We have heard of cannabis being used as therapeutic treatment hundreds or thousands of years ago. In fact, its various medical benefits and applications are well-documented throughout history and across different cultures around the world. Many tribes or groups from long ago also used marijuana as part of religious rituals or as a social practice.
So the question is: If this very potent plant was used many years ago and if its medical benefits have been recognized early on, how did it get criminalized? And how did the prohibition spread worldwide?
Well, we have the colonial times and the British Empire to blame for this.
The colonial times marked a shift in people’s perception of cannabis.
Where it started
We can’t talk about widespread criminalization without talking about India.
The people of India have a deeply-rooted history with the plant. In fact, marijuana was mentioned in The Rigveda, one of the four sacred Hindu texts, and one of Hinduism’s most powerful gods, Shiva, is depicted smoking ganja with a hookah pipe.
Historically, Indians consume bhang, which is a concoction of milk, spice, and cannabis leaf and flower. They actually still do until today, especially during Holi, or the festival of colors.
Then came the British, who colonized India between 1612 and 1947. British India began with the East India Company, an English trading company that was formed to trade in the Indian Ocean region and later on ended gaining control over large parts of the Indian subcontinent. The company traded in basic commodities like cotton, silk, salt, spices, tea, and opium.
In the 1770s, the corrupt company went nearly bankrupt and sought the help of the British Parliament. The Parliament took over and passed a law to tax ganja, bhang, and a cannabis resin called charas. The Parliament insisted on imposing this tax to curtail the Indians’ cannabis habit — under the guise of altruistic reasons. British officials wanted the natives to stop using cannabis for the sake of their “health and safety.”
However, in reality, the Parliament was using taxation in order to quietly recuperate their finances.
When the reign of the British Raj officially started in 1857, they discovered that native soldiers who were serving in their forces ostensibly used ganja. This led the Brits to believe that their forces’ efficacy was affected and hampered by the natives. What’s worse, they blamed all the wrongdoings of the natives on cannabis.
The British also looked down on native cannabis users, who were mostly poor. This further added a class divide in the country, which was already massively split into castes.
The British attempted to criminalize the possession and consumption of cannabis thrice: in 1838, in 1871, and in 1877.
Between 1893 and 1894, the British commissioned one of the largest studies on the effects of cannabis. Despite the study finding that the moderate use of cannabis had no appreciable physical effects, the commission asserted that it was right to tax intoxicants and the higher their tax is, the better.
As the sugar industry in South Africa developed, there came a need for more workers to work the plantations because local manpower was not enough. With this province being an annex of England, the British decided to fly in laborers from — where else — India.
These Indian laborers brought their pot habit with them. The British were always suspicious of them, even believing that cannabis made the Indians lazy and unfit for work. And because of this, the Indians started to resort to a life of criminality.
Because of this instance in Africa, legal steps were taken to prohibit the use of cannabis. Generally speaking, cannabis-control laws were stricter and were enacted earlier in Africa than in other parts of the world.
By 1920, cannabis was banned in most African colonies.
The spread of anti-cannabis legalization efforts
It goes without saying that European colonizers considered the trade and consumption of cannabis as an Eastern hindrance to their civilizing mission.
The British in South Africa had also tried to enlist the League of Nations in 1923 to help them outlaw cannabis on a global scale.
Cannabis was first discussed at an international level in 1925, during a global drug-control convention. This was at the behest of the white minority government of South Africa. The request was supported by Egypt, which just became independent.
In the end, colonial authorities had accepted and encouraged stimulating crops like tea, tobacco, and coffee, but they excluded cannabis despite the existing international market for Western pharmaceutical preparations of the drug, which was mainly supplied by British India.