Cannabis has been used for food, fibre, medicine and recreation for around 12,000 years.[i] Despite the extraordinary usefulness of cannabis, and although it is one of the first and most cultivated crops in human history, it has been banned many times, and subject to United Nations controls since 1925 when international restrictions began to be enforced globally on its cultivation, sale and use. Cannabis prohibition is far more prevalent than legal acceptance to this day.
Cannabis was outlawed together with cocaine and heroin as another potential “poison.” In this blog, we look at the global process of criminalisation and at some of the serious, negative consequences of prohibition.
Ancient Use of Cannabis for Inebriation
People have been getting high on cannabis for a very long time. Archaeological evidence from Eastern Europe (in Bulgaria) and Central Asia dating from the 5th millennium BCE has revealed that in antiquity, cannabis was smoked for inebriation. Buds would be placed on hot stones or a brazier inside a simple, tent-like structure made of felt, which then became filled with smoke.[ii]
Prohibition Begins in Egypt
The world’s first prohibition of cannabis was in the 13th century in Egypt.[iii] In Egypt, which is practically the only country in this period for which records are available on this topic,[iv] edicts were first issued in 1253 against the growing and sale of cannabis.
The recreational use of cannabis, which was eaten (not smoked), was introduced into Egypt by bands of wild, lawless, radical Sūfīs, known by several names, including Qalandar. Often also referred to as malangsin South Asia, these barefoot Sūfīs—some with dreadlocks, others wearing chains or strange clothes—travelled widely, from Spain, throughout the Middle East, and as far as China.
They would bang drums, dance around fires, beg aggressively and believed that cannabis facilitated access to the spiritual world. They were the people mainly responsible for introducing recreational cannabis to many places, including Egypt and India, between the 12th and 15th centuries; it has been described as the world’s first ‘hippie’ movement.[v]
In 1266/7, the ruler of Egypt, al-Malik aż-Żāhir Baybars ordered death by the sword for consumers of cannabis, though this seems to have been rarely enforced. In 1378 Sūdūn aż-Shaykhūnī decreed that the molar teeth of people making hashish should be extracted; many suffered this fate. Similar edicts subsequently followed in Egypt and other places in the Muslim world. However, the medicinal uses of cannabis were still widely acknowledged.[vi]
Prohibition Spreads around the World
In the Christian world, the association of cannabis with witchcraft led to Pope Innocent VIII banning both cannabis and witchcraft in 1484.[vii] Cannabis was subsequently banned in Madagascar in 1787; users were sentenced to death.[viii]
After Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, his troops were exposed for the first time to the country’s hashish culture. Being a Muslim country, alcohol was prohibited by sharia but hashish was widely available and far cheaper than alcohol.
Concerned that intoxicated French soldiers might underperform in their military duties, Napoleon issued an ordinance to his troops in October 1800 forbidding them to use cannabis in any form in case they should become “victims of violent delirium.” In 1868 the sale of hashish became a capital offence in Egypt. Other laws were subsequently enacted, making illegal possession (1874), importation (1879) and cultivation (1884). Further legislation was enacted in 1891 and 1894.[ix]
Controls on possession and cultivation of cannabis began in Burma in the 1820s; and in India, first in Berar, a system of taxation on cannabis was instituted in 1897, which raised a vast amount of money for the British Treasury.[x] It is uncertain exactly when cannabis was first introduced into Brazil—probably around 1549[xi]—but in 1830 the city of Rio de Janeiro prohibited its use, imposing a fine or three days of imprisonment on users.[xii] In Germany, the sale of cannabis by pharmacies was limited in 1872.[xiii]
By the end of the 19th century, cannabis use had been penalized, with varying degrees of severity, in Mauritius, British Guyana, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Singapore, Turkey, Morocco and Greece.[xiv]
Prohibition Continues in the 20th Century
In the early 20th century, cannabis prohibition continued. Laws against it were enacted in Jamaica, East Africa, Sierra Leone, Mexico, Canada, Panama, and Sudan.
Primarily due to the scare about the large-scale immigration of Mexicans, many of whom smoked weed, individual states in the USA enacted prohibition: Utah, California and Wyoming in 1915, Texas in 1919, Arkansas, Iowa, Nevada, Oregon and Washington in 1923, and Nebraska in 1927.[xv] Following the 1925 UN convention prohibiting cannabis, and the Marijuana Tax Act, which came into force in the USA in 1937, cannabis became technically illegal everywhere.
However, cannabis remained legal in a few countries for several decades, until 1973 in Afghanistan and Nepal. India only outlawed smokeable cannabis in 1986, though bhāṅg (eatable cannabis) remains legal in many states.
Decriminalisation and Legalisation Begin in the 1970s
Paradoxically, just as some of the few countries where cannabis was still legal were making it illegal, other countries began either decriminalising or legalising it. The Netherlands decriminalised personal use in 1972, and it was legalised in 1975 in the Union of Comoros (islands in the Indian Ocean between Mozambique and Madagascar).
The first state in the USA to legalise medical cannabis was California in 1996. Only in December 2021 was cannabis officially rescheduled by the UN as a potential medicine (https://www.seedsman.com/blog/historic-vote-sees-un-finally-recognise-medical-cannabis/).
The Negative Consequences of Cannabis Prohibition
1. Psychological Damage to People
During the course of many centuries, millions of people worldwide have been harassed by police, fined, jailed (sometimes for many years) or even executed for using cannabis.
Since 1937, around 75 million people have been arrested in the USA for marijuana offences.[xvi] It could be asked whether the psychological damage and harm to employment prospects for people jailed (let alone being executed!) could possibly outweigh any “damage” caused by smoking weed. In 1977, Jimmy Carter famously made this point in an address to the USA Congress,[xvii] when he recommended legalising the personal use of pot: “Penalties against the possession of a drug should not be more damaging to the individual than the use of the drug itself.”
Prohibition of cannabis has damaged the lives of millions of people and entirely failed in preventing its use. This is not to argue that cannabis is entirely safe for everyone. Some people are allergic to nuts and can die if they eat them. Some (few) people have adverse reactions to cannabis, but no one has ever died from using it.
2. The Cost of Prohibition to the State
Searching for pot smokers and growers and then arresting, processing, fining, jailing and (sometimes) paroling them have all been gigantically expensive for the state in many countries. The historical cost of the use of helicopters and other vehicles and of police actions, testing laboratories, courts and lawyers pursuing pot cases is practically incalculable.
3. Loss of Taxes for the State
Cannabis prohibition led automatically to a giant global market for illegal cannabis. In Albania, for example, illegal cannabis production accounts for between a third and a half of the country’s GDP, yet none of this money is taxed; it all circulates in the black market. Similarly, prior to legalisation in California and other places, the state derived no taxes from cannabis.
4. Criminalization of Workers
Particularly since the 1970s, the illegal, global cannabis industry has also led to an uncountable number of people in many countries working illegally and subject to potential arrest and imprisonment.
5. Damage to the Agriculture Industry and the Environment
Several studies[xviii] have illustrated how the criminalisation of not only (smokeable) marijuana but also, at the same time, of the hemp plant in the 1930s was damaging to agricultural economies, particularly in the USA. The (hemp) cannabis plant had great importance in the economies of Europe, Russia and the USA between the 17th and early 20th centuries for paper, oil, food, rope, sailcloth, clothing and textiles. In 1935 alone, 58,000 tons of hempseed oil were used in the USA for paint and varnish.[xix]
Hemp grows almost everywhere and requires no fertilizer or pesticides, unlike cotton, the main replacement for cloth and textiles. Cotton has been described as the world’s “dirtiest crop,”[xx] and although only growing on 2.5% of the world’s agricultural land, consumes 16% of all pesticides; in the USA cotton accounts for half of all industrial chemicals used in agriculture. In terms of the amount of land required for producing paper, hemp is four times as efficient as manufacturing paper from trees and requires the use of far fewer chemicals.[xxi] Hemp paper is also more durable. Bio-diesel produced from corn would result in a 12% reduction in carbon emissions, from soy it would be 41% and from hemp it would be 85%.[xxii]
Since the 1930s, many products that could have been made from hemp have instead been made from petroleum. Oil-derived products, such as plastic and nylon, are of course, everywhere. The resulting pollution from plastic is obviously horrendous, and it could be argued that the oil and gas industry is the main source not only of environmental catastrophe but also the main cause of several recent wars.
6. Prevention of Research into the Industrial Uses of Hemp
Besides the uses of (hemp) cannabis for paper, rope and textiles, hemp has great potential in the building industry: for materials such as hempcrete, panelling and insulation.[xxiii] Only recently, with the decriminalisation of hemp, have entrepreneurs been able to legally and freely explore the possible industrial uses of hemp, which is far less polluting than other commonly-used building materials. Prohibition inhibited research for nearly a century.
7. Prevention of Research into Medicinal Cannabis
Cannabis was widely used, both as folk medicine and from the 1930s as pharmaceutical medicine, in Asia and Europe until outlawed between the 1920s and 1937. It was also available in various confections sold over the counter in stores in the USA in the late 19th century.
During the first year of complete prohibition in the USA in 1937, around 3,000 doctors in the USA were prosecuted for prescribing medicine containing cannabis. The multiple medicinal benefits of cannabis are now again being explored worldwide.[xxiv] Again, prohibition retarded research into the medicinal applications of cannabis for nearly a century.
8. Cannabis-Induced Psychosis
The criminalization of cannabis led to the indoor industry, where cannabis can be grown undetected. In California, in 2012, 3% of the total electricity generated was used for growing indoor weed, equivalent to the CO2 emissions of three million American cars.[xxv] Seeking the best returns for their investment, growers started in the 1970s selecting high-THC strains (up to 30%) for indoor growth. Nutt and Moss[xxvi] argue that the illegal production of high-THC weed has had perverse consequences, as high-THC weed (without any CBD) is one of the main causes of cannabis psychosis. CBD, which is usually produced naturally in weed grown outdoors, has anti-psychotic properties and is indeed used to treat cannabis psychosis.
Cannabis prohibition has been a global catastrophe: for the law, criminality, the lives of those arrested, the economies of several countries, the environment and medicine.
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[i] Clarke and Merlin (2013:64–65); Ren et al. (2021).
[ii] Sherratt (1991; 1995); Parpola (2015:53).
[iii] Rosenthal (1971:129).
[iv] Rosenthal (1971:136).
[v] Karamustafa (2006).
[vi] Rosenthal (1971:113–1350; Lee (2012:368).
[vii] Abel (1982:101).
[viii] Campbell (2012:437).
[ix] Abel (1982:148–149).
[x] Mills (2012: 110, 130–136).
[xi] Conrad (1993:192).
[xii] Bewley-Taylor et al. (2014:6).
[xiii] Mead (2016:46).
[xiv] Wikipedia (2022).
[xv] Abel (1982:203).
[xvi] McCabe (2011:296).
[xvii] Carter (2011).
[xviii] Conrad (1993); Grivas (1997); Herer (2011); McCabe (2011).
[xix] Herer (2011:32).
[xx] Andsager (2019).
[xxi] McCabe (2011:78, 84).
[xxii] McCabe (2011:45).
[xxiii] Fine (2014).
[xxiv] See, for example, Grinspoon and Bakalar (1997); Backes (2017); Gordon (2020).
[xxv] Johnson (2017:5).
[xxvi] Nutt and Moss (2021:139ff.).