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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Sunday 23rd October 2011

I was looking back at some items that have appeared  in ‘Addiction’, the journal of the Society for the Study of Addiction, and I came across an interesting article, from 2003, about the events leading up to Cannabis sativa becoming a proscribed substance in the first half of the 20th century.

It’s a fascinating story of political horse-trading, prejudice and the problems that arise if people are poorly briefed about a subject. I’m not going to try and précis all of it, obviously, but it reminded me of an interesting example of someone trying to work with relative harm.

Papaver somniferum

Papaver somniferum

In 1923, the League of Nations decided to hold two simultaneous conferences about opium. The idea was to separate the issue of the legitimate trade in prepared opium, made from Papaver somniferum, especially from countries under European control into China, from the broader issue of controlling the spread of opium and its products throughout the world.

The politics of the First Opium Conference centred around the supply of opium from India to China that had led to the Opium Wars in the 19th century with the Americans taking the moral high ground by suggesting that the European colonialists were demonstrating their inhumanity towards non-Europeans by trying to defend the trade. It resulted in measures to bring any manufacture and sale of opium and its products under the direct control of governments.

The agenda of the Second Opium Conference was very simple; ‘Consideration of the measures which can be taken to carry out the Opium Convention of 1912’'. The 1912 convention was quite brief; ‘The contracting Powers shall use their best endeavours to control, or to cause to be controlled, all persons manufacturing, importing, selling, distributing, and exporting morphine, cocaine, and their respective salts, as well as the buildings in which these persons carry such an industry or trade.’

Cannabis was not on the agenda but, during the 5th meeting on 20th November 1924, the Egyptian delegate, Dr Mohamed Abdel Salam El Guindy, called for it to be included alongside opium because it was ‘at least as harmful as opium, if not more so.’

Cannabis sativa

Cannabis sativa

Initially, it seems, his request was not considered but he repeated it at the 7th meeting by which time he had won the support of the Turkish and Greek delegates. The politics involved is worth a brief mention. Turkey and Greece were substantial opium producers facing a loss of quite a sizeable trade and Egypt was reasonably newly independent of Britain so the British delegate was reluctant to just slap down his Egyptian colleague.

A number of delegations felt that cannabis could not be discussed because they had not done any preparatory work but it was agreed to pass the matter to a sub-committee. The hope may have been that the sub-committee would have too much to do on other matters but, unfortunately, it decided that a sub-sub-committee should look at this one issue.

This enabled the sub-sub-committee to make recommendations that the sub-committee seems to have passed back to the conference with little discussion. Far from parking the issue in a bureaucratic cul-de-sac, referring it to the sub-committee facilitated its getting onto the main agenda.

With very few of the delegations having any detailed knowledge of the subject, there was little or no challenge to Dr El Guindy’s claims about the effects of cannabis use. This included the statement that the cannabis ‘addict’ ‘very frequently’ became insane. He stated that 30 to 60% of all cases of insanity in Egypt resulted from cannabis. This figure was simply a fabrication and, in any event, Egypt did not have that many cases of insanity so 60% of the total was a small number. Today, one would hope, Dr El Guindy’s claims would have been examined more critically in part by pointing out that though Egypt did, undoubtedly, have a much higher number of cannabis users than most other countries, it did not have higher rates of insanity.

The conference seems to have accepted Dr El Guindy’s statements without challenge, which is a little surprising given that the Indian delegation should have been able to access ‘The Indian Hemp Drugs Commission’ (IHDC) report from 1894. This had found that moderate use of cannabis produced no significant ill effects and that the harm done by excessive use was rare because excessive use itself was very much the exception. Contrary to Dr El Guindy’s claims that users of cannabis often displayed violent behaviour, the IHDC had found that ‘even the excessive consumer of hemp drugs is ordinarily inoffensive’.

Whether the failure to bring these counter-arguments forward was the result of incompetence by the Indian delegation or a political decision to allow Egypt’s case to triumph will never be known but, whatever the reason, the Second Opium Conference when it concluded its deliberations in 1925 had decided that cannabis was as addictive and dangerous as opium. And so began the long history of prohibition of a substance that, finally, people are accepting as being much less harmful that alcohol.

Hyoscyamus niger, black henbane,

Hyoscyamus niger, black henbane,

It is worthy pointing out that there was never any suggestion of a link between cannabis and opium so those who say it had to be prohibited because it acts as a gateway from one to the other have created that fallacious argument after the fact.

We know, well, what happened to cannabis use in Europe and the USA after 1925 but what about Egypt? It seems that Dr El Guindy’s lies did not result in any substantial reduction in cannabis use. At this time Thomas Wentworth Russell, known as Russell Pasha, was head of the Egyptian Central Narcotics Intelligence Bureau. Russell, it seems, was a pragmatist whichever version of his approach to cannabis you believe.

It is, sometimes, said that Russell viewed opium as a much more serious problem than cannabis so was happy to turn a blind eye to cannabis dealers in return for information on opium traders. The alternative story suggests that Russell understand that the desire for intoxication was not subject to legal control and he was worried that cannabis users would switch to using the much more dangerous, but unregulated, Hyoscyamus niger, black henbane, instead.

If that latter motive is true, Russell Pasha does seem to be have been ahead of his time in understanding that there is little point in trying to interdict supply if you don’t reduce demand.