High Society: Marijuana Use among the Victorians

While waiting for edits to come back for Odessa Moon, I was feeling inspired, and so I decided to dip my pen back into the inkwell of historical fiction/romance. Fearless centers around a young woman, Charlotte Darling, whose father is dying of cancer. The estate that has been her home all her life is to be inherited by a cousin-by-marriage, and she’s feeling all the fear and sorrow and uncertainty of her situation. Enter the cousins (though they are not that in actuality). The gentlemen are half-brothers. Mr. Blakeny is to inherit Mr. Darling’s estate of Blithewell, while Mr. Landry has inherited his father’s home already. Mr. Blakeny is rather an egotistical bore, while Landry is, well, … not, though he does have something of a reputation for “restlessness”. What that means takes some time to figure out, but when Mr. Darling’s suffering becomes too pronounced to bear and still attend to all the tasks necessary of making his final arrangements and preparing to turn over management of his estate to his successor, Mr. Landry tasks himself with the errand of finding some medicinal respite for Mr. Darling.

I love the historical research aspect of writing historical fiction. For Of Moths and Butterflies, I’d researched the various opiates used during the Victorian era and their availability, examining everything from the dark, seedy, smoke-filled atmosphere of London’s controversial opium dens to the fast-handed and relaxed manner in which laudanum was dispensed for even the slightest complaint and ailment. In fact, I’d used the “innocent” remedy of laudanum in the self-destruction of Bess Mason (you can read an alternate version of her death in the short story Hallam’s Wood, available in the short story collection, Parade, (still .99 at Amazon). In dealing with Mr. Darling’s instance, however, I wanted something that was a little harder to get hold of, an errand that would take him very suddenly to London, providing evidence of his “restless” nature. At the same time, I didn’t want it to be something quite so menacing and debilitating (or paint Mr. Landry in so paltry a light) as straight up opium would do. So I began to dig a little deeper. And this is what I learned:

Cannabis is actually native to Europe and England, and was used heavily for its fiber content in the making of rope and sacking. The climate, however, did not allow for the development of any psychoactive substances, and so it wasn’t until the English occupation of India that any real attention was given to the medicinal or recreational uses of the plant.

It was Sir Whitelaw Ainslee who, while serving as an attending surgeon in Madras in the early 1800’s, began to chronicle the many and various ways the plant was used in India. Ainslee was a devout Christian and believed firmly in the virtues of temperance. While he found that cannabis was used extensively for medicinal purposes, he was more concerned with its use as a recreational intoxicant and spent more time chronicling these in his publications than on any of its more practical and actually useful properties.

In contrast, Ainslee’s successor, Sir William Brooke O’Shaughnessy, appears to have been more enthusiastic in his approach. Rather than keeping a wide-birth of the plant, observing it from afar as if it were the seed of Lucifer itself, O’Shaughnessy gathered local knowledge from local experts and then proceeded to conduct a vast array of experiments, even using himself as a subject to learn first-hand the effects of the plant in its various derivatives and uses.

In 1842, O’Shaughnessy published the Bengal Dispensatory and Companion to the Pharmacopoeia in which he detailed the many and varied properties of cannabis, beginning with its “narcotic effects” but making a strong case for its medicinal benefits, as well. It seems he understood at the outset the objections many in the west would have to the drug, whose recreational use had already been described and condemned, and in defending it made his own authoritative declaration that the plant was not used nearly so widely, nor were its effects as harmful as those of opium, alcohol, or even tobacco.

One of his more interesting discoveries, after experimenting upon every manner of animal, from fish to cattle and feline to human, was that carnivorous animals were much more strongly effected by the inebriating qualities of the drug than were granivorous animals, no matter how large the dose.

Of his human subjects, O’Shaughnessy’s first subjects were rheumatic patients, all of whom attested to being relieved of pain following administration of cannabis. They also reported experiencing improved mood and appetite, as well as restored vitality, all without side-effects of headache or sickness (or nightmares), which were so often the results of opium use. In other patients, cannabis appeared to minimize the symptoms of cholera, controlling diarrhea and vomiting and allowing the patient to rest more comfortably. Other ailments upon which cannabis provided positive results included tetanus, the symptoms (though not the disease itself) of rabies, ‘infantile convulsions’, even asthma, hypertension, anxiety, and various digestive issues. For the relief of pain, the drug was almost miraculous.

O’Shaunessy wrote of his findings, and these were published in medical journals of the time. His work was widely read and even respected by the medical community in India and at home in England. O’shaunessy’s work led to the popularizing of the use of cannabis, and it began to be produced in every imaginable form from tinctures to pills, and, of course, the traditional forms for smoking.

In the mid-1800’s there existed sort of a mania for women’s health, born out of the mystery of women’s suffering and of reproductive issues (which included hysteria and mental and emotional issues that were attributed generally to the female reproductive organs). Up until this time, opiates had largely been used to treat such issues, particularly those of menstrual pain, but opiates produced some horrible side effects, including headaches, nightmares, and vomiting. Tinctures of cannabis began to be used widely for menstrual pain and to prevent premature labor. It was also used widely for treating insanity.

From the 1840’s through the 1870’s the use of cannabis exploded, and the plant grew to be hailed as a wonder drug. But the success of the drug (and the relief it provided to those who used it medicinally) was not to last. The 1880’s introduced a backlash. Unlike cocaine and opium, the active ingredients could not be isolated in cannabis (indeed, THC was not isolated until 1964) and so it was impossible to predict the effects of a treatment since the dosages could not be regulated. It’s clear from some of the reports of experiments and treatments that levels were used that introduced a catatonic state, while others merely left the subject with a sense of relaxation and mild giddiness.

During a session of Parliament in 1891, Mark Stewart MP stood and drew the House of Commons’ attention to a statement made in the Allahabad Pioneer earlier that year regarding the dangers of cannabis or “ganja” use. The article claimed that cannabis was far more dangerous than opium and for that reason had been made illegal in Lower Burma. The article further observed that “the lunatic asylums of India are filled with ganja smokers.” (Indeed they were filled with substance users of all sorts, but cannabis users were only a small percent of such.) Stewart, an accomplished temperance campaigner, had no qualms lumping together all the many forms of cannabis into one, some of which did, indeed, produce some strong intoxicating effects. But Stewart was not alone in his efforts to villainize hemp and its derivatives.

William Sproston Caine, a fellow member of parliament, dedicated much of his life to the temperance movement, presiding over such institutions as the Baptist Total Abstinence Society and the National Temperance Federation. Caine traveled to India with the intent on familiarizing himself with the darkest sides of the industry, concluding, predictably, that cannabis was “the most horrible intoxicant the world has yet produced.” After delivering his findings, he asked Parliament to form a commission of experts to investigate the use and effects of cannabis in Bengal, including the effects such substances ultimately had on the moral and social condition of the people who used it. Caine’s request was seconded by George Russell, the secretary of state and Parliamentary secretary for India. The Indian Hemp Drugs Commission was formed, but the British government, having a large stake in the opium trade, was happy to encourage the temperance adherents toward fighting against the ills of cannabis if it kept their attention off of far more economically impactful legislations against alcohol or opium.

After 266 days of travel across India, conducting experiments and interviewing those who grew the plant and harvested it for medicinal and recreational use, as well as speaking with those who used it, the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission concluded that less than one percent of the population consumed cannabis preparations and that, of these users, only about five percent might be considered excessive users. Moderate use was not believed to cause harm and the commission declared that “the habit of using hemp drugs was easier to break off than was a dependency on alcohol or opium. The commission also suggested that the predisposition to consume such intoxicants was a sign of mental weakness in and of itself, as opposed to such weaknesses being caused by the use of cannabis drugs, whether in excess or otherwise.

It feels like a very modern thing to be writing about a man dying of cancer and finding relief from his ailment in the use of medical marijuana. As it turns out, while examples of such are nearly impossible to find, it wasn’t at all unusual. I love it when my ideas coincide with historical fact. One would think that writing a story within the constraints of the rules and social norms of a specific historical point in time would be limiting. I’ve found it anything but. There is some work to be done in understanding what that framework is, but I feel at home in it. It’s been fun to get back to my first love.