The human desire to alter mood will always be with us and no amount of effort will eradicate it. National experiments with drug liberalisation are mostly unsuccessful in the long-term in spite of the initial headline-grabbing claims of reduced harm. Tobacco is a legal drug and where it does not greatly impact mental function it is highly addictive and causes over 2,000 deaths in N. Ireland each year mostly from cancers, heart disease and lung disease. History gives us some insight into how a compromise 400 years ago awarding tobacco a legal status still brings a heavy price yet it might become the model for the legalisation of other recreational drugs especially cannabis.
Charles Mann in his excellent book 1493: How Europe’s Discovery of America revolutionised trade, ecology and life, suggests the introduction of tobacco to the Jamestown colony set the template for our social dealings with drugs of addiction. In October 1611 a resident of the English colony, John Rolf, found that tobacco farming offered commercial survival for his failing colony. The Virginia Company formed in 1606 was incorporated to establish a viable colony in America something that had previously proved too difficult. The plan was that the Company would produce; wine, olives and other commercial crops but all failed. In 1609 a relief ship found Jamestown was almost a ruin.
Rolf, who later became the husband of Pocahontas, smuggled some seeds of Nicotiana tabacum from the island of Trinidad, planted the seeds and in doing so, more or less, started the tobacco industry.
Iain Gately in his equally excellent book La Diva Nicotina; The story of how tobacco seduced the World, discusses the social meaning of Rolf’s tobacco planting. At that time the moral compass of society was firmly fixed by organised religion. The religious view on tobacco is confusing as in the old Catholic witticism; “Yes, it’s a sin to smoke when praying but can it be wrong to say a prayer when smoking?”
Up to the early 1600s tobacco was used in the medical systems of Europe, China and India and generally didn’t meet religious opposition possibly because the Talmud, the Bible and the Koran omitted to deal it. Muslims exposed to tobacco in African settlements adopted it and the Catholic Church, opposed to smoking in church, had no view on smoking in secular life. Enter King James 1st.
King James hated and loathed tobacco smoking; his famous Counterblast much quoted to this day is perhaps the first official condemnation of tobacco and, in the modern context, it is understandable that anti-tobacco campaigners assume the king’s contempt stemmed from his insight that smoking was bad for health. This is completely wrong. In the early 1600s, there was no link with ill health and it would be another 350 years before this link was finally established by Richard Doll. Rather, as Gately points out, James 1st was obsessed with witches and believed that the tobacco was part of witchcraft and therefore an abomination. Belladonna and Henbane are members of the Solanaceae family of plants; tobacco also. James would have been aware that witches used the latter herbs in rituals. Albert Hoffman of LSD fame, in a book he wrote with others, Plants of the Gods, reports that witches used belladonna and henbane leaves to compound a paste that was then smeared onto the broomsticks shafts that they rode through their bedrooms in a hallucinating flight. Drug absorption into the body has a long weird history.
A number of commentators support Hoffman’s view that witches were more sexually liberal than spiritually evil yet to the late medieval mind these were one and the same. There is a suggestion that witches were outcast lesbians and their acts of sexual freedom certainly unnerved males who sought to suppress them. Male domination is a feature of most societies down the ages and individuals who upset this order were outcaste. James 1st it is known was disgusted by, and perhaps with, the “sexual act” which seems to be central to his obsession with witches and his ultimate demonising of tobacco.
King James was, however, singularly unsuccessful in his efforts to stamp out tobacco use but since he was also pragmatic, he did the next best thing, he taxed it. And here it stays to this day. Unless we are careful the libertarians are likely to lead us down this road for other recreational drugs and which have the potential to become public health issues.
I am a pharmacist in Belfast.