Land of Dope and Glory: Cannabis and the British Empire

That cannabis has a long and colourful history is widely recognized. One of the earliest agricultural plants, it has been used for rope, seed-oil and a host of other purposes, including intoxication, throughout recorded history. The US influence on cannabis policy is well known, with most interested people having heard of Harry Anslinger and seen the “Reefer Madness” anti-cannabis propaganda film. It is less generally known that for the past three hundred years the drug’s history has also been closely bound up with that of the British Empire. A brief overview of the story of cannabis and the Empire is given below.

The West and its Asian Empires

The colonial adventurers of the big European trading nations found a thriving traditional drug culture in Asia upon their arrival in the early modern period (mainly the 17th century). Opium, cannabis, betel nut and other substances were integrated into the cultural life of many

Asian societies and were used both for medicinal and spiritual purposes, as well as for pleasure.It was not until the nineteenth century that British doctors serving in colonial India began to take an interest in cannabis, which, unlike opium, was not implicated in a large commercial trade. One of the most notable of these Victorian scientific explorers was William O’Shaughnessy, a chemist and medical man who tested cannabis on numerous animals, including pigs, vultures and fish! Assured by these diverse experiments of the safety of the substance, he went on to test it on his patients and students. He saw in the drug a most promising addition to the arsenal of therapeutics.

By the late 19th century, however, another group of doctors had come to see cannabis—or Indian Hemp as it was then known—as a threat to the user and to society. Statistics of mental illness in India appeared to demonstrate that the drug caused mental health problems; an inquiry in the 1870s concluded that it led to madness and crime. While this was later shown to be false, and based on dubious statistical evidence, the belief that such links existed had by then permeated much of society and the scientific community. Claims were made in the British House of Commons that “lunatic asylums in India are filled with ganja smokers”, and the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission was set up to investigate what should be done. The Commission, which many scholars believe still remains one of the best studies undertaken into the question of cannabis use,  reported that cannabis was much more widely used in India than had been supposed; it found that claims of links to crime and mental illness were in fact greatly exaggerated, that its moderate use produced virtually “no evil results” and that it was neither necessary nor practical to ban its use in the Indian subcontinent.

The advent of Prohibition

In continuing echoes of present-day controversies, the production of balanced scientific evidence did little to remove the beliefs that had accrued around cannabis. Those who opposed all drug use on moral grounds—and the prohibitionist movement was at its strongest in the early twentieth century—felt that cannabis should be included in the growing list of substances to be restricted. Its use was blamed for such national traumas as the Indian mutiny of 1851 (a rebellion against British rule of India) and the defeat of the British Army by supposedly dope-crazed Zulu fighters at Isandhlwana (in South Africa), in addition to the general subversion of colonial subjects who had previously been content with their lot.

The 1925 Opium Convention at Geneva saw pressure applied by Turkey, South Africa and Egypt. Egypt had what its government regarded as an epidemic of “chronic hashishism”; all classes of society were using cannabis, but it was the labourers who were felt to be in the greatest danger of immorality and madness. In 1868 the country had made possession of hashish a capital offence, but the law did little to curb its use. Both South Africa and Egypt were or had been parts of the British Empire, and were able to exert a degree of influence at the Geneva meeting. Although it had been set up to deal with the opiates and cocaine, the Convention ended up by bringing cannabis under the auspices of the international drug control system. The drug control treaties obliged signatory nations to pass domestic legislation outlawing the non-medical use of these drugs, and it was as a consequence of this that Britain passed the 1929 Dangerous Drugs Act outlawing cannabis.

Dope on the Home Front

The trading and cultural links between Britain and its far-flung imperial possessions meant that drugs produced across the empire were always available at home. Although the scale of cannabis use did not approach that of opium in the 19th century, which was very widespread (almost every household would have contained opium remedies) it was used medicinally, with the tantalizing possibility that Queen Victoria may have employed it for menstrual pains being a favourite item of cannabis lore (in fact, though her personal physician was known to prescribe it, Victoria’s case remains one for speculation). 

At the dawn of the 20th century, cannabis was certainly being consumed by literary and artistic circles in Bohemian London. Occultist and cultural bête noir Aleister Crowley used the drug to aid meditation and visions, as did his coterie of magical associates; through figures such as the poet W.B.Yeats, this use reached into avant-garde artistic groups and even into respectable medical experimentation like that conducted by Havelock Ellis.

Cannabis, Immigration and Youth culture: The End of the World

The large scale immigration of commonwealth (the “British Commonwealth” was formerly the British Empire) citizens into Britain in the post World War Two period brought with it a considerable number of those for whom cannabis use was a normal part of cultural life. West Indian smokers, in  particular, found a point of contact with a 1950s youth that was dissatisfied with the old, conservative identities and practices; the beginnings of the 1960s consumer boom, the advent of first jazz and then rock and roll music, new dances and youth movements led to a great cross-fertilization between cultures. 

In the 1940s, government reports noted that cannabis use was restricted to Arab and Indian sailors, along with a few bohemians in Chelsea. In 1950, the famous Club 11 at 50, Carnaby Street, Soho was raided by police on a drugs warrant following the arrest of a ship’s steward in Southampton. 10 people were busted for cannabis, two also having cocaine. Nine were white, and three were US sailors. On the floor of the club were 23 packets of hemp, some joints, a small pack of cocaine, a piece of opium and an empty morphine ampoule. Officials and police expressed surprise at the number of whites involved: it was clear that a new trend had emerged. In 1952, the first UK teenager to be arrested for cannabis possession provided confirmation of this fact.

The spectre of black men corrupting white youth was a staple feature of drug policy and now appeared once more in the UK press. As in the case of opium and cocaine in the 1920s, young white girls were felt to be particularly at risk. The Sunday Graphic reported: “The victims are teenage British girls, and to a lesser extent teenage youths...The racketeers are 90% coloured men...I share the fear of the detectives now on the job that there is the greatest danger of the reefer craze becoming the greatest social menace this country has known.” Fears were voiced openly in the press of racial mixing and the society of “half-castes” that would result. Cannabis became the symbol of this apocalyptic vision. For the young, however, the drug began to symbolize youthful revolt against the bigotry, boredom and sheer banality of the old order. When the 1960s came along, to smoke dope was de rigueur for those who wanted to declare themselves for the new world and the counter-culture that was going to make it. Some these anti-authoritarian significations remain today.