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The India Hemp Drugs Commission

India hemp drugs commission

By the late 1800’s, the British Empire though no longer ruling the New World, was still firmly entrenched to the East and still held sway over the Middle East and India.  The major reason for this was, of course, trade.  The Indian subcontinent, highly populated, was both a source and a consumer of massive amounts of British resources and products.  In order to exact as much revenue as possible from their colonial subjects, the British taxed many products.  This included alcohol and other intoxicants.  In 1790, the British crown started collecting those duties, expanding to Cannabis products in 1793, “No person shall manufacture or vend any such drugs (bhang, ganja, charas, and other intoxicating drugs) without a license from the collector of the zillah.”  For many years the cannabis plant and its products were legally bought and sold throughout the Empire. As time marched on, various laws were passed limiting the scope of their sales.  This stemmed from the unknown nature and effects of the plant.  Even today scientists, doctors, and politicians seem baffled by everything that is known, and unknown about cannabis.

It was with little surprise in 1893 that the British House of Commons raised a formal inquisition into the truth of this plant and the preparations made from it.  At this time, the British undertook perhaps the most exhaustive and scientific research of the cannabis plant of all time.  Nixon’s Shafer Report of 1972, and even modern studies may come close, in scope, to the size of this undertaking.  Over the course of nine months, many members of the medical and scientific community, stationed initially in Bengal but eventually encompassing all of India, looked into all cases of marijuana-induced disease, of mental, physical and moral concerns.  This was a thorough investigation, involving testimony from civil and military sources, as well as merchants, commoners and professionals.  Almost 1200 individuals were interviewed, their testimonies closely scrutinized and questioned in an effort to sort truth from opinion and superstition, so that the India Hemp Drugs Commission might gain an actual understanding of the benefits and threats posed by the hemp plant.  The main thrust of the inquiries were designed to ferret out the consequences of the drug in terms of “adverse physical consequences, insanity, and the causation of crime.”

The British were particularly worried about the physical effects of cannabis preparations on their soldiers (Napoleon even outlawed hash amongst his own soldiers in Egypt). It was a very easy habit to get started on, especially with so many troops stationed throughout India.  In India there were several popular ways to imbibe marijuana.  It was often smoked out of a pipe or cigarette, or as charas (sticks or balls of hash).  Also it could be prepared as a drink, called bhang, which was mixed with milk and other herbs and spices, occasionally with poppy as well.  Also, it could be smoked with herbs of the Datura plant to induce strong hallucinations.  This was mentioned several times in the report, with doctors commenting that it should be given separate investigation because its effects were far less beneficent in that preparation.

The inquiries were thorough in nature.  Doctors sought to compare the effects of single use with that of moderate, consistent and heavy users.  They were concerned with its effects on digestion, causation of dysentery, asthma, bronchitis and insanity.  One thing became clear as the investigation continued; there was no consensus on the benefits or detriments of the plant.  Some doctors touted its medicinal properties, while others decried it as a poisoner of mind and body. Some things don’t change.  In the year 1894, 2344 patients were admitted to insane asylums.  Of those, 222 were alleged to be caused by hemp. Carefully whittling down those numbers to 61 cases it was still unclear, “even in regard to the remaining 61 cases, it must be borne in mind that it is impossible to say that the use of hemp drugs was in all the sole cause of insanity, or indeed any part of the cause. The following considerations combine to demand caution and reserve in pronouncing an opinion on this point.”  Statistically, less than 2% of the purported cases of insanity could be blamed on hemp, and even that two percent were suspect. The report’s conclusion, “The careful inquiry which has been made by the commission into all the alleged hemp drug cases admitted in one year into asylums in British India demonstrates conclusively that the usual mode of differentiating between hemp drug insanity and ordinary mania was in the highest degree uncertain, and therefore fallacious. Even after the inquiry which has been conducted, it cannot be denied that in some of the cases at least the connection between hemp drugs and insanity has not been conclusively established.”

Even in the field of physical effects the results were uncertain.  No doctor could claim without a doubt that dysentery was caused by the herb, because there were so many other factors that attributed to the afflictions of people in India.  Today, we know marijuana does not have that effect on the digestive system. We also know that unclean water sources are the major cause of most dysentery cases.  In the case of asthma, most doctors were against the notion that cannabis was a cause. Although many agreed that smoking preparations could lead to asthma inflammation as well as other bronchial troubles. That is still a valid concern on the part of physicians today, and a logical point of debate in the field of medical marijuana.  Doctors of the time relied heavily on cannabis preparations for medical benefits; even Queen Victoria was known to medicate with cannabis for relief from cramping and other menstrual discomforts.

In two of the three fields of the investigation, marijuana turned out to be beneficial, or at the least non-malignant.  The final inquiries turned toward the effects of cannabis on the moral health of an individual.  Is this plant responsible for turning otherwise healthy members of society into criminals?  The report’s conclusion, “In respect to this relation to society, however, even the excessive consumer of hemp drugs is ordinarily inoffensive. His excesses may indeed bring him to degraded poverty which may lead him to dishonest practices; and occasionally, but apparently very rarely indeed, excessive indulgence in hemp drugs may lead to violent crime. But for all practical purposes it may be laid down that there is little or no connection between the use of hemp drugs and crime.”

Overall, many of the report’s authors were somewhat dissatisfied, not with the positive results (in our eyes) but with the lack of concreteness to the results.  “Viewing the subject generally, it may be added that the moderate use of these drugs is the rule, and that the excessive use is comparatively exceptional. The moderate use practically produces no ill effects. In all but the most exceptional cases, the injury from habitual moderate use is not appreciable. The excessive use may certainly be accepted as very injurious, though it must be admitted that in many excessive consumers the injury is not clearly marked. The injury done by the excessive use is, however, confined almost exclusively to the consumer himself; the effect on society is rarely appreciable. It has been the most striking feature in this inquiry to find how little the effects of hemp drugs have obtruded themselves on observation. The large number of witnesses of all classes who professed never to have seen these effects, the vague statements made by many who professed to have observed them, the very few witnesses who could so recall a case as to give any definite account of it, and the manner in which a large proportion of these cases broke down on the first attempt to examine them, are facts which combine to show most clearly how little injury society has hitherto sustained from hemp drugs.”  After a sustained effort, it was shown that most of the negative stories that pertained to cannabis use were the result of opinion, superstition and exaggeration.  Anecdotal evidence rarely held up to scrutiny.

A more thorough scientific inquiry into the nature and effects of cannabis would have been a logical next step, but the science of the time was greatly lacking.  Even with modern resources, doctors and scientists still are woefully ignorant of the scope of this plant.  It would be beneficial to the medical marijuana cause if the results of this study were more widely known by today’s critics.  This report has been buried, mostly by time.  As opposed the Nixon-Shafer report of the 1970’s, which was deliberately hidden away because its results were exactly opposite to the political ends of its commissioners.  It is most interesting that these studies are undertaken and then forgotten. As Winston Churchill said, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Here stands the world, more than 100 years after this commission’s report and still without any clear answers to the questions they asked.

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