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  • Cannabis in the Commons: Colonial Networks, Missionary Politics and the Origins of the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission 1893–4
  • James H. Mills

In 1893 the Secretary of State for India revealed in the House of Commons that he had ordered the Government of India to conduct a wide-ranging inquiry into the issue of cannabis use in south Asian society.[1] In doing so he anticipated the establishment of the Royal Commission on Opium by three months, although the latter was to over-shadow the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission (IHDC) both in the 1890s and to this day.[2] He did this despite the fact that cannabis was of little concern in Parliament or indeed in wider British society. It had enjoyed sporadic popularity as a medicine in British medical circles throughout the nineteenth century but had failed to establish itself either in the Victorian doctor’s bag or in the pharmacist’s range of patent medicines. Its popularity as an intoxicant had been noted by bohemians of the period but there is little evidence that it was used in any but the most limited of literary circles. In other words, cannabis entered the House of Commons in the last decade of the nineteenth century despite a lack of interest in Britain in the plant and its products.[3]

This article will consider the question of the origins of the IHDC and explain why individual MPs forced the issue of cannabis into the House of Commons in the early 1890s in the face of an ignorance of the subject among their fellow members. After a brief outline of the key characters and events in the campaign that resulted in the Secretary of State’s announcement, this article will consider where those characters found the information that drove their efforts. It has already been noted elsewhere that the small number of MPs that pursued the issue were part of the campaign against opium of the period and as such their agitation against cannabis can be understood as part of their wider attack on imperial government and drugs trading in India.[4] However, quite how they stumbled upon cannabis as an issue, and quite why they took a negative stance when they did, remains to be explained.

Cannabis in the Commons in the 1890s

On 2 March 1893 the Secretary of State for India declared in the House of Commons that the Government of India would establish a Commission to examine the issue of cannabis use among the communities of south Asia. Although preparations of the cannabis sativa plant were largely unknown in Britain in the 1890s they became the subject of a sustained campaign by individual MPs in the Commons after 1891 when Mark Stewart MP stood up in the House of Commons on 16 July “to ask the Under-Secretary of State for India whether his attention has been called to the statement in the Allahabad Pioneer of the 10th May last that ganja ‘which is grown, sold and excised under much the same conditions as opium’, is far more harmful than opium, and that ‘the lunatic asylums of India are filled with ganja smokers’”.[5] He pressed his point, asking further of the Under-Secretary “whether he is aware that the possession and sale of ganja has been prohibited for many years past in Lower Burma and that the exclusion of the drug was stated in the Excise Report of that province for 1881–82 to have been ‘of immense benefit to the people’”. The reason for his curiosity was that he wanted to know “whether he [the Under-Secretary of State] will call the attention of the Government of India to the desirability of extending the same prohibition to the other Provinces of India?”

Mark Stewart was an experienced temperance campaigner by the 1890s and a member of the vociferous anti-opium campaign that finally cornered the government on the issue in the last decade of the nineteenth century. He had been badgering the authorities about opium for almost twenty years and had urged the House of Commons to pass the motion that “the Imperial policy regulating the opium traffic between India and China should be carefully considered...