Strew the path with flowers

Bernard Porter

  • Cannabis Britannica: Empire, Trade and Prohibition 1800-1928 by James Mills
    Oxford, 239 pp, £25.00, September 2003, ISBN 0 19 924938 5

Narcotic drugs taken for recreational purposes were, until comparatively recently, mainly associated with the ‘Orient’. They were used in Europe only by ‘Orientals’ and some adventurous and transgressive literati, though they were also hidden in patent medicines and tonics. In Asia and Africa, however, their use was fairly widespread, and they became part of the language of empire, helping to define the Other in contrast to the West, and to justify the latter’s self-proclaimed superiority. This may be one reason drugs were so feared when they started spreading in Europe and the US in the 1960s: they threatened to reduce the superior race to the level of those it had dominated so effectively for two centuries. In particular, drugs were thought to undermine self-control – an essential prerequisite, of course, for controlling others.

By most accounts, cannabis and its variants (hashish, marijuana, bhang, ganja, charas) are milder drugs than opium and cocaine, with fewer undesirable side effects – addiction, for instance. They probably cause less personal and social damage than either alcohol or tobacco, which were the West’s equivalent drugs. (Several critics of Oriental drug use cautioned against any British feeling of superiority in this regard. ‘Where is such habitual temperance?’ Whitelaw Ainslie asked in 1835. ‘In England? No!’) Despite this, cannabis had a fearsome reputation, equal to that of opium. William Caine, an 1890s abolitionist MP quoted by James Mills, claimed it was the ‘most horrible intoxicant the world has yet produced’. In 1924, the Egyptian statesman Mohamed El Guindy called it ‘a terrible menace to the whole world’. A moral panic in the 1920s and 1930s, mainly in America but with occasional reverberations in Britain, portrayed it as creating monsters. The popular image of cannabis from the 1880s onwards usually featured its consumption in smoke-infested ‘dens’ by villainous-looking Arabs or Chinese, but sometimes – horror of horrors – by British men and women who had been lured into them. The women were generally portrayed semi-naked with their legs splayed out: a horrifying picture of lack of self-control where it mattered most. That was in the tabloid press of the day (though Mills does not cover this wider cultural context – his account is mainly confined to medical and other expert sources).

For the better-educated, the association of hashish with the 11th and 12th-century Muslim cult of the assassins (‘hashashin’) may have left a mark. Assassins were supposed to have imbibed the drug for moral strength before going out on their killing sprees. (That is almost certainly a myth.) Hashish fulfilled the same function in 19th-century India, at least according to Caine: ‘When an Indian wants to commit some horrible crime, such as murder or wife mutilation, he prepares himself for it with two annas’ worth of bhang from a government majoon shop.’ It followed that even if consumers did not take it for this purpose, it could turn them to murder. Indian police reports regularly associated the drug with major crime. It was also thought to induce madness. Insane asylums claimed that substantial proportions of their inmates had come to them in this way. You could tell which they were simply by looking at them, Surgeon Hutchinson of the Patna asylum wrote in 1869: the bhang drinkers had ‘a peculiarly leery look which, when once seen is unmistakable’. Other ill-effects attributed to the drug were indolence, violent excitement (different constitutions obviously reacted differently), emaciation, stupidity, melancholia, forgetfulness, hallucinations, ‘double consciousness’, brain lesions, ‘running what they call "a muck"’, coughing until ‘one’s belly bursts’, heart failure, laughing at things that were not funny, sexual debauchery, and – in spite of this – a drying out of ‘the genital seed’. No wonder the nations where cannabis was used were so corrupt, enervated and politically ‘sick’ (the American Bishop Brent’s description of China in 1923), and needed the clearer-headed Western nations to take them in hand.

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