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History / Activism

A Brief History of Cannabis Prohibition

As more nations legalize cannabis, we begin to see cracks in the veneer of the global system of prohibition. Yet, what seems to be a given, that cannabis was always illegal, is actually a very recent phenomenon. While some societies have looked down upon the use of cannabis, states outright banning it is quite new. The sporadic roots of cannabis prohibition began first in the late nineteenth century, not coming to full fruition until well after World War II.


As modern states grew larger and more powerful, cannabis prohibition schemes became more common. The power of these modern states rested upon a delicate balance between consent and coercion, in which the ability to control large populations was of the utmost importance. In this situation, the banning of intoxicants became a very desirable way to generate consent and target particular populations. As a result, prohibition schemes of various intoxicants, including cannabis, often focused on their connections to subaltern groups or outsiders. Prohibition of drugs associated with undesirables was a way to both control those subgroups and generate support from the majority, who were fearful of that group. For example, the Ottomans first began to restrict cannabis in Egypt in 1868 because it had a longterm association with the urban poor and so was generally looked down upon by the upper and middle classes. Greece tried to close down hashish cafes and cannabis production beginning in the 1890s because it was associated with growing urban immigrant populations returning from the Greek diaspora. Yet, neither of these early prohibition efforts were very effective. In Greece, the 1920s were a renaissance for cannabis culture.


The next wave of cannabis prohibitions were in British colonies with large populations of black people. Although Britain itself was very lukewarm about it, many colonial administrators were eager to restrict or ban cannabis. For example, beginning in 1913, colonial authorities passed laws banning cannabis in many Caribbean colonies like Jamaica and Trinidad. These prohibitions were born from situations of great racial anxiety. The brutal histories of these colonies included not only the genocide of its indigenous inhabitants but also the reliance on slave labor from Africa to uphold lucrative sugar plantations. Yet, with the rise of industrialization in early nineteenth century Britain, these plantation owners lost much of their economic and political power. Facing continuous slave uprisings in Jamaica, the British Parliament lost its interest in propping up the very unequal rule of a small white minority over a large number of enslaved Africans. The British banned slavery in 1833.


Yet, the need for cheap labor continued and free blacks were largely uninterested in returning to their former plantations. Eventually, the British turned to a transglobal system of indentured labor. Labor brokers in British colonies like India and Hong Kong would obtain labor contracts from impoverished and indebted Indians and Chinese which promised specific wages for a certain number of years of labor. The agents who obtained these contracts could then sell them to the highest bidder. In this way, a large number of Indians found themselves shipped out to other British possessions like Malaysia, Fiji, and the Caribbean islands, where they worked long hours on sugar and rubber plantations. As a result of this system, many Indians came to the Caribbean, bringing their cultures, foods, and even cannabis, which has a very long tradition in South Asia. However, white colonists were fearful when cannabis use began to spread amongst the free black people of these islands. Even without slavery, the white minority was as determined as ever to hold onto their political power over the black majority. This resulted in increasing regulations over the lives of blacks which included outlawing cannabis. However, the state issued licenses to Indian plantation workers so that they could continue using it.


Yet, most countries remained reluctant to ban cannabis use until the 1920s because it was commonly used as a medicine and not viewed as dangerous. Initial efforts to restrict the international trade of drugs focused on opium and did not include cannabis. These efforts helped birth the League of Nations’ Advisory Committee on Traffic in Opium and other Dangerous Drugs which held a conference in 1924 to determine international regulations on the drug trade. The Egyptian delegate, Dr. Mohamed El Guindy, urged the committee to include cannabis on its agenda. At this time, Egypt was no longer an official colony of Great Britain, but still had an imperial relationship with them. As such, El Guindy was eager to divorce Egypt from its image of heavy cannabis use and claim affinity with the western world. After much debate, the resulting Geneva Convention of 1925 determined to add cannabis to the list of drugs to be restricted. However, these restrictions only abolished the international trade of cannabis to countries where it was already illegal. Nevertheless, this set the stage for cannabis to begin to be considered a dangerous drug and countries slowly began to outlaw cannabis: the UK in 1928, the Netherlands in 1928, and Germany in 1929. The U.S. was not much further behind. In the 1920s the U.S. was busy with alcohol prohibition. But the movement against alcohol increased moral panic against cannabis, which began to be associated with African-Americans and Latin American immigrants. In 1937, the federal government passed the Marijuana Tax Act, which effectively banned cannabis through an occupational tax. After this ban, the U.S. began to lead the international drive for complete prohibition.


The United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) replaced the Advisory Committee of the League of Nations. Under U.S. pressure, the U.N. Secretary General began to create a total ban of cannabis to replace the previous restrictions on international trade. Throughout the 1950s, this convention went through many drafts because so many countries voiced objections. The UN turned to the World Health Organization, which was also under heavy U.S. influence at the time. They used misquoted and cherry-picked evidence to declare that commonly-used pharmaceutical cannabis preparations were obsolete. As a result, the UN declared that cannabis had no medicinal value. This declaration finally paved the way for the U.S.-dominated CND to create a convention calling for a complete ban of all cannabis use in 1958. However, at the plenipotentiary conference in 1961 they failed to pass the convention because too many nations still disagreed. Many continued to argue that cannabis should be allowed for medical and scientific purposes. As a result of these objections, the final convention required all nations to ban just non-medical and non-scientific use of cannabis within a period of 25 years. They received enough signers to ratify the treaty in 1964. Yet, the years of debate and prevalence of cannabis as a medicine indicate just how accepted this plant was around the globe. It took the world’s largest wars and a new U.S.-led international politics to enforce the global system of prohibition now falling apart today.





“The Rise and Decline of Cannabis Prohibition” produced by the Transnational Institute:


Kendell, R. “Cannabis Condemned: the Proscription of Indian Hemp’, Addiction, 98(2), 2003, pp. 143-151.


Kozma, L. “Cannabis Prohibition in Egypt, 1880–1939: From Local Ban to League of Nations Diplomacy”, Middle Eastern Studies, 47 (3), 2011, pp. 443-460.


Stefanis, C. Ballas, C. and Madianou, D., “Sociocultural and Epidemiological Aspects of Hashish Use in Greece,” in Rubin, V. (ed), Cannabis and Culture, The Hague: Mouton, 1975.


Mills, James. Cannabis Britannica: Empire, Trade and Prohibition 1800-1928. Oxford, 2003.

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