Indian Hemp Drugs Commission

Sebastiaan Broere

In 1893, the INDIAN HEMP DRUGS COMMISSION was appointed by the Government of India on request of the House of Commons. The purpose of this committee was to ascertain, amongst others, ‘the extent to which the hemp plant is cultivated in each of the provinces of India in which it is grown, […] by whom, and the extent to which [the plant] is used, [and] whether, and in what form, the consumption of the drugs is either harmless or even beneficial as has occasionally been maintained’ (Report of the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission, vol. 1, 2). Based on information received from over eleven hundred witnesses, the commission published its conclusions in 1894.

Until the 1870s, the colonial attitude towards cannabis use had been ambivalent. Although some physicians regarded the plant as an intoxicating power, others considered the drug to be a potential source of medicine. After around 1870, the British in India became more concerned about the negative consequences of ganja consumption. In the imagination of the British colonial population, hemp came to be related to insanity, violence, suicide, indolence, and immorality. Some, for example, claimed that satis—women who committed self-immolation, usually at the funeral pyre of their husbands—or those who ran “amuck” consumed hemp before performing the act. The colonial mental hospital as a site of official knowledge production about the Indian body and mind played a key role in this shift in attitude. In a patient’s admission file filled out by police or a family member, cannabis consumption was often mentioned as the cause of insanity. Admission rates of cannabis users were published in annual reports, which were shared with the colonial administration and disseminated via local newspapers. Because the colonial asylum was one of the very few sites of direct contact between Indian ganja users and the British, insanity came to be understood as an inevitable consequence of cannabis use. The Indian ganja smoker encountered within the walls of the asylum became exemplary for Indian cannabis users in general.

The origins of the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission related to another colonial institution, namely the mission. In 1891, Mark Stewart MP asked the Under-Secretary of State for India in the House of Commons whether the consumption of ganja, which he considered to be ‘far more harmful than opium,’ had called his attention. The issue was subsequently flagged by William Sproston Caine, one of Stewart’s fellow parliamentarians. A Baptist and fierce advocate of abstinence and temperance, Caine’s ideas about cannabis consumption were shaped during a trip to India between November 1888 and April 1889. During his tour Caine was accompanied by Reverend Thomas Evans, a Baptist missionary who had lived in India since 1855 and who was a strong opponent of ganja consumption. According to historian James Mills, missionary criticism of ganja can be divided into three clusters. It first of all reflected general colonial prejudice towards the ramifications of cannabis use. Another strain of criticism related to the Government of India, which in the eyes of certain missionaries sanctioned and regulated ganja consumption by excising its sale. Finally, missionary opposition reflected their disapproval of indigenous religious practices, which regularly involved the consumption of cannabis. In 1893, upon Caine’s instigation, the Under Secretary of State for India instructed the Government of India to create a committee.

The commission conducted its research between August 3, 1983 and April 25, 1894. It was presided over by W. Hackworth Young, who was assisted by three European officials and “three native non-official gentlemen”. Although the Governor-General in Council had provided instructions as to how to go about, it was explicitly stated that ‘these are not intended to be exhaustive, and the Commission has full authority to take up any branch of inquiry which in their opinion is likely to elucidate the subject’ (Report, vol. 1, 2). The bulk of the evidence was derived from questionnaires filled out by both Europeans and Indians. Members of the commission first sent letters to local governments and administrations, including the Native States, who subsequently approached persons and organizations and published a general call-up in the press. In addition, the commission toured about thirty cities interviewing “witnesses”, visiting warehouses and shops, examining places of hemp production, and studying religious sites of cannabis consumption. The commission also paid visits to a large number of mental hospitals.

Probably to Caine’s dismay, the commission concluded that a total prohibition of the cultivation of the hemp plant for narcotics ‘is neither necessary nor expedient in consideration of their ascertained effects, of the prevalence of the habit of using them, of the social and religious feeling of the subject, and of the possibility of its driving the consumers to have recourse to other stimulants or narcotics which may be more deleterious’ (Report, vol. 1, 359). At the time this conclusion was welcomed as an expression of the fairness and disinterestedness of British colonial rule. Even authors writing after Indian independence have deployed the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission as an illustration of enlightened state drug policy. James Mills, however, has convincingly argued that the pages of the hemp drugs report cannot be read at face value. In fact, the colonial government had strong financial incentives not to prohibit cannabis consumption, as excises and duties were a welcome source of state revenue. Seen from this perspective, it is significant that rather than prohibition, the commission suggested a policy of control and restriction of the market by adequate taxation and rewarding sales license.

In writing this entry, I’ve made extensive use of scholarship by James Mills. Suggestions for further reading include: James Mills, Madness, Cannabis and Colonialism: The ‘Native Only’ Lunatic Asylums of British India, 1857-1900 (New York: MacMillan Press 2000); Cannabis Britannica: Empire, Trade, and Prohibition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003); and ‘Cannabis in the Commons: Colonial Networks, Missionary Politics and the Origins of the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission’, Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History 6 (2005).