Jack London, California Cannabis Pioneer

Last night was like a thousand years. I was obsessed with indescribable sensations, alternative visions of excessive happiness and oppressive moods of extreme sorrow. I wandered for aeons through countless worlds, mingling with all types of humanity, from the most saintly persons down to the lowest type of abysmal brute.
– Jack London, of a hashish experience

London (center, in pirate garb) at a hashish party
aboard the Snark in 1907
Jack London was California’s most celebrated literary figure at the turn of the last century. London had achieved worldwide fame through such novels as Call Of The Wild, The Sea-Wolf, and White Fang. He was also an enthusiastic booster for social reforms ranging from socialism to–paradoxically–prohibition.

London first described his adventurers with hashish in John Barleycorn, his “alcoholic memoirs,” devoted to his struggles with drink. Published in 1913, the book was dedicated to the prohibitionist cause, which was then in the midst of a statewide initiative campaign.

In the book, London describes what he calls the “White Logic,” the irresistible drive leading him to intoxication. There he mentions his experience with hashish.

How to describe this White Logic to those who have never experienced it! It is perhaps better first to state how impossible such a description is. Take Hasheesh Land, for instance, the land of enormous extensions of time and space. In past years I have made two memorable journeys into that far land. My adventures there are seared in sharpest detail on my brain. Yet I have tried vainly, with endless words, to describe any tiny particular phase to persons who have not travelled there.

I use all the hyperbole of metaphor, and tell what centuries of time and profounds of unthinkable agony and horror can obtain in each interval of all the intervals between the notes of a quick jig played quickly on the piano. I talk for an hour, elaborating that one phase of Hasheesh Land, and at the end I have told them nothing. And when I cannot tell them this one thing of all the vastness of terrible and wonderful things.

London was introduced to hashish by a fellow Oaklander, the poet George Sterling. Now largely forgotten, Sterling may be best remembered for his lines about San Francisco, “The City by the Sea,” the “Cool, Grey City of Love.” He achieved minor fame as a kind of unofficial bohemian poet laureate presiding over an artists’ colony in Carmel. There he and his friends indulged liberally in alcohol and occasionally in other drugs, including hashish. Sterling left no account of his own hashish travels, though he is said to have written his masterwork, “The Wine of Wizardry,” under the influence of opium.

London’s boyhood friend, Frank Atherton, tells the of London’s first hashish trip with Sterling:

Sometimes Jack would go out for an afternoon with George Sterling. I well remember one night when they had been together. It was quite late when Jack came home.

His eyes looked glassy, and apparently he had been drinking too much. Still he was very quiet, retiring immediately. We didn’t see him again until the next morning when he related his experience of the previous night. He and George had tentatively indulged in hashish.

“To one who has never entered the land of hashish,” he said, “an explanation would mean nothing. But to me, last night was like a thousand years. I was obsessed with indescribable sensations, alternative visions of excessive happiness and oppressive moods of extreme sorrow. I wandered for aeons through countless worlds, mingling with all types of humanity, from the most saintly persons down to the lowest type of abysmal brute.”

“But why in the devil did you want to take the damned stuff?” I asked him. “It’s a wonder you and George didn’t go crazy.”

Jack smiled evasively. “Say, Frank, you’ve read some of Marie Corelli’s books, haven’t you? No doubt you’ve read Wormwood.”

“Yes, I have, but what has that to do with hashish?”

“Everything.” Jack replied. “Marie Corelli couldn’t have written Wormwood if she hadn’t drunk enough Absinthe to experience all those strange dreams and fancies described in Wormwood. And I’ve read that she even became an inmate of brothels to get the material for other books. So you see in order to write intelligently, one must have certain experiences that coincide with the subject.”

London statue in
Jack London Square, Oakland
In Planchette (1906), London wrote, “She pondered the flower slowly and thoughtfully, as a hasheesh-eater, heavy with the drug, might ponder some whim-flower that obtruded on his vision.”

In London’s Martin Eden (1909), Eden’s counterpart Russ Brissenden is described as having “fire, the flashing insight and perception, the flaming uncontrol of genius.   Living language flowed from him.” He admits to “wandering in hasheesh dreams.” Written when London was 33, just after his success as an author, Martin Eden is similarly successful, but his newer collection “Smoke of Joy” is not well received.

In Burning Daylight (serialized in The New York Herald, June-August, 1910), Daylight’s lawyer and confidant Larry Hegan “was a confirmed but temperate eater of hasheesh.” He is called “that able hasheesh dreamer.”

London’s hashish adventures ended abruptly during his famous yacht voyage on the Snark on a visit to the Solomon Islands. There the party was entertained by the charming British owners of a coconut plantation, Penduffryn, on the island of Guadalcanal. The story is told by Martin Johnson, the Snark’s cook, engineer and photographer:

“The merrymaking lasted several days, until it ended by all present agreeing to take the Oriental dope called hashish.

“Darbishire was the first to partake. After he had passed under the influence, we decorated him with parts of Mrs. London’s clothes, and I did a little artistic work with water-colors. For several days he went around the house in a half-dazed state, and would at times drop dead asleep while standing on his feet. One after another took this hashish, until the night Jack took it. He went clear off his head, acted so wild that Mrs London was frightened; and no one else would take it. Next night was to have been my turn.”

Cannabis was still legal when London and Sterling tried it. However, just as John Barleycorn was being published in the spring of 1913, the California legislature outlawed cannabis at the behest of the state Board of Pharmacy.

The Board, a nationally recognized pioneer in the war on drugs, expressed concern about the use of cannabis by East Indian “Hindoo” immigrants. Ironically, only after cannabis was prohibited did it come into widespread popularity in California, but that would be years in the future.