7 Indian Hemp
Hemp drugs; the legends
THE LONG STRUGGLE TO END THE OPIUM TRAFFIC FROM INDIA TO China had one curious and revealing by-product. When the Government was compelled by the vote in the House of Commons to concede a Royal Commission into opium, there was an immediate protest: why single out opium when there were other drugs in common use in India? For many years, the opium lobby had contended that hemp was the more dangerous of the two. In 1840 the banker W. B. Baring had told the Commons that if the traffic were suppressed, it might simply lead to the adoption in the Far East of drugs 'infinitely more prejudicial to physical health and energy than opium', citing as an example 'an exhalation of the hemp plant, easily collected at certain seasons, which was in every way more injurious than the use of the poppy'. Reminded of hemp's existence, the Government decided on what appears to have been a diversionary tactic. On March 2nd, 1893 the Member of Parliament for Bradford East, W. S. Caine — a persistent antidrug campaigner — asked for an enquiry into the use of hemp drugs in India; and the Under Secretary of State for India was able to assure him that the Viceroy was setting it up, and would be glad if the results 'show that further restriction can be placed upon the sale and consumption of these drugs'.
There was a mass of evidence available about their effects, but little of it which could be described as scientific, apart from some experiments conducted in the 1840s by Dr W. B. O'Shaughnessy, Professor of Chemistry in the Medical College of Calcutta. He had begun with animals, finding that they reacted in much the same way as humans. A middling-sized dog, given ten grains of hemp, 'became stupid and sleepy, dozing at intervals, starting up, wagging his tail, as if extremely contented; he ate some food greedily; on being called to, he staggered to and fro, and his face assumed a look of utter and helpless drunkenness. These symptoms lasted about two hours, and then gradually passed away.' Finding that no harm came to the animals, O'Shaughnessy next tried the drugs on patients suffering from disorders for which there was no effective remedy — rheumatism, tetanus, cholera, convulsions — with results which led him to claim in the Transactions of the Medical and Physical Society of Calcutta that 'in hemp, the profession has gained an anti-convulsive remedy of the greatest value'. With hemp, though, as with coca, it was difficult to make up pills or potions which were of consistent purity and strength; and the essential drug element in the plant eluded researchers. It remained in general use in medicine in India, particularly at the village level; but it did not elsewhere establish the reputation O'Shaughnessy expected.
In Britain, the drug — hashish, as it was loosely described — tended to be thought of as sinister; not on the basis of experience or experiment, but because of the reputation it had derived from legends. One had come down from Marco Polo, who had heard it on his voyage to China in the thirteenth century. The 'Old Man of the Mountain', he was told, had desired that his people should believe that a valley which he had enclosed, and made into a garden, was Paradise; 'so he had fashioned it after the description that Mahomet gave of his Paradise, to wit, that it should be a beautiful garden running with conduits of wine and milk and honey and water, and full of of lovely women for the delectation of all its inmates'. A selected youth would be given a drug to put him to sleep, and carried into the valley, so that when he woke up he would find himself, as he thought, in Paradise, and would enjoy its sybaritic delights. He would then again be put to sleep, and transported back out of the valley, 'whereat he was not over well pleased'. All he had to do if he wished to return, the Old Man of the Mountain would tell him, was to perform the service required of him • 'go thou and slay so-and-so; and when thou returnest, my angels shall bear thee into Paradise. And shouldst thou die, nevertheless even so will I send my angels to carry thee back into Paradise.' So great was the desire to get back that the initiates would face any peril to do so; 'and in this manner the Old One got his people to murder any one whom he would get rid of'.
In Marco Polo's account, therefore, the drug featured only as a way to enable the Old Man of the Mountain to transport the youths to and from the valley. But the legend became embroidered in the telling; the drug used to put the youths to sleep was given a very different role. The murderers used it — the story ran — to nerve themselves to carry out the Old Man's commands. When, early in the nineteenth century, the French etymologist Sylvestre de Sacy identified hashish, the drug, with haschishin — assassin — this was taken to be conclusive evidence that the members of the Order of Assassins had derived their name from the drug they took before committing their atrocious crimes. And the idea that hashish could be taken for this purpose appeared to be confirmed when it was learned that the 'whirling dervishes' used it, and when Livingstone reported that the 'pernicious weed' was used by African tribes to help them work themselves up into 'a species of frenzy'.
It was difficult, though, to reconcile the effects of the drug in the legend, with the effects of the drug as actually observed in most of the countries of the Middle and Near East, where it was in common use. The drinks which the Arabs made from the hemp plant, the French traveller C. S. Sonnini noted on his tour in the late eighteenth century,
throw them into a sort of pleasing inebriety, a state of reverie that inspires gaiety and occasions agreeable dreams. This kind of annihilation of the faculty of thinking, this kind of slumber of the soul, bears no resemblance to the intoxication produced by wine or strong liquors, and the French language affords no terms by which it can be expressed. The Arabs give the name of kif to this voluptuous vacuity of mind, this sort of fascinating stupor.
Most observers echoed Sonnini; but this did not do much to redeem the reputation of the drug. To the English, as they entered upon the Victorian era, it was no recommendation to say that hashish induced 'voluptuous vacuity', the secondary reputation it now began to acquire — nourished, doubtless, by Dumas's account of its effects on the Baron Franz d'Epinay, in The Count of Monte Christo
. . there followed a dream of passion like that promised by the Prophet to the elect. Lips of stone turned to flame, breasts of ice became like heated lava, so that to Franz, yielding for the first time to the sway of the drug, love was a sorrow and voluptuousness a torture, as burning mouths were pressed to his thirsty lips, and he was held in cool serpent-like embraces. The more he strove against this unhallowed passion, the more his senses yielded to the thrall, and at length, weary of the struggle that taxed his very soul, he gave way and sank back breathless and exhausted beneath the enchantment of his marvellous dream.
The translators of The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night confirmed the reputation of hashish, not simply as a drug by which husbands could be put to sleep so that lovers could enjoy their wives, but also as an aphrodisiac — as illustrated in the translation by Sir Richard Burton in the story of the lover who was about to consummate his design when he woke up to find that it was all a hashish-induced dream, and that he was surrounded by a crowd of people laughing at him, 'for his prickle was at point and the napkin had slipped from his middle'. The versions which circulated in England might omit or bowdlerise such episodes, but the reputation of hashish spread by hearsay, leaving the impression that even if some doubt might remain about what precisely its effects were, they were certainly deplorable.
Perhaps because of this reputation, the British Raj tended to be more suspicious of Indian hemp drugs, as they were described there, than of opium. They had been subjected to an enquiry on more than one occasion in the past, the latest investigation having been conducted as recently as the 1870s. Its report had claimed that hemp drugs were less dangerous than their reputation suggested, and that in any case prohibition was impracticable. The Liberal Government decided to ignore these inconvenient findings, and set up a fresh enquiry.
The members of the Commission were appointed in July 1893, under the Chairmanship of the Hon. W. Mackworth Young, first Financial Commissioner for the Punjab. Their terms of reference indicated what was expected of them. They were to examine the trade in hemp drugs; its effect on the social and moral condition of the people; and 'the desirability of prohibiting the growth of the plant'. The Commission was composed of three British colonial officials, three 'native non-official gentlemen', and a Secretary, H. J. McIntosh — to whom much of the credit for the eventual report was probably due.
Hemp drugs: enquiry
The Commission had been warned that it might have difficulty in finding witnesses willing to come forward and tell what they knew about the use and abuse of hemp drugs. No such difficulty was experienced. Civil servants, army officers, magistrates, doctors, lawyers, and business men filled in the questionnaire which was circulated, and a gratifying number of them agreed to give verbal evidence in amplification. One group only, the Commission was surprised to find, appeared reluctant to offer their services. A significant proportion of the missionaries who were sent the questionnaire returned it without their answers. Their common excuse was that they did not have a sufficient knowledge of the matter. This was in striking contrast to the attitude of the missionaries to opium, particularly in China, where they had been in the forefront of the agitation to suppress the traffic. Why — the Commissioners wondered — should the Indian missionary show such little concern? Pondering that question, they picked up an early clue. If the missionaries, of all people, disclaimed knowledge of the effect of hemp drugs, the drugs could hardly be a very serious threat to the social and moral condition of the Indian people.
The terms of reference had referred to 'drugs' in the plural; and the Commissioners' first task was to try to sort them out — which was not easy. There was ganja, made from the dried flowering tops of cultivated plants; charas, the resinous matter scraped off them; and bhang, the dried leaves. But as Watt had just pointed out in his study of Indian plants, and as witnesses were to confirm, the distinctions in practice had little meaning. One man's charas was another man's ganja, and the drink made out of either was commonly called bhang. The Commissioners heard witnesses who assured them that smoking bhang was more dangerous than smoking ganja; 'but there are many others whose experience is precisely the reverse'. Some witnesses thought smoking less harmful than drinking; 'but there is a great deal of evidence to a precisely opposite effect'. In the end the Commission cautiously accepted the common opinion that the flowers and resin might produce a more powerful drug than the leaves, but for the purposes of its enquiry it seemed simpler to take them together under the general label, hemp drugs.
How extensively — the Commissioners next had to consider — were hemp drugs consumed? Putting this question to witnesses revealed just how sparse the information was on the subject, even among those whose duties were 'believed to bring them into close and constant contact with the people'. It was possible to make a tentative estimate of the minimum quantity of ganja and charas used, because a duty was payable on the manufactured product; but it could safely be assumed that far more was used illicitly. As for bhang, made from the leaves, much of it came from the wild hemp plant, and there was no way of telling how much of it was smoked, eaten and drunk, except observation — and observation, the Commissioners found, was a highly unreliable guide. Men who offered themselves as knowledgeable witnesses might turn out to be relying on hearsay; and those who claimed to have observed their use and effects had often derived their information only from visits to shops and shrines where gmokers congregated — the equivalent, the Commissioners felt, of a man claiming to be knowledgeable about the use and effects of alcohol in England, who had derived all his knowledge from visits to pubs.
From the evidence, however, one thing was obvious; that hemp drugs were far more extensively used than the average British, or even Indian, official realised. They were taken as medicine, not only for specific disorders, on prescription, but as tonics, and aids to digestion. Drunk with meals, bhang was the equivalent of the English labouring man's glass of beer. They were also generally taken among the Hindus on family party occasions, and in connection with religious observances — particularly those linked with Shiva who, according to legend, had greatly appreciated the effects of hemp. But by far the commonest use was by workers to give them staying power. 'Gymnasts, wrestlers and musicians, palkibearers and porters, divers and postal runners are examples of the classes who use the hemp drugs on occasions of especially severe exertion. . . all classes of labourers, especially such as blacksmiths, miners and coolies, are said more or less generally to use the drugs, as a rule in moderation, to alleviate fatigue.'
A medicine; an aid to endurance; a drink on family or religious occasions: in none of these capacities, the Commissioners felt, could the effects of hemp drugs be regarded as menacing. Even when used as an intoxicant, its consequences generally appeared innocuous — where they could be assessed: the Report quoted an unnamed writer as saying, 'the action of hemp on a man is so various that when we read the several descriptions given, differing so widely, we would scarcely suppose we were considering the same agent'. In so far as they could be summarised, though, the immediate effect of a hemp drug was
refreshing and stimulating, and alleviates fatigue, giving rise to pleasurable sensations all over the nervous system, so that the consumer is 'at peace with everybody' — in a grand waking dream. He is able to concentrate his thoughts on one subject; it affords him pleasure, vigour, ready wit, capacity for hard work, and sharpness for business; it has a quieting effect on the nervous system and removes restlessness and induces forgetfulness of mental troubles; all sorts of grotesque ideas rapidly pass through the mind, with a tendency to talk; it brightens the eyes and, like a good cigar, gives content.
In young men, too, it might give rise to sensual thoughts. But considering the drugs were so widely used, there was no evidence to justify their ugly reputation. How had it spread? The reason, the Commissioners decided, was because the drugs had no observable effects when they were taken in moderation. Even those witnesses who most disapproved of them had had no conception just how extensive that consumption was. It was only the rare examples of immoderate use that were seen by doctor or magistrate; 'the ruin wrought in certain cases by excess has alone attracted their notice. They feel towards drugs as a man feels towards alcohol, whose experience has been mainly gained among the social wrecks of the lowest parts of a great city.'
The evidence obtained from replies to the questionnaires revealed that the proportion of men who took hemp drugs immoderately must be very small. It was nevertheless desirable, the Commissioners decided, to investigate the allegations that had been made about their effects on this minority; in particular, that the drugs were responsible for much of the insanity in India, and for much of the crime.
Hemp drugs and insanity
There was no shortage of witnesses to testify to the way hemp drugs caused insanity; a few even expressed the view that to reopen this particular line of enquiry was stupid, implying 'wilful blindness to what has been abundantly proved'. And so the evidence at first suggested. Statistics sent in from mental hospitals all over India showed that for years, hemp drugs had been one of the chief causes of mental breakdown. The foremost expert on the subject, Surgeon Lt. Col. Crombie, had already shown in an article in the Indian Medical Gazette that a third of the inmates of the Dacca hospital of which he had been Superintendent had smoked ganja; and in a very large proportion of cases, he believed, it had been 'the actual and immediate cause of their insanity'. The 1871 Commission, which in other respects had tended to play down the danger of the drugs, had accepted that their habitual use did tend to produce insanity; and the Government of Burma had just put a ban on hemp drugs largely for that reason.
There was no reason to doubt the validity of the statistical evidence; nor was it challenged. Nevertheless the Commissioners decided that it ought to be checked. Taking the last year for which full statistics were complete, they ordered a re-examination of the records of every patient admitted to a mental hospital in India, where that admission had been attributed to hemp drugs, in order 'to ascertain how far the statistics were reasonably correct, and, if possible, also to arrive at some conclusion as to whether hemp drugs have any real connection with insanity'.
The first discovery the check provided was that what was entered in the asylum records of admission as the 'cause' of insanity was not derived from a diagnosis made at the asylum. It was simply taken down by a clerk from the description given by the policeman or whoever was responsible for bringing the patient to the asylum, at the time. Examining magistrates, whose duty it was to check the admissions book, insisted that some specific cause should be shown; and it had become standard procedure — Major Willcocks, of the Agra asylum, admitted — to enter 'hemp drugs' as the cause, wherever it was found that the patients took them; 'I cannot say precisely why it has come down as the traditional practice.' He had seen no reason to worry about the attribution, he explained, as he had assumed the drugs were poisonous; 'my ordinary medical practice did not bring me into contact with them at all. I only came into contact with them in the asylum. I had no idea they were used so extensively as I find on enquiry to be the case.'
Of all the asylum superintendents, only three claimed responsibility for the diagnosis entered in the admission books — one of them being the acknowledged authority, Surgeon Crombie. But when they examined the admissions book for the Dacca asylum in the last full year when he had been superintendent there, the Commissioners found that it did not bear out his claim. In Dacca, as elsewhere, the entries had been based on whatever explanation had been given by the people who brought the man to the asylum. The Commission therefore decided to check each individual patient's record. In nine out of the fourteen cases of insanity attributed to hemp drugs that year, and accepted as such by Crombie, the check showed that hemp drugs could not have been responsible, as Crombie himself, confronted with the results, had to admit. The idea which he had publicised from his original figures — that hemp drugs were responsible for a third of the insanity cases in asylums in India — had therefore to be revised; the proportion was fewer than one in ten. Crombie had apparently formed the view, the Commission observed, that his experience had given his evidence about the danger of hemp drugs a special value. This view had not been borne out by their enquiry. Charitably, however, they ascribed his lapse to 'a mistake of memory'.
When the follow-up was complete, it was found that insanity could be related to hemp drugs in only forty cases from the whole of India, in the year chosen — less than seven per cent of admissions; and even then, there was usually another possible cause. And 'cause', the Report added, was a risky term to apply; 'intemperance of any kind may sometimes be not the cause of insanity, but an early manifestation of mental instability'. In such cases, over-indulgence in hemp drugs could be regarded not as a cause but as a symptom of some underlying predisposition to insanity.
Here, then, was evidence given by expert witnesses, accepted for years, used as the justification for campaigns in other countries to ban hemp drugs — in the case of Burma being accepted as responsible for the success of such a campaign — now shown to be worthless. How had the mistake been made? The explanation, the Commissioners decided, was simple. There was a natural tendency to look for, and blame, a specific physical cause. Hemp drugs had been an obvious choice, because as intoxicants they could sometimes produce symptoms similar to those of insanity.
This popular idea has been greatly strengthened by the attitude taken up by asylum superintendents. They have known nothing of the effects of the drugs at all, though the consumption is so extensive, except that cases of insanity have been brought to them attributed with apparent authority to hemp drugs. They have generalised from this limited and one-sided experience. They have concluded that hemp drugs produce insanity in every case, or in the great majority of cases, of consumption. They have accordingly without sufficient enquiry assisted, by the statistics they have supplied, and by the opinions they have expressed, in stereotyping the popular opinion and giving it authority and permanence.
Hemp drugs and crime
There remained the other charge to be considered: that hemp drugs bred crime. They did so, witnesses assured the Commission, in three ways: by driving men to steal so that they could afford to buy the drug; by releasing criminal instincts; or by destroying a man's self-control, so that he 'ran amok'.
Hemp drugs users, some witnesses explained, progressed inexorably from moderation to excess; excess made them too lazy to earn their living; and when addicted, they had to steal to maintain their supply. The Commissioners were unimpressed. The evidence they had collected had established that of the vast number of hemp drug users, only a tiny proportion used them immoderately. How, then, could it be claimed that the slide from moderation to addiction was inexorable? As for releasing criminal instincts, hemp drugs appeared to have precisely the opposite effect; they 'tended to make a man timid, and unlikely to commit a crime'. But the idea that the drugs could cause men to run amok was not so easy to dispose of, based as it was on common knowledge.
Witness after witness confirmed its truth. R. D. Lyall, with over thirty years of varied experience as an official and as a magistrate in India, told the Commission about the cases of such temporary homicidal frenzy, which he had personally had to deal with. So did W. C. Taylor, a veteran of almost half a century's experience of Bengal. Surgeon Crombie treated the Commission to a description of how a Bengali babu, 'as the result of a single debauch, in an attack of ganja mania slew seven of his nearest relatives in bed during the night'. And an Assam tea planter described another such ganja-induced frenzy which he had good reason to remember vividly, as it had happened on his own estate.
Again, the Commissioners decided to check the information, and asked the witnesses to provide the relevant records or references. Some immediately admitted that their information had been at second-hand, and could not be checked. Others promised to send along the details, from newspaper files; and then could not find them. R. D. Lyall was unable to trace a single case of those he had had to deal with; and the only one which W. C. Taylor was able to recall of the 'numerous cases' he had claimed to have been concerned with, turned out when checked to have had no connection with hemp drugs. An investigation of the records about Crombie's babu disclosed that he had indeed been taking ganja, but he had also been taking opium; that he had a history of insanity before drugs were implicated; and that he had not been on a debauch before the murder, which had been committed in a state of 'mere insane despair'. And when the records of the case which the Assam tea planter had described were re-examined, it was found that his account to the Commission differed materially from the one he had given at the time; not least in that he had made no mention, at the time, of ganja.
In the end, the Commission were able to find only twenty-three cases of homicidal mania which it was possible to check; and in eighteen of them there was nothing to suggest that hemp drugs had been responsible. 'It is astonishing', the Report commented,
to find how defective and misleading are the recollections which many witnesses retain even of cases with which they have had special opportunities of being well-acquainted. It is instructive to see how preconceived notions based on rumour and tradition tend to preserve the impression of certain particulars, while the impressions of far more important features of the case are completely forgotten . . . the failure must tend to increase the distrust with which similar evidence, which there has been no opportunity of testing, has been received.
Hemp drugs: verdict
The Report concluded with the Commission's verdict on the issue which they had been brought together to consider: should hemp drugs be banned, in India, as they were in Burma? The answer was an emphatic no. The drugs were not a serious hazard — except for a tiny majority of the idle and dissolute whose excessive consumption endangered only themselves. Banning them would be politically dangerous, because it would constitute an unpopular interference with Hindu religious and family observances. In any case, prohibition would be unworkable — for reasons which Watt had just pointed out; it would be impracticable to hold a man responsible for the existence of a wild plant growing near his hut, 'and it would be impossible to prohibit him from gathering, from such a plant, the daily quota used by him and his family'. And even if prohibition could be enforced, it would lead only to the increased consumption of more dangerous drugs, opium and alcohol. Why — a Madras missionary had asked — should the Government of India be concerned about hemp, rather than about 'the widespread and rapidly increasing and much more injurious habit of alcoholic drink?' Other witnesses had suggested an answer: it was a plot on the part of the liquor manufacturers. Graphs of sales figures, the Commission found, lent confirmation to the view that consumption of the hemp drugs and of alcohol were intermeshed. If hemp drugs ceased to be so readily available, the sales of alcoholic liquor could be expected to rise.
Summing up, the Commissioners in their Report could claim that they had carefully examined the physical, mental and moral effects of hemp drugs used in moderation, and that no observable adverse effects had been discoverable. There was no evidence that hemp drugs were habit-forming, in the way alcohol and opium were. A man who consumed the drugs even in moderation might feel uneasiness, or even a sensation of longing, if deprived of them. But that was not in itself a reason for depriving him of them — any more than it would be in the case of tobacco.
The Report of the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission was later to be rescued from oblivion by the campaigners against the prohibition of cannabis in America and Britain, in the 1960s ; but its verdict on that drug of 'not guilty' is of less importance than its analysis of the remarkable irrelevance of accepted opinions about a drug, even when they are supported by men who are supposedly experts on the subject. Surgeon Crombie was a notable example of the kind of man who has so often helped to translate public preconceptions and prejudices on to Statute Books by lending the weight of his authority to them, when in fact he has never bothered to examine the evidence in front of him, in his job; he has simply rationalised it to fit those preconceptions and prejudices.
By painstakingly going behind such opinions, and scrupulously checking the records, the Commission were able to acquit hemp drugs of the charges laid against them — as they were used in India. It does not follow that a similarly honest committee would have come to the same conclusion in, say, the Cameroons, where German officers in the 1880s reported that they found hemp being taken for its 'stimulating effect on the nervous system, so that it is highly valued on long tiring marches, on lengthy canoe voyages, and on difficult night watches' — where, in other words, it was being used for the same purpose as coca in Peru, or opium in Formosa. And Livingstone may perhaps have been right when he reported that certain tribes in Africa took it to work themselves up into a suitable state of frenzy before going into battle — though this is more doubtful, because his description of the process suggests that they may have been taking it to calm their nerves. Indian hemp drugs were taken for very different purposes, in different parts of the world; and they appear to have performed whatever service was expected of them.