Welcome to the Club des Hachichins
Psychedelic exploration, recreational marijuana sales, and mindful consumption
Wandering along the streets of Paris in the late 19th century, you might have come across the Hotel Lauzun, an unremarkable location if not for one thing: it hosted a literary group populated by some of the biggest names in French literature.
In typical French salon fashion, its members would gather to discuss the latest in society: its politics, its culture, and developments in the arts, with a special eye for anything avant-garde. What distinguished this salon from others, however, was the tool they used to make their conversations decidedly more stimulating. Members would often consume a thick concoction, originating in Algeria, of honey and pistachios, sometimes mixed in their coffee.
It wasn’t just to satisfy their sweet tooth. The special ingredient was this: an extract from the cannabis plant, known in Arabic as hashish. And it was this ingredient that gave the club its name, so that finding your way into their room, you would have been greeted with “Welcome to the Club des Hachichins”: the club of the hashish-eaters.
The ringleader of the group, if there ever was one, would have to be a certain Dr. Jacques-Joseph Moreau. Well-acquainted with the Orient through his many travels, his most memorable encounter was with the effects of hashish, a drug made from the resin of cannabis that can either be smoked or ingested orally.
Its effects on the user took them to another world entirely: one of fanciful hallucinations, new possibilities, and transformed landscapes, where imagination reigned as absolute master. So in this altered state of consciousness — which the doctor, ever the explorer, also tried for himself — we could find more than just wild scenes and emotions, but a gateway into the mind’s functioning.
This, anyway, was Dr. Moreau’s conviction: that by observing the effects of hashish, both in ones self and others, the nature of the mind and of mental illness could be better understood. His thesis culminated in a 1845 text, Hashish and Mental Illness, which can be considered among the earliest psychopharmacological works.
So then, we can be absolutely sure that the members of the club would have been encouraged to do some rigorous introspection, in line with Dr. Moreau’s idea that the drug can provide the user with some important information. What we call consciousness-altering might better be called consciousness-expanding, and in this expanded state of mind, who knew what kind of discussions were taking place in that secret pocket of Parisian society?
My college town of Ann Arbor, Michigan has become the latest municipality to allow the recreational sale of marijuana. That even the city which hosted one of the nation’s most popular cultural events associated with the drug — the Hash Bash — had to wait until 2019 for this to happen speaks to the rigidity of our legal system. Clearly, cultural trends precede the legislature by a good amount.
But finally, the latter has caught up with the former, and to put it in somewhat dramatic terms, the floodgates are now open. We can be sure that literally thousands of people are recreating Dr. Moreau’s most precious object of study — the state of the mind on cannabis — in their living rooms, at parties, and in parks around the city on a daily basis. If we also count the surge of CBD sales, we can look more broadly and say that there is a definite cannabis craze overtaking our culture today.
Is this for the best? Ethically speaking, most people seem to think so: to prohibit the use of a drug, especially one as innocuous as cannabis, is senseless. That some are punished legally for it is cruel. Let people do what they want: this, roughly speaking, is the shibboleth of our times.
And practically? It’s too early to say, of course. But it doesn’t seem like anything too Earth-shattering will happen by offering the possibility of legal purchases. That’s to say, recreational sales probably won’t have any effect on how people consume the drug.
So it makes sense that the ‘canabis craze’ doesn’t seem to be met with too much resistance: no traditionalist or moralist voices are warning of an apocalypse. But we might ask ourselves — what would good old Dr. Moreau, that most daring and innovative host of the Club des Hachichins, have to say about all this? What he would have insisted on, I think, is that we enjoy the recent proliferation of the drug — but that we do so mindfully.
As far as I can tell, mindfullness is one of the foremost buzzwords of self-help and health culture. There’s mindfullness meditation, of course, which offers us improved mental health by enjoying the present and experiencing our stream of thoughts passively and observantly. And a lack of mindfullness seems to be at the heart of various interrelated problems. We suffer from mindless scrolling — Internet addiction. We suffer from mindless eating — binge eating disorders, addiction to high-sugar foods, and so on. And, ultimately, we suffer from mindless living — what is called a purposeless life.
To live mindfully, then, has emerged as an important tool for dealing with modernity’s problems. And it can, I think, also be used to describe one’s ideal relationship with marijuana. What’s the lesson to be learned from the infamous Club des Hachichins? That people have an unquenchable curiosity to try new things; that good company is the best setting for new ideas. But also that a drug and its accompanying effects are best used mindfully: that’s to say, with an explicit purpose in mind.
In the doctor’s own estimation, this purpose was to explore the world of mental illness. For the literary giants who frequented the club, it was perhaps to elaborate on ideas of the human condition, story-telling, or any other topic that might enrich their literary content. In both cases, there is a definite sense that the drug which provided their namesake was being used as a tool for greater understanding.
This is something we ought to keep in mind. More than 150 years seperate us from the meetings of the Club des Hachichins, and the consumption of cannabis is no longer limited to the corner of an obscure Parisian hotel. And yet we can learn something important from this group: that the drug is best used for the purpose of exploring new horizons. This doesn’t mean that each smoke session will be as rigorous or insightful as a French salon. But it does mean that, in an intuitive sense, we should strive to use the drug for something beyond cheap euphoria.
Enrollment in the Club des Hachichins is now open. Its only condition: that you consume this ancient and mystifying substance with reverence, with the expectation that it might teach you something about yourself or the world. And if this makes sense to you already — welcome, indeed, to the Club des Hachichins.