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How cannabis was criminalized

Cannabis has deep roots in Indian culture. —
Cannabis has deep roots in Indian culture. — 123RF Stock Photo

And why legalizing pot is about more than making history

A wave of anticipation and excitement swept the nation when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that the recreational use of marijuana would be legalized. Who knew that a simple, annual, herbaceous plant would evoke such strong reactions?

With legalization on Oct. 17th, 2018, Canada made headlines across the world — supposedly creating history and (perhaps, accidentally) doing much more.

History has well documented the use of Cannabis sativa across the globe. Consumed in all three states of matter, its cosmopolitan roots have spread across the globe and it is utilized not just recreationally, but medicinally, industrially and domestically.

An omnipresent, multi-purpose plant, such as this one was, for a portion of time, accepted with open arms. However, colonial times signalled a shift in the perception surrounding cannabis.

Bungling bhang

The British Empire’s crown jewel, India, has a deep-rooted history with cannabis. Apart from being mentioned in The Rig Veda, Shiva — one of the most powerful Gods of Hindusim — is depicted smoking ganja using a chillum, or hookah pipe. To this day bhang — a milk, spice, cannabis flower and leaf concoction — is consumed across the country, especially during the festival of colours, Holi. Despite cannabis’ deep-seeded religious and cultural existence, the British thrice attempted to criminalize the possession and consumption of it (1838, 1871 and 1877).

A man is shown smoking a hookah in this vintage illustration from the “Dictionary of Words and Things” (Larive and Fleury, 1895).
A man is shown smoking a hookah in this vintage illustration from the “Dictionary of Words and Things” (Larive and Fleury, 1895).

In 1770s, the corrupt and nearly bankrupt East India Company turned to the British Parliament to be rescued. Handing over its operation directly to Parliament, the company watched the Parliament silently take over, passing a law in 1798 (without conducting any known studies) to tax bhang, ganja and charas, a cannabis resin. To appear altruistic, the British (lacking empirical data) insisted on this tax to curtail the use of cannabis, “for the sake of the natives’ good health and sanity,” while, in reality, quietly recuperating their finances through taxation.

When the British Raj’s reign in India officially commenced in 1857, it discovered that native Indian soldiers serving in their forces were using ganja, ostensibly, leading them to believe that the efficacy of the British forces were hampered. Further, British administrators and officials attributed all wrongdoings to cannabis and its users. The users, often poor, were looked down upon by the rich, snobbish, British colonial powers, further adding another class divide in an already deeply split India.

Between 1893 and 1894, one of the largest studies in modern history on the effects of marijuana was commissioned by the British. Despite indicating that “moderate use of cannabis drugs had no appreciable physical effects on the body,” the commission opined that, “…the general principle may be fearlessly asserted that it is right to tax intoxicants; and the higher they are taxed the better. … If it is necessary to put briefly in words a description of what the policy of the government should be … it would be… To control their use… in such a manner as to avoid a worse evil, and subject to this proviso, to tax them as fully as possible.”

American influence

While it is debated whether psychoactive uses of cannabis were discovered before or after the arrival of Europeans in North America, it is a known fact that French botanist Louis Hebert sowed the seeds of this controversial crop in Nova Scotia in the early 17th century.

Highly encouraged to be cultivated by colonial governments for its profit from fibre production, cannabis rose to fame in the early 19th century in Canada. For nearly 60 years (1840–1900), based on its use in India, it found medicinal purposes throughout North America, treating migraine attacks, epilepsy and depression.

There isn’t clear understanding around why marijuana was criminalized in Canada. However, it can be argued that global perceptions, racism and colonialism impacted this decision. With the influx of Mexican immigrants at the dawn of the 20th century in America, a wave of fear about the herb and the superstitions surrounding it arose in the dominant demographic. Hearst’s tabloids depicted Mexicans and their marijuana as criminal, fuelling its criminalization in various states by 1922, which seems to have infiltrated Canadian minds.

Catherine Carstairs’ book “Jailed for Possession” attributes (Canadian women’s rights activist, Alberta magistrate, leader of the Famous Five) Emily Murphy’s articles, published in Maclean’s, as a turning point in the criminalization of marijuana in Canada.

Known to be racist, anti-immigration and anti-drug, these articles encapsulated Murphy’s thoughts about visible minority immigrants, stating that “Negro” drug dealers and Chinese opium peddlers “of fishy blood” were out to control and debase the white race.

These articles became the basis of her 1922 best-seller, “The Black Candle,” where she penned her views on marijuana. “Speaking of the latter delusion, Dr. Palmer writes that in India, under its influence, your servant is apt to make you a grand salaam instead of a sandwich and offer you an houri when you merely demanded a red herring,” wrote Murphy, her views evidently coloured by the colonial perception of cannabis.

With cannabis perceived as being low-class, foreign and criminal, and nonconforming to the dominant demographic’s standards, a year after the release of “The Black Candle,” Canada added it to the anti-drug law, the first Western country to do so, and without any solid evidence.

Colonial powers, especially the British through their actions in India, not only impacted lives in India but also those in Canada. Their biases haunt us today. Therefore, Oct. 17th 2018 is about more than making mere political and cultural history. Canada’s small step of legalizing cannabis — knowingly or unknowingly — is a giant leap towards decolonization.

Prajwala-Dixit
Prajwala Dixit

Prajwala Dixit is an Indian-Canadian writer. An engineer, wife and mother, she lives in St. John’s.

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