Cannabis Britannica: Empire, Trade and Prohibition 1800-1928 
by James Mills.
Oxford, 239 pp., £25, September 2003, 0 19 924938 5
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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.

It’s clear that the evidential basis for these claims was extremely flawed. Mills does a good job of demolishing the Indian asylum statistics, which were disgraceful by any standard. Many were based on the diagnoses of policemen who had the job of committing the inmates, but who had no expertise in drugs, and were usually guessing. A patient’s illness was often automatically attributed to cannabis if he was known to take it. In other cases inmates were put down as imbibers when there was no evidence that they were. It was an easy way to complete the forms. The same applies to statistics from Egyptian asylums supplied by John Warnock, the head of the Lunacy Department there from 1895 to 1923. Warnock admitted to a ‘total ignorance of Arabic’, which must have made sensitive diagnosis difficult. He also diagnosed Egyptian nationalism as ‘an infectious mental disorder’ and took the denial of hashish use by his patients as prima facie evidence of ‘weak-mindedness’ caused by the drug. That was one way of boosting the figures. Links between cannabis and crime were almost never founded on expert or first-hand knowledge. ‘I have never had experience of such a case,’ one Indian police chief who had made such a connection confessed in the 1890s: ‘I only state what I have heard.’ A Bengal magistrate who made the bold claim that ‘cases of homicidal frenzy’ under the influence of cannabis were ‘innumerable’ admitted when quizzed that he had never actually come across one in his court; ‘my remark’, he said, is based ‘merely on newspapers’.

At the same time, a mass of contrary evidence was appearing that suggested that cannabis was relatively harmless, and might even be beneficial. This may, of course, have been no more reliable. Mills is even-handed in raising questions about the motives and methods of witnesses on all sides of the argument, especially those beholden to the government of India, who included the celebrated William O’Shaughnessy, the most enthusiastic of the early Indian champions of cannabis, whom he suspects of simply looking for a way to make a name for himself. (Mills could have chased up some of these suspicions; the evidence must be there.) One convenient finding for the Indian government was that cannabis use enabled coolies on tea plantations, and also ‘palki-bearers, porters and postal runners’, to work harder and longer for their European masters. It was also beginning to be prescribed – following Indian and other precedents – as a medicine. Early psychiatrists regarded it as a treatment for, rather than a cause of, insanity. In 1883 William Strange claimed to have cured a woman of the desperate urge to kill her children by dosing her with it three times a day for a fortnight.

It was also found useful in physical cases. Administered in small doses daily, George Playfair reported in 1833, quoting an Indian Materia Medica, it could have remarkable effects in as little as two months:

Strength and intelligence will have become increased and every propensity of youth restored; the eyesight cleared, and all eruptions of the skin removed; it will prove an exemption from convulsions and debility and preserve the bowels at all times in a state of order. It will likewise give an additional zest for food.

Back in Britain, doctors experimented with it to ease menstrual and labour pains; to prevent miscarriages and premature births, or, alternatively, to induce delivery; to cure insomnia, migraine, fevers, rheumatism, rabies, tetanus, cholera, piles, diarrhoea, infantile convulsions, delirium tremens, hydrophobia, tightening of the muscles, and sores of the scrotum; as a sedative, painkiller and ‘nervine tonic’; and – if all else failed – to ‘strew the path to the tomb with flowers’. Students trying it on themselves – in the interests of science – found that their bodies ‘glowed’. It was recommended as an aphrodisiac (for some Victorians that may have been a point against it), and a cure for premature ejaculation. It also caused hens to lay more eggs (so much for the dried-up seeds). Queen Victoria’s doctor J. Russell-Reynolds was an enthusiast for it (though he probably didn’t administer it to the queen). While one set of experts was castigating cannabis as a scourge of civilisation another was hailing it as a wonder drug.

The Empire’s role in this is complex. India was where the British first came across cannabis as a significant drug, and conducted most of their early scientific experiments with it. This was at a time when it seemed not to present any threat to Britain, which may have been an aid to objectivity. On the other hand, imperial interests were involved. An early one was the importance of hemp – the source of cannabis – to Britain’s maritime interests as raw material for the manufacture of ropes and sails. But hemp cannot be cultivated in the same way for both purposes. The main benefit Britain gained from the drug was through the taxes levied on its cultivation and sale by the East India Company, and later the government of India. Another imperial use could have been to keep the natives down, or happy, which comes to much the same thing, though there is little evidence for this. The British did not have the same incentive for restricting drug use in the Empire as they did – with regard to alcohol – in Britain, where the imminent prospect of democracy made a sober and rational electorate desirable. In the colonies this was not a consideration. So long as cannabis didn’t incite antisocial conduct it could be tolerated. And most imperial doctors, like the important Indian Hemp Drugs Commission of 1893-94, were reassuring about this.

Mills is full of praise for this commission, whose report remains, he says, ‘one of the most complete surveys of a cannabis consuming society to this day’. It was thorough, travelling throughout India and producing eight thick volumes of evidence; sensitive to the cultural and economic context of cannabis consumption in India, and its several variations (many sections of society abjured it altogether); and properly sceptical of the anti-cannabis lobby’s wilder claims. It was the commission that first nailed those dreadful asylum statistics: Mills says it was ‘staggered by its own finding’. Its philosophical position was the classic John Stuart Mill one, that anything that did not harm others should be allowed. Overall it gave hemp drugs an almost clean bill of health. In particular, it found no evidence of a link between moderate use of cannabis and insanity, and absolved it from any responsibility for crime.

This was the work of active imperialists, all of them either direct employees of the (British) Indian government, or trusted native Indians. Interestingly, two of the latter (out of three) were the only members who dissented from the report. Both insisted that hemp drugs were more harmful than their European colleagues claimed, and wanted them restricted or banned. One even tried to rehabilitate the asylum figures. He was shouted down by the majority, who pointed out that he had been absent, through illness, from one of the commissioners’ key fact-finding tours of India, and so was less informed than the rest. It is significant, however, that the main opposition to cannabis came from sources like this: it was part of a critique of British imperial rule. Mills suggests that the same applied back in England, where opposition to the government’s lax policy on drugs in the Empire was also tied up with criticism of British imperial policy.

The situation was repeated later, when, at a session of the new League of Nations Advisory Council on Traffic in Opium and Other Dangerous Drugs in 1924, the initiative for adding cannabis to this category came from the delegate of the newly (partly) decolonised state of Egypt, Mohamed El Guindy. This is a well-known story (it is told, for example, in William McAllister’s Drug Diplomacy in the 20th Century), but worth repeating. If opium were eradicated, El Guindy argued (and this was the way the signs seemed to be pointing), its users would turn to cannabis, which was just as harmful: a ‘scourge which reduces man to the level of the brute and deprives him of health and reason, self-control and honour’. Mills suggests that this opinion may have been informed by the ridiculous Warnock’s work. But there was an anti-imperialist attitude implied too. ‘I know the mentality of Oriental peoples,’ El Guindy claimed, ‘and I am afraid that it will be said that the question was not dealt with because it did not affect the safety of Europeans.’ That clearly moved other anti-imperial delegates, irrespective of the strict merits of the cannabis case. ‘While I know next to nothing about the subject,’ the Chinese representative said, revealingly, ‘I wish to assure the Egyptian delegate that he can count on us to do all we can to support his efforts.’ The US delegate – no less ill-informed – also welcomed this chance to have a dig at the imperial Brits. This was an important stage in the eventual implementation of strict – often draconian – worldwide laws against cannabis, starting so far as Britain was concerned with its earliest classification as a ‘poison’ in that same year, followed by the first legislation restricting its sale (the Coca Leaves and Indian Hemp Regulations) in 1928. Mills suggests the British government agreed to this partly to divert critical international attention from its record on opium. (In the First World War, incidentally, troops had been banned from using cannabis, presumably because it was thought to undermine their fighting qualities, though this doesn’t tally with the ‘assassin’ precedent.)

The 1928 law was passed easily in Britain partly because of its low profile. There were some press-inspired scares in the 1920s, one involving a report that Ogden’s St Julien cigarettes were being laced with the stuff, but nothing to compare with the furore over ‘dope’ in the United States at the same time. The discussion of it in Britain was overshadowed by debates about alcohol and opium. Cannabis’s main opponents here were temperance reformers – who objected to any artificial stimulant, however mild, on moral and social grounds – and the anti-opium lobby, brought into being by the Opium Wars of the mid-19th century, when Britain had forced Indian opium on an unwilling Chinese government at the point of a sword. Most of these opponents tended to confuse the two drugs, and were largely ignorant of cannabis. In the colonies, by contrast, where cannabis was known, studies of it (such as the one carried out in 1893-94) were usually more thorough, balanced and tolerant and therefore reliable. Present-day cannabis champions will find much to admire here. The researchers, however, were suspected of having imperialist double standards. Why should self-control be less important for the East than for the West? That was an insufferable inference for colonial nationalists. The association of cannabis with Europe’s image of Asia and Africa as reactionary, stagnant and sunk in torpor made it difficult to defend its use by those who desperately wished to show how wrong that image was.

That the original demonisation of cannabis in Britain was based on ignorance and error – ‘little more’, Mills writes, ‘than innuendo and suspicion’ – seems indisputable, and Mills’s demonstration of that fact is his book’s main strength. This does not mean that a better case against cannabis could not be made, and Mills never claims it does. He does, however, think that all this has a present-day relevance, because the original errors – those asylum statistics, for example – are still percolating through. The Blair government, he writes, has defended its drug policies ‘using the assumption that its predecessors had good reasons for arriving at their assessments of cannabis and that their judgments were based on solid ground’. By reminding us how prejudice can trump reason, and ignorance override knowledge, Mills’s conclusions are salutary in the current cannabis debate.

He promises us a second volume shortly, taking the story on from 1928 to today. That will be welcome, especially if he trawls more broadly for evidence than he has done for this book. Only a certain amount can be learned about medical history from medical sources; he ought to have introduced more political, cultural and imperial context. He might also look more closely at other parts of the Empire besides India (Southern Africa and the West Indies, both important markets, get almost no mention here). It will be interesting to see whether the Empire plays as important and ambivalent a role in the history of cannabis legislation in Britain after 1928 as it did before then. It’s odd to find those with liberal views about cannabis on the same side as imperialists, and hardliners in bed with anti-colonialists; this book shows how it happened.

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