Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Want: High Times

In this blog, we spend a lot of time writing about how little things have changed since 1872. But every once in a while a real stunner pops up in the Dictionary of Every-day Wants, a reminder that the world hasn’t been in stasis for the past hundred and thirty years after all. See, for example, the following recipe from the book’s Druggist and Chemist section.

Cannabis indica?!? Who would have guessed that seemingly mild-mannered Dr. Youman was a fan of the ganja? 

Of course, drug use wasn’t a crime in the United States until 1914, and recreational marijuana was legal until the federal government passed the Marihuana Tax Act in 1937. Before the turn of the twentieth century, weed was the least of people’s worries, anyway: According to Time magazine’s 2002 article “The Politics of Pot,” 2 to 5 percent of Americans were unknowingly addicted to morphine, the super-secret ingredient in a number of widely available patent medicines. A Saturday night at Charlie Sheen’s house has nothing on the ingredients common in these “medicines”: alcohol, cocaine, opium, turpentine—the gang was all there.

After the Pure Food and Drug act of 1906 (a hearty thank you to Upton Sinclair), most patent medicines went the way of the dodo. There are a few hangers on, though, one of which I personally consume almost every day. In 2011, possession of cocaine may get you years in prison and fines of tens of thousands of dollars. But in 1886, possession of cocaine meant you had one of the key ingredients in its newly invented namesake, Coca-cola. Just for the taste of it, indeed.

Per Amsterdam Marijuana Seedbank, short growing seasons mean that indica, Youman’s bud of choice, is commonly grown today in the UK. It’s good for relaxation and stress relief (or so they say), and can even be used to treat insomnia. (American-grown pot is more often cannabis sativa, an “uplifting” high that’s “a good choice for daytime smoking,” say the helpful folks at the Seedbank.)

A dose of Youman’s buchu extract didn’t contain a lot of pot: This recipe seems to make seven quarts of liquid, to which two drachms—or about a fourth of an ounce—of cannabis indica would be added. Beyond that, modern Mary Jane is much more potent than what might have been harvested from cannabis plants in the nineteenth century. Michael Pollan devoted an entire chapter to pot in his book The Botany of Desire, in which he noted that plants grown before the 1980s were composed of 2 to 3 percent THC, marijuana’s principal psychoactive compound. Thanks to clever breeding, Pollan reports, in today’s marijuana plants “20 percent THC is not unheard of.”

This recipe proves that globalization isn’t an entirely modern phenomenon, as many of its ingredients aren’t native to America. Cannabis originated in Asia, balsam of copaiba was made in South America, and Harlem oil was formulated in Europe, according to this 1936 newspaper ad.

You can still find buchu extract on the Internet, although it’s presumably a bit tamer than this blend. Youman didn’t feel the need to tell readers just what his concoction should be used for. Nowadays buchu is considered a diuretic, but in the nineteenth century it was probably a hangover cure.

Hair of the dog I’ve heard of—but curing a hangover with marijuana? An interesting strategy, that.