Bonaparte, a forerunner in the war against drugs

by Xavier Riaud*, FINS, Medal of Honour of the companions of the INS, INS Legion of Merit Medal


Egypt… Its unbearable heat… A nonexistent supply of provisions… Little water… The constant insurrection of nomadic tribes… Terrorist acts during which all types of weapons were used… Recurring epidemics… A land most remote from the soldiers’ loved ones… Inactivity… The more time passed, the more the morale among the French troops plummeted… These factors contributed towards a situation where they used illicit substances in search of artificial paradises (Castelot, 1967). Unfortunately, during the campaign in Egypt, the French soldiers discovered hashish, its delusions and dangers (Fabre, 2010). The doctors of the physics and natural science department from the Institute of Egypt noticed the devastating local impacts due to the consumption of hemp. It was mixed with opium or hellebore. The combination was presented in the form of jam that the native called dyâsmouck (= musky medication) for there was musk, clove and other essences in it ( (a), 2010). On this subject, upon his return from the campaign in Egypt in 1801, Desgenettes (1762-1837) presented as case studies the first samples of hashish ever brought to France(Ganière, 1988 & Riaud, 2010).

There was a long held oriental tradition of hashish which spread all over the East, from Syria to Egypt, from the 11th century. In 1378, Emir Soudoun Scheikhouni of the Ottoman Empire issued one of the first pieces of legislation forbidding its use (Fabre, 2010). However, it spread in Morocco, then Spain where the Inquisition tried to tackle the epidemic from the 16th century. The Portuguese doctor Garcia da Orta (1500-1568) wrote the first text on the subject published in the East. It is entitled Colóquios dos simples e drogas he cousas medicinais da Índia (“Conversations on the simples, drugs and medicinal substances of India”)and was published in 1563. After the doctor’s death, his body and book were burnt by the Inquisition in auto da fé (Fabre, 2010).

Napoleon noted with great concern the damage that this substance caused on his men. Moreover, shortly after his arrival in Egypt, he had been assaulted by a fanatic Muslim who had used cannabis. Subsequently, Bonaparte came to the decision to forbid “the use of the strong liqueur made by some Muslims with some herb named hashish, as well as hemp seed smoking.

According to Max Gallo (1998), the assault occurred when Napoleon entered Alexandria on July 1st 1798 (Castelot (1967) dated the entry into Alexandria to July 2nd and did not mention the assault. Marchioni (2003) maintained that Bonaparte entered the city on the night of 1st to 2nd). A Muslim was said to have shot Bonaparte from a house. The latter was riding his horse and received the bullet in his left boot. The General was not injured. The aggressor, surrounded by six rifles, was immediately shot (Gallo, 1998). All the consulted authors reported this event in the days following Bonaparte’s entry into Alexandria.

Under Bonaparte’s order, the General-in-Chief Abdallah Jacques Menou had set an agenda (#11 ( ?)) of the 17th vendémiaire (October 9th 1800). This order appeared to be an attempt to end the use of hashish and hemp seed by the soldiers of the expeditionary force (Fondation Napoléon, 2010). For the first time, cannabis and its dangers were being mentioned in a text. For those breaking the order, there was a mandatory sentence of three years in prison ( (b), 2010; Escohotado, 2004; Fabre, 2010).

In 1840, doctor Louis Aubert Roche published his famous work De la peste et du typhus d’Orient in which he encouraged the use of hashish as a medicinal remedy for certain contagious diseases. The first French law which regulated the transfer of poisonous substances in order to limit their sale and subsequent poisonings was only voted on July 19th 1845. On October 29th 1846, based on a Royal Decree, “poisonous” substances were classified in a single chart including arsenic, opium and morphine. Another text was issued in 1862 aiming at forewarning the dangers of arsenic poisoning ( (c), 2010).

Therefore, in France, Bonaparte was a forerunner in the war against drugs.


Castelot André, Bonaparte, Librairie Académique Perrin, Paris, 1967.
Escohotado Antonio, Histoire générale des drogues [General history of drugs], L’esprit frappeur (ed.), Paris, 2004.
Fabre André, De grands médecins méconnus… [Great unknown doctors…], L’Harmattan (ed.), “médecine à travers les siècles” Collection, Paris, 2010 (to be published).
Fondation Napoléon, personal communication (letter to Dr Fabre André which he kindly sent me), Paris, 2010.
Gallo Max, Napoléon – Le chant du départ [Napoleon – Chant of the departure], Magellan (ed.), vol. #2, Paris, 1998.
Ganière Paul, « Dubois Antoine (1756-1837), médecin » [“Dubois Antoine (1756-1837), doctor”], in Revue du Souvenir napoléonien, December 1988; 362: 51-52.
Ganière Paul, « Desgenettes, René-Nicolas (1762-1837), médecin » [“Dubois Antoine (1756-1837), doctor”], in Revue du Souvenir Napoléonien,, Fondation Napoléon, 1988, pp. 47-48. (a), Description de l’Egypte [Description of Egypt], 2010, pp. 1-6. (b), Histoire du chanvre [Hemp history], 2010, pp. 1-6. (c), Prohibition des drogues [Drug prohibition], 2010, pp. 1-11.
Marchioni J., Place à Monsieur Larrey, chirurgien de la Garde impériale [Monsieur Larrey, surgeon of the Imperial Guard], Actes Sud (ed.), Arles, 2003.
Riaud Xavier, « René-Nicolas Dufriche, baron Desgenettes (1762-1837), médecin chirurgien de la Grande Armée » [“René-Nicolas Dufriche, baron Desgenettes (1762-1837), surgeon of the Great Army”], in The International Napoleonic Society, Montreal, 2010,, pp. 1-3.


(*) DDS, PhD in Epistemology, History of Sciences and Techniques, Laureate and associate member of the National Academy of Dental Surgery, Free member of the National Academy of Surgery.