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Pot and the Myth of Shen Nung

In response to:

Marijuana: The High and the Low from the February 20, 2014 issue

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The legendary Chinese emperor Shen Nung

To the Editors:

Dr. Jerome Goopman lays out a balanced and thorough coverage of the past, current, and very possibly the future matter of marijuana as medicine [NYR, February 20]. Indeed, he should be commended for his knowledge, wisdom, lack of bias, and pedagogical dexterity. But every review of the history of the healing powers of marijuana should be issued a warning, much like the one on packs of cigarettes: “Warning: Shen Nung was a mythical figure—a legendary and nonexistent emperor. Indeed, historians trace back the rule of a more or less unified China by emperors to the third century BCE; hence, 2737 is a bogus date. Moreover, Chinese writing was not devised and systematized until between the seventeenth to the eleventh century BCE, paper did not exist until two thousand years ago, and the pharmacopoeia—commonly referred to as Treatise on Medicine—to which chroniclers often attach Shen’s authorship was written in the first century CE by an author whose name has been lost in the mists of time.”

Erich Goode
New York City

Jerome Groopman replies:

I am grateful to Professor Goode for his letter and would have benefited from the warning label he suggests. Indeed, the scientific literature on marijuana is replete with references to Shen Nung. The same skepticism that should be applied to laboratory and clinical claims about cannabis needs to be extended to historical claims about the plant in ancient cultures.

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