The always interesting Public Domain Review today has an essay on how the English found cannabis by Benjamin Breen:
“In the 17th century, English travelers, merchants, and physicians were first introduced to cannabis, particularly in the form of bhang, an intoxicating edible which had been getting Indians high for millennia. Benjamin Breen charts the course of the drug from the streets of Machilipatnam to the scientific circles of London.”
Thomas Bowery arrived in Machilipatnam in 1673, as a merchant and was quickly attracted by the effects of an unfamiliar drug
“The Muslim merchant community in the city was, as Bowrey put it, “averse [to]…any Stronge [alcoholic] drinke”. Yet, he noted, “they find means to besott themselves Enough with Bangha and Gangah“, i.e. cannabis. Gangah, though “more pleasant”, was imported from Sumatra (and as such was “Sold at five times the price”), whereas Bangha, “theire Soe admirable herbe”, was locally grown.”
From this beginning, Breen traces the spread of the drug to the English middle class. Bowery and his merchant friends gathered privately to enjoy the weed, knowledge of it spread and its medicinal benefits touted, and Robert Hooke lectured on it to the Royal Society in 1689:
“Hooke’s assessment was positive. The drug, he explained, “is so well known and experimented by Thousands, and the Person that brought it has so often experimented with it himself”, that “there is no Cause of Fear, ‘tho possibly there may be of Laughter”. Hooke concluded by noting that he was currently attempting to grow the seeds in London.”
Despite Hooke’s support, the use of cannabis in medicine did not catch on in England. There was a revived interest in the 1840s when cannabis tinctures were marketed for “removing languor and anxiety,” but it didn’t last.
This is a very informative and entertaining essay on early western interaction with cannabis.