I assume that some drugs where known to humanity in some way or other for a long time, but I think actually prohibiting certain drugs would require a state that (for reasons of morals, public health, public order) cares for the pharmaceutical hobbies of its subjects and has the reach into society to at least start to enforce a ban - and I believe both to be relatively modern tendencies in a state.

Of course, religion (if seen as an institution) has an interest in what the believers do and a far reach into society, so the Muslim ban on alcohol would be an exception.

But for all I know the ancient Egyptians or the medieval Maya may have had strict rules against certain drugs, hence this question.

Edit to add:
wikipedia mentions some dates for bans on Opium:

Chinese edicts against opium smoking were made in 1729, 1796 and 1800.[2] Addictive drugs were prohibited in the west in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

I read that to mean that the first ban on opium was in the early 18th century.

The article on drug control laws lists no date prior the 20th century.

  • 1
    @mart So would you accept religious bans or not?
    – Voitcus
    Commented Aug 26, 2013 at 13:01
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    only if the ban is effective beyond the self-policiing of the believers
    – mart
    Commented Aug 26, 2013 at 13:04
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    Marijuana and some other intoxicants had been prevalent in India for time.
    – Rohit
    Commented Mar 2, 2015 at 15:48

3 Answers 3


According to Paul Devereux in his book Mysterious Ancient America, most of the pre-Columbian American civilizations were controlled by shamanistic cults who used various hallucinogenic substances prepared from plants - mushrooms, cacti, jimson weed, etc - to induce trance-like states which gave them the appearance of "communing with the spirit world", etc and was one of the principle sources of their power over the masses. His book documents this extensively using various forms of archaeological and forensic evidence, and the practice continues even today among some of the Amazon Rain Forest Peoples.

As Devereux explains there, the preparation of these substances was generally a secret among the shaman classes, and their use was restricted to them, and to certain individuals at certain ceremonial points in their lives (male puberty rites, for example) who were given a ration of some sort of hallucinogen to facilitate this ceremony. The masses at large had no access to these compounds, being, as they were, the source of the shamans' power.

So we have here a case of "controlled substances" in the ancient world for clearly political reasons. Nor was it necessary for the ruling cults to engage in invasive micromanagement of the lives of the citizenry to enforce this policy: The substances and their preparation were a secret reserved for the shaman classes - the masses simply had no access to them.

  • Sorry but I could not figure out from your answer why would Mayans have strict rules against certain drugs (if you confirm that it was the case). Commented Apr 16, 2020 at 5:39

In medieval France at least, the occupation of apothecary was severely restricted by law and required a licence to be lawful (such licences appeared first in Montpellier in the 12th century, probably under the influence of the then famous academy of medicine established there then spread in the rest of France). These licences typically incorporated a prohibition on selling poisons broadly defined as substances able to cause physical harm (more generally, it seems that French people in the Middle Ages and Renaissance were panicked by poisons). Though the ban typically does not contain any detailed list, I think it is reasonable to surmise that hallucinogenic substances would have been considered harmful, as hallucinations were considered diabolical in medieval christian thoughts, and thus to infer that these edicts broadly banned the selling of drugs.

So taking into account that not so many hallucinogenic substances would have been accessible to medieval Frenchmen anyway, it seems that selling them, at the very least, would have been prohibited.


Piqued by Lennart Regebro's critique, I provide evidence that hallucinogenic substances were prohibited in France during the middle ages. Though there are a few references to cannabaceae (for instance in the books of Hildegarde von Bingen) and opiates (mostly through arabic sources 3) in western middle ages pharmacy, the hallucinogenic substances (outside alcohol) most commonly referenced in middle ages sources derive from the alkaloids naturally present in plants of the solanaceae or apiaceae families. A handful of those were common enough so as to warrant a place of choice in the iconography of western middle ages: belladonna, mandrake, Hyoscyamus and hemlock. The first two in particular can induce narcose and hallucinations and all of them were widely used in middle age pharmacy 3. Many of the edicts mentioned above explicitly restrict the manipulation of mandrake and belladonna to licensed apothecary and their administration to licensed doctors. Hyoscyamus and hemlock were among the most common poisons in the middle ages so obviously fell under the scope of the edicts.

Incidentally, I found in searching for evidence of cannabic use in the middle ages that L.Lewin claims in 4 (chapter Indian Hamp) that cannabis use was prohibited by Emir Sheikouni in 1378, but I was utterly unable to find any outside confirmation of this much repeated factoid (nor in fact to identify this emir).


Society d'Histoire de la Pharmacie

Histoire des poisons: Moyen Age (strangely, the English version is very poor in comparison)

References to Bamberg's medical compendium

Phantastica Narcotic and Stimulating Drugs, By Louis Lewin 1924

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    "I think it is reasonable to surmise that hallucinogenic substances would have been considered harmful" - Or not. This is just your assumption. Commented Nov 18, 2013 at 12:45
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    I think you're on to something; I don't have sources at hand, but I seem to recall that the definition of "poison" was broader. There may not have been prohibitions against specific substances, but against harmful substances.
    – MCW
    Commented Nov 18, 2013 at 13:08
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    Considering that people were exorcized, lynched, or subject to other mob mentality for 'acting possessed' or being taken with lunacy' – I presume that hallucinogenic substances would have been considered some-form-of-dangerous Commented Nov 18, 2013 at 13:51
  • @LennartRegebro Not entirely my assumption: as I wrote, hallucinations were regarded as diabolical by western medieval theology. It would be a strange thing if symptom X was considered extremely grave but substance Y inducing symptom X not harmful at all. Also, what NewAlexandria said. That said, it is true that I don't know of a specific medieval condemnation of hallucinogenic substances, something which I would attribute to their rarity myself.
    – Olivier
    Commented Nov 18, 2013 at 13:53
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    @mart One point to keep in mind is that for all the moral panicking that suffuses medieval writings about poisons and diabolical ointment and the horrible dangers that threatened anyone who would pick up a mandrake the wrong way, evidence of actual use are very hard to find. The state probably had not much to enforce because hallucinogenic drugs seem to have been really quite rare.
    – Olivier
    Commented Nov 19, 2013 at 20:29

The following may be a little late historically for OP's uses (though it's hard to know what precisely "medieval" means for a number of countries). But these bans all do precede the 18th century dates found in OP's original research.

The 17th century saw a number of anti-tobacco laws (source):

1633: TURKEY: Sultan Murad IV orders tobacco users executed as infidels.

1634: RUSSIA: Czar [Michael] creates penalties for smoking: 1st offense is whipping, a slit nose, and trasportation to Siberia. 2nd offense is execution.

1635: FRANCE: King allows sale of tobaccco only following prescription by physician.

1638: CHINA: Use or distribution of tobacco is made a crime punishable by decapitation.

1639: NEW YORK CITY: Governor Kieft bans smoking in New Amsterdam

1640s: Bhutan's first ban on smoking in public enacted by the warrior monk Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the founder of modern Bhutan.

Several Muslim rulers banned coffee in the 16th and 17th centuries

1511: Mecca

1525: Mecca

1539: Cairo (source)

1633: Ottoman Empire (source)

  • This is proably later than medievial times by most definitions, but still pretty interesting because it shows that the assumption my question was based on was wrong for some societies the 16th century onwards. thx.
    – mart
    Commented Feb 23, 2015 at 20:32
  • @mart: I actually thought these laws supported the assumption in your question (you need a state with some "reach" to ban drugs), since many historians consider modern state formation to have begun in the 17th century.
    – two sheds
    Commented Feb 23, 2015 at 20:36
  • Now that I think of it yes. I sometimes think state==nationstate which would be far more recent.
    – mart
    Commented Feb 23, 2015 at 20:38
  • 1
    Banning smoking probably had other reasons than addiction or health effects (which weren't really known back then): it was a fire hazard. Due to the cramped streets, buildings made mostly of wood, including the roofs, a single small fire often lead to the majority of a city being burned down.
    – vsz
    Commented Apr 15, 2020 at 5:49

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