Q: What was the original reason for religious discrimination against cannabis?
A: In 1484, Pope Innocent VII issued a papal condemnation of witchcraft in which he specifically condemned the use of cannabis as an "antisacrament" in satanic worship.
The black mass celebrated by medieval witches and sorcerers presented a mocking mirror image of the Catholic Eucharist as a pagan sacrament in a counterculture that sought to undermine the establishment.
The fact that witches and sorcerers were the first Europeans to exploit the psychoactive properties of cannabis probably sealed its fate in the West as a drug identified with feared outsiders and cultures conceived in opposition: pagans, Africans, hippies.
The two stories fed each other and in turn the plant's powers: people who smoked cannabis were Other, and the cannabis they smoked threatened to let their Otherness loose in the land.
In much the same way that the new monotheism folded into its rituals the people's traditional pagan holidays and spectacles, it desperately needed to do some thing about their ancient devotion to magic plants.
Indeed, the story of the forbidden fruit in Genesis suggests that nothing was more important.
The challenge these plants posed to monotheism was profound, for they threatened to divert people's gaze from the sky, where the new God resided, down to the natural world all around them. The magic plants were, and remain, a gravitational force pulling us back to Earth, to matter, away from the there and then of Christian salvation and back to the here and now. Indeed, what these plants do to time is perhaps the most dangerous thing about them - dangerous, that is, from the perspective of a civilization organized on the lines of Christianity and, more recently, capitalism.
Christianity and capitalism are both probably right to detest a plant like cannabis. Both faiths bid us to set our sights on the future; both reject the pleasures of the moment and the senses in favor of the expectation of a fulfillment yet to come -whether by earning salvation or by getting and spending. More even than most plants drugs, cannabis, by immersing us in the present and offering something like fulfillment here and now, short-circuits the metaphysics of desire on which Christianity and capitalism (and so much else in our civilization) depend.
What, then, was the knowledge that God wanted to keep from Adam and Eve in the Garden ? Theologians will debate this question without end, but it seems to me the most important answer is hidden in plain sight. The content of the knowledge Adam and Eve could gain by tasting of the fruit does not matter nearly as much as its form-that, is the very fact that there was spiritual knowledge of any kind to be had from a tree: from nature.
The new faith sought to break the human bond with magic nature, to disenchant the world of plants and animals by directing our attention to a single God in the sky.
Yet Jehovah couldn't very well pretend the tree of knowledge didn't exist, not when generations of plant-worshiping pagans knew better. So the pagan tree is allowed to grow even in Eden, though ringed around now with a strong taboo. Yes, there is spiritual knowledge in nature, the new God is acknowledging, and its temptations are fierce, but I am fiercer still. Yield to it, and you will be punished.
So unfolds the drug war's first battle.
Paracelsus's lab-coated descendants have synthesized the active ingredients in plant drugs, allowing medicine to dispense with the plant itself -and reminders of its pagan past.
The Botany of Desire - by Steve Pollan