Cannabis Prohibition: A British History
With the masses of American documentaries on Cannabis history it is a lot easier to learn the story of cannabis and the history of its prohibition in the US than it is here in the UK. But crucial to the fight is the knowledge on how cannabis prohibition came into effect in Britain.
It may surprise some of you to learn that cannabis, far from having the stigma attached that it has today, was regarded as an important part of medicine for hundreds, if not thousands of years all across our planet. Britain was no exception, with doctors and leaders embracing the hemp plant and its multitude of uses.
The most famous person to use cannabis in British history was Queen Victoria, who used it regularly to help with menstrual cramp, morning sickness and labour pain. This was prescribed to her by her physician J.R Reynolds and provided her great pain relief. It is nice to know that one of our great leaders was high a lot of the time yet still managed to break the record for the longest reigning monarch. Suite 101 states that: “She had nine children of her own, and they produced 42 grandchildren and 85 great-grandchildren. Her sons and daughters married into royal families all over the European continent. As a result of this, it was said that she was the grandmother of all of Europe: a well-deserved designation.” Not bad for a stoner ay?
One cause for the decline of cannabis use in medicine was the invention of the syringe towards the end of the 1800s, meaning that medicine could be delivered in a much faster way. As cannabis could not be dissolved in water it could not be injected, so doctors began using different methods of pain relief, including the newly discovered aspirin.
The Independent Drug Monitoring Unit (IDMU) website states: “In 1893 a huge report by the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission had concluded that ‘the moderate use of hemp drugs is practically attended by no evil results at all’.” In fact, the committee suggested that the best way to manage the situation was to induce a cannabis tax, as was already effective in India at that time. This tax generated the Bengal Government £100,000 per year throughout the 1860s (approx. £5-10 million in today’s money). But these ideas never took off in the UK, and it would be 30 years before the government began controlling cannabis at all. Our government was much more focused on the dangers of cocaine and opium, and during the 1920s regular scandals appeared in the newspaper depicting foreign men corrupting white women with the drugs. Cannabis was hardly ever even mentioned, and at this time was used by very few recreationally throughout the whole of Europe.
Now cannabis prohibition itself began with something called the 1925 Dangerous drugs act, which didn’t actually come into effect until 28th September 1928. We have Egypt and Turkey to thank for it being added to the agenda of the 1925 Convention on Narcotics Control, and this was based upon a secular adaption of their previous Islamic prohibition laws. Before this cannabis was available to all if prescribed by doctors in the UK, and could even be bought in shops in the USA towards the start of the 20th Century. The league of Nations made no investigations into the dangers of cannabis until 10 years after its prohibition began, but although India had been against its prohibition and had carried out the only previous serious investigation into cannabis, contradicting its supposed dangers, 57 Nations along with Britain signed the agreement.
Skip now to 1945, the year that World War 2 ended. There were only 4 convictions for cannabis use this year in Britain, much less than the 206 opium-related convictions. 1950 was a landmark as it was the first year more people were convicted of cannabis (86) than for opium (41) and other manufactured drugs (42) put together. This was in part because of increased police raids on jazz clubs, which also generated fresh propaganda about black men corrupting white women with drugs.
By the early 1960s recreational drug use was on the increase in Britain throughout white, suburban classes, due mainly to influence from American beatniks, folk singers and jazz/blues musicians. IDMU states that: “It was seen as a jazzy, sexy, Black thing to do, and [in Europe], an American thing… It was probably inevitable that ideas developed about a politics of personal growth, and the right to any pleasure that does no harm to others. Soon white middle-class youth were smuggling and dealing to their own class. Often they believed they were benefiting a new, happier and calmer society.” 1964 marked another change when for the first time more white people than black people were convicted for cannabis in the UK.
The same year saw The Beatles introduced to cannabis by Bob Dylan in an Airport in America. Their mass following ensured that cannabis became known to a lot more people in the UK, and other artists and influential people also became advocates of its use, for example the poet Allen Ginsberg who took steps to try and change people’s perception of cannabis. But of course, we realise, 40 years on that these views were way ahead of their time, and cannabis remains illegal here in the UK today both for medical and recreational use.
The 1965 the Dangerous Drugs Act towed the UK in line with parts of the UN single convention. Cannabis became considered as bad as opiates in the eyes of the law, and no distinctions were made between supply and possession. As a result, the number of arrests and convictions for cannabis skyrocketed. Also in this year a law was passed making it illegal to allow people to use drugs on owned premises, leading to even more convictions. IDMU states that “Convictions for cannabis offences rose by 79% in a year – in 1967 they rose another 113%. Up to 90% of those convictions were for personal possession.” Suddenly smoking cannabis had become very dangerous indeed for British citizens, not because it was dangerous, but because it could get you put in prison. It is worth noting that this is pretty much the situation that remains today, and although you are not likely to go to prison for possession, a criminal record can be extremely damaging in today’s society.
During these years News of The World gossip columns fuelled police raids on black meeting places and musical artist’s mansions. Police also used their powers to stop and search discriminately, by harassing black people and ‘long hairs’. In 1967 a pamphlet was produced by the National Council for Civil Liberties which highlighted discrimination within drugs laws including accusations of police planting evidence and judges giving harsh sentencing. Also in 1967 an organisation called SOMA was set up which led a campaign to improve cannabis laws. IDMU states that the advert contained: “an explanation of how damaging the law was, compared with the harmlessness of cannabis. There were quotes from modern medical opinions such as ‘does not lead to degeneration, does not affect the brain cells, is not habit forming, and does not lead to heroin addiction’. It was signed by 72 prominent people including some of Britain’s best-known artists and writers, two Nobel Prize winners, two MP’s, journalists, doctors and the Beatles [who paid for it].” SOMA were not actually protesting to legalise cannabis, rather for scientific studies to be carried out with lesser penalties and possible access for medical use.
The BBC website states that: “In 1968, the Wootton Report, a Home Office investigation into the effects of cannabis concluded: “There is no evidence that this activity is causing violent crime or aggression, anti-social behaviour, or is producing in otherwise normal people conditions of dependence or psychosis requiring medical treatment.”” The same report also pointed out that 15% of people were sent to prison for possessing less than 30 grams, with 13% having no previous convictions. This report was published in January 1969, almost a year after it had been finished. However the parliamentary debates on the matter were filled with stories of how Cannabis led to heroin, and it was decided that more research was needed before reclassification.
SOMA dissolved in 1970, and The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 reclassified cannabis as a class B drug, level with amphetamines. This act made distinctions between possession and supply, but increased sentences rather than decreasing them. Cultivating cannabis could now get you 14 years in prison, with up to 5 years for possession (although fines were more common than prison time). This act did not prohibit the use of hemp fibres, stalk or seeds, but a license had to be issued from the Home Office. These licences were often only issued to researchers.
Also in 1971 the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) was set up, its purpose to provide advice on the dangers of drugs to the government. But in the case of cannabis its advice has been ignored several times, the most notable leading to the sacking of Prof. David Nutt, a well-respected leader of the ACMD in 2009. Even back in 1979 the ACMD advised lowering cannabis to a class C drug, but they were ignored.
When The Conservatives came to power in 1981, they stated that they had no intention of ever lowering drug penalties or lowering the classification of cannabis. Sadly this still seems to be the case with our government today.
As if fines for possession weren’t enough, a law in 1986 called The Drugs Trafficking Offences Act allowed courts to confiscate money they suspected of being generated from illegal enterprise. This was added on top of already hefty fines, and if the money could not be paid then extra prison time could be given.
Maximum sentences for drugs were re-raised in 1994, and maximum fines for cannabis went up by 250%. The same year there were over 72,000 cautions/convictions for cannabis in the UK.
In 1999 the Legalise Cannabis Alliance formed as a political party in Norwich. They stood five candidates in Norwich and one in Peterborough the local elections in 2000. In 2001 they had candidates in 13 constituencies.
In January 2004 cannabis was lowered to a class C substance. That meant much lower penalties and reduced sentences for possession and even supply. Many saw this as steps towards decriminalisation of a drug that was becoming more and more popular in the UK. However this was not to last, and Janauary 2009 saw a reverse of the laws by The Labour Party after campaigns by our beloved tabloids stating common propaganda and scare tactics like a bit of weed would make you go mad, generating a cannabis hysteria throughout our nation. It is worth noting that against the advice of the ACMD, Labour had been planning to make cannabis class B from July 2007.
The Legalise Cannabis Alliance deregistered as a political party in November 2006, but voted to continue as a pressure group. This year, they voted to re-register as a political party and elect a leader, and have since rebranded the campaign CLEAR – Cannabis Law Reform.
In 2010 Sativex was approved in the UK, meaning people with multiple sclerosis could now legally medicate in Britain. However the drug is extremely hard to get prescribed due to its high cost, and its ineffectiveness compared to herbal cannabis has been made apparent. It was also exposed that Sativex, far from the isolated compounds it listed was actually cannabis soaked in ethanol with added peppermint to mask taste.
It is now 2011, and cannabis remains a class B substance under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. No distinction is made between medical and recreational use of herbal cannabis, with people who need cannabis as medicine being considered common criminals by our Government. 15 States in America, including the capital Washington D.C have medicinal cannabis programmes, as do an increasing number of Western countries. Britain is not one of them, and it seems as if prohibition has some fight left in it yet.
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