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Conferenece Report: Cannabis Roots: The Hidden History of Marijuana

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

Editor’s Note: Guest Blogger Chris Bennet takes us inside the Cannabis Roots Conference held this November in Vancouver, Canada — complete with video from each session!

When thinking of the history of marijuana, most people’s minds go back to the hippy era of the 60s and the pot smoking flower-children whose peace and love ideals have forever changed our culture. Some might even dig a little deeper,  recalling the 1930’s Reefer Madness era, where blacks and whites shared ‘marihuana cigarettes’ at tea houses while creating a new genre of music and breaking long-held racial barriers. However, few people realize that cannabis has played a role in human history for at least tens of thousand years, or that even thousands of years ago, its use as a medicine and inebriant was known and reached from the Russian Steppes to China, India, Greece, the Middle East, Central Europe and other areas of the Old World.  Indeed, even in ancient times, as today, it was a prominent item of trade, and it influenced these cultures in a variety of ways, just as it does for better or worse in our own. The Cannabis Roots conference explored and discussed this area of cannabis history with some of the top experts in the world.

Held November 3rd, 2012 in Canada’s Vancouver, British Columbia, Cannabis Culture Vapor Lounge, which also hosts the incredible collection of drug artifacts housed in ‘The Herb Museum,’ this one day event took place in what might be considered a ‘relaxed’ environment. Attended by about 70 people, it was also streamed live. The lectures are archived and provided in this article.

The event brought together a number of academics and authors who have written about the topic, and they all provided entertaining accounts of cannabis’ fascinating role and potential role in a number of areas of world history.

The first presentation came from Michael Aldrich, PhD., who has been researching and writing on this subject for decades. Aldrich is the author of the first doctoral dissertation on cannabis in the United States, Marijuana Myths and Folklore (1970); editor of the first pot ’zine, The Marijuana Review, 1968-1973; co-founder of Amorphia, The Cannabis Cooperative (1969-1973); organizer of California Marijuana Initiative (1972); curator of Fitz Hugh Ludlow Memorial Library (1974-2002) and the Aldrich Archives (1974-present). Aldrich’s presentation compared the drug origin myths of India (Soma and the churning of the milk ocean) and Europe (Dionysos’s introduction of wine and Bacchic rites to ancient Greece), as well as the effects of these differing inebriants on the cults that spread their use.

The next presenter, Dr. David Hillman, has a Ph.D. in Classics and an M.S. in Bacteriology from the University of Wisconsin, where he studied the medicine and pharmacology of antiquity. The London Times described his research as “the last wild frontier of classical studies.” His dissertation committee refused to pass him unless he removed material about the use of psychedelic drugs in antiquity; he later published the forbidden material in The Chemical Muse.  Hillman’s presentation, “Satisfying the Flame of Desire with Marijuana: Priestesses, Drugs, and the Cycle of Life,” was possibly the most controversial of all. After noting that through ancient physicians like Dioscorides (I CE.) and Galen (II CE), modern authorities are well aware of the use of Cannabis as a medication in the Greco-Roman world, Hillman pointed out comparatively little is known about the role of marijuana as an important and widespread tool in the performance of rituals performed in celebration of the cult of Aphrodite.

Michael Horowitz and his wife Cynthia Palmer-Horowitz have been bibliographers of drug history since the 60s.  Together with the help of a few others, they founded The Fitz Hugh Ludlow Memorial Library in North Beach. Over the next 30 years the library became the world’s largest collection of literature, research, art and artifacts of drug history. Micale and Cynthia have written and/or co-edited Moksha: Writings on Visionary Experience and Psychedelic by Aldous Huxley and Shaman Woman, Mainline Lady: Women’s Writings on the Drug Experience (Updated and renamed Sisters of the Extreme). Michael is also the co-author of The High Times Encyclopedia of Drugs and An Annotated Bibliography of Timothy Leary.

Michael’s presentation focused on the role of cannabis in literature.

Cynthia discussed women in cannabis history.

As for myself, Chris Bennett, I am the author and/or co-author of 3 books on cannabis’ role in the ancient world, Green Gold the Tree of Life: Marijuana in Magic and Religion (1995), Sex, Drugs, Violence and the Bible (2001), and Cannabis and the Soma Solution (2010) as well as well as dozens of articles on this same theme for a variety of magazines and journals. I chose to focus my own presentation on the best examples of archeological and etymological evidence we have accumulated to date.

The final presenter and keynote speaker of the conference was Carl Ruck, a Professor of Classics at Boston University, and an authority on the ecstatic rituals of the god Dionysus. Together with R. Gordon Wasson, the banker and mycologist known for introducing the psilocybin mushroom to the modern world and thus in many ways initiating the psychedelic era, and the Swiss chemist Dr. Albert Hofmann, the father of LSD, Ruck identified the secret psychoactive ingredient in the visionary potion that was drunk by the initiates at the Eleusinian Mystery. In their book Persephone’s Quest: Entheogens and the Origins of Religion, Ruck, Hofmann, and Wasson proclaimed the centrality of psychoactive sacraments at the very beginnings of religion, employing the neologism “entheogen” to describe the use of psychoactive substances when used in a religious connotation. Ruck has tracked the role of entheogens as visionary agents for mystical religious revelation from the earliest emergence of human consciousness, as documented in rock paintings of the Paleolithic Period, through the religions of ancient Persia and Mesopotamia, the Egyptian pharaohs, early Judaism, the Greco-Roman cults of Dionysus-Bacchus, Early Christianity, the Roman cults of Isis and Mithras, heretical Christian sects and the pre-Christian cults of pagan Europe. Prof. Ruck’s presentation, “High Thoughts: Aristophanes’ Parody of Socrates as a Pot Head,” centered on cannabis’ potential role as an ingredient in the incenses that fumigated sacred space in Classical Greek and Roman sanctuaries, where it was also commonly available as an additive to the wine.

The Cannabis Roots conference itself was part of a larger ongoing film project of the same name, and offered myself and filmmaker Mark Klokeid the opportunity to film and interview the authors and academics who came to share there knowledge in this little discussed area of drug history. Over all it was a success; their lectures live on via YouTube and can hopefully educate others in the years to come.


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