A sociopolitical history of cannabis and the British Empire 1840-1928
Sean Blanchard & Matthew J. Atha MSc
When the report of the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission (IHDC) reached 1890’s England it met official and public apathy. There was no political debate. It went into the ‘forget about this’ file on arrival and has stayed there ever since. There was no publicity; The news that “Ganja is not appreciably harmful” was of no concern to the majority of users, who took cannabis products for their medical benefits. The non-medical users were mostly artists who didn’t mind a little harm. Prohibitionist sentiment was concentrated on the opium trade between India and China and on alcohol at home. Cannabis use in England was considered negligible, and the authorities were content to have no laws at all controlling it for another thirty years.
When laws were later proposed, the Government paid no attention to the evidence in their possession from the IHDC. In India, the recommendations of the IHDC report for control by taxes rather than prohibition went into force quietly, standardising laws and tariffs on cannabis in all the provinces. In March 1895, the Indian Government passed a resolution after reviewing the report. It said that for the last twenty years their policy had been of “restraining use and improving the revenue by the imposition of suitable taxation” and “imposing as high a rate of duty as can be levied without inducing illicit practices” on the grounds that “the best way to restrict the consumption of drugs is to tax them…” So, “to that policy the Governor-General… has decided steadily to adhere.”
There was never any suggestion that the same rules might be applied in the UK; the Empire didn’t work like that. The Governor-General (also known as Viceroy), Lord Landsdowne, was appointed by the UK Government. When they instructed him to commission a report, he did so, then accepted or rejected it, passed any regulations needed, and told the UK what he’d done. His job was to ‘keep natives in their place’ and help the British get on with de, not to give advice on home affairs.
From Mother’s Friend to Opium Wars
Cannabis was virtually irrelevant to 19th century England. The drug of the century was opium, freely available to the British population and so popular that the government went to war to prevent the prohibitionist Chinese disrupting the trade. The opium wars still write their history in the 1990s, as Britain is soon due to hand back Hong Kong, the territory it won from China and those territories leased for 150 years, in 1997.
Thomas De Quincy, in his ‘Confessions of and English Opium Eater’ gave the first popular account of the ‘…marvellous agency of opium, whether for pleasure or pain’. He may have been the first glamouriser of the psychotropic effects of the drug, but, for most people opium was a friend and medicine as indispensable as aspirin or Valium in the 20th century. Godfrey’s cordial, or chemists’ home-brewed versions of popular patent medicines, were used to quiet children, while no home would be without laudanum (alcoholic tincture of opium). Opium was first used in the treatment of cholera in the epidemics of the early 19th century, and continued to be used for the treatment of diarrhoea and sickness, common complaints in the less than hygienic environment of the day. It was during the Crimean war that the analgesic effects were fully exploited, and it is certain that the widespread use of laudanum, Collis Browne’s mixture or other opium-based medicines, available to the poor for a penny a bottle, enabled ordinary people to cope with the harsh realities of life in Dickensian England. From the government’s point of view, it was no doubt preferable to have the poor in a state of comfortable stupor than rioting on the streets.
India was not the main source of opium for the domestic market. Most of this was grown in Turkey or Persia (Iran), as this opium was of generally high qualify, and trade flourished in the period following the end of the Napoleonic wars, particularly after the treaty of Balta Limon (1838) granting the Ottoman Empire ‘most favoured nation’ trading status. Indian opium, however, was responsible for one of the British Government in India becoming the largest drug-trafficking syndicate in the world during the latter part of the century.
Opium and tea were the mainstays of the British East India Company, who had a monopoly on the opium produced in Bengal. In 1772 Warren Hastings, then chief executive of the company, realised the potential for foreign revenue in exporting Indian opium to China. Opium had been known in China for centuries, but
imports bad been banned in 1729 by decree of the Emperor. An foreign trade was funneled through Canton, opium being smuggled with legitimate consignments in British ships, and sold through corrupt officials to an eager market Other traders smuggled opium to China overland, and the consumption spread to all levels of society, even to the personal retinue of the Emperor. Exports to China rose from 10,000 chests ill 1820 to 40,000 chests in 1840. By 1836, a Chinese official in Canton, Hsu Nal-chi, petitioned the emperor to legalise the trade after witnessing the failure of prohibition… “the severer the interdicts against (opium) became, the more widely do the evils therefrom spread.” He was summarily dismissed from his post and replaced with a committed “war on drugs”-minded individual, Lin Tse-hsu.
Lin was determined to wipe out the opium trade by threatening the British merchants with the loss of the tea trade, and in 1839 forced them to surrender 20,000 chests of the drug. Captain Charles Elliot the British Chief Superintended, retaliated by ordering all British ships out of the Canton estuary, transferring the tea trade to American ships who would transport their cargoes to Hong Kong, an inconvenience, but not an obstacle, to the trade. Instead of using Canton, smugglers would take opium consignments ashore up and down the coast in sinall boats, fast enough to evade the Customs craft. Meanwhile Elliot had ordered an expeditionary force of naval steamships which arrived in 1840 and put direct pressure on Peking. Lin was dismissed and the trade continued uninterrupted following the Chinese capitulation and the end of the first opium war in 1842. To the domestic audience in the UK, Palmerston, the Prime Minister, bad portrayed the war as an attempt to force the Chinese to accept free trade. In reality, the only commodity directly involved was -opium, tax revenue from which was becoming increasingly important to the Indian Government .
In Britain, the Conservative opposition was not satisfied with Palmerston’s explanations and they opposed the opium trade in the 1840 Commons debate. By the time they took power in 1841 their tune had changed, and the trade continued to expand. The Chinese government was effectively warned that no British ships should be searched. Although fresh edicts against the drug were issued by the Chinese, they were powerless to stop the trade following the treaty of Nanking, which ceded Hong Kong to Britain, allowing a bridgehead for further opium supplies. In 1856, following growing and-British sentiment, the Chinese gave the British government a further excuse for war by seizing the Arrow, a British vessel with a crew of Chinese criminals anchored off Canton. The fact that the Arrow’s registration had expired, technically justifying the Chinese action, was overlooked by Palmerston, once again the Liberal Prime Minister after fighting an election forced by government defeat on an opposition motion condemning the war, and winning on a wave of patriotic fervour.
Lord Elgin was dispatched with an expeditionary force which burned down the Summer Palace in Peking to impress upon the Emperor the need to keep agreements. The main consequence of the Second Opium War was that China was forced to legalise the trade in opium, and were only permitted to tax the product at a level acceptable to the British. Consumption increased from 60,000 chests in 1860 to 105,000 by 1880. The trade generated taxes to the British Indian Government equivalent to over half their total revenue, enough to cover the entire civil service and armed forces budgets. In this climate, financial expediency, as so often is the case, took precedence over the growing moral arguments against the drug trade.
Following increased public pressure to end the trade, and in response to a Parliamentary motion, the Government called a Royal Commission on the production and consumption of opium, which was only to consider prohibition among other options, after full investigation. It was during these manoevres that the IHDC was also established. The Indian Viceroy, Lord Lansdowne was against anything that might disrupt business. Prime Minister Gladstone was much more pro trade than he was anti drug. They packed the opium commission with pragmatists from the Indian Civil Service, with some of the more economically literate abolitionists, and ensured that it would concentrate a good deal on money. It first met in September 1893 and saw 2,500 witnesses by February ’94.
When the report was published in ’95, it said that opium was “generally used in moderation”, and “led to no evident ill-effects”. Even some senior anti-opiumists had been convinced. The fact that Chinese missionaries were overwhelmingly critical of the effects of opium, in contrast to the Indian witnesses who were predominantly favourable towards the drug, was put down to the fact that in India the drug is normally taken orally, whereas in China it was generally smoked . There was only one dissent; Joseph Rowntree, one of the committee members, was later to denounce the Commission’s report as a whitewash. By that time there was another election under way. Prohibition had no chance under the Conservatives, and there would be no Liberal government until 1905.(4). The government, despite public opinion, was determined to continue the opium
“The Lunatic asylums are filled with Ganja Smokers.”
The question of cannabis occasionally cropped up as an incidental issue in skirmishes during the long legislative battle against the opium business. As early as 1840 the pro-opium banker William Bingham Baring MP told the Commons that if the opium trade were suppressed then there would be a danger of users turning to drugs “infinitely more prejudicial to physical health and energy than opium”. Baring, one of 10 MPs of both parties from the same pro-free trade family, was particularly concerned about “an exhalation of the Hemp plant, easily collected at certain seasons, which is in every way more injurious than the use of the poppy.”  This was another justification for the lucrative opium trade which flourished in a climate of official and unofficial governmental encouragement. However, attitudes were slowly changing and in 1875 Mark Steward MP had proposed that the Indian Governor General be instructed to investigate the opium trade “with a view to gradual withdrawal,” and lost by 37 votes. Similar moves were regularly defeated for the next twenty years. By April ’91, a spokesman for the Society for Suppression of the Opium Trade (SSOT) had obtained a 30-vote majority for a motion that the Governments’ revenue from opium was “Morally indefensible”.
On 16 July 1891 Stewart asked a three part question about ganja :
“i Whether the Secretary of State for India has seen a report in the Allahabad Pioneer of 10 May that ganja, which is grown sold and excised in much the same way as opium, is far more harmful, and that “the lunatic asylum of Bengal are filled with ganja smokers.”
ii Is he aware that ganja has been made illegal in Lower Burma and that excise reports say this has been ‘of enormous benefit to the people.’
iii Will he call to the attention of the Governor General the desirability of extending theprohibition to other provinces?”
The answers to which were yes, yes, and that he would “Enquire whether further steps should be taken to limit consumption…” On 7 August 1892 those enquiries were answered at some length. The Viceroy’s office told London that the whole question had been extensively discussed with provincial administrations in 1871-73. They sent 174 pages of old dispatches from Indian provincial governments to the centre, and from there to London. After considering these, “The Governor General is of the opinion that while ganja may be among the most noxious of all intoxicants commonly used in India… even if absolute prohibition could be enforced, the result might be to induce the use of more noxious drugs” (e.g. datura). Apart from which it would be impossible to enforce a prohibition. It was “Our duty to restrict consumption, but unnecessary to do more than persevere in the policy established In 1873.” These papers languished unread in London, perhaps because there was a general election going on.
The 1873 dispatches showed the pragmatism of imperial administrators which was to be repeated by the IHDC, in very similar words. The then Viceroy had said that while the Government should endeavour to restrict the use of ganja, it would be impossible to enforce general prohibition, especially because of religious feelings in some groups and because the plants grew freely some areas. It would be inexpedient to order what could not be enforced… “It does not appear to the Governor-General to be specifically proved that hump incites to crime more than other drugs or spirits.” There was also some evidence that hump, “usually so noxious”, might usefully be taken for medical reasons. There was no doubt that habitual use tended to cause insanity but not in very many cases relative to the numbers of the insane.(6]. “General opinion seems to be that the evil effects of Ganja have been exaggerated.”
The dispatches from regional governments were more forthright. The Lt.-Governor of the Punjab wrote that considering the practicalities, they should not restrict hemp drug use unless there was proof of connection with crime. Civil, police and medical officers disagreed on the details but: “His Honour is of the opinion that if people were prohibited from using preparations of hemp or opium, they would, in all probability, have recourse to some other stimulant, such as alcohol, the crime resulting from the use of which would be much greater than that resulting from the abuse of these drugs …. It seems that the amount of crime, violent or other, incited by ganja, is exceedingly small… If, therefore, these preparations have no effect on crime and only injure the persons who use them, it is difficult to see in what manner the law can restrict their use in a country where opium is a monopoly of the Government, the effects of which are perhaps as injurious when taken in excess as those of hemp.”
The local governments of Mysore, Hyderbad, Oudh, and Burma said that as hump drugs were little used locally, not necessary. Central Provinces sent plenty of data but no opinions. The Northwest Provinces (later Pakistan), one of the main cannabis growing areas, said the evidence on crime was confused, where if the situation was bad as supposed there would surely be a consensus. To stop production would be almost impossible, so they could not recommend attempts to limit or stop consumption. Bombay, Madras, and Bengal said that restrictions and taxes already in place should be preserved. All agreed excessive use to be somehow connected with physical harm and perhaps insanity, but the numbers harmed were very small. Bengal sent the most information. Asked if a particularly popular type of local ganja was more deleterious than others, they submitted a long report on cultivation, uses and profit margins on all hemp products by Dr Watt, State Reporter on Economic Products. Their local product was popular due to the quality of plants and traditional production skills, rather than sheer strength. A table of samples analysed for “Resinous extracts or Cannabin” ranged from 1.4% (NW Province) to 12% (Madras), mostly about 4% . All of the legal trade was inside India. The state of Bengal had been making an average 1 million rupees per year through the 1860’s in tax on ganja shops and duty at government auctions, about £100,000 – tens of millions in today’s money.
When these papers were taken from the files, twenty years after they were written, the August 1892 elections were under way. The Conservatives went out and the Liberals came in. Drug control was not high on their agenda; however, the new Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary, and Secretary of State for India were all known to be anti-opium, and the Prime Minister had spoken out against it in the past. The prohibitionists knew they might get some sort of opium control agreed if it didn’t oppose the Liberals’ central Free Trade policy. Believing their moment had come, they began to quarrel among themselves.
Before the development of the hypodermic syringe by Alexander Wood, the main concern about opium was not the threat of addiction, but the danger of poisoning. Only after the 1860s did the risk of dependency start to cause concern among the medical profession. Certainly, people would have been habituated to the drug, but the stereotype of the drug addict had yet to gain acceptance within the UK. Even where individuals wrote of their habit, such as a chemists wife who had been using morphia for 30 years, described her experience in a matter of fact way, free from any sense of stigma her major concern being the perceived tendency of the drug to cause her to put on weight. Although the dependency syndrome had been described two centuries earlier by Thomas Sydenham, the risk was not taken seriously by most medical practitioners. Following increasing reports of dependency symptoms after 1860, culminating in a series of articles in The Practitioner in 1870, the debate on the wisdom of permitting free access to opium accelerated. In 1878 Edward Levinstein in Germany started the ‘moral’ argument about the effect of opium on the character of the user, and was one of the first to promote abstinence as a cure for the addict .
From the 1840s on, there were several anti-opium organisations, all small and mostly broke. Their memberships overlapped, but the leaders didn’t get on well. None of them had ever tried to gain mass support. The first organisation to come out against the trade were the Birmingham Quakers. In 1869, Lord Shaftesbury urged the Indian government to withdraw from its monopoly position in the trade. By 1884 the Society for the Study and Cure of Inebriety, founded by Sir Norman Kerr, aimed “to educate the professional and the public mind to the dangers of intemperance”. At that time, alcohol was the main target for the temperance movement, whereas other, more exotic drugs were not seen as much of a threat to respectable Britons. These drugs were not expected to be a threat to the well-adjusted British gentleman, and habituation among the Chinese and others was regarded as the kind of ‘filthy foreign habit’ that should be stopped for the foreigners’ own good. Kerr recognised the dangers of opium with a crusading zeal, and railed against its use, denying any possibility that some persons could be able to restrict their use to a moderate level. The Society for Suppression of the Opium Trade (SSOT), founded in 1874, became the best-known anti-opium organisation, but had always been elitist, controlled by Quaker businessmen with knighthoods, funded by one family. Their best argument combined economic and humanitarian interest; other exports to China had been damaged by the sleaziness of the opium business. Trade with China had been stagnant between 1860-80 while business with Japan had tripled. The SSOT moved for ending the India-China opium trade, and an enquiry into alternate ways of making up the money. They took too long agreeing a proposal with other lobbyists, but did manage to force the government to concede the 1893 Royal Commission on Opium .
Meanwhile, in February ’93, William Caine, MP (Bradford East), had the papers on ganja collected the previous year placed in the House of Commons Library. 0u the 2nd March 1893 he put a public question to the Under-secretary of State for India. “If he will instruct the Government of India to create a commission of experts to enquire into and report on the cultivation of and trade in all preparations of hemp drugs in Bengal, the effects of theft consumption on society, and on the moral condition of the people, and the desirability of prohibiting its growth and sale.” Would he also invite written reports on the same matters from all other provinces, and include in the commission non-official natives of India. The Secretary of State would ask the Viceroy to do just that, “and he will be glad if the result of this inquiry is to show that further restriction can be placed upon the sale and consumption of these drugs.”(7) Since the Government seemed so amenable, a secondary question by the Right Hon. Sir Charles E. Schwann, Bart, was then dropped.
The members of the commission were named on 3rd July, and held their first meeting on 2nd August – a mouth before the Opium commission began to meet. They continued until April, seeing over 800 witnesses, assembling over 3000 pages into seven volumes, and a confidential extra volume on hemp drug use in the Army; then the Finance and Commerce department of the Government of India considered the report, and another British election crept closer. It is unclear what Caine and Schwann thought they were up to. Both were Liberals, Temperance campaigners, and probably anti-opium. Schwann had a safe scat, a comfortable merchants’ fortune and radical opinions. Caine wrote books, including ‘Young India’, ‘Picturesque India’ and ‘A Trip Around the World.’ He had quit the Liberal Party six years earlier over the Irish question, and been re-admitted in a new scat after losing as an Independent; he was to lose it again in 1895. The timing, and the request for the commission to include non-official Indians, suggest that they were part of a faction among the anti-opiumists, perhaps trying to stir them into holder demands or quicker action. Perhaps they were simply trying to get in on what looked like a winning side. Neither is recorded as ever mentioning hemp drugs in public again.
The Dope Fiends of Old England
The international drugs trade was quite a different thing from home consumption; for example although the British Empire produced a great deal of the worlds’ opiates, over 80% of the opium used in the UK was from Turkey and Persia . The economic pressure for international prohibition came from traders and nations with rival products. In the UK drug control was at first pan of an increase in medical involvement in social policy. Prescription by professionals had to take over from self-medication before complete prohibition became possible.
There was not much openly recreational drug use in Victorian England, other than alcohol. A few serf consciously unconventional young artists and mystics searched for inner experience, rejecting vulgar materialism, but the majority of drug abusers, then as now, considered themselves to be taking medicines, to help them work or relax. This was an age which demanded refinement, in every sense of the term. They took extracts, tinctures, distillations or the ‘active ingredients’ of traditional medicinal plants like Indian hemp or poppies, in amounts that would kill modern addicts. This was all for the good of their health, so morally impeccable. They didn’t do dope to get wasted, or didn’t admit to it
Vulgar materialism provided ever more purified forms of relief from the stresses of righteous life, as opium was dissolved into laudanum, concentrated into morphine, re-concentrated into heroin. Some condemned booze while chewing opium, just as well-known modern anti-drug campaigners have been tranquilliser addicts. In this atmosphere Cannabis Indica was just another potentially useful plant, which could be perhaps refined into some sort of medicine but was quite unsuitable in natural form. The distinction between drug use and abuse had hardly been invented. Doctors were expensive and not well trusted, so the poor dosed themselves with whatever remedies they could afford. Pseudo-medical opiate use was decreasing, but still respectable; Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Florence Nightingale had used it, and William Wilberforce, saint of the anti-slavery movement, had eaten twelve grains a day for thirty years. Self-medication bluffed into non-medical use. Boozing was low class and unfeminine, so respectable ladies took “tonics.” Patent medicines were a huge business, often including alcohol, opium, or cannabis.
Sales of pure morphine, cocaine, and barbiturates were supposedly controlled by the 1868 Poisons and Pharmacy Act, but quack nostrums and patent medicines were not, and an attempt to extend the law in 1884 had failed. The Act only affected shops, not users. One especially dangerous popular remedy was Collis Brownes’ Chlorodyne, containing chloroform and morphine, which the British Medical Association campaigned through the 90’s to have banned.
“One of the most valuable medicines we possess”
There had been increasing medical interest in cannabis since William O’Shaughnessy described the use of indian hemp as medicine and intoxicant , relying on accounts of hashish use from ancient Persian and Arabic sources, as well as on his own observations in India. He described the use of hemp in the treatment of rheumatism, hydrophobia, cholera, tetanus and infantile convulsions, as well as describing the delirium induced by continued use. O’Shaughnessy had written in 1839 that, with a couple of exceptions, “I have been unable to trace any notice of the employment of this drug in Europe.” However, despite citing western works by Ainslie and von Estebeck he managed to overlook one classic account.
The noted medieval herbalist, Nicholas Culpepper (1616-1654), listed a variety of medical uses of the common european hemp (Cannabis sativa), including anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and antiparasitic activity . Culpepper made no mention of the psychotropic activity, although the temperate hemp he described would normally be of low drug content and be grown for fibre. Culpepper’s work would have owed much to the folk herbalism used by British witches, or wise women, who until the christian persecutions had provided most primary health care to the rural population, as well as to the monastic healers who replaced them. By the Victorian “age of reason” most traditional use had been suppressed, as the pioneer pharmacologists began to analyse folk medicines to refine and extract the active compounds therein. An unsuccessful attempt had been made in the 1840’s to grow hemp for medicine in the London suburb of Mitcham. Experimenters used it for athsma and other chest problems, sleeplessness especially in cases of opiate or alcohol withdrawal, and with opium and bromide of potassium in treating insanity.
One reason why cannabis was not as widely used as opium products, or the newer chemical remedies, was the difficulty found refining an “active ingredient.” There were problems getting supplies of reliable strength, confusion about apparently different products from the same plant, and uncertainty about its effects in the body. However, it was used to treat many disorders. In 1889, Dr E.A.Birch described in the Lancet the successful use of cannabis indica in the treatment of chloral hydrate and opium withdrawal, drawing attention to the abolition of craving and the antiemetic (vomit suppressing) effects and the stimulation of appetite in patients who would not normally eat, or keep down, their food [111. Queen Victoria’s personal physician, J.R. Reynolds described it in 1890 as “One of the most valuable medicines we possess.” In another Lancet article published in 1890, he described the use of cannabis indica for treating insomnia in the senile, alcoholic delirium, neuralgia, migraine, spastic paralysis, and convulsions ..He allegedly prescribed tincture of cannabis to Queen Victoria herself for the treatment of menstrual cramps. Cannabis tincture and an extract made from resin were available from Peter Squire of Oxford St in 1864, and wholesale through the Society of Apothecaries by 1871. Chemists extracted stuff they called cannabene, cannabin tannin, cannabinnene etc. but had no idea which, if any, was the “active ingredient” until cannabinol was isolated in 1895.
At the same time some thought of drug-taking as a form of poisoning, and some researchers proposed that it either caused, or was, a type of insanity. W.W. Ireland compared the mental state of cannabis users to delirium, with its alteration of time and space and visual illusions. British doctors’ reports from Cairo Asylum in 1894 linked violent insanity with “Hashism”(13,14) Some of the medical studies would have been recreational use in any other context. Walter Dixon must have tried it on himself as well as small furry animals when he showed in 1899 that the effects vary according to type of preparation as well as method of ingestion. He recommended smoking for immediate effect and wrote in the British Medical Journal, “Hemp taken as an inhalation may be placed in the same category as coffee, tea and kola. It is not dangerous and its effects are never alarming, and I have come to regard it in this form as a useful and refreshing stimulant and food accessory, and one whose use does not lead to a habit which grows upon its votary.” He was to be a member of the Rolleston Committee on Morphine and Heroin Addiction in the 1920’s, who opposed criminalising narcotics policy.
At the end of the century cannabis tincture became popular again as a cure for cramps, migraine, opium addiction, withdrawal and insomnia, but the fashion faded. In the early 1900’s a British Medical Association campaign against ‘Secret Remedies’ got most of the opiates, cocaine and cannabis out of tonics and non-prescription medicines. Doctors became responsible for most drug distribution as the consumer beverage trade withdrew. As drag dispensing was professionalised, substances used for self-medication were replaced by more refined, more medically controllable drags. The Indian Hemp Drugs Commission report made no apparent difference to this at all, and it’s quite possible that nobody in the medical establishment read it. It held quite a lot of scientific data but its purpose had been political rather than medical. The political and economic interests of the British Medical Association were quite different from those of the Government of India.
The Cosmopolitan Dope Fiends
It is worth noting that most publications from the time refer to “Hashish,” the Arabic term, Indian Hemp, or Cannabis, rather than Charas, Ganja or Bhang, the Hindi names. The French empire in North Africa had at least as much effect on European cannabis use as the British empire in India. A certain style of drug use, the Wasted Artist role, as established by the laudanum swigging Coleridge and De Quincey early in the century, was revived by Dr Jean Moreau in Paris after 1845. The doctor, who experimented with hashish to treat insanity, founded the Club des Hashishins with the writer Theophile Gautier, for non-medical experiments. Some of the members were quite keen on a little delirium. Gautier was a hack with brilliant friends, an ‘art for arts sake’ romantic with a taste for macabre fantasy who encouraged the Symbolist poets. Rimbaud and Verlaine shared his drugs. Baudelaire dedicated “Fleur du Mal” to him, and wrote an essay that explained their attitudes: “On Hashish and Wine as a means of expanding individuality.” They created strange, sensuous art, struck foreign poses based on their beliefs about the romantic East, scandalised bourgeois society .
By the 90’s the club had imitators in London. If there was no recreational drug use “subculture” in the 1890’s, one network came close. This was the circle of poets, psychics, writers and would-be magicians around the Rhymers Club and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. They didn’t define their connection by shared drug use, but they certainly included drug experiments in their self-definition. Occult studies, drugs, hypnotism, proto-psychiatry and new styles of arts were all 1890’s fashions mingled in overlapping cliques in central London. The Golden Dawn was established in 1888 by some occultist Freemasons, as a society of “Christian practiced magic. In 1890 Yeats and two others formed the Rhymers Club as a sort of literary wing, drawing inspiration from the French Symbolists. None of the Rhymers Club apart from Yeats ever achieved as much recognition as their French heroes, but they had the style. They were melancholy, self-dramatising, they hoped Byronic. They had doomed love lives and nervous breakdowns, and mostly died young. Their defiance of conventional society included such un-English deviance as drinking black coffee and speaking comprehensible French, as well as attempted magic, sexual permutations not discussed in polite company, and hefty drug use.
Yeats and his lover Maude Gonne tried using hashish to improve their telepathic powers. Others had a more relaxed, recreational approach. Arthur Symons was one Rhymer who survived to he described as “highly strong, over-sensitive” in the 1930’s, best known for “Confessions – A study in Pathology” which described his two years in an Italian lunatic asylum and cure by near-fatal pneumonia in 1909. He was the author of ‘The Opium Smoker; “I am engulfed, and drown deliciously/soft music like a perfume, and sweet light/Golden with audible odours exquisite/ swathe me in cerements for eternity…/”. In a biography of fellow Rhymer Ernest Dowson he described one afternoon; a couple of ballet dancers and a poet visiting, the host issuing tea, cakes, cigarettes and then hashish. “That slow intoxication, that elaborate experiment in visionary sensations… he sat awaiting the magic, half shy in the midst of that bright company of young people.” Dowson wrote poems with Latin titles about doomed love affairs, and consorted with the “most degraded” women in dockside dives. He experimented with mescal in 1896, with the sexuality researcher Havelock Ellis. He died of TB in 1900, aged 32. The other poet present at the hash and tea party and the mescal experiment was John Addington Symonds, a historian who studied the criminal mentality – he was part blinded after several breakdowns and TB. One of their associates, Count Eric Stenbock, who wrote The Shadow of Death and Studies of Death, was known for wearing a live snake around his neck; he died aged 35, of either alcohol or opium.(13)
The Wasted Artists were picturesque and dramatic, and their style became a popular image of drug abusers. Ethereal and rather unhealthy, possibly creative but definitely pasty-faced. The perception of a difference between drugs suitable for legitimate use, under medical control, and drugs which can only be abused, was extended by their example; anything they took was obviously not doing any good for their health. Still there was no anti-drug panic in the UK. Drugs were still seen as foreign stuff, only used by those who wanted to act like foreigners. The artists were added to an existing mythology of the opium addict and the opium den, spread by popular fiction from Wilkie Collins to Oscar Wilde, the addict over-sensitive, hollow-cheeked with torment, the dens glided in rococo brothel style, populated by vicious Chinese and degenerate aristocrats.
The Respectable Fear begins
The first demon dope stories came over from the USA in the mid 1890’s. There were, apparently, ever-increasing numbers of Black men with cocaine, Chinese with opium, and Mexicans with both, plus marijuana. These coloured men were allegedly using their fiendish substances to gain the flesh of white women, and many of them would go crazy with big knives if frustrated in any way. The British media only retold a few of these tales at first. The pathological imagination of the US Press kept it up for the next forty years, changing the drug and the villains’ colour now and again. Heroin was refined in 1898 but for the first few years it was considered a miracle painkiller and cure for morphine addiction. The subject of the grossest stories was cocaine, also considered a miracle cure a few years earlier. The medical enthusiasts didn’t think it suitable for recreational use. The recreational users disagreed. The alcohol prohibitionists built a mass following and inflicted a huge social disaster on the USA. When the alcohol ban was repealed, drug control was not. The myths were retired for a few years, but similar stories can be found, only slightly less racist, in the mass media today.
Before, during and after Prohibition, the USA lobbied for international drugs laws, mixing economic self-interest with moralism. The Hague Conference in 1912 agreed to the principle of certain drugs being strictly for “legitimate medical purposes.” It was never effective internationally because of obstruction by the British opiate and German cocaine businesses. The conference suggested an investigation of hemp, but it wasn’t followed up. The Assam Opium & Ganja Committee of 1913(16) showed that the IHDC had been forgotten or ignored in that province of India, for instance accepting that ganja causes insanity without calling any evidence. It did say that when ganja prices rose users turned to opium, when opium prices rose they turned to alcohol or, alarmingly, morphine. The number of licensed shops in Assam had fallen from 1116 in 1878 to 347 in 1911, and the committee thought it couldn’t be reduced further without provoking unrest.
Recreational drug use in British literary circles in the ’90s spread through the next two decades into a wider worlds. Cocaine use had spread well into the upper class by the First World War. Officialdom grew concerned about officers on leave, who often weren’t afraid to wreck their health since their chances of survival were slim. Morale would not be improved, it was felt, by the sight of the upper ranks behaving like beasts, and it would be worse yet if the common soldiers imitated them. There was a press scare about the Germans using drugs and prostitutes, collecting blackmail material. This unlikely tale and other stories of moral degeneracy caught the imagination of the Army Council, who banned the sale of all intoxicants to troops in mid 1916. In July the first U K law against possession of drags was sneaked through, section 40B of the Defense of the Realm Act. It covered cocaine and opiates; cannabis was not included, although it had been considered. Section 40B also banned “Malththusian appliances” (contraception) and quack medicines. The same Act established legal closing times for pubs, which caused a lot more fuss.
The post war scandal boom
Immediately after the Great War the British press got their first US-style dope story. Actress Billie Carelton, age 21, died supposedly from cocaine taken at an alcohol-free Victory Ball. Her supplier was tried for manslaughter but could not be convicted. It was just as likely the sleeping drug Veronal that killed her, but that didn’t bother the Daily Express. They included hashish eating in the habits of a circle of degenerates who, they said, had mined a sweet and innocent girl. In September 1920 a Dangerous Drugs Act was passed, clarifying the wartime possession law and effectively dividing the drug trade into medical vs criminal. It was greeted with such apathy by Parliament that it was hard to make up a quorum in some of the committees. Cannabis was still not banned.
Internationally, the UK government stopped blocking drug controls after several scandals at home and reports that morphine and cocaine addiction were spreading in the colonies. There were more sex drugs and foreigner stories to keep up the postwar drug scare. In 1922 the death of dancer Freda Kempton gained unwanted publicity for Brilliant Chang, Chinese restaurant owner and alleged dope king since 1917, handling morphine, opium and hashish as well as cocaine. After many raids and mentions in the press he was sentenced to 14 months – not much for such an alleged villain – then departed in 1924. Eddie Manning, Jamaican jazz drummer and alleged dope king, was convicted of dealing opium and cocaine in ’23. Both, it was strongly implied, had used their dealing to get close to English girls. In 1922 three sisters were found half dressed and unconscious in the company of a dead Chinese man, Yee Sing a.k.a. Johnny Hop, in a sealed room full of opium smoke above a Cardiff laundry. The girls never told quite what had happened, so the press made it up, including a Chinese love potion made from hashish used especially to subdue white women, with an antidote made from geraniums.(17) Pulp fiction by the likes of Sax Rohmer helped spread the corrupt aristocrat and Chinese dope plot themes.
Despite all this advertisement, there was still no working class drug subculture. The upmarket drug users of the 20’s continued to be found where the overlap between high society and the arts copied what were seen as American fashions for jazz and cocaine. Aleister Crowleys’ 1922 novel, Diary of a Drug Fiend, thinly disguised a real West End scene where cocaine was dealt in the Cafe Royal on Regent Sweet. Crowley was a former Golden Dawn member who publicised himself as “The Wickedest Man in the World,” and ran a black magic cult largely based on sex. He occasionally kicked his morphine habit cold turkey in front of acolytes, to show the power of his will; he did quite a lot to establish a link in the public mind between heavy drug use and being a dangerous but pretentious creep. Chloroform and morphine were popular with Lady Diana Cooper and Katherine Asquith, models for several wild aristos in fiction. Morphine might be risky and maybe immoral, but boozing was common, which was much worse. Compared to these types cannabis users were sweethearts. Having previously tried smoking it to no effect, the painter Augustus John tried a hashish compote or jam after sardines and wine with friends in Hampstead; “…catching the eye of Iris, we were both simultaneously seized with uncontrollable laughter, about nothing at all…” Despite the publicity, and penalties increasing in 1922, prosecutions under the Dangerous Drugs Act averaged a steady 60 a year for cocaine, 65 for opium.
Cannabis lust became illegal in the UK after the country agreed the 1925 Geneva International Convention on Narcotics Control. It was included in the ’25 Convention with the opiates and cocaine, because Egypt and Turkey proposed it. An Egyptian delegate stirringly denounced “Chronic Hashism” which he said caused most of the insanity in his country. It also, he said, weakened users, gave them heart and digestive troubles and made them look wild-eyed and stupid. India opposed including cannabis in the Convention, as their delegate said it had been used there since time immemorial, grew wild, and they doubted that a prohibition could enforced. The British delegate abstained from the vote but signed in the end. There was hardly any parliamentary debate before it came into law as amendments to the Dangerous Drugs Act on 281h September 1928. Despite this cannabis offences, and 206 for opium. In 1950 for the first time there were more prosecutions for cannabis than for opium and manufactured drugs together – 86 against 41 opium and 42 others. That year a series of police raids on jazz clubs produced a new crop of stories about black men with drugs and white women, this time involving marijuana and benzedrine. Cannabis had finally got into the shock horror league.
The Indian Hemp Drugs Commission finally had its moment in Parliament in July 1967, after the Government had established an Advisory Committee on Drug Dependence. J.J.S. Driberg, Chief of Police and Inspector of Prisons for Assam, had given gave evidence to the IHDC. His son Tom was a Labour MP. According to his autobiography , the poet Alan Ginsberg asked Tom to “look up for him the report… in the House library I found that my father had given evidence before this commission, putting forward strongly the view that people living in a damp, cold climate needed the traditional consolation of ganja… The climate referred to was that of Assam, rather than England; but I felt it was almost an act of filial piety to sign a full page advertisement in the Times calling for a liberalisation of the laws on pot…” When it became obvious that there would be no liberalisation, be attacked the government, his own party, in the parliamentary debate. He said his father had told the IHDC that when insane people were arrested a form had to be filled saying why they were insane, and the safest thing to say was ganja as the police knew that no further enquiry would be made. When the government spokeswoman asked rhetorically “What sort of society will we create if everyone wants to escape from reality 7” Driberg answered that “They want to escape from this horrible society we have created.” The 1968 Wooton Committee on Cannabis was “in agreement with the conclusions reached by the IHDC… that the long-term consumption of cannabis in moderate doses has no harmful effects.” Given wide publicity, the government couldn’t completely to ignore this new study; instead they did exactly the opposite of what it recommended, and increased penalties for all cannabis offences in a new 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act. Cannabis use continued to increase dramatically. By 1990 there were 40,194 convictions and cautions for cannabis in the UK, well over 90% of all recorded drugs crimes.
1. Resolution 1369, Finance and Commerce Dept. (Separate Revenue), Government of India, 21/3/1895. 23 pp. 2. T.M. Parssinen, Secret Passions, Secret Remedies – Narcotic Drugs in British Society, 1820-1930. Manchester University Press 1980
3. B. Inglis (1975) The Forbidden Game London Hodder & Stoughton
4. Report of the Royal Commission on Opium. Parliamentary papers 1895
5. Hansand, Parliamentary Questions,
6. Resolution 3773, Finance and Commerce Dept., Government of India, 17/12/1873.
7. In full IHDC report. India (Ganja) 97 in House of Commons papers 1893-4 LXVI.79.
8. In (2) V. Berridge & J. Griffith Edwards, Opium and the People, Yale 1982.
9 0’Shaughnessy W.B. (1839) On the preparations of Indian Hemp, or Gunjah. Transactions of the Medical and Physical Society of Bengal 1838-40 pp 421-461
10. Culpepper’s Complete Herbal. London, W. Foulsham & Co.
11. Birch E.A. (1889) Indian hemp in the treatment of chronic choral & opium poisoning. Lancet 30-3-89 p625
12. Reynolds Sir J.R. (1890) Therapeutic Uses & Toxic Effects of Cannabis Indica Lancet, 22-3-90
13. V. Berridge, Origins of the English Drug “Scene” 1890-1930, Medical History 32, 1988. Also
14. Walsh J.T. Hemp Drugs and Insanity. Journal of Medical Science 40 1894
15. The Hashish Club, Ed P. Haining, Peter 0wen 1975,
16. Assam Opium & Crania Committee 1913.
17 Marek Kohn, Dope Girls, Lawrence & Wishart, London 1992.
18. Tom Driberg, Ruling Passions, Cape 1977
About the Authors.
Sean Blanchard is a freelance journalist and researcher. From 1981 to 1983 he was coordinator of the Legalise Cannabis Campaign.
Matthew J. Atha B.Sc. MSc, was Legalise Cannabis Campaign Secretary from 1983 to 1989. His MSc psychology thesis “Quantitative Assessment of Illicit substance use” (Birmingham University 1987) included analyses of surveys of drug use at pop festivals. He divides his time between advocacy work and performing as a rock musician.