One traditional use of cannabis was as an ingredient in anointing oils, such as the recipe given in Exodus 30:23—two parts myrrh and cassia to one part cinnamon and cannabis, macerated in olive oil. The oils were massaged into the forehead or temples—or, allowing for wary circumlocution of users fearing reprisal, into the “head” of the penis, or introduced into the vagina with a dildo or “broomstick.” The active ingredients were absorbed through the skin or mucosa into capillaries and nerve endings. Such “flying ointments” and other visionary potions were among the most despised secrets of witches, so imagine the churchmen’s dismay on finding two new continents where thousands of tribes used dozens of drugs for recreation and for spirit journeys, often in ways just like those being so brutally suppressed in Europe.
In orthodox belief, all psychic voyages were communication with devils, especially if aided by plants, and drug use by the “savages” was a routine justification for genocide. The Spanish Inquisition set up its Mexican branch office in 1541, just twenty years after Cortés’s massacre of the Aztec leaders, and Native American religious practitioners literally headed for the hills. A copy survives of an early-17th-century handbill announcing the death penalty for peyote use.
Nor were colonists entirely immune from the sanctimonious. Cacao, an aphrodisiac euphoriant so esteemed among natives that it could be used as money from the Andes to the Rio Grande, became a hit among nuns in the Mexican district of Chiapas about 1550. In the next few decades, its use grew so widespread that local señoras were refusing to endure mass without it. After the bishop banned it, he was assassinated—by a cup of poisoned xoxo-atl (chocolate)! The conflict persisted for more than a century until the bishop of Rome gave in, declaring that “liquids do not break a fast.”
The 17th through early 19th centuries were relatively free of anti-drug hysterics. Dissident religions had been suppressed so thoroughly as to be all but forgotten. The few Europeans and Americans who still knew about banned psychoactives—certain Masonic lodges and the like—managed to keep their knowledge well hidden. On August 7, 1765, George Washington mentioned in a journal entry that he had pulled the male plants from his hemp field “rather too late,” indicating that he probably grew sinsemilla for personal use, but he never went public about it. Moreover, the newly popular drugs—tea, coffee, and tobacco—were perfectly adapted to the Industrial Revolution’s Protestant-capitalist work ethic that was transforming the non-wealthy individual from an independent farmer or craftsperson to a cog in a machine.
The situation gradually changed in the 19th century, however. Though long used to silence unruly (hyperactive) children, opium became more widely used to treat the industrial-strength pains of adults. Artists rediscovered its visionary properties, as well as those of cannabis. The two became the most common medicines of the time. As of 1842, hemp resin was included in half of all remedies sold in the United States. No problems were reported from its use.