Etymology, the study of the derivation of words, isn’t usually a world-changer. But on May 19, 1809, an etymological lecture delivered at the Institut de France in Paris, based on erroneous assumptions delivered as fact, would have a profound and enormously expensive impact that lasts to this very day.
The talk, by the linguist and orientalist Silvestre de Sacy, was titled “Dynasty of the Hashishyun and the Etymology of Their Name.” Its gist was that the name of a Shi'ite sect known as the Hashishyun (“Assassins”) was derived from its members’ use of hashish, an intoxicant made of marijuana resin.
Founded in 11th-century Persia by Hasan ibn al-Sabah, the Hashishyun sect, from the Ismaili branch of Shi'a Islam, was quite well known in France and throughout Europe. It had gained fame after being mentioned in Marco Polo’s widely read account of his travels, written in about 1300.
According to Marco Polo, Al-Sabah, aka the “Old Man of the Mountain,” would give his followers an “intoxicating potion” to drink that turned them into cruel warriors, and would then dispatch them to dispose of his enemies.
The extensive use of the sect’s members as hit men is a historical fact, but the potion Marco Polo described was apparently a legend. In any case, so well-known was the legend in Europe, that the French form of the sect’s name, assassin, became synonymous with "murderer," and also passed into English as a noun and a verb.
It was apparently the similarity between the word “hashish” and the sect’s name that led de Sacy to conclude that there was an etymological connection between the two.
Reports about widespread use of hashish in the Arab world had reached France a few years before that fateful lecture, when thousands of French soldiers returned from Napoleon’s abortive attempt to conquer the Middle East. Napoleon, still a general, had come ashore in Egypt in 1798, leading a 35,000-strong force. Within two months, he defeated the Mamluk army and established a French protectorate in Egypt.
That brief period of French rule in Egypt – until 1801 – marked the first significant encounter of a European population with the use of cannabinoids as recreational drugs.
In Egypt, the French genuinely tried to establish a state that would integrate the ancient Muslim tradition with the principles of the Republic, a policy that was expressed both in public declarations and in practice. Indeed, in March 1799, the French commander in Egypt and the country’s de facto ruler until the French withdrawal in 1801, Jacques-François Menou, converted to Islam, married a Sunni Muslim woman and changed his name to Abdallah.
It was Menou – not Napoleon, contrary to many books and articles – who in October 1800 issued a decree banning the growing, selling and use of hashish throughout Egypt. The reason: Its use by French soldiers was leading to unbecoming behavior and causing harm to Egypt’s citizens. The decree asserted that “habitual smokers and drinkers of the plant lose their reason and suffer from violent delirium” (translation: Gabriel G. Nahas).
Menou’s decision may also have been influenced by the Sunni elite’s revulsion for the drug and its use by the Shi'ite lower classes. According to three of the four main Sunni schools of religious thought and practice, the use of hashish was like the consumption of wine, and had been banned since the 15th century.
In his lecture, de Sacy mentioned Menou’s prohibition of the use of hashish, nine years earlier, as proof of the danger posed by the plant. Hence, it appears that de Sacy’s conclusion – probably spurred by the phrase “violent delirium” – was that the intoxicating potion of the Old Man of the Mountain was made from hashish. In his talk, he referred specifically to the decree as proof of the dangers of hashish.
A few months later, abstracts of the lecture were published in France’s leading scientific journals – including those of the physicians’ society and the pharmacists’ association – together with a call for the new drug to be studied and for medical uses to be found for it.
“The intoxication induced by hashish hurls the user into an ecstasy similar to what transpires in Orientals from the use of opium,” the Bulletin de Pharmacie stated, adding, “There are even cases in which those who fall victim to its use take part in brutal actions induced by dementia and madness. But cannabis deserves the attention of pharmacists and chemists. Can they not, by means of analysis and various tests, extract from it certain elements from which we can produce medicinal preparations?”
Indeed, physicians and pharmacists in France and elsewhere began to prepare essences from hashish and provide them to patients as treatment for every possible disease and symptom. Naturally, these treatments were ineffective, but modern medicine was in any case still in its infancy, decades before the discovery of viruses and bacteria.
Reports about “successful” treatments using cannabis extracts appeared regularly in medical journals, which doesn’t say much for the testing methods of the time. But in 1859, the enthusiasm for the drug and for medications derived from it suddenly cooled off, and faded quickly. There were various reasons for this reversal of opinion, including revisions of prevailing medical theories.
The cannabinoid medications had turned out to be completely useless when Paris was struck by a cholera epidemic in 1849, notwithstanding earlier reports of their success elsewhere. Also, conservative forces that frowned on recreational drug use would rise with the ascension of Napoleon III as emperor in 1852.
‘Ecstasy and crime’
But possibly the most significant shift had occurred even earlier, with France’s invasion of Algeria, in 1830. Hashish was used very extensively by the Algerians, and the French colonizers tended to blame the drug for the fact that the local inhabitants didn’t welcome them with open arms. In 1845, the Algeria-based French druggist Julien Larue du Barry argued in an article in the Journal de Chimie Medicale that the use of hashish produces homosexual inclinations among the Algerians, as well as high rates of madness, irrational and childish behavior, and a tendency to violent outbursts.