Drug Law

Cannabis Has Always Played an Important Role in Religion

| by Chris Bennett

I read Jacob Sullum's article 'Can Smoking Marijuana be Considered a Religion?!' with some interest, as I myself currently have a case against the Canadian Government in response to their refusal to grant me an exemption for my own spiritual use of cannabis. As well, the historical role of the religious use of cannabis has been a subject I have personally researched for 20 years, having written 3 books on the subject, Green Gold the Tree of Life: Marijuana in Magic and Religion (1995); Sex, Drugs, Violence and the Bible (2001); and the forthcoming Cannabis and the Soma Solution (2010); as well as dozens of published articles on this same subject, and some of this material has been reviewed in a report prepared by the Canadian Justice Department. Thus it is clearly a subject I have put some thought into, and which I have considerable knowledge about.

In regards to the sacramental use of cannabis and religious freedom, I would first point out the right to cannabis, indeed all plants, cacti and fungi, is a natural right that supersedes even the religious use issue, more akin to our right to air, earth and water - this is about life on earth and indigenous natural relationships. I can say to you with confidence, there is no religious doctrine not transcribed by the hand of man, but no matter what god or goddess one believes in, they should also believe that god created the plants of the earth. Indeed, in the case of the popular belief of our own culture, the Biblical God quite clearly states: "Behold, I have Given you Every Herb Bearing Seed which is Upon the Face of all the Earth" (Genesis 1:29).

That said, historically cannabis has played a paramount role in the spiritual life of man, dating further back than any existing religion. The late archaeologist Andrew Sherratt of the Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford, pointed to the use of cannabis incenses at a gravesite of a group known as the Proto-Indo-Europeans, the Kurgans, who occupied what is now Romania 5,000 years ago. The discovery of a smoking-cup which contained remnants of charred hemp seeds at the site documents that at 3,500 years before Christ humanity had already been using cannabis for religious purposes for millennia.

These same people were the first to domesticate the horse, and it was with them that we find the linguistic roots of the term 'cannabis', which comes from an ancient Proto- Indo-European root word, "kanap"; the "an" from this root left traces in many modern terms for cannabis, such as French "chanvre", German "hanf", Indian "bhang", Persian "bhanga", Dutch "Canvas", Greek "Kannabis," and so on. Through their high mobility, these ancient ancestors of numerous modern cultures spread not only the plant and name, but also the religious and magical connotations that had grown around it. Evidence of this has even left their traces in some of the world's oldest existing religions.

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Anthropologist Sula Benet initiated decades of theological debate by identifying the Hebrew terms keneh, and keneh bosem , (cane, fragrant cane) as cannabis, noting the similarities to the modern term cannabis, and also the name used by contemporary Assyrians for the plant, qunubu, as well as the similar way they used it. In Assyria, qunubu was not only a widely used medicine , but also a key ingredient used in incenses and other preparations for the "Sacred Rites" and a means to commune with God: 'So that god of man and man should be in good rapport: - with hellebore, cannabis and lupine you will rub him'"

Interestingly, a similar scenario appears in the Biblical narrative, where the Lord, who curiously first appears to Moses as a burning bush, commands him to make a holy anointing oil with roughly 6 pounds of cannabis, mixed with myrrh, and cinnamon into about a gallon and a half of olive-oil. When Moses is to seek the Lord's advice, he enters the enclosure of the "Tent of the Meeting" anoints his body with this cannabis infused preparation (THC is fatty soluble and such topical preparations have been reported to have a psychoactive effect), as well as anointing the alter of incense, and then proceeds to talk to the Lord in the pillar of smoke that forms over the incense altar! Adding the factor of a psycho-active substance into this scenario produces some troubling alternatives to current theological beliefs, and turns Moses into a Shamanic figure that used plants to achieve spiritual insights. Even at the time of Moses, its use was strictly prohibited to the priest caste and then later extended to kings.

Ironically later Old Testament references to cannabis via Benet's identifications, indicate that as the Israelites went from a wandering nomadic tribe to a settled kingdom with a huge infrastructure, such shamanic visionaries took the backseat to establishing laws and taxation amounts, and by the time of Jeremiah cannabis had clearly fallen into disfavour amongst the ruling Hebrews . According to Sula Benet an error later occurred in the oldest Greek translation of the Hebrew Texts "where the terms kaneh, kaneh bosem were incorrectly translated as 'calamus'" and that this error followed through in later translations down to modern times.

Despite these early prohibitions, use of the Holy Oil re-emerged during the early Christian period, particularly amongst Gnostic sects. Indeed, the Greek term "Christ" is a translation of the Hebrew "messiah," and means the "Anointed One". New Testament and Gnostic texts indicate a role for the cannabis-infused Holy Oil and incenses for both healing and enlightenment , only to again be later repressed by the machination of the Roman Catholic Church and the inception of the Dark Ages.

Recent archaeological finds in China indicate that Indo-European culture also penetrated the Han Chinese region much earlier than previously thought. From 2000-400 BC, China hosted the Indo-European Gushi culture, who cultivated and collected potent strains of female cannabis for spiritual and likely medicinal purposes, as attested to the over two pounds of the herb which accompanied a 2700 year old Shaman's tomb . Undoubtedly the Gushi culture came into contact with indigenous Han Chinese users, who recognized cannabis as the "plant of immortality" and where it had a huge influence on the Taoist religion .

In China, the local indigenous name hu-ma term stuck to the plant, and was exported with it into the Bactria-Margiana region of Afghanistan, where the discovery of a 4000 year old temple has shown that a mixture of cannabis and Ephedra was made in to drink known as Haoma , the sacrament of the Avestan religion, and later Zoroastrians. From Afghanistan cannabis and the sacred beverage made from it were travelled with the Indo Europeans to India, where linguistic changes resulted in its name Soma, the psychoactive beverage that inspired the Vedic religion, and as a result the sacramental use of hemp has survived in Indian religions such as Hinduism and Sikhism. and through both Indian Persian Zoroastrian influences cannabis use filtered into the Islamic Sufi movement.

Thus in answer to the question "Can Smoking Marijuana be Considered a Religion?!", I would state: Cannabis -- the once and future tree of life -- is the inspirational fountain from which whole religions have sprung forth!

"Religious use of psychedelic plants is a civil rights issue; its restriction is the repression of a legitimate religious sensibility. In fact, it is not a religious sensibility that is being repressed, but the religious sensibility, an experience of religion based the plant-human relationships that were in place long before the advent of history." ÐTerrence Mckenna (1946-2000)