Before Clinton extended maximum sentencing, before Reagan announced his policy of zero tolerance, before William Randolph Hearst, DuPont, Herbert Hoover and his cronies gave weed its Spanish name and illegal status to boost their market share, there was the India Hemp Drugs Commission Report. The history of government involvement in chemical research is a story as long as our millennial attention spans are short. But the report written by representatives of the British and Indian governments in 1894 marks one of the strangest and most hilarious examples of straight-laced suits getting groovy to gather government intelligence on narcotics in history.
The year is 1890. The British government, now in its fourth decade of Indian occupation, realizes that it knows very little about the cultural practices of its south Asian subjects. His Excellency the Governor-General in Council charges Sir William Mackworth Young with the leadership, ordering them to “collect full information as to the manner in which the plant is cultivated for the production of drugs and the methods of preparing the manufactured drug from the raw product, whether of the wild or the domesticated plant.”
The report that Young returned to his superiors after two years of field research spanned 3,281 pages. They gathered testimony from nearly 1,200 individuals spanning all realms of society: doctors, religious ascetics, directors of insane asylums, army officers, growers, distributors, and smugglers. The commission’s writings provide a window into the smoking practices of Indians from over a century ago, when Bengal indica produced the dankest buds on earth.
Indians of all classes, for example, preferred to smoke alone, and never smoke in the company of a member of a superior caste. They liked to mix it with tobacco. Among lower classes, bhang—a fried pancake edible of ground cannabis seeds, leaves and buds—was the preferred, cheaper alternative to smoking the flowers or charas, the Indian spin on hash.
South Asians’ medicinal use of ganja dates back thousands of years. Many Indian doctors at the time—as they do now—prescribed cannabis according to, or with modifications from ancient texts. The Bhavaprakasha, a Sanskrit component of Ayurvedic practice, details the use of cannabis for congestion and poor digestion. It “corrects dangers of the humours” and “increases infatuation, intoxication, the power of the voice, and the digestive faculty.” Authors of the Rajarallabha say it “produces infatuation, and destroys leprosy. It creates energy, the mental powers, and internal heat, corrects irregularities of the phlegmatic humour, and is an elixir vitae.”
Physicians at the end of the 19th century recommended it to treat cramps, convulsions of children, headache, hysteria, sciatica, tetanus, and, more generally, “brain fever. Many, according to the report, prescribed it for STIs, especially gonorrhea.
Mackworth’s team also heard much of cannabis use as a cure for impotency and an aphrodisiac:
“Cannabis indica has been regarded as an aphrodisiac, but the trials of it made in this country seem to show that it does not, itself at least, have any such action, and merely induces a condition of partial delirium in which Easterns [sic] may possibly have visions of a sexual nature, and indeed they try to give a sexual direction to the mental disturbances which the Cannabis produces … O’Shaughnessy, on the other hand, speaks of the drug acting on the “generative apparatus,” and in experiments, which he tried on some of his pupils, he states that, “with scarcely any exception, great aphrodisiac was experienced … Like alcohol it gives strength and free course to the predominant desires of the animal nature.”
In terms of modern (at the time) medical use, the commission found arguments against the benefits of the drug to be “in the highest degree defective.”
Another theory Mackworth’s team was instructed to investigate was the belief that ganja use caused insanity. They admit that “the ‘disequilibration of the intellect,’ and the mental symptoms of hemp drug intoxication are very similar to those of insanity.” But more than anything else, they found: “there is occasionally seen a tendency to confound intoxication and insanity in connection with hemp drugs. The result is that in some cases men who should have been simply punished for being intoxicated have bee sent to the asylum, and, though sane when they reached that institution, have been detained there.” Where have we heard this one before? Institutionalization as punishment for drug use is an old, tired story.
The commission concluded by arguing: “Total prohibition of the cultivation of the hemp plant for narcotics, and of the manufacture, sale, or use of the drugs derived from it, is neither necessary nor expedient …”They found that stoners rarely bother their neighbors, it does not lead them to commit violent crime, although some criminals “use hemp drugs to stupefy their victims,” but “Altogether it is clear that the moderate consumer is as a rule perfectly inoffensive.”
Over one hundred years ago, seven subjects of the embarked on a journey to study cannabis use in India. Their commitment to empirical observation produced a report that holds water today. So what happened? Why did western governments grow to hold cannabis use and culture in contempt? Why did neoliberals wage a war on drugs? Mackworth and his team would have a thing or two to say to the leaders of today; their commission shows that, when viewed without bias, cannabis use has several beneficial uses in medicine, culture, and society.