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13 Cannabis: International Diffusion of National Policy PDF Print E-mail
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Books - The Gentlemen's Club
Written by Matthew Reiss   

..the drug (marihuana) is adhering to its old world tradition of murder, assault, rape, physical demoraliza-tion and mental breakdown. ... Bureau records prove that its use is associated with insanity and crime. There-fore, from the standpoint of police work, it is a more dangerous drug than heroin or cocaine.
H. J. Anslinger, "Enforcement of the Narcotic Drug Laws in the USA" (paper communicated to the League of Nations Advisory Opium Committee, 14 May 1938)

Towards International Control

Cannabis (or Indian hemp, as it was generally referred to earlier) is probably the most widely discussed drug among those under control. Few other subjects have called forth so many contradictory viewpoints, all claiming to have been derived from scientific evidence. The purpose of this chapter is not to reiterate what is known about cannabis or to tell the truth about this drug; rather, it is to trace how cannabis came to be subjected to similar international controls as opium, heroin, and cocaine, to see what information was used as evidence of its fitness for control, and to throw light on the assumptions underlying the arguments which have been advanced to bring this about.

The first move to bring cannabis under international control was made by the Italian government, which raised the question during the preparations for the Hague Conference in 1911. Lowes (1966: 173) connects this with the fact that, after its war with Turkey, Italy became a colonial ruler in a part of Africa (Tripolitania and Cyrenaica) which had a problem with cannabis; Italian territory was used as a collection and storage center for smuggling into other territories (Taylor, 1969: 87-88).

At the Hague Conference, little interest was evoked by the cannabis question. Italy participated only at the first day's session (Musto, 1973: 51). Nevertheless, a cursory discussion of the subject resulted in the adoption of a resolution which reads as follows:

The Conference considers it desirable to study the question of Indian hemp from the statistical and scientific point of view, with the object of regulating its abuses, should the necessity thereof be felt, by international legislation or by an international agreement.

After the conference, efforts were concentrated on having the Hague Convention ratified and hardly any attention was paid to the cannabis question until the government of the Union of South Africa proposed to the Advisory Opium Committee in 1923 that "the whole or any portion of the plants cannabis indica or cannabis sativa" be included in the list of habit-forming drugs. In August 1924, the Advisory Committee decided on the suggestion of the British delegation to ask governments for information on the production, use, and traffic in cannabis. In November 1924, a circular letter was accordingly forwarded to all governments. However, before answers had been received and discussed, the topic was introduced at the Second Opium Conference of 1924-25 by Egypt, in spite of the fact that the question was not on the agenda. Previously prepared memoranda accompanied the stirring speeches made by the Egyptian delegation demanding the imme-diate inclusion of cannabis in the international drug control scheme. A description of hashish, the nature of "hashishism," and the effects of hashish formed the basis for this proposition; the illicit use of hashish was, moreover, said to be the principal cause of most of the cases of insanity in Egypt. The chief Egyptian delegate, El Guindy, was an able speaker and imparted much sense of urgency in his statements; he claimed that hashish was imported illegally from abroad and that Egypt itself had already prohibited cultivation in 1884; that, furthermore, this question concerned many countries due to the risk of hashish replacing other drugs. After two subcommittees had worked on the ques-tion, the conference agreed to include cannabis in the Geneva Convention of 1925 under the following regime:

1. . . . the Contracting Parties undertake:

(a) To prohibit the export of the resin obtained from Indian hemp and the ordinary preparation of which the resin forms the base (such as hashish, esrar, chiras, djamba) to countries which have prohibited their use, and, in cases where export is permitted, to require the production of a special import certificate issued by the Government of the importing country, stating that the importation is approved for the purposes specified in the certificate and that the resin or preparation will not be re-exported;

(b) Before issuing an export authorization under Article 13 of the present Convention, in respect of Indian hemp, to require the production of a special import certificate issued by the Government of the importing country and stating that the importation is approved and is required exclusively for medical or scientific purposes.

2. The Contracting Parties shall exercise an effective control of such a nature as to prevent the illicit international traffic in Indian hemp and especially in the resin.

Although the control regime was not as strong as Egypt had wished, it nevertheless constituted a breach in the resistance of the opposition, represented primarily by Britain and India. The warnings of Malcolm Delevingne, the British delegate, were largely unheeded; he had expressed real concern over taking decisions, on a matter which was yet "in an unprepared state." It was indeed a remarkable instance of a decision being taken to place a drug under international legal control without there having been any documentation on the need of control, except from one country, Egypt, and without its being even on the agenda of the conference. But as Stephen Porter, the American delegate, put it: "Happily, as I understand it, no question of revenue is involved. That fact ought to make the decision easier."

In August 1925, when the Advisory Committee came to inspect the replies from governments concerning cannabis (OC 291), the committee was in effect discussing material which was already obsolete. Only twenty-four governments out of sixty replied. The majority had found no abuse of cannabis, but some considered cannabis a dangerous drug and remarked on its inclusion in their national legislation. Only a few countries expressed an opinion on the necessity for international control. It is probable that some governments, such as Egypt, did not answer in view of the planned intervention at the Geneva Conference.

Interest in the Advisory Committee

The inclusion of cannabis (or rather the resin of Indian hemp) in the Geneva Convention did not lead to immediate interest in research or in attempts to provide proper considerations for the framing of control policies. In fact, before 1933, little activity was undertaken, as far as can be discerned from the public records. Of course, details of the problem in Egypt were communicated to the Advisory Committee--for instance, in a letter of June 1929 in which the Egyptian government described its own activities in fighting hashish and in which it accused Syria of having super-seded Greece as the main source of illicit hashish in Egypt. The annual production of Syria was calculated at about 30,000 to 40,000 kg, about 90 percent of which was allegedly sent to Egypt and about 10 percent to the U.S. The French also provided information on activities to control hashish, giving statistics of large-scale crop destruction (0.C. 1503). However, these commu-nications did not evoke much interest from the Advisory Committee.

Egypt tried other ways to capture interest in hashish. It brought to the attention of the Health Committee five preparations of Indian hemp to which the Geneva Convention was not applicable, but which, according to the Egyptian view, were liable to similar abuse as the variety of cannabis covered by the convention. At its twentieth session in 1933, the Health Committee avoided taking any clear stand but merely raised two problems: a medical one relating to the danger of the preparations and a legal one as to whether the convention could be made to cover preparations not intended to be included (CH 1127). The question was reexamined two years later, and on this occasion the Health Committee stated that preparations made from tinctures and extracts of Indian hemp might lead to similar abuses and might produce ill-effects similar to the variety of cannabis under the control of the 1925 convention (CH 1166). Meanwhile, the Advisory Committee was evincing more and more attention to cannabis; in its 1933 annual report the Committee observed that:

A smuggling trade in cigarettes containing Indian hemp ("marijuana" cigarettes) appears to have sprung up between the USA, where it grows as a wild plant freely, and Canada. It may well be that, as the control over the opium and coca derivatives makes it more and more difficult to obtain them, recourse will be increasingly had to Indian hemp for addiction purposes, and it is important that the trade in Indian hemp and its products should be closely watched.

Under apparent pressure from Egypt, but especially from the U.S. and Canada (Renborg, 1947: 216), the Advisory Committee began to pay increasing attention to cannabis. And in its eigh-teenth session in 1934 it made this explicit:

During its last few sessions, the Committee had already decided to devote particular attention to this question in view of the increase in addiction to Indian hemp in certain countries and the fear that, as the increasingly strict control of other narcotic drugs renders the acquisition of these products more difficult, addicts were resorting to an increasing extent to Indian hemp in order to gratify their vice: hence the necessity of keeping the trade in this plant and its products under close supervision.

In consequence, the secretariat was urged to report on cannabism to the next session. As to the content of this report, Carnoy, the Belgian delegate, indicated the kind of question he would like answered. He wondered whether the committee ought to indicate the points to be studied, for instance:

(a) were the seeds innocuous?

(b) could substitutes be found for the use of cannabis indica in medical practice?

(c) was the use of cannabis indica, as permitted in Tunisia, to be regarded as a use of narcotic drugs or merely the use of a stimulant like coca-kola? (OAC Minutes, 1933: 47).

Nevertheless, the information to be given by the secretariat was not specified. However, another important decision was made at the same session: a new assessor—a Belgian pharmacologist, Dr. de Myttenaere--was proposed by Carnoy and elected.* His appointment represented a departure from the customary basis for choosing assessors, and this was acceptable because police expertise was already sufficiently represented on the Committee (by the Egyptian representative, Russell Pascha, and the Cana-
dian, Colonel Sharman) (OAC Minutes, 1933: 76). Dr. de Myttenaere was to become a key researcher into the question of cannabis in the 1930s and a significant contributor to the knowledge which came to be acquired by the international organs on this subject.

At the following session of the Committee, the secretariat, as requested, presented the information it had compiled in a document entitled "Preliminary note on the chief aspects of the problem of Indian hemp and the laws regulating thereto in force in certain countries" (0.C. 1542, 23 May 1934).

As far as we know, this was the first systematic review of the subject to be prepared for consideration by the formulators of international drug control; this happened nine years after can-nabis was placed under control in an international convention, twenty-two years after the Hague Conference resolved to study this question, and shortly before the Health Committee took the decision referred to earlier.

The document is, therefore, of considerable interest. The first part contained an outline of the general aspects of the question. The diversity of cannabis usage in different areas of the world was reviewed. The Geneva Convention was analyzed and attention was called to the fact that this convention actually covered only medicinal preparations of cannabis, not the raw materials. The latter part discussed cannabis in different countries and the various degrees of control to which it was subjected, such as prohibition of cultivation in Egypt and more or less unrestrained large-scale cultivation in Thailand and India.

However, discussions on the basis of this document were postponed in view of the obvious need for more information, and at the following session (the nineteenth, in 1934), the Advisory Committee was supplied with a large set of additional documents. These certainly provided a great deal of new information but there was, in contrast to the earlier document (0.C. 1542), a preponderance of poorly substantiated statements on the negative effects of cannabis, not only in the reports from France (on Syria and the Lebanon), the U.S., and Egypt, but also in the two documents prepared by the secretariat. One of the secretariat documents (0.C. 1542 of 4 July 1934), dated only one month after the closing of the last session, began with an informative discus-sion of all the different types of cannabis and concluded by saying, "Lastly it has been found, especially in Egypt, Siam and USA that the effects of addiction to Indian hemp on the physical health and morale of the race may be even more disastrous than those of opium and other drugs (i.e., in inducing insanity and the development of criminal propensities)." The sources for the document were given: Dardanne (1924), Bouquet (1925), and Levin (1928). It will be seen that the evidence on which this conclusion rested was extremely slender. No attention was paid, for instance, to a source like the Indian Hemp Commission of 1894, and the tendency to overlook the findings of this important inquiry was apparent in later discussions as well.*

Among the other documents the most interesting was the one contributed by the U.S., because this contained the beginnings of a standpoint which was to crystallize later into the international position on cannabis. It attested to "the terrible effects of this form of drug addiction on criminality," on the basis, primarily, of a pamphlet entitled "The Marihuana Menace" by Dr. Forsier of New Orleans, a poor document from a scientific point of view, even when judged by the standards of the time. One other main reference was to a Dr. Yung of the U.S. who was said to have treated more than seven thousand addicts of various types and to have observed a shift in the pattern of addiction; while, earlier, addiction to opiates and cocaine predominated, barbiturates and marihuana had now come to assume, in order of importance, first and second place respectively. Yung's opinion was that mari-huana should be controlled under the Harrison Act (the U.S. Federal law on narcotics). The report judged the number of people using cannabis in the world to be around 200 million, but how it arrived at this figure is unclear. Although Dr. Yung considered barbiturates a greater problem than cannabis, his paper was cited to support the contention that marihuana was the drug to be alarmed about and to bring under stringent control (0.C. 1542 [c] and addendum).

During the discussion of these documents by the committee, the Indian representative pointed out that the use of cannabis was associated with social and religious customs. The delegates of Poland and Switzerland said that there was "no thorough study available of Indian hemp, particularly from the medical and scientific standpoint." A subcommittee was thus appointed

to study the whole problem of Indian hemp. The Sub-Committee might appeal in the course of its investigations for the co-operation of experts, doctors, and others who are duly qualified in the matter of Indian hemp and who have had local experience either in Africa or in Asia or in America. By way of preparation for the work on the Sub-Committee, the Committee requested the Secretariat on the proposal of the Swiss delegate to prepare a bibliography of all the literature relating to Indian hemp, and, in the probable event of no complete and authoritative work on the question being available, to consider the possibility of publishing, at some future date, a memorandum on the Indian hemp problem bringing up to date the existing information on the subject, particularly from the medical and scientific standpoint.

The subcommittee was composed of representatives from Can-ada, Egypt, France, Great Britain, India, Mexico, Netherlands, Poland, Spain, and the U.S., and also included the recently
nominated assessor, de Myttenaere. Later Siam and Turkey became members of the subcommittee.

The Work of the Subcommittee

Working from 1935 to 1939, the subcommittee undertook research, produced reports, discussed practical problems of pol-icy, and was to all intents and purposes a major factor in the evolution of the international policy on cannabis.

The subcommittee as such did not meet more than eleven times during this period; all these meetings were held during the session of the Advisory Committee. From 1935 to 1937 only four meetings were held. Fuller of the U.S. was elected chairman of the subcommittee and, on his resignation, was succeeded by Nind, the Indian delegate. Representatives of the other countries varied from year to year, and members of the Advisory Committee outside the subcommittee often participated in the discussions.

But it is clear that it was de Myttenaere and experts invited to collaborate with the subcommittee who in fact carried the bulk of the work load. The experts were appointed at the subcommittee's first meeting on 29 May 1935. They were:

Colonel A. G. Biggam, former professor of clinical medicine (Cairo), assistant professor of tropical medicine, London (pro-posed by Egypt); Dr. Walter L. Treadway, assistant surgeon-general of the Public Health Service, U.S. (proposed by the U.S.); Dr. J. Bouquet, chemist to Tunis hospitals and inspector of pharmacies; Colonel Martin, director of Syrian Health Service; and Dr. Charnot, head of Biological Chemistry and Toxicology, Rabat (proposed by France); Professor J. Rodhain, director of the Prince Leopold Institute of Tropical Medicine, Antwerp (proposed by Dr. de Myttenaere).

Although all six were expected to collaborate with the secre-tariat and especially with de Myttenaere, it became evident by 1937 that Biggam, Martin, and Rodhain did not, in fact, participate in the work and that the experiments planned by Charnot were never actually carried out (0.C. 1542 [u]). Thus, only Treadway and Bouquet were truly working, the former as a channel for the input from those working in the U.S. on the subject. Bouquet, on the other hand, made a sizeable contribution, not only by communi-cating a large number of papers to the subcommittee but also through his attendance of its meetings in 1938 and 1939. Although additional experts were brought in, their contributions were insignificant. It will be remembered that, in addition to Treadway and Bouquet, there was de Myttenaere, whose contribution to the subcommittee's work was probably as substantial. A proposal he made to have a meeting of experts was turned down by the chairman, Fuller, on the grounds that "serious practical difficul-ties" were involved: the experts were asked instead to exchange their views in writing (Minutes, Subcommittee, 7 June 1937).

The output of the subcommittee was substantial; altogether, fifty-four League of Nations documents on cannabis were pro-duced (bibliography on cannabis, E/CN.7/479). A breakdown of these reports by their origin gives the following distribution:


The tabulation shows that Bouquet and de Myttenaere contrib-uted greatly to the data base which was being built up so that the Advisory Committee could reach a decision on cannabis. The proportion of data from or about the U.S. was comparatively large, and while Bouquet provided some data on Africa, there was no coverage of India or other parts of Asia. The American material, expressing strong views on the subject, was largely communicated by Harry Anslinger.

As to the contents of this work, they were to revolve around a number of questions which the subcommittee had outlined to the experts concerned, including:

—adequacy of text in the 1925 Convention
—addiction, particularly in Africa
—the habit-forming capacity
—existence of withdrawal symptoms

The secretariat and de Myttenaere prepared a questionnaire to be communicated to the experts (0.0 1542 [j], 16 January 1936). The questions covered: the adequacy of the Beam reaction test in determining the presence of cannabis resin; what was to be covered by the concept of Indian hemp; whether there was only one or several species of cannabis; causes of abuse; therapeutics and treatment. To the director of the Opium Traffic Section, this program represented a new field of activity for the Advisory Committee "both in respect of chemical and medical research and legislative provisions" (0.C. 1542 [k], 15 May 1936).

For the subcommittee's second meeting in 1936, de Myttenaere tried to broach some broader questions in his note (0.C. 1542 [m]) by asking:

1. Should any person possessing Cannabis and its preparations be punished, if the latter are not active?

2. As long as the effects of hemp and its preparations more or less resemble those of alcohol, why should they be prohibited while alcohol remains free, particularly in Mohammedan countries?

3. Is it possible that the stimulating and sedative action and the curious hallucinations in judging time and space are due to the same active principle, or that each of these disturbances is due to a different active principle?

One cannot tell from the minutes how these questions were handled, but it seems that the answers to them had to await further material.

Bouquet's answer to the questionnaire (0.C. 1542 [0 and 0 Add.] of February and May 1937) was, together with de Myttenaere's work on the Beam reaction test, of prime importance. Bouquet contended that there was "only one species of hemp (C. sativa), of which there are several varieties," and based on this premise examined in great detail the relation which the different varieties of cannabis bore to the definition of Cannabis indica in the 1925 Convention.

His discussion of the situation in North Africa had also much of interest to offer and was considerably more comprehensive than earlier reports. He noted, for instance, the difference between urbane,, and rural areas and said that the "countryside is far less affected by cannabis-addiction than towns and villages" (p.26). In the latter, "tea-addiction is the most widespread evil." In discussing causes of cannabis addiction, he pointed to three factors: "immemorial custom; the indolent character of Moslems; and the inconceivable family life" With regard to the effects of cannabis he described them as being experienced in the following stages:

(a) intense mental well-being accompanied by motor excitation
(b) mental confusion accompanied by illusions and hallucinations
(c) oneiric ecstacy
(d) depression and sleep.

Of hashish users, he had this to say:

Many hashish addicts never marry, but live as old bachelors between their pipe and their cooking-pot. Their tastes as a whole tend towards a feminine attitude in harmony with their inverted temperament (p. 25).

As far as control measures were concerned, the Tunisian monopoly system under which a cannabis product named Takrouri was sold (in 1934, sales amounted to 7,946 kg) was seen to be instrumental in reducing both the illegal traffic in, and the consumption of, hemp. However, the lower strata of the population had taken to habitual drinking of wine and other alcoholic beverages, and these persons were for the most part former "hemp-addicts." "White drugs" (heroin and cocaine) held a stronger attraction than hemp, Takrouri not being "sufficiently strong to satisfy heroin and cocaine addicts." In regard to the use of cannabis for medical purposes, Bouquet considered that "therapeutics would not lose much if it were removed from the list of medicines."

This report seemed to have captured the interest of the subcommittee because at its meeting in 1937 an invitation was extended to Bouquet to participate in the 1938 meeting. To the meeting of 1937, however, a large amount of material from the U.S. was communicated. This material pointed out that the definition of hemp in the 1925 Convention was not sufficiently inclusive, in contrast to the definition in the U.S. Marihuana Tax Act adopted by Congress in 1937, which appeared to be much broader. Anslinger reentered the picture, laying heavy stress-bnce again upon the relationship between crime and marihuana—"there have been thirty cases of violent crime in the USA in 1936 which were directly traceable to the use of cannabis" (Minutes, subcom-mittee, 2 June 1937). The link between marihuana use and insan-ity was forged, and a paper by Wassenberg of the Health Section, which attested to this link, was communicated (Minutes, subcom-mittee, 7 June 1937):

the state of intoxication normally induced by Indian Hemp may, as the result of habitual abuse, particularly in the case of persons predisposed, develop into a genuine and clearly defined state of insanity of longer or shorter duration.

The period between 1937 and 1938 was marked by further data-gathering. Identifiable in some of the documents submitted at the time was the official standpoint of the U.S. government on cannabis. The adoption of the Marihuana Tax Act had reinforced its wish to influence international controls also, being now

in a better position to take a leading place in the international movement against cannabis, as it already has in the war against other dangerous drugs (O.C. 1733).

To marshal support for the U.S. policy, materials like Merrill's "Marihuana, the New Dangerous Drug"; Schicks's "Marihuana, Depraver of Youth"; and papers by Anslinger himself were communicated as evidence for the belief that marihuana is

he worst of all narcotics--far worse than morphine or cocaine; under its influence men become beasts (O.C. 1734).

The theme underlying all these documents was the alleged association between crime, insanity, and cannabis. On the basis of these documents and the Stringaris publication, Hachice of 1937, the theory that cannabis use might lead to heroin addiction was put forward—a theory which was going to play an important role in subsequent discussions.

In contrast to the views expressed in these papers, Bouquet insisted that the association between violence and cannabis did not occur in Africa, and it will be remembered that earlier he had attributed the use of heroin in Tunisia to the control of cannabis, a contrary hypothesis to that of the U.S. It was again Bouquet who prepared the most important paper of all, that entitled "Present State of Documentation Concerning Cannabis and the Problems to Which It Gives Rise" (O.C. Cannabis 3, 12 April 1939). The first part of the document, which contained 104 pages, was structured as follows: a historical study, a botanical study, tests for identifi-cation of cannabis, a summary of chemical investigations, and cases of cannabis intoxication. For our purposes, however, the latter sections are of more interest. For example, here Bouquet distinguished between different reasons for taking hashish:

—as an exceptional supplement to food (comparable to tea, coffee . . . )
—as a stimulant (similar to opium)
—for politico-religious reasons (Vedas)
—for perverse purposes (rape and murder, as reported in the U.S.).

Equally interesting are the views he expressed on control matters:

Dr. J. Bouquet is convinced that if measures of absolute prohibition had been taken twelve or fifteen years ago excellent results would have been achieved and the problem would no longer be so acute. He thinks, however, that at the present time total suppression (at least in countries where the consumption of hemp is an old-standing habit) would result in an increase in addiction to manufactured drugs, which are much more dangerous . . . (p. 93).

He went on to advocate "gradual repression" of use, imprisonment of native traffickers, and harshness towards those who were simultaneously addicts and traffickers. He discussed how differ-ent control measures could have different effects depending on the subgroup to which they were directed. He suggested a definition of Indian hemp which he discussed in relation to that in the relevant treaty text and which he attempted to align with the one adopted by the U.S. Marihuana Tax Act (p. 101). The additional control measures he suggested included restricted authorization, progressive raising of retail prices, and the exclusive sale of drugs with a resin content not exceeding a fixed percentage.

A shorter version of Bouquet's document was incorporated in a secretariat paper submitted for discussion to the subcommittee (O.C. Cannabis 7). This paper identified the problems for which solutions had been found and those for which they had not.

The first problem was to ascertain which plants gave rise to addiction. Only one species was thought to have addiction potential, and the way to safeguard the rest was "to allow cultivation with a view to obtaining seed for industrial purposes in temperate districts only, where scarcely any resin is produce."

The second problem concerned the physical identification of cannabis and here too a solution could be found: tests existed.

The determination of the resin content of hemp, which consti-tuted a third problem item, had to await further research. Similarly, the determination of the active principle of cannabis was contingent upon the results of ongoing research.

The fifth problem was addiction. Here the subcommittee was to undertake large-scale inquiries in order to establish the as yet "uncertain causes of cannabis addiction." These were to be supplemented with studies on "cannabism," insanity, and crime. In this connection, alternative means of combating addiction, such as prohibition versus supervision of use, for instance, were discussed. Finally, there was a question of changing the existing legislation governing cannabis, but no clear lines emerged from the handling of this topic.

At its last meeting in May 1939, the subcommittee adopted a report to the Advisory Committee which reiterated many of these points. Perhaps the most interesting observation was that made on the substitution of heroin for cannabis, a phenomenon reported from North Africa, Egypt, and Turkey, and expressed as follows:

Heroin, and even opium, appear to have partly ousted hashish in the Mediterranean area, and this process seems to be continuing to an alarming extent. The Sub-Committee lacks precise information, however, as to whether the substitution is due to an inadequate supply of cannabis or whether heroin-addiction is gaining ground as a result of a ready supply of the drug and the intensive propaganda put out by traffickers, the two phenomena not being directly connected. Though there may be a danger of another and perhaps a worse drug being substituted for cannabis, the Sub-Committee does not consider that this constitutes any reason for relaxing the campaign against cannabis; rather, it con-stitutes a potent reason for combating all forms of drug addiction (0.C. 1763:8).

The meeting concluded that further studies should be undertaken. A new questionnaire, discussed by the meeting, was elaborated by Bouquet in a document produced after a further meeting (0.C./ Cannabis 10 [1D in December 1939. This, together with another of Bouquet's papers (this time on the absence of intoxicating power in cannabis seeds) (0.C./Cannabis 14), marked the end of the work of the subcommittee on cannabis.

The Road to Prohibition

The process just described had led to the accumulation, by the end of, the 1930s, of a rich store of information on cannabis. Yet more was necessary before this could be translated into an international control policy on cannabis, and quite clearly the opinions on this matter were by no means in full agreement.

While the Narcotics Commission did not, when it met for the first time in 1946, appoint a subcommittee on the cannabis question, it did in other respects follow the pattern which its predecessor had set in the handling of this subject. The debate on cannabis at this first meeting signaled future disagreement: on the one hand

some medical opinion in the United States and Mexico had been advanced that marihuana did not offer any real danger, and had little influence on criminal behaviour (CND:lst, 1946).

And the Mexican representative wondered if too many restrictions on the use of marihuana would not result in its replacement by alcohol, which might have worse results. The delegate from India thought that Indians were moderate in their use of ganja and bhang. On the other hand, the U.S. representative, Anslinger, did not share this view and quoted a number of concrete examples, proving the relationship between the use of marihuana and crime. He considered the recent report of certain United States physicians on the subject to have been extremely dangerous.

The report referred to, it seems, was the La Guardia report of 1944.

A secretariat paper (E/CN. 7/W 3'7) provided the background material to a resumption of the discussion in 1948. It was largely a summary of many of the studies done by the subcommittee in the thirties; noticeably missing from the sixteen U.S. references out of a total of twenty-six was any mention of the La Guardia report. The point was made, however, and with some force, that the United States Pharmacopoeia had dropped cannabis entirely. The Perma-nent Central Board, too, was of the opinion that (PCB, 1947):

the situation is one which requires drastic international action. The matter should be taken in hand at the earliest possible moment.

Work was soon underway to draw up the Single Convention, and the committee assigned this task found itself having to tackle the problem of cannabis. The fact of the industrial usefulness of hemp created difficulties for the prohibitory legislation which was being urged in the dominant quarters. Nevertheless, the complete prohibition of the cultivation of cannabis sativa for its resin was still thought feasible (E/CN.7/AC.3/1).

Support for the prohibitionist standpoint was elicited from WHO, whose Expert Committee on Drugs Liable to Produce Addiction declared that "cannabis preparations are practically obsolete. So far as it can see, there is no justification for the medical use of cannabis preparations" (WHO/EC DD, 1952:11). Evidence was not presented to substantiate this verdict. The expert commit-tee's opinion coincided with that of its secretary, P. O. Wolff, who was the head of the section dealing with drug addiction in WHO and whose own publications on cannabis reveal the kind of views he entertained. The English edition of one of these contained a forward by Anslinger (Wolff, 1949) and typically abetted the earlier claims and arguments of the U.S. government during the Advisory Committee days, such as the estimate that there were 200 million cannabis addicts in the world, and the polemics leveled against the La Guardia committee. Marihuana "has been clearly associated since the most remote time with insanity, with crime, with violence and with brutality," Wolff wrote (p. 52). And as far as the expert committee's verdict is concerned, this too was echoed in Wolff's statement that "there is no medical indication whatsoever that will justify its use in the present day" (p. 2).

Reference was made to the WHO opinion in a secretariat paper addressed to the Commission meeting in 1953 (E/CN.7/256). The paper mentioned the fact that two alternative drafts of the Single Convention, each of which treated cannabis differently, were being considered. The problems which would be encountered in formu-lating cannabis control were enumerated: its alleged medical value, the social acceptance of cannabis use, the industrial use of hemp, the practical difficulties of controlling remote areas, and the risk of illicit traffic. In view of these difficulties a study program was proposed geared to describing the factual situation and to evaluating existing control regimes. The cooperation of FAO and WHO was also to be sought. The Commission approved of these studies. The importance of WHO's contribution was stressed, and a shidy on the physical and mental effects requested. Wolff, representing WHO, indicated that such a study could be carried out. He also referred to a study done in South Africa. In a letter to the chairman of the committee, Wolff made clear his feelings:

I am, of course, satisfied that in all the main questions your committee could confirm the view I have expressed . . . . I have just returned from New York, where I attended the session [of the Commission]. . At the request of the US delegate, I was pleased to refer at length to the main points of your report (Letter dated 23 April 1953 from Wolff to Schalkwijk).

The decision reached in 1953 may be interpreted as an acknowledgment of the difficulty of taking a stand without adequate knowledge. However, two years later the Commission was ready to make a provisional decision to include cannabis in schedule IV of the proposed Single Convention; in other words, to adopt a line of prohibition. While the formal decision was taken later, little material of substance was submitted after 1955 and, despite much talk, no one seriously challenged this position. We may therefore consider 1954 and 1955 as the crucial years for the ultimate decision and review in more detail the nature of the material submitted to the Commission.

To the Commision meeting in 1954 little new material was communicated. Some data on the studies were reported and the cooperation with South Africa was stressed (E/CN.7/276). WHO's view on the obsolescence of the therapeutic use of cannabis was reiterated. At the Commission meeting in 1955, however, a great deal of material was offered. This material fell into the following categories:

—information from some countries forming part of the study program assigned to the secretariat
—an FAO report
—a report by Wolff
—proposals on the control regimes to be adopted.

As far as the reports on countries were concerned, only some countries in south Africa were covered (E/CN.7/286 and addenda 1-7). The contents of these studies supported the view that strict controls were needed. Whatever one might thinlc of their quality, these studies covered only a small part of the world. Studies of other regions were reported to the Commission through the years 1955-60 (addenda 8-29 of the above document) but they had no perceptible influence on decisions. The secretariat did not under-take a comprehensive analysis of the information obtained from the various countries, and it seems unlikely that such information, uncollated as it was, formed the basis for the final decision on the type of control which was to be applied.

FAO contributed an exposition of "the possibility of replacing hemp fibre and hemp seed by other crops of similar industrial value or of developing narcotic-free strains of the cannabis plant" (E/CN. 7/297, 63 pp.) which set forth the arguments for and against the two ways of satisfying the need for control on the one hand, and the requirements of the hemp industry on the other. While both ways were considered possible, the second alternative was judged the easier of the two. Nevertheless, it would require considerable effort, and an element of uncertainty remained about the whole operation.

The report on "The Physical and Mental Effects of Cannabis" was prepared by Wolff (E/CN.7/L91, 35 pp.) and was dated 17 March 1955. It was transmitted to the Commission by the secretariat (that is, the Division) in a letter dated 6 April 1955 which stated that "WHO agreed to make the study." It appeared under the name of Wolff and, although it may be found in WHO's files (APD 56), it was not supposed to represent WHO's official standpoint. It certainly had not been endorsed by the relevant expert committee and was not mentioned in the latter's reports. In fact Wolff's successor, Halbach, referred to the report in a letter "as a working paper for the WHO Secretariat and made available for distribution by the WHO Secretariat" (Letter from Halbach, 27 October 1%5 to Bureau of Narcotics). However, at the Commission meeting, this document was clearly regarded as embodying the WHO position. As to the contents, Wolff himself asserted that his earlier position was vindicated (Wolff, 1949). The literature cited was highly selective and the work of the League in the 1930s was barely acknowledged, although there was a reference to Bouquet's observation of the differences between the U.S. and Africa as far as correlation between crime and cannabis use was concerned. The conclusions were predictable:

It is important to realise that not only is marihuana smoking per se a danger but that its use eventually leads the smoker to turn to intravenous heroin injections . . .

. . . cannabis constitutes a dangerous drug from every point of view whether physical, mental, social or criminological.

The last document was concerned with the choice of the type of control. Two alternative regimes of cannabis control were provided in the first draft of the Single Convention prepared by Adolf Lande of the secretariat. The first alternative proceeded from the assumption that if cannabis was found to have no medical value, then prohibition was the consequent course of action. The second alternative provided for strict production control in the event that cannabis was found to be medically valuable (E/2768, 1955). Considering the buildup of pressure applied by the prohibi-tionist group and the position of power occupied by the U.S., the chief party in this group, it is hardly surprising that the first assumption came to be upheld. An ECOSOC resolution had, in fact, been passed urging countries to stop using cannabis in medicine (548 F/XVIII). The Commission thus agreed that "it should also be made clear in the new treaty that the use of cannabis would be prohibited for all purposes medical and non-medical alike, except that of scientific research" (CND: 10th, 1955).

It is clear that Lande's alternative formulations were so struc-tured as to lead inevitably to a choice of prohibition. Curiously, no one questioned the assumption behind the alternatives. Why should medical utility be the crucial criterion? Why should prohibition hinge upon the verdict that medicine can do without cannabis? Earlier on, Bouquet had reached the same conclusion as to medical value but had not, nevertheless, advocated prohibition.

During the next few years, reports from twenty countries were presented to the Commission, but these had little, if any, bearing on decisions. The wide use of cannabis in indigenous Indian medicine was an obstacle circumvented by allowing reservations to relevant clauses in the Single Convention. Indian objections to cannabis prohibition made little headway against the massive anticannabis bloc.

The Defense of Obsolete Positions

The rest of the history of international cannabis control is a record of efforts to sustain the status quo, rendered immutable by the fact of too great an official and personal commitment to the concepts and decisions on which it is based. In 1955 the WHO expert committee had declared that it was "pleased to note" that cannabis was placed in schedule IV of the draft convention. In 1959 some Commission members observed that research in their countries offered prospects of using cannabis for the extraction of useful substances, particularly antibiotics; WHO was asked by the Commission to study this and to present its views before the planned plenipotentiary conference in 1961. WHO did this, but its report—"The Merits of Anti-Biotic Substances Obtainable from Cannabis Sativa" (E/CN.7/409)--did not see the light of day until the 1961 conference had opened in New York. In any event, the conclusions were carefully worded so as not to detract from the decision that was going to be made by the conference as to the fitness of cannabis for the most stringent international control.

That cannabis would be placed under the strictest control regime in the Single Convention was a foregone conclusion. At the 1961 plenipotentiary conference in New York, disagreement was voiced but did not amount to real opposition. Some modifications to the envisaged control regime were accepted. These included transitional provisions allowing countries such as India and Paki-stan to continue to use cannabis nonmedically for twenty-five years after the convention came into force. It is clear that cannabis was subjected to the same controls as heroin on the grounds that its medical use was obsolete. In the case of heroin, the risk to public health was offered as an additional argument for prohibition, whereas in the case of cannabis its wide abuse was the argument used.

The irony is that the criterion of "medical utility" underlying the Convention has come to be an equivocal variable: until WHO pronounced cannabis use as medically unjustifiable in 1952, licit cannabis consumption was at a level of 1,000 kgs a year. In 1966, it was reduced to about 200 kg (PCB, 1966). In 1965, the WHO expert committee thought that cannabis might be found to have medical applications after all (WHO/EC DD, 1965:312) and the Commission was told of this possibility by the WHO representa-tive at its twentieth session (CND: 20th, 1965).

Ironically enough, in the session of the Commission immedi-ately following the 1961 conference, a debate sparked by some comments from professional persons in the Dutch press to the effect that "cannabis addiction was no worse than alcoholism" took place in which some members expressed views not wholly consonant with the international policy already embodied in the Single Convention. However, the INTERPOL representative men-tioned that "cannabis consumption was known to produce aggres-siveness in the intoxicated individual," and the WHO spokesman reminded the Commission of the opinion of the WHO expert committee. "which was still valid that cannabis abuse comes definitely under its definition of addiction." And there was the added danger of progression to more dangerous drugs; whereupon

the Commission recalled that it had agreed that cannabis abuse was a form of drug addiction and emphasized that any publicity to the contrary was misleading and dangerous (CND: 16th, 1961: 18).

Since that time, several state commissions (for example, the Le Dain Commission in Canada and the U.S. National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse) have been appointed to examine drug use and have recommended changes in the law on cannabis. Their reports have had no perceptible effect on the attitude of the international community, whose energies have continued to be directed towards the tenacious defense of the correctness of its own position. Officials in the UN who have strong views against the prevailing policy refrain from expressing them publicly, blocked by the general unwillingness to entertain changes which are likely to involve a departure from the basis of the current operations of the drug control system.*

Each year, the INCB's annual report contains injunctions against relaxation of cannabis control. The following statement in the Board's 1971 report provides an illustration:

In the opinion of the Board, the findings so far yielded by research afford no reason for relaxing that control. On the contrary, present indications are that cannabis represents a serious and growing danger to many countries, both in its inherent potential for harm and its association with other forms of drug abuse.

Some Commission members are also rigidly inaccessible to public and scientific opinion. Vaille, the French delegate, for example, is convinced that the Commission should not waver from its stand on cannabis, whatever new light scientific inquiries may throw on the subject. He pointed out to the 1973 session of the Commission that (E/CN.7/SR.727):

"The question of the relative harmfulness of different variants of cannabis, of taking the drug in small or large doses, etc., was doubtless of theoretical and clinical interest and WHO should certainly continue its investigations along those lines, but such
investigations should not be allowed to influence international control measures in any way whatsoever." (emphasis added).


1. Cannabis came under a limited form of international control at the Geneva Conference in 1925, on the insistence of the Egyp-tian delegation. This was accepted despite the fact that the question was not even on the agenda.

2. Implementation of controls was urged by the U.S., which was troubled by the use of marihuana at home. This was particu-larly the case after the passing of the U.S. Marihuana Tax Act in 1937.

3. During the period 1935-39, a cannabis subcommittee, appoin-ted by the Advisory Committee, amassed a large collection of data. Although the Indian situation was overlooked in the research effort, the documents produced showed much aware-ness of cultural differences in cannabis use and an appreciation of the difficulties attendant upon control. The work of the sub-committee represents the most systematic effort made to date by the international drug control organs to arrive at control policy decisions based on research. There was little follow-up to this research, and later decisions relied on information and reports of a less relevant nature.

4. The definitive decision to adopt a prohibitionist line was taken by 1955. The U.S., the primary force, mobilized all the control organs concerned.

5. Despite increasing criticisms of the international stand on can-nabis from both outside and inside the system, the official policy has continued to be a strict adherence to the provisions of the Single Convention. So as to reinforce this official policy, declarations regarding the undesirable effects of cannabis use have constantly emanated from the key agencies.

* Assessors were experts with special technical knowledge appointed by the League Council to assist the Advisory Committee.

* A recent review sees the report of this commission as a "document unique in the history of cannabis" and commends it for the "thoroughness and rationality applied to the analysis of the data" (Kalant, 1972).

* In some instances a report was merely an addendum to an earlier report. The Secretariat reports included some by the subcommittee and the so-called "Notes by the Secretary General." There was much redundancy in this reporting. Some documents of minor importance are not included here.

Secretariat reports included some by the subcommittee and the so-called "Notes by the Secretary General." There was much redundancy in this reporting. Some documents of minor importance are not included here.


Our valuable member Matthew Reiss has been with us since Monday, 20 February 2012.

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