Going To Pot

Located on at 17 quai'Anjou on Ile St. Louis in Paris' 4th arrondissment, the Hotel de Lauzun is no longer open to the public but is still remembered for its stylish architecture and historical significance.  It has another distinction that isn't so well known however.  From 1844 to 1849, the Hotel was the headquarters of  the very exclusive Club des Hachichins (Hashish-Users Club).  Hotel_de_lauzun[1]

Despite a lengthy history dating back thousands of years, hashish and other cannabis compounds were only introduced to France by veterans of Napoleon' s Egygtian campaign at the turn of the 19th century (it became so popular with the French soldiers serving in Egypt that Napoleon issued an order banning its use).  Several medical doctors who had been part of the French campaign were sufficiently intrigued by hashish to send samples back to their colleagues in France for further research.  Through the returning soldiers, the scientists who published their results, and the public fascination with the mysterious East, hashish developed a strong appeal for the more artistic members of society who were seeking a new "high" (it wasn't just the 1960s that featured psychonauts).  As more and more books about the Middle East and its culture became available (including the Thousand and One Nights with its accounts of hashish use), the notion that writers, artists, and poets might increase their creativity through the exotic drug seemed irresistible.

Given the frequent legal attempts to stamp cannabis and hashish out however, the usual clashes were inevitable over time. While the actual legislation banning marijuana and hashish weren't particularly harsh in France, the leaders of the Club des Hachichins tended to be cautious about invitations to their monthly meetings. They were certainly an illustrious group.   Members included Charles Baudelaire, Eugene Delacroix, Victor Hugo, Alexander Dumas (pere),  Honore de Balzac and many other lesser known writers, artists, and intellectuals.  One prominent scientist in the group was psychiatrist Jacques Joseph Moreau who, along with being a member of the club, was also one of the first scientists to do careful research into the effect of cannabis compounds on the human central nervous system.  Not only did he publish the book Hashish and Mental Alienation in 1845 (still a classic) but he also co-founded the journal Annales Medico-psychologiques

Much of what actually happened at the meetings is still a mystery.  Some sources described the members as wearing Arab clothing and drinking coffee mixed with hashish.  The most famous (and possibly fictional) description was by writer Theophile Gauthier.  Describing his first experience at the club in a fairly exotic fashion, Gauthier wrote that, "One December evening, in answer to a mysterious summons drawn up in enigmatic terms understood only by the knowing and unintelligible to others, I arrived in a remote section, a sort of oasis of solitude in the midst of Paris, ... was where the bizarre club of which I was a recent member held its monthly sessions, which I was attending for the first time." 

Upon being admitted with "the usual precautions", Gauthier added that he then approached Doctor Moreau who handed him a "piece of greenish paste or jam, about the size of one's thumb," and telling the writer that,  "'this will be subtracted from your share in Paradise.'"  After consuming the hashish compound, Gauthier and the other members sit down to a strangely ordinary dinner while the hashish gradually takes effect. He described the changes to his senses in graphic fashion stating that he had undergone, "a complete transposition, water seemed to savor like the most delicate wine, the meat turned to raspberries in my mouth and, conversely, I could not have told a cutlet from a peach".   Gauthier then described his fellow-diners whose faces seemed to change shape and colour as their hashish intoxication went further: "some are sinking into a stupor, some become agitated, some are soon fighting with all their strength to raise a glass, some are roaring with irrepressible mirth."

After the dinner, the still-drugged members sat down to listen to a group of musicians who had been waiting to play for them.  As Gauthier listened, he became aware of various auditory and visual hallucinations that he described in glowing terms: "Everything was larger, richer, more gorgeous. Reality served as a point of departure for the splendors of the hallucination".  He talked about being surrounded by fantastic figures that danced about him (he was hardly aware of the others in the room)  and a general feeling of ecstasy.  As he tried to rise and flee the room, he found that the room had "lengthened out indefinitely" and that it took him "a thousand years" to reach the vestibule.  The piano-player, who happened to be the only one in the room to avoid taking hashish, lightened up the meeting by playing some cheerful melodies that helped calm the others.  After the hashish wore off, Gauthier returned to his apartment in the city although there is no way to determine how long he was passed out afterward.

It's hard to say for certain when the Club des Hachichins finally broke up though the last official meeting at the Hotel Lauzun was in 1849. While Baudelaire and his fellow writers continued to write about their private experiments with hashish, its appeal began to fade as other, more exotic, drugs became available.  Whatever their own experience, the former members of the Club des Hachichins ensured that hashish and cannabis would be permanently identified as counterculture drugs which spread to coffee-houses and private gatherings around the world.

As for the Hotel Lauzun, it is currently owned by the City of Paris and can only be visited during one of the regular guided tours. The Club des Hachichins may only have been one part of the Hotel's long history but visitors can still marvel at the lingering influence those long-ago meetings still have today.


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