Why the English authorities loved cannabis

Illegal narcotics are often poorly understood. To mark the launch of spy thriller Rogue Elements, which tackles the controversial question of drug reform, Alasdair Moore gives us a botanist’s view of the fascinating plants behind three of the most notorious substances. First up is cannabis:

The Cannabis plant is commonly identified by its digitate (shaped like fingers) leaf, whose image must figure as one of the most reproduced of any leaf in the world. The flowers are nondescript but their buds have certainly proved appealing. The female flowers produce a resin, rich in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which may help protect the plant from high temperatures and moisture loss during reproduction. The genus Cannabis most likely has its origins in northern Afghanistan, but for thousands of years it has been truly a plant of the world, so great is its popularity and use. 

Its psychoactive properties are well known but it is a plant that has a practical human story beyond millennia of stoners. To understand this, one needs to see cannabis as a living organism rather than a small parcel of dried herbage or lump of resin. Left to grow freely, a cannabis plant (Cannabis sativa) can reach up to 20 feet in height. To achieve this elevation it needs a strong and fibrous stem, and it is these fibres that have resulted in cannabis’ widespread use by humans since Mesolithic times. Across the globe, from Neolithic China to Ancient Egypt, the remains of hemp cloth and rope have been discovered by archaeologists, indicating a long and close association between humans and cannabis; a relationship independent of intoxication.

In China, the very word for hemp (ta-ma) makes this clear: it means “great fibre”. Hemp even had its place in national defence and expansion. On occasion the maritime ambitions of the English produced a particularly strong bond to cannabis. Ships needed rope and so important was cannabis for its production in the 16th century that English farmers were encouraged by royal decree to grow hemp as part of a national effort to support the burgeoning navy. 

If ever there was a man to celebrate cannabis as a plant, first and foremost, it was William Robinson. Born in 1838, Robinson was one of the most influential figures in world horticulture. For Robinson, cannabis was an ideal plant for small London gardens where the more tender sub-tropical plants could not be enjoyed. It was perfect for the backs of borders and mixed groups. The uses and applications of the plant have never been confined to getting high. 


Next week: the poppy