Wine and Cannabis: Early Cultural Influences

Until now, this series has been primarily about comparison and contrast, highlighting the similarities and differences between wine grapes and cannabis flowers in order to understand their relationship with humans. There’s been a lot to explore, and a lot of perspectives to understand, but at the end of the day, the inherent differences between the two plants don’t immediately explain why they are seen so differently in human culture. Physiology, pharmacology, and ancient history don’t suggest a framework for understanding the problem, so finally, we’ll turn our gaze to more recent history.

Alcohol has been a staple of European decadence since the Roman Empire, and with the advent of Christianity as the continent’s dominant religion, it enjoyed institutional protection as part of the sacrament of Communion. During communion, Christians “receive the Eucharist”, eating blessed bread and wine in order to maintain a connection to Christ. In the Catholic tradition, as well as several others, the bread and wine are considered to be literally transformed by the priest into the blood and body of Christ. So while drinking to excess was considered sinful, to suggest that 10615099125_bdfc3031c4_calcohol was fundamentally dangerous or unhealthy to humans was ultimately heresy in much of the Western world.

With this ironclad societal approval and top-down protection, alcohol flourished in Europe, and wine in particular was embraced by the aristocracy throughout the continent. When shady business practices emerged, they were dealt with by law, and over time, a complex wine culture emerged, bristling with artificially created levels of distinction and refinement. Famous producers became international celebrities and wealthy beyond measure, and the sort of wine one served was an extremely political decision. Ultimately, France became the international wine capital of the world, with an impressive and often convoluted suite of laws to govern and protect the process and culture.

On a more practical level, it was impossible to get away from the consumption of alcohol in the Dark Ages. Weak beer was consumed in place of water, and the alcohol content was very important in an age where water could not be easily sterilized or stored in sanitary conditions. For all of its dangers, for hundreds of years, it was a lesser of two evils.

Where was cannabis during this time? Everywhere, growing quietly and largely ignored except for its value as an industrial fiber. The production and consumption of hashish was a process that was associated with “the Orient”, and indeed the Middle-East was by far the hashish capital of the pre-Enlightenment world. Hemp was traded in bulk and psychoactive cannabinoids were found in medicinal preparations. Medical marijuana was available in a Edinburgh pharmacy by 1794, but by and large, cannabis flower was seen as a tobacco-adulterant for hard times rather than as something desirable to smoke on its own. The Dutch in particular began to pad their tobacco with cannabis more and more frequently.

At the end of the day though, smoking cannabis was popularly seen as something a lower-class person who had fallen on hard times would decide to do, not because of a stigma associated with its psychoactivity, but  because it wasn’t seen as psychoactive (or tobacco-y) enough to justify the smoke. However, over the 18th and 19th centuries, hashish and cannabis smoking slowly picked up steam in Europe and the U.S., and by 1800s, there were cannabis plantations 74381759_e5a563cf3d_mall over the South growing hemp as well as psychoactive strains for medical purposes.

By 1850, cannabis was widely available for medicinal use in grocery stores and pharmacies across America, but culturally, it was still seen in a very medical context, with recreational use of cannabis still considered a fringe activity. Nevertheless, the increasing use of hemp for industrial applications and its ever-stabilizing use as a medical agent meant that America was well on its way to becoming a major cannabis consumer. With the dawn of the 20th century, and the advent of an amazing new application for hemp fiber, all that changed. Next time, we’ll talk about how.




Photo credit: <a href=””>michael_swan</a> / <a href=””></a> / <a href=””>CC BY-ND</a>

Photo credit: <a href=””></a> / <a href=””></a> / <a href=””>CC BY-NC-SA</a>