Review: Taming Cannabis

Guba, David A., Jr. Taming Cannabis: Drugs and Empire in Nineteenth-Century France. Intoxicating Histories 1. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2020. 384pp. $37.95. Pbk.  

Faced with persistent homelessness, pervasive crime, and dogged Algerian resistance, why have North American governors, the Philippine state, and the French Empire pinned their troubles on drugs? Because drugs create a dividing line between us and them. 

Taming Cannabis: Drugs and Empire in Nineteenth-Century France is the brilliant first book in Intoxicating History, a new series published by McGill-Queen’s University Press. Covering the period between 1798 and 1870, author David A. Guba, Jr. shows how France used the bogeyman of hashish to help conquer Algeria and murder large segments of its population. Guba argues that France accomplished this by othering Arab Algerians and indigenous Amazigh peoples and depicting them as hashish-crazed Muslim extremists. 

In Guba’s first chapter, we learn the differences between the “civilized” Cannabis sativa, used to make the rigging of Europe’s great fleets, and the “oriental” and intoxicating Cannabis indica, used to turn “natives” into madmen. This difference is even reflected in the nomenclature: indica means Indian, signifying the “Oriental.” 

In the second chapter, Guba sets the historical record straight about Napoleon’s conquest of Eqypt in 1798, demonstrating that he did not ban cannabis consumption because his troops were becoming indolent. Instead, Guba writes, Napoleon’s replacement banned it at the request of Cairo’s Sunni Muslim elite. 

Chapter 4 describes efforts by French scientists to find a cure for cholera using cannabis. These experiments failed but the drug would prove quite the analgesic. In Chapter 5, we learn that hashish is later deemed of no medical use. Guba also introduces us here to Charles Baudelaire’s opinions on the drug, which he called “satanic.” Still, it did not stop the poet from indulging at the Club des Hachichins in Paris. 

The sixth chapter finally shifts focus to Algeria. Following the invasion of 1830, Algerian indulgence in hashish became the explanation for all acts of resistance or violence by the subject population. Officers, doctors, and pharmacists with the French Armée d’Afrique published reports of hashish consumption “as a source of Oriental deviancy, barbarism, and resistance to civilization” (192).

Hashish, according to one French artillery captain, caused “tyrannical despotism,” “sexual deviancy,” and “mass delirium and violence” among Algerian locals (192). A military pharmacist argued it caused pederasty, high rates of insanity, a “child-like and irrational mentality, and a propensity for physical violence and pain, all portrayed as innate Oriental anti-virtues produced by the intoxication of hashish” (199). 

The most fascinating part of the book, though, is its treatment of the Myth of the Hachichins in chapter 3. Guba describes how contemporary French intellectuals traced “hashish-ism” back to the medieval – and unlikely – story of hashish-eating “Islamic Assassins” from the twelfth century. Today, we know that the “Assassins” existed but their great feats of suicidal derring-do were not thanks to hashish. This tale was popularized by Marco Polo, and transformed into myth, a story as likely as Scheherazade’s “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.” 

But in 1809, French Orientalist Antoine Isaac Silvestre de Sacy declared that he had proof of this mythical connection, citing a single Syrian text from the thirteenth century whose author described the Assassins as “hachichins.” (Assassin and hachichin rhyme in French.) Guba stresses that this was de Sacy’s only evidence for his claim, and that more recent scholars like Marshall Hodgson, Bernard Lewis, and Farhad Daftary have since pointed out that “hachichin” was a common insult for low-born and irreligious outcasts at the time, used especially by Sunnis describing adherents of other strands of Islam, like the Ismaili Assassins. Guba argues that this failure to acknowledge these complexities “transformed biased anecdotes and folktales about hashish and the Nizari Ismailis into facts of history” (95). 

Though the hashish-eating Assassins story has been disproved, the myth sadly lives on. In 2015, French ethno-psychiatrist Tobie Nathan told L’Express newspaper that the Assassins consumed hashish to recruit “suicide bombers” and were “the inventors of modern terrorism,” leading directly to the suicide attacks of today (85). Following the November 2015 ISIS attacks in Paris, the media referred to ringleaders Salah and Brahim Abdeslam as “the Joint Brothers,” in reference to their alleged cannabis addictions (45). After Taming Cannabis was published, a French Muslim man named Kobili Traoré was acquitted for the brutal, antisemitic murder of Sarah Halimi. Why was he acquitted? Traoré was too high on hashish to know what he was doing.  

Meanwhile, Guba reminds us that France consumes the most cannabis in the European Union, while maintaining its strictest anti-cannabis laws. Today, Black and Arab Parisians are six to eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites. Arabs and Muslims are more likely to be stopped for random checks. And although Muslims make up only eight per cent of French society, they are 50 per cent of its prisoners, in large part thanks to drug laws (4). 

And the myth extends beyond France. Guba argues that Harry J. Anslinger, founder of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Narcotics and American drug warrior extraordinaire, also drew the link between the Assassins and cannabis, and brought the hammer down on American Blacks and Chicanos. 

Guba’s book is extensively documented, including materials from the French Archives and the Overseas French Archives. With that said, there are some issues with Guba’s narrative, though none should take away from the work’s importance, nor do they challenge its accuracy. 

Guba spends much of the first chapter explaining how Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica are the same species simply grown in different terroirs, and therefore should not have been differentiated by French taxonomists into separate categories – one western and industrious, the other oriental and lazy. 

But he takes the argument too far. As Guba notes, even today many cannabis users believe the branches are separate species (I did.) They look different, as Guba also notes, and without being altered, indica causes intoxication much more easily than sativa does.  

I also do not understand why Guba buries the scientific evidence that sativa and indica are the same species in an explanatory endnote on page 267. There, he notes that scientists at the University of British Columbia have discovered that sativa and indica (and ruderalis) are the same specie with the same genetics: “Therefore, one can argue that the indica versus sativa debate of today is a by-product of the nineteenth-century racial and civilizational division crafted by Europeans to differentiate themselves from ‘Orientals’” (267). I do not think that is right. Today, the debate about these differences is about the kind of high you are looking for. 

Another question is why Guba waited until page 92 to introduce Edward Said, since it is Said’s Orientalism that frames Guba’s theory. As Guba writes, Said directly pointed to de Sacy’s poor scholarship on the Assassins as a key orientalizing myth. It would seem pertinent to mention this at the beginning. 

Finally, Guba writes, rather anti-climactically, that despite the calls for anti-hashish regulations in French Africa, only two minor laws were passed, one in Egypt in 1800, and a second in Algeria in 1857. Neither were enforced. We do not find out when marijuana was finally prohibited in the French colonies or in France itself, although he does highlight that the current law was passed in 1970,. 

This is nevertheless an excellent book and a vital contribution to modern French history and the history of drugs. It explains how cannabis remains so contentious in a country – and a world – where it is so common. 

Dave Hazzan, York University

Dave Hazzan is a PhD (ABD) candidate in the Department of History at York University, specializing in drug history. You can find more information about David Guba’s book, Taming Cannabis, on the McGill-Queen’s University Press website.