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How Cannabis Became Illegal: Egypt, the USA and the UN

Sūfīs spread the use of hashish

As discussed in another blog (‘Radical Sūfīs’), recreational cannabis use was spread widely in the Islamic world, all the way from Spain to China, mostly by radical Sūfīs, known as Qalandarī or Haydarī (amongst other designations), between the 12th and 15th centuries (Karamustafa 2006).

The anti-authoritarian behaviour of these radical Sūfīs attracted a great deal of generally negative comment by orthodox Muslims and others. Their use of hashish was often said to cause immoral behaviour, laziness, poverty and mental derangement. The hashish habit spread to other, more orthodox Sūfīs, to scholars, and to a lesser degree to the general population (Rosenthal 1971).

Prohibition of cannabis begins in Egypt

In Egypt, which is practically the only country in this period for which records are available on this topic (Rosenthal 1971:136), edicts were first issued in 1253 against the growing of cannabis and the sale of hashish. Dalmietta, a port near Cairo, was where Jamāl al-Dīn Sāvī, one of the ‘founders’ of the Qalandarī movement, died, probably in the same year that the edicts were issued (Karamustafa 2006:118n.19). He left behind a significant Qalandarī presence in Egypt. In 1266/7, al-Malik aż-Żāhir Baybars ordered death by the sword for consumers, though this seems to have been rarely enforced. In 1378 Sūdūn ash-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 (Rosenthal 1971:113–135; Lee 2012:368).

In the Christian world, the association of cannabis with witchcraft led to Pope Innocent VIII banning both cannabis and witchcraft in 1484 (Abel 1982:101).

Prohibition in Egypt (again), South Africa and South America

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 under-perform in their military duties, Napoleon issued an ordinance to his troops in October 1800 forbidding his troops to use cannabis in any form, in case they should become “victims of violent delirium” (Abel 1982:148–149).

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. 500 businesses were obliged to close in 1898, and 2,000 in 1908. However, the new laws and seizures had little effect in Egypt on the use of hashish, small quantities of which reached Paris (see the blog ‘The Rediscovery of Cannabis’) and other places, such as Cambridge University, where hashish-laden Turkish Delight became popular among some of the students (Abel 1982:133).

It is uncertain exactly when cannabis was first introduced into Brazil—probably in 1549 (Conrad 1993:192)—but in 1830 the city of Rio de Janeiro prohibited its use, imposing a fine or three days imprisonment on users (Abel 1982:101).

Similarly, the authorities in South Africa passed laws in 1870 and 1887 to prohibit the use of cannabis by Indian immigrant ‘coolies’, which were, however, generally ineffective (Abel 1982:147).

Hemp and marijuana

As noted in previous blogs, prior to prohibition the cannabis plant was generally known in the USA as ‘Indian hemp’. This plant had a great importance in the economies of Europe, Russia and the USA between the 17th and early 20th centuries, for paper, oil, food, rope, sailcloth and textiles. Cannabis was widely used in Western medicines until outlawed in 1937 and was also available in various confections sold over the counter in stores in the USA in the late 19th century. However, virtually no one in the USA realized that the scare that began developing in the early 20th century about a dangerous ‘new’ drug known as ‘marijuana’—a name probably derived from the Chinese, via immigrant Chinese workers in Mexico (Piper 2005)—actually concerned the same ‘hemp’ plant.

Immigrants using cannabis and prohibition in the USA

After the Mexican revolution began in 1910, tens of thousands of Mexicans arrived in the southern states of the USA. Simultaneously, there was an influx of coloured workers and sailors from the Caribbean into the southern states and New York. These newly-arrived immigrants became the target of numerous, negative, racist media reports. Their open use of cannabis became an easy target for sensational reports of rape, violence and degeneracy.

Primarily due to the scare about Mexicans­, the prohibition of marijuana was enacted,  initially by individual states, in Utah (1915)—by the Mormon church (Sanna 2013:85)—, California (1915), Wyoming (1915), Texas (1919), Iowa (1923), Nevada (1923), Oregon (1923), Washington (1923), Arkansas (1923), and Nebraska (1927) (Abel 1982:203).

A campaign in the USA for the criminalization of cannabis

In the process of the national criminalization of cannabis, the person most influential on the American side of the debate was Harry J. Anslinger, who made a career out of the demonization of cannabis. On the recommendation of Andrew Mellon, owner of one of two banks used by the DuPont empire (Grivas 1997:54), Anslinger was appointed in 1930 as head of the newly formed Federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (FBNDD), a post he held until 1961. Scare stories of the horrors of weed were regularly fed by Anslinger to the popular press. Anslinger testified before Congress that, “marijuana is the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind” (Herer 2011:59). Anslinger also targeted the jazz world, setting up covert surveillance of prominent black jazz musicians, who Anslinger claimed were corrupting society with their “voodoo” music and marijuana use (Herer 2011:124).

After two years of covert planning by Anslinger and others, the Marijuana Tax Act was rapidly passed in 1937 by the Ways and Means Committee, introducing a prohibitive tax on marijuana. Even most of those who oversaw the passage of the bill were not aware that they were prohibiting ‘hemp’. There was no opportunity to properly scrutinize the bill. Despite vigorous objections by Dr. William C. Woodward, a senior representative of the American Medical Association (AMA), hemp oil producers and hemp farmers, the bill passed. In 1935, 58,000 tons of hempseed oil had been used in the USA for paint and varnish (Herer 2011:32). Evidence to the Committee of the dangers of the ‘Frankenstein-like’ marijuana almost entirely comprised the same fake news that Anslinger himself had previously supplied to the press (Abel 1982:241). During the first year of prohibition around 3,000 doctors in the USA were prosecuted for prescribing medicine containing cannabis.

American business interests

Other factors also contributed to the process of cannabis becoming illegal (Grivas 1997:48–57). Herer (2011:31–61) and Conrad (1993:50–73) have extensively documented particular business interests in the American campaign to outlaw hemp. The corporation of Randolph Hearst published many of the popular American newspapers that fronted the marijuana scare. Hearst had made substantial investments in the wood-pulp paper industry, even though paper made from hemp is more durable and requires far fewer toxic chemicals than does paper made from wood-pulp. Another factor in the anti-marijuana campaign was the DuPont company, which had developed petroleum oil-derived plastic fibres and patented nylon, which could replace hemp for textiles. A third influence was the interest of large drug companies, in particular Eli Lilly, which had invented drugs that could substitute for natural medicinal cannabis. There were substantial financial implications for corporations regarding the criminalization of cannabis.

The League of Nations criminalizes cannabis internationally

By 1900, around a million Americans were addicted to opium and morphine, which were freely available from any pharmacist; cocaine was also freely available (Abel 1982:189–192). The Harrison Bill, passed in the USA in 1914, instituted controls over the supply of opiates and cocaine, ‘dangerous’ narcotic substances that were being used for medical purposes (Grivas 1997:50; Mills 2012:133). During this period British traders had been very profitably exporting huge quantities of opium from India to China (Mills 2012:101–102). The Qing emperor and his government strenuously objected to this trade, leading to an international convention in Shanghai in 1909, with the specific aim to control the international trade in dangerous drugs.

Controls on possession 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 (Mills 2012: 110, 130–136). A League of Nations international convention on drug control, which took place in The Hague in 1912, focused on opiates and cocaine, but did not consider cannabis, even though cannabis use had already been prohibited nationally in Greece (1890) and (again) in South Africa (1911) (Grivas 1997:50), while in Germany the sale of cannabis by pharmacies had been limited in 1872 (Mead 2016:46).

However, subsequently, at Opium Conferences in Geneva in 1924 and 1925, despite strong objections from British medical experts, cannabis was included in a list of internationally controlled ‘poisons’. Sir Malcome Delevigne of the British Home Office maintained that cannabis had no place in existing regulations (Mills 2012:204). However, representatives from South Africa, the USA and Egypt presented extravagant claims and false evidence of how cannabis induced insanity and depravity. In particular, the political manoeuverings of the chief representative of Egypt, Dr. Mohammed A. S. El Guindy, moved cannabis onto a list of internationally controlled ‘poisonous’ substances (Mills 2012:177), where it has remained to this day, despite periodic rescheduling by the United Nations in several treaties and legal changes in many countries.


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Matthew Clark

Since 2004, Dr. Matthew Clark has been a Research Associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London), where he taught courses on Hinduism between 1999 and 2004. He has spent many years in India, which he first visited in 1977, visiting nearly all important (several hundred) pilgrimage sites and trekking around 2,000 miles in the Himalayas. He first engaged with yoga in the mid-1970s and began regularly practicing Ashtanga Yoga in 1990. Since 2006 has been lecturing worldwide on yoga, philosophy, and psychedelics. He is one of the editors of the Journal of Yoga Studies and is one of the administrators of the SOAS Centre of Yoga Studies. His publications include The Daśanāmī-Saṃnyāsīs: The Integration of Ascetic Lineages into an Order (2006), which is a study of a sect of sādhus; an exploration of the use of psychedelic plant concoctions in ancient Asia and Greece, The Tawny One: Soma, Haoma, and Ayahuasca (2017); and a short book on yoga, The Origins and Practices of Yoga: A Weeny Introduction (revised edition) (2018).