The Rise and Decline of Cannabis Prohibition (Part 1)

Cannabis plants were sent to Australia by Sir Joseph Banks on the First Fleet, in the hope that
the new colony might grow enough hemp to supply the British Navy with rope.


Cannabis is the most widely used illicit substance worldwide, produced in virtually every country, with the 2019 World Drug Report estimating 188 million people used Cannabis in 2017. Cannabis was adopted for religious, medicinal, industrial and recreational purposes by early mankind. First described in a medical context by Chinese Emperor Shen-Nung in 2700 BCE to treat “beri-beri, constipation, female weakness, gout, malaria, rheumatism and absentmindedness’’. Hemp fibre was used to produce paper, rope and sailcloth, enabling Europeans to build colonial empires. They discovered the plant was widely used for its euphoric and medicinal properties. In 1961, the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the bedrock of the United Nations (UN) ‘drug’ control system, limited “production, manufacture, export, import, distribution of, trade in, use and possession” of Cannabis “exclusively to medical and scientific purposes”During negotiations there was even a failed attempt to make Cannabis the only fully prohibited substance on the premise, “the medical use of Cannabis was practically obsolete and that such use was no longer justified”. It was included under the strictest controls in the Convention, listed twice: in Schedules I and IV; substances, highly addictive and liable to abuse, with “particularly dangerous properties” and little or no therapeutic value! Just as with opium poppy and coca bush the control debate preceded the UN and the League of Nations. A report by the 2002 Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs in Canada about the emergence of the international ‘drug’ control regime summarised the situation:

The international regime for the control of ‘psychoactive’ substances, beyond any moral or even racist roots it may initially have had, is first and foremost a system that reflects the geopolitics of North-South relations in the 20th century. Indeed, the strictest controls were placed on organic substances – coca, poppy and Cannabis – which are often part of the ancestral traditions of the countries where the plants originate, whereas the North’s cultural products, tobacco and alcohol, were ignored and the synthetic substances produced by the North’s pharmaceutical industry were subject to regulation rather than prohibition. 

2020Indianhash1894Early measures were implemented as social control. Authorities in the Arab world regarded hashish use as a loathsome habit, associated with the economically and socially disadvantaged. Following Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798, soldiers were forbidden to smoke or drink extracts out of fear Cannabis would provoke a loss of fighting spirit. A three-month prison term was imposed, perhaps the first penal law on Cannabis. In Egypt, Turkey and Greece, Cannabis prevalence was high and attracted strong legal responses, with hashish banned in Egypt followed by cultivation, use and importation being forbidden in 1868. The first Australian ‘drug’ law was an 1857 Act imposing an import duty on opium. The primary purpose was to discourage entry of Chinese into Australia, rather than restrict importation of opium itself. The first laws were carefully worded to apply to opium in smokeable form only, not as taken by the European population. Australians in the 19th century were among the world’s biggest consumers of opiates in patent medicines, alongside alcohol, morphine or both. Laudanum (opium and alcohol) was taken regularly by adults and children to calm them. In Egypt, a tax on Cannabis imports was imposed in 1874, despite possession being illegal. In 1877, a nationwide campaign was launched to confiscate and destroy Cannabis, followed by a law in 1879, making cultivation and importation illegal. In 1884, cultivation of Cannabis became a criminal offence. Customs officers, however, were allowed to sell hashish abroad, instead of destroying confiscated amounts, to pay informers and customs officers for seizures.

These early attempts to outlaw Cannabis, reissued in 1891 and 1894, had little effect on recreational and medicinal use among Egypt’s urban and rural poor. Exemptions for non-Egyptians and enforcement issues made the laws largely ineffectual. Cultivation, importation and use was banned in Greece in 1890. Hashish was considered an “imminent threat to society” particularly among urban poor and in cafes in Piraeus and central Athens. Hashish continued to be widely used and Greece remained a significant exporter to Turkey and Egypt into the 1920’s. South Africa was another of the first states to control Cannabis. An 1870 law, tightened in 1887, prohibited use and possession by Indian immigrants, due to the perception white rule was threatened by consumption of dagga, as it was known. Cannabis was used for pleasure, medicinal and religious purposes by rural Africans and did not constitute a problem. However, pressure to prohibit Cannabis was growing in the 1880’s, temperance movements expanded their mandate from alcohol to other substances and ‘intoxication’ in general. The pragmatic recommendations of one of the first and still one of the most exhaustive studies about the effects of Cannabis, the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission Report in 1894, pointed in another direction. Unfortunately, the seven-volume report’s wealth of information was largely ignored in the debates on Cannabis control in the international arena under the League of Nations and the UN, 1920’s, 1930’s and 1950’s. Temperance crusaders raised a question in the British House of Commons due to concern about effects of the production and consumption of hemp and claimed, falsely, “lunatic asylums of India are filled with ganja smokers”.

Its absence from international discussions is pertinent since almost nothing of significance in the conclusions of this landmark report on the Cannabis problem in India has been proven wrong in over a century. The Commission looked into earlier considerations in India to prohibit Cannabis in 1798, 1872 and 1892, concluding proposals had always been rejected because the plant grew wild everywhere and attempts to stop the habit in various forms could provoke use of more harmful ‘intoxicants’. The report concluded: “In respect to the alleged mental effects of the ‘drugs’, the Commission have come to the conclusion that the moderate use of hemp ‘drugs’ produces no injurious ef­fects on the mind. […] As a rule these ‘drugs’ do not tend to crime and violence”.  The report also noted “moderate use of these ‘drugs’ is the rule, and that the excessive use is comparatively exceptional. The moderate use produces practically no ill effects”. Had the wisdom of the Indian Hemp Commission’s recommendations prevailed, we might now have a system not dissimilar to legislation on Cannabis regulation adopted in Uruguay. Unfortunately, the international community chose to take another course of action and decided to ban Cannabis in the 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. As the name suggests, the Single Convention is a consolidation of a series of multilateral ‘drug’ control treaties negotiated from 1912-1953. Internationally the drive to control ‘psychoactive’ substances was initially concentrated on opium, particularly in China, where Western missionaries were appalled by widespread and, in their eyes, destructive use. National control measures and prohibitions were internationalised, leading to bans in other countries.

Before Cannabis became subject of the international drive to control ‘psychoactive’ substances, two very distinct models were competing in the few countries that imposed controls: a prohibition model, largely ineffective; and a more sophisticated model of regulation. The large majority of countries did not have controls at all. The path towards prohibition was not straightforward and even when a ban was introduced, it was not always effectively enforced. In Egypt, by 1892, the Cannabis ban was being reconsidered. Egypt’s prohibition had generated trafficking networks supplying the country with all the hashish the clandestine market demanded, as well as smoking dens, smuggling and corruption. It was suggested the Egyptian government should duplicate control and restriction policies in place in India to contain excessive use and allow for moderate consumption. Licences and taxation in India were providing revenue, while consumption diminished. As with opium, it was clear prohibition at the national level was unworkable without control of international trade. Subsequently, Cannabis was included in the preparations for the International Opium Conference in 1911 in The Hague. The Conference would lead to the 1912 International Opium Convention. The Italian delegation, worried by hashish smuggling in its North African colonies (present day Libya), raised the issue of international Cannabis control. Many delegates were bewildered by the introduction of Cannabis into discussions. Pharmaceutical Cannabis products were widespread in the early 20th century and participants had no substantive knowledge or even a clear scientific definition of the substance. Dutch chairman, Jacob Theodor Cremer, suggested countries deal with Cannabis internally. The United States (US) alone supported Italy.

The US was only able to obtain a resolution in the addendum: The Conference considers it desirable to study the question of Indian hemp from the statistical and scientific point of view, with the object of regulating its abuses, should the necessity thereof be felt, by international legislation or by an international agreement. Hamilton Wright, US State Department official, who coordinated international aspects of US ‘drug’ control policy and drafted domestic ‘drug’ legislation had in 1910 tried to include Cannabis in a bill. He argued if one ‘dangerous drug’ would be effectively prohibited, habitual users would switch to another. Anticipating a shift away from opiates and cocaine, Cannabis should be prohibited, he reasoned. And as many ‘psychoactive’ substances as possible should be banned. His bill (a precursor of the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914 to control opiates and cocaine) was defeated, mainly due to opposition from the pharmaceutical industry. Cannabis would not be federally prohibited in the US until 1937. The 1912 Hague Convention called upon signatories to licence manufacturers, regulate distribution and halt exports to jurisdictions that prohibited import. The main concern was unregulated free trade in opium, heroin, morphine and cocaine would lead to an increase in domestic ‘drug’ use. Basic controls on international trade had to be introduced. As most states were reluctant to penalise non-medical use of ‘psychoactive’ substances, the treaty predominantly addressed supply-oriented regulation of the licit trade and availability for medical purposes. However, the discussion on Cannabis at the Conference had early repercussions.

The colonial government of Jamaica added Cannabis to their legislation when they ratified the 1912 Hague Convention in 1913 and outlawed it a decade later. Cannabis had been introduced on the island by Indian contract labourers after abolition of slavery in 1838. British Guyana and Trinidad passed legislation that prohibited cultivation of Cannabis and regulated sale and possession. Cannabis was sold under licence to Indian plantation workers until 1928. The League of Nations, through the Advisory Committee on Traffic in Opium and Other Dangerous Drugs, continued to strengthen transnational aspects of the emergent international ‘drug’ control system and to institute controls over a wider range of ‘drugs’. A letter from South Africa to the Committee in November 1923 put Cannabis back on the agenda. The South Africans, who proclaimed a nationwide ban on cultivation, sale, possession and use of Cannabis in June 1922, wrote, “the most important of all the habit-forming ‘drugs’” was Cannabis. The Advisory Committee asked governments for information on production, use and trade in November 1924. A Second Opium Conference was convened to discuss measures to be taken to implement the 1912 Opium Convention and set maximum limits on production of opium, morphine, cocaine and restrict production of raw opium and coca leaf exported for medicinal and scientific purposes. Mohamed El Guindy, delegate from Egypt (nominally independent from Great Britain), proposed inclusion of Cannabis. He asserted hashish was “at least as harmful as opium, if not more so”.

In Australia, Cannabis was not consumed on a large scale, although it was
readily available for sale as cigarettes called ‘Cigares de Joy’ until the 1920’s.

Support came from Turkey, Greece, South Africa and Brazil, countries with experience or had banned Cannabis, with limited or no success. Despite the British delegation’s argument Cannabis was not on the official agenda, El Guindy submitted an official proposal. He painted a horrific picture of the effects of hashish, although he conceded, taken “occasionally and in small doses, hashish perhaps does not offer much danger”. He stressed once a person “acquires the habit and becomes addicted … it is very difficult to escape”; “under the influence of hashish presents symptoms very similar to those of hysteria”; the individual’s “intellectual faculties gradually weaken and the whole organism decays”; and “the proportion of cases of insanity caused by the use of hashish varies from 30-60% of the total number of cases occurring in Egypt”. Cannabis not only led to insanity, according to El Guindy, but was a gateway to other drugs and vice versa. If it was not included on the list with opium and cocaine, Cannabis would replace them and “become a terrible menace to the whole world”, he predicted. Most countries at the Conference had little to no experience with Cannabis and inclined to rely upon those that did, notably Egypt, Turkey and Greece. The Egyptian ban on Cannabis affected the entire eastern Mediterranean and beyond. Greece, Cyprus, Turkey, Sudan, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine were requested to assist Egypt’s law enforcement authorities restrict cultivation and trade. El Guindy’s proposal was motivated by failed efforts to stem smuggling into Egypt. Despite lack of evidence in his speech supporting his claims about the effects of hashish, delegates were unprepared to contradict them.


The assertion 30-60% of insanity was caused by hashish was, to be generous, an exaggeration. The 1920-21 annual report, Abbasiya Asylum in Cairo, larger of Egypt’s two mental hospitals, recorded 715 admissions. Only 19 (2.7%) were attributed to hashish, considerably less than the 48 attributed to alcohol. Moreover, even the modest number of cases attributed to Cannabis were “not, strictly speaking, causes, but conditions associated with the mental disease”El Guindy’s excessive claims caused moral panic among ill-informed delegates who applauded his intervention, admitting their knowledge was limited. However. India, the United Kingdom (UK) and France expressed sympathy for the Egyptian delegate’s position, but argued, as his government had failed to give prior notice to the secretariat, the Conference was not competent to apply the provisions of the 1912 Hague Convention to hashish. The issue was referred to a sub-committee for further study, in which El Guindy introduced the proviso: The use of Indian hemp and the preparations derived therefrom may only be authorised for medical and scientific purposes. The raw resin (charas) … extracted from the female tops of the Cannabis sativa, together with the various preparations (hashish chira, esrar, diamba, etc.) of which it forms the basis, not being at present utilised for medical purposes and only being susceptible of utilisation for harmful purpose, in the same manner as other narcotics, may not be produced, sold, traded in, etc., under any circumstances whatsoever. The sub-committee reported in favour of complete prohibition of Cannabis.

Only three of sixteen nations represented on the committee (UK, India and the Netherlands) opposed the drastic step. Curiously, neither Indian nor British delegates mentioned the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission’s report, which offered a much more nuanced assessment of benefits, risks and purported harms of Cannabis. The British and Indian delegates attached reservations to Guindy’s controversial paragraph. Beyond restriction of international trade, it interfered in domestic policy and legislation, a step too far. The US had wanted to introduce similar provisions for opium, but was blocked, precipitating America’s angry departure. Recommendations were diluted significantly by the drafting committee despite what the sub-committee chairman qualified as “somewhat uncompromising insistence” of El Guindy, a reprimand uncommon in the diplomatic world. Cannabis was included in the International Opium Convention of 1925, under a limited regime of international control: prohibition of Cannabis exportation to countries where it was illegal and requirement of an import certificate for countries that allowed use. Without due consideration of relevant evidence to support the necessity for control and at the request of Egypt alone, the Conference decided formally, ‘Indian hemp’ was as addictive and dangerous as opium and should be treated accordingly. Cannabis was placed under legal international control in the 1925 Geneva Convention.

The Convention dealt with the transnational dimension of the Cannabis trade and did not prohibit production or domestic trade in Cannabis; did not impose measures to reduce domestic consumption; nor ask governments to provide Cannabis production estimates to the Permanent Central Opium Board (PCOB) to monitor and supervise the licit international trade, the main source of supply for illicit markets. Following approval of the 1925 International Opium Convention, European countries gradually outlawed Cannabis possession and use (UK’s Dangerous Drugs Act, 1928; revised Dutch Opium Law, 1928; Germany’s second Opium Law, 1929). The laws exceeded obligations in the Convention, despite absence of problems related to Cannabis use in those countries. Bans issued on a national level on a substance demonised on the basis of questionable evidence set into motion stricter controls internationally. After Egypt forced Cannabis control onto the international agenda, more powerful countries became entangled in the process of increasing criminalisation and sought tighter international prohibitive measures. British ‘drugs’ law would serve as a model for legislation in the British West Indies. In the 1930’s the League of Nations Advisory Committee began to pay increasing attention to Cannabis, under pressure from Egypt, the US and Canada. At the Committee’s 19th session, 1934, a report was tabled that estimated there were 200 million Cannabis users worldwide, although it was unclear how that figure was arrived at. The Egyptian delegation demanded “worldwide outlawing of the Cannabis indica plant”, but other delegations were unimpressed by the poorly substantiated statements. The issue was referred to a sub-committee.2020AdvisoryComTrafficOpium1930s

Australian ‘Drug Control’ Timeline 1901-1926

1901 – Customs Act

1913 – Australia signed the Hague International Opium Convention on narcotics (well over 100 narcotic ‘drugs’ were controlled under the Convention) and extended importation controls over ‘drugs’ other than opium.

1925 – The Geneva Convention on Opium and Other Drugs imposed restrictions on the manufacture, importation, sale, distribution, exportation and use of cannabis, opium, cocaine, morphine and heroin allowing for medical and scientific purposes only, despite the fact that Cannabis use as a medication was rare in Australia at the time.

1926 – Cannabis importation and use was prohibited by the Australian Commonwealth Government with federal legislation implementing the 1925 Geneva Convention on Opium and Other Drugs.

Image result for 1894 Indian Hemp Drugs Commission report,A 1926 New York Times article questioned El Guindy’s allegations against Cannabis. The article quoted the 1894 Indian Hemp Drugs Commission report, contending neither insanity nor criminality was related to Cannabis, “but when excesses were noted they were usually connected with other vices, such as alcohol and opium. Not a single medical witness could clearly prove the habit gave rise to mental aberration”. The article referred to research among US military personnel in the Panama Canal Zone with 17 volunteers smoking ‘marijuana’ under medical supervision. The investigating committee reported “influence of the ‘drug’ when used for smoking is uncertain and appears to have been greatly exaggerated” and concluded “there is no medical evidence that it causes insanity” and “there is no evidence that the ‘marijuana’ grown locally is a habit-forming ‘drug’ […] or that it has any appreciable deleterious effects on the individuals using it”. The committee recommended “no steps be taken by the authorities of the Canal Zone to prevent sale or use of ‘marijuana’ and no special legislation […] was needed”.


Extracted and Adapted from The Rise and Decline of Cannabis Prohibition

2 thoughts on “The Rise and Decline of Cannabis Prohibition (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: The Rise and Decline of Cannabis Prohibition (Part 2) | Hemp Edification
  2. Pingback: The Rise and Decline of Cannabis Prohibition (Part 3) | Hemp Edification

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