The new European cannabis phase

1798: Napoleon Bonaparte lands in Alexandria with thirty thousand French soldiers and two thousand cannons. He defeats the Mamelukes’ army near the Pyramids, and conquers Cairo, all through one of those flash wars of which the French general was a specialist. Two years earlier, with a similar military operation, it had conquered the Lombardy region in Italy, taking it away from the Austrians.

The French occupation in Egypt lasted only four years, but it represented the key to access some of the discoveries and scientific events that characterized the first half of the European nineteenth century. Not least in terms of importance among these events was the discovery, or rather the rediscovery, of the medicinal and psychoactive properties of Indian hemp by Western culture.

In Egypt and the rest of Africa, the presence of this plant is ancient. It was certainly brought by man, its use for magical, religious and therapeutic purposes and as an inebriating source made it so that it quickly rooted in among numerous African populations.

It was only with the French rediscovery, following the Napoleonic wars, that the knowledge and use of hemp spread to an increasingly massive level in Europe, through the two channels of medical environments and of those intellectual circles, that were present in various European countries at that time.

As for Italy, only Cesco Ciapanna, author of a text that deservedly made history, Marijuana and other stories, 1979, had carried out a research concerning the history of Indian hemp in Italy. He should be considered as the pioneer of this kind of studies, with the merit of having highlighted the role of Benito Mussolini and the fascist regime in the origins of Italian prohibition against Indian hemp as well as having “discovered” the exceptional text of the Neapolitan Raffaele Valieri of 1887, which deals with the medicinal and intoxicating properties of common hemp.

The first reference to Indian hemp in the Italian literature is in 1840, while the first reference to its presence in Italy dates back to 1845, and 1847 is the year of the first Italian cannabis experience reported in literature.

In Italy the Indian hemp was initially the object of attention by the medical class, due to the “miraculous” medicinal properties acclaimed by the international medical literature of those years (and punctually reviewed in Italian medical journals). Doctors imported the first quantities of dried hemp buds  and hashish  and marketed them in pharmacies.

From reading and from reports of personal experiences left by these doctors, we can see, in addition to unexceptionable professional purposes, always highlighted by the same doctors, a good dose of curiosity for the imagination produced by the plant. It must be kept in mind that, during the course of the entire nineteenth century, doctors used to try on themselves every new batch of a drug, before prescribing it to patients, and that many of the Italian doctors had already known the  effects of opium and its derivatives.

Most (if not all) of the psychoactive substances are also potent medicines, and it is not surprising that the role of the medical profession in the spreading  of these substances in Western societies has always been significant. Nineteenth-century physicians personally experimented with Indian hemp, almost always through oral intake, and later tried it on their patients suffering from the most diverse illnesses, both physical and mental; experiments that were not always successful. And yet, due to various diseases, Indian hemp actually showed that it possessed those “miraculous” properties that were so highly acclaimed, so much so that it gave rise to a real line of interests and medical studies for hemp, not at all secondary compared to the general medical interest in the rest of Europe towards  this plant.

Several nineteenth-century doctors were concerned about the high price of medicines, and offered medicines available in large quantities and at low cost as an alternative to their patients, since “science must be a help to poverty and not a means of luck” . This at a time when it was still possible to do research and propose effective medicines at a  lower cost than those current ones, without incurring in the grips of the pharmaceutical monopoly, governed by rigid and relentless purposes of mere economic profit.

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