Cannabis Time Capsule, 1911: Marijuana, Strychnine and Other Eastern "Poison"

Strychnine and cannabis. The two have absolutely nothing in common. One kills you, the other won’t no matter how hard you try. But this August 4, 1911 article in the Wray Rattler does a great job of conflating the two to a readership likely to make the nonexistent connection between pot and poison simply because it’s in the same article.

Oh, and both were supposedly “given” to the modern world by scary, dark-skinned ethnic groups.

According to the article, strychnine has been around since the time of the Egyptians. It was first “discovered” by the West thanks to a Frenchman circa 1818 who sold and marketed it as a way to kill dogs, cats, birds and rats.

Actually, people in the Western world had been using strychnine well before that; historical records going back to the 1600s detail its use. But killing dogs and cats isn’t what made strychnine famous, so to speak. No, what turned it into a common household name was its use by royals, noblemen and the rich as a way to kill themselves when faced with criminal charges — at least, according to the Rattler.

The key phrase: “’The poison of the peach,' with which princes and other criminals of elevate social position were allowed to execute themselves to avoid public scandal and family disgrace.”

So, to recap, the brown-skinned Egyptians discovered a way to kill yourself using plants. They also “discovered” hemlock, aloe poison, senna (a laxative that can cause organ failure at high doses), and manna (Aqua Tofana). Put another way: these cuh-rrrazy eastern folk were good at killing people. Yipes!

So how does cannabis fit into this story? Well, it really doesn’t. But the author found a link with which he could exploit: scary ethnic groups. The article goes on to talk about other “discoveries” in use by the Western world that originated with a scary, violent culture — namely pot.

“Even the ferocious Scythians contributed to Grecian medicine the powerful virtues of Indian hemp and the still popular licorice.”

Licorice? Yes. Licorice. We love the taste and at low doses it can help you poop. But did you know that in high doses, it can cause symptoms similar to steroid abuse, including skin lesions, edema, high blood pressure and gastric ulcers? Well, it can. Thanks, Scythians!

And who were the Scythians, you ask? Why they’re the early Iranians! You know, the scary ethnic group known for their savage warfare techniques like using poisoned arrows? Yup, that scary ethnic group that still evokes images of terror, fear and mystery in Americans to this day.

And how did the Scythians harvest their pot? Very strangely, indeed. If you think you’ve got a ritual for harvesting, try this on for size:

“… the herbs must be gathered, not only at the time when their virtues were in perfection but when suitable religious ejaculations, and pulled with the left hand from behind the gatherer. “

No, they weren’t jacking off. “Ejaculations” in this sense means small prayers, and the audience at the time would have understood that. But still, saying prayers and pulling up plants from behind your back makes it all seem so mystical and foreign.

Which is exactly how marijuana would continue to be portrayed in the media over the next seventy years or so.
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William Breathes
Contact: William Breathes