By James H. Mills
It was announced on 10 December as an outcome of the recent Commission into cannabis that the UK Government has decided to reorganise its ‘ganja administration’ with the objective of taxing sales of the drug in order to generate revenues and to control the price in order to discourage excessive consumption. The Government will work with partners from the private sector to ensure that products of a consistent quality are available to consumers. A source at one of the cannabis corporations has stated that they are happy to make a full contribution to the Government’s finances, although critics have argued that they deploy a range of strategies to avoid paying tax.
The Home Affairs Committee’s Ninth Report, with the title Drugs: Breaking the Cycle, generated plenty of controversy early in December when the Prime Minister rejected its recommendation that a Royal Commission on Drugs Policy be established. The controversy may well have been a furore had an announcement along the lines of the above been included in its pages. Yet mention in the Committee’s report of state cannabis monopolies, of the legal consumption of the drug, and of permissive control regimes in faraway countries, invite comparisons to a previous period in British history, as does the Prime Minister’s allusion to a Royal Commission. This was a period when the paragraph above would have raised few eyebrows as British tax collectors skimmed off revenues from some of the world’s largest cannabis consuming societies.
The period, of course, is the 1890s. The Commission in question was the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission which was ordered in the House of Commons in 1893 and which reported in 1894. This Commission was the forerunner of the better known Royal Opium Commission which came to its conclusions in 1895. The enquiry into ‘Indian Hemp’, or cannabis, was focused on the colonial administration in India and its handling of the cannabis trade there. Critics of the opium trade had discovered that the Government of India was also making money from cannabis through a tax on the local market there, and seized on this as further evidence of the corruption of British rule. William Caine, one of the most passionate of these critics declared that cannabis was ‘the most horrible intoxicant the world has yet produced’ and started a campaign that forced the inquiry.
What the inquiry revealed was a thriving market for cannabis products in Britain’s colonies in south Asia. These substances had long-been been used for medication and intoxication there, and complex local beliefs about their uses and dangers were well-established before the British arrived. Colonial scientists and doctors proved to be curious about the potential of cannabis, and William O’Shaughnessy, Professor of Chemistry and Medicine in the Medical College of Calcutta, championed its virtues as a wonder-drug in the 1840s. However, the most sustained interest in the substance on the part of the British was from the Excise officials charged with taxing it as by the 1890s revenue from commercial cannabis was in the region of £150000 per annum, or around nine million pounds in today’s money.
Many of these officials worked readily alongside India’s cannabis producers in the trade. One magistrate reported that ‘they are singularly peaceable and law abiding and they are remarkably wealthy and prosperous’ and went on to note that:
The ganja cultivators contributed amongst them Rs. 5000 for the creation of the Higher English School at Naugaon. If a road or a bridge is wanted, instead of waiting for the tardy action of a District Board or committing themselves to the tender mercies of the PWD the cultivators raise a subscription among themselves and the road or bridge is constructed.
Other British officials were more suspicious of these producers however. As early as the 1870s fears were expressed that all manner of strategies were devised by those in the trade to evade the administration’s efforts to tax it. Storing crops away from the eyes of inspectors, claiming that fires had destroyed full storage facilities and clandestine shipments of the drug were all uncovered. Officials regularly swapped stories like the following:
In December, a couple of police constables and a village watchman were, about 9pm, on their way to Bálihar, when they saw two persons crossing the field with something on their heads. On their shouting out, the men dropped their loads and ran off. It was then found that they had dropped 36 ½ kutcha seers of flat hemp. The drug was taken possession of by the constables but the culprits were never traced.
Perhaps because of such episodes the British continued to tighten their grip on commercial cannabis into the twentieth-century and reforms in the wake of the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission included price fixing, government-controlled warehousing of all crops, and licensing of both wholesale and retail transactions. The example of cannabis-taxation in India was followed elsewhere, with colonial administrations as far apart as Burma and Trinidad abandoning initial attempts at prohibition. In fact it emerged in 1939 that the Government in India had been supplying cannabis to markets in both Burma and Trinidad in contravention of the international controls on the drug that had been imposed in 1925 at the Geneva Opium Conference.
While the Home Affairs Committee is right to look to current experiments with control regimes for cannabis in Washington, Colorado and Uruguay, perhaps the stories above are reminders that British history too provides plenty of evidence for assessing ‘the overall costs and benefits of cannabis legalisation’. These stories provide glimpses of a world where cannabis transactions provide state revenues rather than act as drains on resources, where suppliers club together to pay for educational facilities rather than hang around school-gates plying their wares, and where doctors work freely with a useful drug. But they also seem to warn of the moral complexities of state-sponsored markets in psycho-active substances, and of the problems that any control system will face when confronted by those keen to maximise their profits from such drugs.
James H. Mills is Professor of Modern History at the University of Strathclyde and Director of the Strathclyde hub of the Centre for the Social History of Health and Healthcare (CSHHH) Glasgow. Among his publications are Cannabis Nation: Control and consumption in Britain, 1928-2008, (Oxford University Press 2012), Cannabis Britannica: Empire, trade and prohibition, 1800-1928, (Oxford University Press 2003) and (edited with Patricia Barton) Drugs and Empires: Essays in modern imperialism and intoxication, 100-1930, (Palgrave 2007). The extracts above are all taken from his books.