David Nutt on the Origins of Cannabis Prohibition

by Reihan Salam

Though I don’t agree with every aspect of David Nutt’s Drugs Without the Hot Air, it is an intelligent and entertaining book that takes a broad view of the use and abuse of drugs, legal and illegal. While listening to the director of the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy, I was struck by his invocation of the dangers of cannabis. Nutt acknowledges these dangers while placing them in the context of other dangerous substances, like alcohol, and he provides a fascinating historical narrative on how cannabis came to be proscribed. I found this passage particularly interesting:

In 1925 Egypt, backed by Turkey, proposed that cannabis be included in the Geneva International Convention on Narcotics Control. This was ostensibly on the grounds that “chronic hashism” was causing widespread insanity, although since this wasn’t occurring in India (and still doesn’t in present-day Britain, for that matter), this was almost certainly an exaggeration of the problem. Egypt did, however, rely heavily on cotton exports, and may have been trying to protect its cotton industry from the competition posed by hemp cloth. The vote went in Egypt’s favour, despite opposition from India, and although the British delegate made a show of support for the colony by abstaining from the vote, Britain still signed the treaty. …

The situation was very different in the USA. The Geneva International Convention was convened by the League of Nations, which the USA never joined, so cannabis in the USA was controlled later than elsewhere, with the Marijuana Tax of 1937. This prohibited the sale or growth of cannabis without a tax stamp which, although it only cost one dollar, was never made publicly available, effectively outlawing production. …

In the USA, cannabis was strongly associated with immigrants from Mexico, and even the spelling was altered from “marihuana” to “marijuana” (to rhyme with Tijuana) to make it seem more Mexican. Among the most vocal part of the press spreading rumours about its negative effects were the outlets owned by William Randolph Hearts,a media tycoon who had invested heavily in the wood pulp industry. Since hemp paper posed direct competition to wood pulp paper, he had an economic stake in limiting hemp production, and recognised that if controls were placed on cannabis because of its psychoactive effects, it would become more difficult to grow the plant for other purposes. 

I can’t speak to the soundness of Nutt’s account of Hearst’s central role. It sounds like one of those stories reform advocates would very much like to be true. Yet the role of Egypt and Turkey in advancing the prohibition of cannabis took me by surprise. 

Nutt’s discussion of alcohol will likely prove particularly controversial. He favors far more stringent controls on alcohol consumption. And though I am sympathetic to some aspects of his program, including a sharp increase in taxes on alcohol, I would actually aim to decontrol its use in other respects, e.g., by eliminating the drinking age. 

Though I wouldn’t expect a Republican administration to embrace a legalization agenda, I do wonder if more conservatives might be willing to embrace harm reduction strategies and perhaps a more accommodating approach to the medical use of cannabis at the state level.

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.