A close-up view of a cannabis flower. Photo: Skalle-Per Hedenhös/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.
William Brooke O’Shaughnessy arrived in India in the middle of a pandemic. It was 1833, and cholera was claiming countless lives around the world. When the outbreak had reached England a few years earlier, O’Shaughnessy’s pathology of the disease helped others develop intravenous fluid therapy – the cornerstone of treatment for cholera even today. Partly because of this success, he landed a job with the East India Company in Bengal.
O’Shaughnessy was Irish by birth but Scottish by education. He graduated from the Edinburgh Medical School in 1829. At that time, Scottish medical schools – unlike English ones – taught botany. Neil MacGillivray, who wrote about O’Shaughnessy for the Journal of Medical Biography, told The Wire Science that this exposure to botany inspired many Scottish doctors stationed in India to become avid plant collectors. “And perhaps because of that,” he continued, “some of them became interested in the medical, therapeutic properties of these [plants].”
For O’Shaughnessy, that plant was cannabis.
In India today, cannabis finds itself in the harsh glare of the national spotlight, prompting a reexamination of its illegality amidst a chorus of concern about its effects on mental health. For those of us willing to carefully navigate this debate, the scientific and colonial history of cannabis might offer valuable lessons.
The cannabis plant (also called hemp or marijuana), is dioecious – meaning male and female reproductive organs appear on separate plants. When left unpollinated, the female plants produce a resin-coated seedless bud called ganja. The resin itself is called charas or hashish. Documenting his experiments with the plant, O’Shaughnessy noted that ganja, which sold for “twelve annas to one rupee [per] seer in the Calcutta bazars,” was used for smoking, resulting in “heaviness, laziness and agreeable reveries.”
The leaves of the cannabis plant could be dried, ground, mixed with black pepper, cucumber and melon seeds, and then dissolved in milk and water to make a drink called bhang. O’Shaughnessy observed that it caused a “person to sing and dance, [and] to eat food with great relish.” The leaves could also be used to make an edible confection called majoon, which produced ecstatic happiness, “a sensation of flying, voracious appetite and intense aphrodisiac desire.”
The use of cannabis as an intoxicant was well documented in ancient Arabic texts. The 14th century Egyptian historian Al-Maqrizi described the popularity of hashish in the pleasure gardens of Cairo. During the crusades, the excesses of hashish consumers gave birth to the word ‘assassin’.
But ancient Sanskrit texts perhaps paint a fuller picture. Pandit Madhusudhan Gupta, an Ayurveda practitioner, translated to O’Shaughnessy that cannabis was viewed as an agent that “sharpens the memory, increases eloquence, excites the appetite, and acts as a general tonic.” The ancient medical treatise ‘Sushrutha Samhita’ recommended it as a treatment for mucus build-up.
When O’Shaughnessy administered cannabis to a variety of animals, none had shown any sign of pain, bolstering his confidence in the drug’s safety. Encouraged by these results, he gave his patients who suffered from rheumatism a solution containing a grain of cannabis resin. Some of the patients became garrulous and musical; others became ravenous and prone to paroxysms of laughter. But all of them had recovered and were free of side effects.
With rabies and cholera, he saw mixed results: while cannabis did not cure the underlying disease, it alleviated the worst ravages of the accompanying symptoms of hydrophobia, diarrhoea and vomiting.
In treating tetanus, however, cannabis was so effective that O’Shaughnessy declared its remedial powers “satisfactorily and incontrovertibly established”. He published these findings in an 1839 paper entitled ‘On the Preparations of the Indian Hemp, or Gunjah’, with the conclusion that cannabis was “an anti-convulsive remedy of the greatest value”.
In England, these findings were received with enthusiasm. Reviewing his work, the journal The Lancet expressed hope that “some of our hospital physicians will, without delay, procure the remedy which Dr. O’Shaughnessy has thus favorably introduced.”
O’Shaughnessy himself helped with this procurement. According to MacGillivray, he “sent cannabis plants to the Royal Botanic Gardens of Edinburgh.” When he travelled to England in 1841, he took quantities of cannabis with him, prompting a flurry of interest in the drug. Between then and 1900, almost a hundred articles appeared in medical journals, singing the plant’s paeans as a panacea. No less than Queen Victoria’s personal physician said that “Indian hemp, when pure and administered carefully, is one of the most valuable medicines we possess.”
Until then, cannabis had attracted scant attention outside of medical circles. As the historian Jim Mills points out in his book Cannabis Britannica (2003), the plant was viewed as a source of rope – but not much else. But with increasing awareness of the drug came a growing appetite to monetise it. “Because the British were in India to make money,” Mills wrote, “and because they were there to make money through tax… they sought profits from the cannabis habits of India.”
Cannabis was just one of the many crops in the production cycle of Indian farmers. But it was the principal source of income; the others were primarily for subsistence. After harvest, farmers stored the cannabis themselves, and banked on wholesalers to transport it to retailers as far as modern-day Pakistan, England, even Trinidad.
The environmental demands of the cannabis plant meant that it could only be cultivated in select parts of the subcontinent. The largest of these was a 60,000-acre tract in the Bengal Province called Ganja Mahal. It was here that the British licensing and taxation scheme was most onerous.
Farmers needed two licenses: one to grow the crop and another to store it after harvest. This was so the officials could keep a tab on who was growing cannabis, and how much. A wholesaler also needed two separate licenses: one to buy the cannabis from the farmer and another to transport it out of Ganja Mahal. Then, the wholesaler’s stock was taxed before being passed on to retailers.
Burdened by these regulations, Mills pointed out, Indian farmers “grew undeclared crops, lied to colonial officials about their output, and concealed supplies.” Wholesalers developed a network of smugglers to transport the stash, sometimes even navigating the river Jamuna to carry out their clandestine operations. “Indians involved in the ganja trade,” Mills continued, “found a host of ways of frustrating the colonial state’s attempt to squeeze revenue from them. … By the 1870s, cannabis was taking on criminal associations in the minds of the British in the empire.”
This air of criminality permeated many colonial institutions. But its presence loomed heaviest within the walls of lunatic asylums. After the British crown took over the administration of India from the East India Company in 1858, a series of ‘Lunacy Acts’ came into effect. This prompted a burst of enthusiasm in building new mental hospitals throughout the subcontinent. At first, these institutions were exclusive to military personnel, but soon started admitting civilians.
Saumitra Basu, who has written about the history of the Madras asylum, told The Wire Science that “the British classification of ‘lunatic’ in India was an ambiguous term that covered a wide range of illnesses and social improprieties.” Fakirs and sadhus who led a vagrant lifestyle were often labeled lunatic and admitted to these asylums.
For every new admit, asylum superintendents were required to fill a form that stated the cause of insanity. Amitranjan Basu (no relation), a psychiatrist who has written extensively about the history of mental health in India, told The Wire Science that this cause was often unknown.
“If [the admits] had been found to be using cannabis,” he continued, “then a quick relationship was established between cannabis and their symptoms.” Because of the air of criminality that surrounded it, Mills wrote, “‘gunjah-smoking’ was a convenient way of filling the document and one that was likely to be believed.”
When the data from these institutions was compiled into annual reports, cannabis emerged as a leading cause of insanity. The 1867 report for the Dulanda asylum said that evidence of “ganja smoking as a fertile source of insanity is as prominent as ever.” In the Dhaka asylum, “33 percent of all the cases [in 1870 were] attributed to gunja smoking.” And in Cuttack, “nearly half of the admissions during the past ten years are attributed to its abuse.” Amitranjan Basu said that these cases were used to construct the narrative of a special category of mental illness called ‘Indian hemp insanity’.
An 1872 survey of all colonial administrators in India revealed their deep-seated mistrust of cannabis. Authorities in Punjab said that one violent criminal was a “known bhang drinker.” Those in Hyderabad believed that ganja was taken by men before “running amuck” and by women before committing sati. A medical officer in Burma said that “most of the acts of Mutiny of 1857 were undertaken under the influence of bhang, charas or ganja.”
But the same survey also told another story. Policemen in Bombay noted that they had no reason to believe ganja-smoking caused crime. Other officials spoke glowingly of ganja’s ability to alleviate the physical pain of palki-bearers. They added that “the use of ganja leaves in them no after effect of an injurious kind.” As Amitranjan Basu pointed out, even the notion of ‘Indian hemp insanity’ didn’t go unchallenged by doctors “who doubted [the] simplistic correlation lacking scientific rigor.”
But for all this exculpatory evidence, the survey concluded that there can “be no doubt that its habitual use does tend to produce insanity.” Soon, word of the alleged pernicious mental effects of cannabis reached London.
In 1891, Mark Stewart, a member of parliament in the House of Commons, drew attention to a recent news article that stated “the lunatic asylums of India are filled with ganja smokers.” He asked the government to consider banning possession and sale of the drug throughout India. After all, he pointed out, such a prohibition was already in place in Burma. So why not extend it to other parts of the British empire in India?
Although Stewart was kicking up a storm about prohibiting its use, cannabis wasn’t his main target. As a leading voice in the temperance movement, Stewart was a fierce anti-opium campaigner. By raising this question about cannabis – during a debate on opium – he tried to cast the government’s involvement with all intoxicants in poor light. According to Mills, “cannabis was of little real interest to Mark Stewart as an issue in itself.” And after his handwringing about ganja prohibition in 1891, he never once brought up the subject.
A couple of years later, another temperance parliamentarian named William Caine picked up where Stewart left off. Caine asked the government to “create a Commission of Experts to inquire into” various aspects of hemp drugs including “the desirability of prohibiting its growth and sale.” Like Stewart before him, Caine too seemed concerned about cannabis. But his view of the drug, as Mills writes, “was tied together with his fears about alcohol and opium in India.”
Caine was under no illusion that his demand for a cannabis commission would be granted. He knew well that the British Government of India profited handsomely from cannabis. In Bengal, for instance, it accounted for nearly 20% of the revenue from internal customs.
But surprisingly, the government acquiesced and set up the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission to investigate cannabis prohibition. It even guaranteed that “the inquiry will be as thorough and complete as possible.” What Caine hadn’t anticipated was that the government was also viewing the cannabis issue through the opium lens.
At the turn of the nineteenth century, Mills told The Wire Science, the British had a massive trade deficit with China. He added: “So they were desperately looking around for a product that the Chinese actually wanted.” They found it in opium.
The grade of opium that grew in China was incompatible with the country’s smoking habits. Because of this, the Chinese imported opium from Bengal. When the East India Company “noticed that there was a well-established opium market in China,” Mills said, “it begins to flood [it] with Indian opium.” This reversed Britain’s trade deficit with China and was a profitable way to finance empire-building activities in India.
So while the revenue from cannabis was significant, it paled in comparison to the income from the opium trade. By 1843, opium was the second largest source of colonial revenue in India. Mills has argued that establishing the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission was the government’s way of muddling the debate on opium. “It’s very much the anti-opium campaign, and concerns about opium that framed all of these discussions about cannabis.”
Cannabis had become a proxy war in the politics of opium and birthed the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission.
Over the course of seven months in 1893-1894, the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission conducted a comprehensive study of cannabis in India. Its eight-volume report was filled with witness statements and detailed accounts of various aspects of cannabis.
Addiction to cannabis, the Commission concluded, “is easier to break off than the habit of using alcohol or opium.” The social consequences of cannabis consumption, it said, were minimal since “as a rule these drugs do not tend to [cause] crime and violence.”
As for mental health, it drew a distinction between ‘moderate’ and ‘excessive’ use. The former, it said, “produces no injurious effects on the mind,” but that “excessive use of hemp drugs may … induce insanity.” In reviewing the asylum statistics, it concluded that “there was no trustworthy basis for a … connection between hemp drugs and insanity” in them.
Because of these findings, the Commission rejected the proposal to prohibit cannabis. Both Amitranjan Basu and Mills contend that the commission feared the backlash it would receive by banning such a popular product. “Suddenly trying to persuade millions … of Indians to give up a relatively cheap and relatively harmless habit,” Mills said was bound to cause political turmoil of the kind the government was keen to avoid.
Instead of prohibition, the Commission recommended standardising taxes and granting licenses to retailers to control the drug’s use. And that policy remained largely intact even after India’s independence, leaving cannabis legal.
But on the international stage, a different narrative was taking root. Narcotic drugs were controlled by a patchwork of treaties and conventions, and the newly formed United Nations spent much of the 1950s trying to unify these into one ‘single convention’. The result was the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.
Participating countries were split into various camps motivated by their own domestic priorities. Opium- and cannabis-producing nations like India favoured weak controls and strictly opposed prohibition. Since recreational use of these drugs was part of their socio-cultural history, they wanted to regulate them at the national level.
This group came in stiff opposition against western, industrialised countries like the US, the UK, Canada and the Netherlands. This anti-cannabis bloc lobbied for stringent controls around its production and trafficking.
What emerged was a shabby compromise. Signatories like India were required to outlaw non-medicinal and non-scientific use of cannabis – but had 25 years to do so. Another compromise was to redefine the drug to include the buds and the resin of the cannabis plant, but not the leaves.
As the 25 year window was closing, India passed the Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act in 1985, outlawing cannabis in the country for the very first time. Since the law borrowed the treaty’s definitions, ganja (which is made from the buds) became illegal, but bhang (which is made from the leaves) did not. This law remains in effect even today.
Like in the past few months, cannabis occasionally dominates the national conversation, punctuated by calls for its decriminalisation. But decriminalisation alone may be insufficient. We must also change our discourse to consider cannabis as a substance in its own right – unburdened by the baggage of other intoxicants. Only then can we erase preconceived notions we may have about its effect on mental health and yield space for the medical community to deliver a verdict.
If reimplemented today, India’s pre-NDPS law of licensing and taxing its sale would be enlightened drug policy. And by going back to this recent past, we can reclaim a more ancient one.
Abhinav Srinivasan is a computer science graduate. He lives in Boston and works in the tech industry.