Editor’s Note: On September 20, 2014, a group of emerging drug history scholars presented a panel at the Fifteenth Annual Graduate Student Conference on Transatlantic History at the University of Texas, Arlington. This week, Points will present abbreviated versions of these scholars’ papers, starting with recent Points blogger Bradley Borougerdi’s talk entitled “‘At Once a Curse and a Blessing’: Orientalizing Hemp in an Atlantic World.”
The 1840s was an important decade for the hemp plant. Before then, most Anglos living in Great Britain and the United States thought of hemp as an important strategic commodity for exploration, a common fiber, an oil, or an ingredient in various household goods. Most were unaware of hemp’s psychoactive properties, mainly because they were accustomed to using a genetic variation of the plant with virtually no THC. This isn’t to say that Westerners were entirely unaware of hemp’s ability to induce intoxication; rather, that they were confused and associated it primarily with an exotic space known as the Orient.
Orientalism positioned hemp used for so-called “nonproductive” purposes in stark contrast to the Western, industrial, and more “appropriate” uses. In 1838, William Brooke O’Shaughnessy, a British imperial agent working in India, decided to investigate “Asiatic” hemp’s medicinal qualities. Medical investigators assumed India’s lush environment had altered the plant to suit the degenerative behaviors of Easterners, but Westerners might be able to transform it into a viable medicine. Positive accounts of O’Shaughnessy’s experiments spread quickly, with medical practitioners on both sides of the Atlantic praising hemp extracts.
Around the same time, literary accounts of Westerners who “played Eastern” by consuming hemp intoxicants started circulating in France, Great Britain, and the United States. Most of these first-hand accounts exacerbated the negative associations between hemp and the Orient, which bifurcated the plant into both a curse and a blessing, paving the way for its transformation from a strategic commodity to a banned intoxicant.