From ancient Indian warriors, through American troops in Vietnam, all the way to conscripted child soldiers in modern-day Africa, cannabis has been extensively used by armed forces engaging in conflict. What are the underlying causes of this surprising phenomenon, and what are its consequences?
Most of us see cannabis as a peaceful substance, one that will relax and calm the user and increase feelings of social bonding and togetherness within a community. So why is it that throughout history, reports of cannabis being used as a weapon of war are so common?
From the Assassin sect of ancient Persia, all the way to modern-day African warlords who ply their child soldiers with cannabis, there are dozens of accounts of the famously pacifistic herb being used as a means to facilitate warfare.
Cannabis use in warfare throughout history
Over the thousands of years that cannabis has been a companion to humanity, it has served countless purposes. It is a religious sacrament to many, a healing plant to countless more – and perhaps most of all, it is a mild, soothing recreational drug that causes relaxation and social bonding.
So why are there so many examples, from ancient history right up to the present day, of cannabis being used as a means to facilitate warfare?
In Companion to the Anglo-Zulu War (Ian Wright, 2008), it is reported that the Swazi army used cannabis to “enhance aggression and stave off fatigue” during night attacks, while the Zulus themselves may also have used small amounts of cannabis as part of their pre-battle rituals, and that smoking it was held to increase courage and aggression.
In Shooting Up: A Short History of Drugs and War (2016), the author quotes the famed, 19th-century Scottish explorer David Livingstone’s remarks regarding the Sotho, another Southern African tribe: “They sat down and smoked (cannabis), in order that they might make an effective onslaught”.
The esteemed cannabis historian Robert C. Clarke reports in Cannabis: Evolution & Ethnobotany (2013) that “cannabis-based drugs have also been used in India from very early times in order to overcome fatigue and worry, for production of euphoria, and to give courage to warriors during times of stress”.
In Marihuana: The First Twelve Thousand Years (E.L. Abel, 1980), the author states: “Indian folksongs dating back to the twelfth century A.D. mention ganja as a drink of warriors. Just as soldiers sometimes take a swig of whiskey before going into battle in modern warfare, during the Middle Ages in India, warriors routinely drank a small amount of bhang or ganja to assuage any feelings of panic, a custom that earned bhang the cognomen of vijaya, ‘victorious’ or ‘unconquerable’”.
The warlike Scythians that dominated vast swathes of Asia and Europe between the 9th and 1st centuries BCE were also well-known to make extensive use of cannabis. While there is no direct evidence that they used cannabis as a means to facilitate warfare, cannabis has been found in graves thought to belong to Scythian warriors, and some believe that they used the drug before commencing battle.
The Assassins of Ancient Persia
There is controversy over whether the militant 11th-century Islamic sect known as the Nizari Ismailis, under the leadership of the missionary Hassan al-Sabbāh, actually used hashish at all. Many believe that the name given to them by the Crusaders, the Assassins, derives from the Arabic term “Hashishin” or hashish-user.
The Crusaders, whose members were a prime target of the Assassins, developed a healthy fear of their opponents, along with a set of legends about their nature and exploits – and as is so often the case with wartime propaganda, many of these tales were embellished to make the enemy appear different, inferior, or even subhuman. Various accounts from the 12th century onwards, beginning with Arnold of Lübeck in his Chronica Slavorum, mention that al-Sabbāh used hashish to intoxicate and control his killers.
Marco Polo’s account of the Assassins is undoubtedly the most popular and widely-cited text, although there are various points of contention – most importantly being that he visited the region (purportedly in around 1273 CE) long after the death of al-Sabbāh (thought to be in 1124), and some time after the Assassin order had been routed by a Mongol invasion in 1256. Furthermore, translations of his work differ, so that “hashish” is translated as “opium” or as “a certain potion” in other texts.
At that time in the Persian Empire, use of hashish was seen as a pastime of lower-class, indolent or outcast people – the “rabble”. Indeed, by the time of the Assassins it seems that Hashishin was used as a pejorative term, without any necessary connection to hashish use itself. Some argue that the Assassins were therefore called Hashishin by other groups within Persian society for the very fact that they were considered outlaws, rather than for any outright association with hashish.
Interestingly, this association between cannabis use and “dangerous outlaw” status would evolve to become an important cornerstone of the 20th century prohibitionist narrative. Harry Anslinger even related the legend to the US Congress in 1937, in order to help paint a picture of cannabis users as drug-crazed, frenzied killers.
American soldiers in Vietnam
There is plenty of evidence demonstrating that cannabis use was widespread among the American soldiers stationed in Vietnam during the war of 1955–1975. Indeed, the massive surge in the popularity of cannabis in the US during the 1960s and 1970s can be directly attributed to returning soldiers bringing their habits (along with the product itself) back home with them.
Fear of a massive influx in soldiers returning home with cannabis and heroin habits was also what prompted Nixon to declare his War on Drugs in 1971.
The Marijuana Question and Science’s Search for an Answer by Helen C. Jones & Paul W. Lovinger (1985) contains some valuable insight into the use of cannabis by American military personnel in Vietnam.
One Navy man reportedly stated that upon arrival in Vietnam, “it was already plentiful, and I used it almost every day as a, you might say, tension easer, to get me ready for combat fights”. He further stated that the Navy “really wouldn’t care too much if it made you do your job all right” in a combat situation, although they officially did not approve of drug use.
When Army leaders attempted to impose a crackdown on drug use in the early 1970s, after rates of heroin addiction had begun to rise to alarming proportions, they found that stamping out cannabis use was in fact far harder than reducing opiate usage.
Lower-ranking officers often ignored orders from above and looked the other way when it came to their battalions’ use of cannabis. The occasional officers that did attempt to impose their superiors’ orders on their troops sometimes found that violent reprisal was the result. One sergeant was even severely injured when a private rolled a hand grenade under his bed, in response to his efforts to crack down.
The situation, along with the growing hysteria surrounding cannabis back in the US, led many officers to view cannabis use as a menace, and that users could turn on their superiors in drug-fuelled frenzy at any moment. However, it seems far more likely that environmental stress was to blame for disorder among the troops, and that cannabis was a much-needed respite from the relentless pressures of war.
According to Lukasz Kamienski in Shooting Up: A Short History of Drugs and War (2016), various doctors during the 1970s argued that cannabis use among troops in Vietnam assisted them in “maintaining an adequate psychological adjustment while under the stresses of a combat environment”, which indirectly translated to more effective combat capabilities.
Kamienski goes on to state that drugs were “in a word…medicine for the shaken soldier’s soul”.
Child soldiers in Africa
The strongest evidence of cannabis being intentionally used by leaders of armed forces comes from the bloody civil wars in Liberia (1989–1996 & 1999–2003), Sierra Leone (1991–2002) and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (1998–2003).
In 2012, the International Criminal Court (ICC) found the Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga guilty of three counts of conscripting child soldiers. During his trial, former child soldiers testified that “many were given or were forced to smoke marijuana before battles, since taking drugs made them more aggressive, even fearless, on the front lines”.
In Sierra Leone and Liberia, child soldiers belonging to various factions were routinely plied with cannabis and other drugs in order to make them more pliable and fearless on the battlefield. A former child soldier who fought for the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) stated to Human Rights Watch:
“We smoke grass, cigarettes, dugee (tablets), cokis (mashed tablets in a powder). It all makes you brave to go on the front. The commanders give it out…Just got to do something to be strong because you don’t want the feeling of killing someone. You need the drugs to give you the strength to kill”.
Is cannabis an effective weapon of war?
It seems that cannabis’ strengths as a potential tool of warfare lie in its ability to calm fears and reduce stress, rather than any ability to send its users into blind, homicidal fury as suggested by Anslinger and various other prohibitionists before and since.
Cannabis is a means of shielding the mind against the unnatural horrors of war, rather than a means of embracing them with impunity. Cannabis is extremely unlikely to turn a “normal”, human being into an enthusiastic, frenzied killer, but may make an anxious or panicked soldier calmer, less fearful, and more able to operate in a stressful situation.
On the other hand, the idea that cannabis could therefore be used to inure a killer to the horrors of his or her own actions and enable them to kill with increasing ease is one that may be worthy of consideration.
Cannabis has been well-documented to reduce the subjective experience of trauma in patients with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); perhaps when it is regularly administered to soldiers (particularly to children, whose brains still have much developing to do), it can reduce acute feelings of guilt, fear and anxiety in response to harming others. Shielding the brain in this manner against past events may reduce aversion to participating in or being subjected to similar events in future.
It is important to note that the above is speculation, as there has been no specific research into the subject. The next few decades of research into the effects of cannabis on stress, fear and aggression responses will no doubt shed some important light on the subject, and on cannabis’ role in the management of disorders such as PTSD.