by Tod Mikuriya, M.D.
The Indian Hemp Drugs Commission Report*, comprising some nine volumes and 3,698 pages, is by far the most completed and systematic study of marijuana undertaken to date. Because of the rarity and, perhaps, the formidable size of this document, the wealth of information contained in it has not found its way into contemporary writings on this subject. This is indeed unfortunate, as many of the issues concerning marijuana being argued in the United States today were dealt with in the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission Report.
It is both surprising and gratifying to note the timeless and lucid quality of the writings of these British bureaucrats. It would be fortunate if studies undertaken by contemporary commissions, task force committees and study groups could measure up to the standards of thoroughness and general objectivity embodied in this report. In the current context of violently polarized attitudes toward marijuana, the prospect of a study of similar stature would be improbably if not impossible.
History of British Involvement
The British government in India had substantial knowledge of intoxicants other than alcohol because of their active involvement in regulation, taxation and actual trafficking in these substances for over a hundred years prior to the Hemp Drugs Commission investigation and report.
In 1790 duties on alcohol and other intoxicant drugs were first levied by the British on Landlords in India. The regulation of cannabis preparations was further specified in 1793 in regulation XXXIV of that year: "No personal shall manufacture or vend any such drugs (bhang* ganja**, charas*** and other intoxicating drugs) without a license from the collector of the zillah_."
This system of regulation was instituted "with a view to check immoderation consumption, and at the same time to augment the public revenue."
In 1800 in a further modification of regulation, the manufacture and sale of charas was prohibited as "being of a most noxious quality," while daily rates of duty were declared as the basis for taxing procedures. Curiously, in 1824 the restriction on charas was rescinded "as this drug was found on examination to be not more prejudicial to health than ganja or other intoxicating drugs."
In 1849 limits on retail sale of cannabis drugs were fixed "for better securing the abkari__ revenue of Calcutta," and later extended to the __________________________________________________________
* Leaves and flowers of wild growing or inferior cultivated cannabis plants.
** Flowering tops of the cannabis plant
*** Resin from the mature cannabis plant
_ A county-sized district or administrative division (India)
__ Manufacture or sale of intoxicating Liquors or drugs; hence, an excise or internal revenue tax on such manufacture of sale (India)
[Abkar: A wine seller; distiller. Also, one whose trade is subject to abkari tax]
whole of Bengal. Four years later the daily tax method was abandoned and a fee charged on a per weight basis, and in 1860 an additional set of dealers' fees imposed.
It should be noted, however, that the system of the state of Bengal was only one of several schemes among the many provinces. Variations on this approach existed in the other states, a function of the differing local administrations, reflecting the degree of administrative and fiscal controls exerted by the Imperial government.
There had apparently been controversies as to the possible noxious effects of cannabis drugs, at least from the time of the inception of British controls on these products, unless we assume that the initial stated reasons for regulation were merely cynical rationalizations for obtaining additional sources of revenue. Within a country of several hundred millions of inhabitants, divided into hundreds of regions, and with only rudimentary "homogenizing" forces of effective transportation and mass media, it is perhaps reasonable to infer that wide variations in opinions and beliefs would be encountered.
Formation of the Commission
On 2 March 1893 a question was raised in the British House of Commons concerning the effects of the production and consumption of hemp drugs in the province of Bengal, India. In response, the Government of India convened a seven-member commission to look into these questions, 3 July 1893. Upon the suggestion of Lord Kimberley the scope of the investigation was expanded to include all of India.
The Commission actually met for the first time in Calcutta 3 August 1893. Between this date and 6 August of the following year, when the study was finished, the Commission received evidence from 1,455 witness. Field trips were made to thirty cities in eight provinces and Burma from the end of October 1893 through the latter part of April 1894. Eighty-six meetings for examination of witnesses transpired during the inquiry. Actual participation of the members of the Commission was duly noted and reported -- a custom that it might be worthwhile to revive:
The following statement shows the attendance of the members of the Commission during the period occupied in inquiry (3rd August 1893 to April 1894):
Period of Attendance
with the commission Number of meetings
(a) During the (b) during the for examination of
Name first tour second tour witnesses attended
President 83 days 183 days 86
Mr. Ommaney Ditto Ditto 85
Mr. Fraser Ditto Ditto 85
Dr. Warden Ditto Ditto 86
Raja Soshi From 3rd August From 30th October 44
Sikhareswar to 15th September to 24th January,
Roy 44 days from 14th to 16th February,
from 22nd to 24th February,
and from 7th to 25th March,
Kanwar Harnam Singh 83 days From 13th November 48
to 5th January, 22nd
February to 2nd April,
and from 12th to 25th April,
Lala Nihal Chand 3rd August to From 30th October to 18th 5
20th September, November and from 17th to
49 days 25th April
The attendance of Raja Soshi Sikhareswar Roy was broken by occasional absence caused by ill-health and other reasons.
The absence of Kanwar Harnam Singh during two short periods was due to ill-health. The prolonged absence of Lala Nihal Chand was due to the fact that he suffered from continued ill-health, and was able to be with the Commission only at Calcutta at the first; then for some part of their preliminary tour, and at a few meetings for the examination of witnesses during the second tour. All the members were present at Simla during the preparation of the report.
Witnesses whose evidence was received by the Commission were divided into three categories:
(1) Official witnesses able to give information regarding hemp drugs, based on their official and local experience.
(2) Non-official witnesses of all ranks able to give information regarding the drugs generally or in connection with certain classes of the people.
(3) Other persons or associations having facts or holding opinions which they desired to communicated to the Commission.
Civil Officers 467
Medical Officers 214
Private Practitioners (European methods) 34
Private Practitioners (Native methods) 87
Professional men 55
Persons Engaged in Trade 75
228* Native states
189* Native states
* Supplementary Volume - 1895
To facilitate collection of information, seventy questions framed by the Commission were given to witnesses. The written answers to these questions constituted the bulk of the evidence before the Commission. Where appropriate, witnesses were examined orally for further clarification or explanation. In addition, witnesses who had not submitted written statements were examined orally. It was duly noted in the record which forms of testimony had been provided by the individual witnesses.
The following excerpts discusses evidence received in testimony and from other sources. Philosophic premises concerning roles and responsibilities of the individual are outlined as a prelude to discussing the practical issues of taxation, political policy, public safety and health. In applying the principles of English Common Law to peoples in a subcontinent whose beliefs and customs varied greatly from those of Great Britain, the issues of feasibility and the common good were of prime concern. If schemes of regulation of intoxicants followed this rationalistic model today, the mistakes made then might not require repeating in each generation. Current technologic advances do not produce progress in the area of human behavior; they only help to magnify defects and frailties.