Marijuana turns an average person into an inhuman murderer. That's the message of anti-marijuana propaganda produced in the 1930s, which drew inspiration from a cannabis myth that goes all the way back to Marco Polo - who was born 762 years ago today, by some accounts. (His actual birthday is disputed.)
The legendary Venetian explorer explorer became famous in the 14th century for tales of his journeys in the east, including his interactions with Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan, humongous birds that hunted elephants, and a band of fanatical killers called Hashashin - which is allegedly the origin of the word assassin.
Drug of choice for assassins?
During his travels, Marco Polo allegedly heard about an Islamic sect that smoked hash before committing murder. Supposedly, their intoxicated state helped them perpetrate heinous crimes. That's how popular retellings of the story go, at least. But some historians dispute that account.
Martin Booth - author of Cannabis: A History (2011) - notes that "hashish is not specifically mentioned by Marco Polo but only by subsequent chroniclers." Like a game of telephone, people who retold Polo's account added details to the story. So the drug used by the assassins is unknown.
As to what - if anything - they took before committing crimes. According to Booth, the hallucinogenic substance given to Hashashins as part of their initiation ritual was "not fed to operatives on active service," which he says would have been disastrous given that it was "a soporific, not a stimulant."
In his opinion, the drug used was probably something much harder than cannabis.
"The fact...the drug induced stupor and produced visions of Paradise suggests it was far more likely to be an opiate, widely known for such effects. Yet this did not make a good, intriguing tale. 'Unknown' hash did."
In other words, Europeans were too familiar with opiates to get excited about them. But hash was a mystery to them.
And even if the assassins did smoke hash, saying that drove them to murder is comparable to blaming the crusades on wine and wafers, Booth notes.
But that didn't stop filmmakers from promulgating the hash-assassin myth. Check out this clip from the subtly titled propaganda flick Assassin of Youth (1937), which features a film-within-a-film that presents cannabis as the drug of choice among hired killers. Coincidentally, American marijuana prohibition came into effect the same year the movie was released. So you might call it an assassin of civil liberties.
Banner Image: Marco Polo in the Court of the Great Kublai Khan, Illustration from a painting by Tranquillo Cremona (1860) / Shutterstock