadn’t lost a hundred years of research and use.