Cannabis Nation: Control and Consumption in Britain, 1928-2008

Cannabis Nation shows how compromise became our way of pretending to control consumption of cannabis. James Mills argues that control is founded on the “flimsiest evidence” and has “rarely … been deployed to stop people using cannabis”. Government knowledge of the drug was gained from contradictory colonial voices and experts’ inconclusive advice. The result is that politicians have opted for what R.D. Laing called the “British compromise” under which law does not change but its enforcement does. Cannabis remains prohibited but with the expectation that police officers will not apply the laws on possession with vigour.

This interesting and scholarly work is a sequel to Mills’ 2003 book Cannabis Britannica: Empire, Trade and Prohibition 1800-1928. Together they chart Britain’s relationship with cannabis over 200 years. Here, Mills centres on periods when debates about control and consumption intensified because one or both had changed, and exposes the way chance, personalities, misinformation, misunderstanding and politics shaped cannabis policy.

Findings of the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission of 1894 ensured that the inclination of policymakers was tolerance. Cannabis was widely used in the Empire as a medicine and intoxicant. Recreational use at home was confined to “transitory seafarers”. Britain was a reluctant signatory to the 1925 Opium Convention that outlawed cannabis. Although therapeutic cannabis had been popular in the UK in the 19th century, by the 1930s it was omitted from the pharmacopoeia in favour of synthetic preparations. This coincided with conflicting views from the colonies. In Egypt cannabis was reported to be a dangerous intoxicant that undermined civilisation, but in India its tax revenues helped fund the Empire and in Burma it balanced the budget. The positions adopted on cannabis almost inevitably have little or no grounding in scientific information and instead reflect the assumptions of the age.

Politicians feel obliged to take a stand when the media and interest groups clamour for something to be done. In chapter 6, Mills explains how cannabis became a political issue in the 1950s and 1960s when immigrants from the Empire brought with them their favourite intoxicants. Domestic consumption increased and cannabis became symbolic of the counter- culture’s alternative lifestyles, alternative states of consciousness and rebellion. Patchy application of cannabis law at this time had more to do with racial prejudice and anxiety about sedition than with public health, but it gave the police an excuse to hassle undesirables.

Chapter 8 exposes political opportunism thinly veiled as public health. In the run-up to the 2001 election, the Labour government rejected expert advice to downgrade cannabis from a Class B to a Class C drug. Election victory did bring reclassification, but before the 2010 election, lurid stories about the dangers of skunk, a more potent form of the drug, and Conservative promises to reinstate its Class B status, panicked Labour into reversing the change.

Scholars of the history of intoxicants and those curious about the ambiguous status of cannabis will enjoy this book, although a chronology of events, laws, reports, committees and commissions would have been a useful addition. The book’s relevance is obvious, given renewed interest in therapeutic cannabis, legalisation of recreational use in the US states of Colorado and Washington, and the general drift towards its decriminalisation elsewhere. The “British compromise” sounds benign but Mills warns of its dangers as politicians abdicate responsibility for cannabis to the police.

It is the police who decide who to stop, search, warn, caution and take to court, and how much cannabis constitutes a serious offence. It is the officer, as Mills says, who “decides what will happen to that individual, not the will of Parliament, the conclusions of scientists or the interests of the users”.

Cannabis Nation: Control and Consumption in Britain, 1928-2008

By James H. Mills

Oxford University Press, 304pp, £35.00

ISBN 9780199283422

Published 29 November 2012

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