The last few decades have seen an impressive rise in the investigation of cannabis's potential for medicinal value as well as it's suspected potential for abuse. Given the thousands of years that cannabis has been in the human pharmacopoeia, however, it isn't surprising that the debate about the plant's influence has been of major interest to politicians before. The Indian Hemp Drugs Commission was set up by the British Empire over one hundred and twenty years ago to assess the then-popular concern about the herb's proliferate use among all classes of Indian society, who's ancient and wide-spread social incorporation of the plant seemed to pose a possible threat to the stability of British imperial rule.
Doctors and Dealers and Yogis, Oh My!
The commission report was established by the House of Commons of the United Kingdom and commenced on the third of July 1893. The commission had initially been developed to investigate the use of cannabis in just one province, Bengal, India, but the range of the investigation was expanded to include the entire country after a recommendation by a Lord Kimberly.
The report was exhaustive, with at least 3,281 pages reflecting interviews and analysis of almost 1,200 individuals from a sweeping range of classes and vocations. The attempt was to represent the entirety of the culture. “Doctors, coolies, yogis, fakirs, heads of lunatic asylums, bhang peasants, tax gatherers, smugglers, army officers, hemp dealers, ganja palace operators and the clergy” were all interviewed extensively.
After months of wide-ranging interviews and visits to insane asylums, the commission decided that the plant was entirely harmless when used recreationally and had a number of valuable medicinal effects, to boot. Perhaps more importantly, the report found that cannabis did not cause insanity, as British officials previously had suspected. The conclusion at the end of their report begins:
“The Commission have now examined all the evidence before them regarding the effects attributed to hemp drugs. It will be well to summarize briefly the conclusions to which they come. It has been clearly established that the occasional use or hemp in moderate doses may be beneficial; but this use may be regarded as medicinal in character. It is rather to the popular and common use of the drugs that the Commission will now confine their attention. It is convenient to consider the effects separately as affecting the physical, mental, or moral nature.”
The conclusion continues with a number of sections that categorize the effects, as mentioned above, into physical, mental and moral subdivisions. The report goes far out of the way to makes an impressive caveat and specify that, although cannabis may cause harm under extreme circumstances, basically anything could...so, don't blame the plant.
“In regard to the physical effects, the Commission have come to the conclusion that the moderate use of hemp drugs is practically attended by no evil results at all. There may be exceptional cases in which, owing to idiosyncrasies of constitution, the drugs in even moderate use may be injurious. There is probably nothing the use of which may not possibly be injurious in cases of exceptional intolerance.”
The commission report continues this section by asserting that the drug could benefit those with malaria, and that moderate use “appears to cause no appreciable physical injury of any kind.”
“There are also many cases where in tracts with a specially malarious climate, or in circumstances of hard work and exposure, the people attribute beneficial effects to the habitual moderate use of these drugs; and there is evidence to show that the popular impression may have some basis in fact. Speaking generally, the Commission are of opinion that the moderate use of hemp drugs appears to cause no appreciable physical injury of any kind. The excessive use does cause injury.”
Interestingly enough, the 125-year-old document comes to largely the same findings on mental health that our current medical analyses do. Though there are still debates as to the universality, and even the legitimacy of these assertions, both agree on, and warn of, possible negative ramifications to users with a predisposition for mental instability. Modern research on this topic focuses mainly around schizophrenia, though the commission report is less specific.
“In respect to the alleged mental effects of the drugs, the Commission have come to the conclusion that the moderate use of hemp drugs produces no injurious effects on the mind. It may indeed be accepted that in the case of specially marked neurotic diathesis, even the moderate use may produce mental injury. For the slightest mental stimulation or excitement may have that effect in such cases. But putting aside these quite exceptional cases, the moderate use of these drugs produces no mental injury. It is otherwise with the excessive use. Excessive use indicates and intensifies mental instability.”
The final section deals with the moral implications of the drug and is rather reminiscent of Harry Anslinger's yellow journalism. It suggests that long term use or “excessive consumption...both indicates and intensifies moral weakness and depravity.” Moderate use, it claims however, “produces no moral injury whatsoever.”
“In regard to the moral effects of the drugs, the Commission are of opinion that their moderate use produces no moral injury whatever. There is no adequate ground for believing that it injuriously affects the character of the consumer. Excessive consumption, on the other hand, both indicates and intensifies moral weakness or depravity”
Conclusion of Summary of Conclusion of Commission Report
It will come as no surprise to the casual history enthusiast that this intense and costly investigation had its roots in financial interests. One major goal, if not the seminal motivation, was to determine the potential for establishing a monopoly on the sacred herb and explore its possible use in mainstream medicine. Although the empire would never establish a total control over cannabis in India, the commission report encouraged the drug to become a mainstay among European elites and medical practitioners alike for over a century to come.