North - American Bias and Non - American Roots of Cannabis Prohibition Print
Written by Sebastian Scheerer   
Thursday, 28 January 2010 23:15

Sebastian Scheerer

North - American Bias and Non - American Roots of Cannabis Prohibition

There is something like a North American bias in both drug policy and drug policy
research. This bias takes many forms and contains a number of contradictions.
Global drug policy, for instance, is being marketed to the general public as an
emanation of the global villagers' volonté générale, while serious analyses
convincingly show that it really rests on a highly coercive consensus masterminded
by just one international moral entrepreneur1: the United States. Had it not been for
a century of big stick diplomacy, contemporary "narcotics control" would display the
diversity of present - day alcohol controls instead of the uniformity of international
conventions. On the other hand, the U.S. did rely on other governments' prejudices,
plans and interests concerning the prohibition of mind - altering substances. As a
matter of fact, any future reduction of the North American bias in drug research might
lead to a revaluation of the interactions between U.S. diplomacy and oriental
governments to such an extent that the U.S.A. might even have to share the credit
(and blame) for the global prohibition regime with some hitherto hidden

The North American bias also affects the literary production of Americans and Non Americans
alike. While the former tend to exaggerate the relevance of domestic
(U.S.) events for developments on the global level, the latter tend to simply repeat
the sacred texts of U.S. research, thereby contributing to the dwarfing of the role of
non - American influences. This over - exposure to American sources already
resulted in an outright "U.S. - centrism", which nothing less than falsifies, for
instance, the accounts of the history of global cocaine prohibition.2

Both the history of cocaine prohibition and that of cannabis prohibition come to
underline the necessity to pay more attention to non - American actors, factors and
conditions.3 The conventional historiography of cannabis prohibition focuses on
Harry Anslinger and the Marihuana Tax Act. While this is justified with regard to
domestic U.S. policy developments, U.S. literature also tends to convey the
impression that this episode was also responsible for the emergence of the global
cannabis prohibition regime.4

The fact is, though, that Anslinger only became Commissioner of Narcotics in 1930,
and the Marihuana Tax Act was signed by President Roosevelt only in 1937, while
the League of Nations had already taken its decision to include cannabis in the
opium convention's prohibition regime in early 1925.5 The Marihuana Tax Act thus
looks much less like the insinuated starting point for cannabis prohibition than like
just one (if over - moralized) step in the implementation of the Second Geneva
convention. As far as the emergence of the global cannabis prohibition regime is
concerned our interest has to turn from the thirties to the twenties, and from the U.S.
to the Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, where the League of Nations had
its seat. In Geneva, the U.S.A. did not play a leading role at first, since they were not
a member of the League of Nations during its first years. The Advisory Committee on

Traffic in Opium held its first three meetings (starting in May, 1921) without the
U.S.A., who only joined in time for the fourth meeting in January, 1923. But even
then the U.S. did not strive for a central role in cannabis matters. At least not up on
the frontstage.6 Instead, the protagonists of this drama were Italy, South Africa,
Egypt and Turkey.
Their interests in the globalization of cannabis prohibition has not yet been made the
object of systematic study, but future research is likely to shed some light on hitherto
unknown roots of narcotics control. Roots that lead beyond the cultural context of
puritanism and bureaucracy in which this question is normally being discussed.

i. Italy
Towards the end of the 19th century Great Britain had not only come under severe
pressure from the U.S.A. and world opinion because of her immoral opium exports
from India to China, but there was also a certain concern in the House of Commons
about the effects of the widespread consumption of Indian hemp in large parts of the
subcontinent. In response to such an inquiry by members of the Commons, her
Majesty's government sent a note to the Indian government asking for the
establishment of an official commission. This commission produced one of the most
thorough reports on cannabis and the potential reasons for its prohibition. The
commission concluded that a prohibition would be an unjustified infringement of
liberty and of questionable value for public health.7

After the turn of the century, and in response to the invitation to The Hague, the
Italian government proposed (in 1910 or 1911) "that the production and traffic in the
Indian hemp drugs be included as part of the program of the conference".8 While
cannabis was not dealt with in the Hague Convention of 1912, the participants of the
conference did agree on "the advisability of the study of the question of the Indian
hemp drugs from the statistical and scientific standpoint with a view to regulating
their misuse should the necessity thereof make itself felt."9

ii. South Africa (1923)
After World War I, ratification of the Hague Convention was made an explicit
condition in the different peace treaties (Versailles, St. Germain, Trianon, Neuiily,
Sèvres). The League of Nations was entrusted with the surveillance of compliance.
In 1922, the League's Advisory Committee mentioned "a list of drugs not covered by
the Convention of 1912, communicated by the French government" - a list which just
might have mentioned cannabis as a dangerous drug in need of control - and that
this list "should be referred to the interested governments for their observations."10
In 1923, the Union of South Africa explicitly proposed that Indian hemp be treated as
one of the habit - forming drugs. The Advisory Committee decided to ask the Council
of the League of Nations to invite its member governments to furnish to the League
"information as to the production and use of, and traffic in, this substance in their
territories, together with their observations on the proposal of the Government of the
Union of South Africa. The Committee further recommends that the question should

be considered at the annual session of the Advisory Committee to be held in
The South African initiative was the decisive step, even if it did not reach immediate
modifications of the convention. But the proposal was to be revived shortly
afterwards by Egypt and Turkey, with the result that cannabis was accorded the
same status as opiates and cocaine. South Africa herself had passed anti - cannabis
legislation as early as 1911, probably because of resentment against cannabis use
among the black population, including mine workers. While it should not be too
difficult to find out about the details of South Africa's 1923 initiative, such an effort
has yet to be taken.

iii. Egypt and Turkey (1924)
Egypt and Turkey returned to the cannabis problem in 1924, proposing to include
the drug into the opium convention. While the general framework of international
prohibition had been set up because decades of U.S. - American efforts in that
direction, it is on the other hand highly unlikely that the cannabis dislike of both
Egypt and Turkey should also have been a product of U.S. influence. The reasons
are simple. For one thing, cannabis had been considered "the weed of the poor",
hashishat al - foqara, all over the Islamic orient for at least 700 years preceding the
Geneva conference. Small wonder therefore that, at least among the ruling class,
cannabis was held in low esteem. This all the more since cannabis was not only
associated with economic marginalization, but also with religious deviance. This
leads us to the (hitherto neglected) cannabis - and - heresy - link that could help
explain the prohibitionist zeal of oriental elites. It was - among others - Rudolf
Gelpke who called attention to the fact that both the Arabic and the Persian terms for
poor (faqir and darwish) express an interesting association between poverty and the
ascetic and/or ecstatic search for God.12 Not only in northern Africa there were a
number of religious orders - like that of the Heddawa - that practiced a cult around
cannabis products (hashish, kif, ma'dshun) and propagated both ecstasy and dismal
poverty as pathways to paradise.13 Among the Heddawa, but also among numerous
mysticists and religious orders, one of the older words of the prophet was held in
high esteem: faqri fakhri (my poverty is my pride). But since this belief often went
together with a decidedly anti - authoritarian habitus14, these orders often provoked
the suspicion of heresy in the ranks of the clerical establishment. The popularity of
cannabis with many of these religious minorities, including at certain times and
places the highly controversial and often politically suspect sufi way of knowledge,
certainly did not contribute to an image of harmlessness of the drug. One just has to
remember the association between cannabis use and political terrorism entertained
by the sunnite enemies of the Nezaris (or "Order of the Assassins") who - from their
headquarters at Alamut in Northern Persia - spread fear and loathing over much of
the Orient and Europe between 1090 and 1256 AD15

In the 19th century, cannabis came to be associated less with religious heresy than
with insanity. The Egyptian delegate at the League of Nations argued for the
prohibition of cannabis with reference to the predominantly male population in

Egyptian insane asylums (whereas nations without cannabis had a predominantly
female asylum population).16


This was just a very rough sketch of hitherto neglected links in the history of
cannabis prohibition. Any further research in this direction might well be hazardous
to the North American bias in our conventional knowledge. But that should not be the
worst of reasons to continue doing it. In the end we will have a clearer, more
realistic, and less contradictory picture of the emergence and persistence of the
phenomenon of global prohibition.

1 For the terminology used cf. Ethan Nadelmann, Global prohibition regimes: the evolution of norms in international society.
International Organization 44, 4, Autumn 1990: 479 - 526.

2 The accepted history of cocaine prohibition fails to explain the sudden inclusion of this drug into the 1912 Opium Convention simply
because of its focus on domestic U.S. campaigns against cocaine, and in complete neglect of the British - German
economic and diplomatic rivalry that led Britain to surprise the whole world with the proposal to include cocaine in the opium
convention (cf. my article, Einige Anmerkungen zur Geschichte des Drogenproblems, in: Soziale Probleme 4.1993: 78 - 98)

3 For just one example of alienation in historical drug research think of the fact that in Germany, for instance, every scholar knows
David Musto's 1973 book on the origins of narcotic control, but few are acquainted with the equally excellent study by Albert
Wissler that could both enrich and correct some parts of Musto's - and which was published in 1931. Cf. Albert Wissler, Die
Opiumfrage. Jena 1931

4 Cf. Howard S. Becker, Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance. The Free Press of Glencoe, New York, 1963; critical of
Becker's findings: Donald T. Dickson, Bureaucracy and Morality: An organizational perspective on a moral crusade. Social
Problems 16. 1968: 143 - 156. Also cf. David F. Musto, The American Disease. Origins of Narcotic Control. Yale University
Press, New Haven and London 1973: 210 - 229

5 When cannabis prohibition was put to vote in Geneva, Great Britain and the Netherlands abstained. Germany voted in favor of
prohibition after a deal with Egypt concerning the importation of manufactured drugs. The only country who, in response to a
survey on negative effects of cannabis consumption, had reported any such experience, had been Portugal (presumably with
relation to her African possessions). On the 19th of February, 9 powers voted in favor and 7 against the motion to include
cannabis in the opium convention and to thereby oblige all governments to pass the respective national legislation.

6 Of course it is not impossible that there was some American manoevering behind these motions - and that the three countries had
only introduced their propositions in response to North American pressure or promises. But if such a link existed, it yet would
have to be unearthed.

7 Cf. Report of the Indian Hemp Drug Commission. Printed at the Government Central Printing Office, 1894
8 Hamilton Wright, The International Opium Conference. Amer. Jour. of International Law. October 1912, January 1913, cited after

Terry/Pellens, The Opium Problem, 1929, reprint Montclair, New Jersey 1970: 636
9 Procol de cloture (see Hamilton Wright in Terry/Pellens op.cit.: 645)
10 Cf. Terry/Pellens op.cit.: 667
11 Cf. Terry/Pellens op.cit.: 693
12 Cf. the rich and impressive work of the orientalist R. Gelpke, Drogen und Seelenerweiterung. Stuttgart: Kindler (o.J., 1966?).

Gelpke refers to an author by the name of al - Marqrizi who wrote that the knowledge about hashish came from India via
Yemen, Persia, Asia Minor, Egypt and Syria. He reports that the founder of a religious order - sheikh Haidar (died in 1051) had
allowed his followers in Eastern Persia to use hashish, but had told them not to admit to their custom in public; cf. Gelpke
op.cit.: 118; also R. Brunel, Le monachisme errant dans l'Islam, Paris 1955: 281

13 For poverty and hashish in Morocco, cf. Brunel, op.cit.; for hashish as a means to catch a glimpse of paradise cf. the story of the
143th night (1001 Nights) in Gelpke op.cit.: 90 - 92

14 For faqri fakhri cf. Annemarie Schimmel, Der Islam. Eine Einführung. Stuttgart: Reclam 1990: 92; for links with drug use cf.
Gelpke op.cit.: pp 72 - 74; for the chronic anarchism of the sufis who used the words "government" and "evil" as synonyms, cf.
Annemarie Schimmel, Mystische Dimensionen des Islam. Die Geschichte des Sufismus. Frankfurt/Leipzig 1995: 54

15 Their terrorism is an undisputed fact, but not so their predilection for cannabis (cf. Gelpke op.cit.: 96 - 122). Bernard Lewis in his
classical study (cf. The Assassins. A Radical Sect in Islam. London: George Weidenfeld and Nicholson 1967; Die Assassinen.
Zur Tradition des religiösen Mordes im radikalen Islam, Frankfurt: Eichborn 1989) even seems convinced that the Order of the
Assassins did not indulge in cannabis consumption. - But if they did not and were only stigmatized by their enemies as
hashishin this would only show even more clearly in what low regard cannabis use was among the ruling orthodoxy.

16 Cf. Rudolf Walter Leonhart, Haschisch - Report. München: Piper 1970: 20. Even in Greece, cannabis came to be regarded as a
dangerous weed with the influx of Greeks from Asia Minor following Greek independence in the early 19th century. Those

Greeks (from Smyrna) who suffered social degradation by the "real" Greeks until recently were considered barbarians because
of their poverty, but also their assimilation to (bad) turkish customs in terms of (arabic) music and cannabis consumption, the
latter one was seen as conducive to social marginalization and psychic disorders, if not political revolt.

Last Updated on Monday, 20 December 2010 15:43

Our valuable member Sebastian Scheerer has been with us since Monday, 20 December 2010.

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