More on the suppression of dope (hashish and marijuana) and the persecution of its users.
Part Two – Police and Policy
The first thing to note is that, if you live in the UK, especially if you’re rich, you are beneficiaries of the biggest drugs cartel and people trafficker the world has ever seen – the British Empire. So much for the moral position. We quit the trade in humans in 1807 and, after getting round to abolishing legal slavery altogether in 1833, compensated slave owners with the largest government payout of all time, which appears to have been a major factor in the growth of British industry in that century. However those enslaved people from Africa and the debt-slaves in and from India had been essential as producers of our drugs. Which ones? Opium*, tobacco, tea, coffee, cocoa and sugar (yes, sugar) – all of them psychoactive chemicals to which many of us remain addicted … there aren’t many people in the ‘developed world’ and beyond who doesn’t use one or more of those. The claim “I’ve never used drugs”? Wrong, they’re just not illegal at this time. Then at the start of the 20th century governments began to worry about opium. This, it’s said, was primarily racist because they feared the influx of Chinese workers, both debt slaves and kidnap victims, to North America and Europe was spreading the smoking of opium. Ironic because it was the British who’d made the habit common in China by waging two wars to enforce their illegal trade in cheap opium. At the time the Brits produced the best quality opium in the world in Bengal but this was losing its status as synthetic derivatives, like morphine, could be made from any quality of plant. In 1909 an international commission was set up to regulate the trade and restrictions gradually grew tighter. Nevertheless, until it was superseded by other chemicals, opium was remained a big component in the pharmaceutical industry for many more decades and I may well have been fed some as a child. This is when prohibition began. Cannabis came later.
[* The best book on this I’ve come across is ‘The Opium War’ by Brian Inglis, 1976, who also wrote another on recreational drugs, called ‘The Forbidden Game: A Social History of Drugs’, 1975]
There are accounts of why and how cannabis became a prohibited substance but I like the one I read in one of Pete Loveday’s ‘Russell’ comics (Plain Rapper Comix #2). Hemp is a very useful plant, not just for its medicinal properties but in the garden and in industry. Until suitable plastics arrived, hemp rope was the best you could get and in the age of sail you needed lots, it also provided the sails and canvas clothing – the British navy alone required thousands of tons a year. Simply put, the hemp that’s grown for fibre tends not to be much good for smoking, it has some of the alkaloids but concentrations are low. Consequently smoking or eating hemp and its resin didn’t catch on with Europeans before they had more contact with cultures that did in North Africa, the Middle East and India. It was regarded then as exotic and therefore dubious. Certainly soldiers and sailors who served in those parts tried it and still do (I’ve been told that it was also common among bargees when our canals were still industrial highways). In America, North and South, smoking weed came with black people kidnapped and shipped from Africa, as it was practised in many parts of that continent, whether brought there by the Arabs or discovered locally. That fact didn’t endear it to the racist establishment in the USA, so back to Loveday’s story. By the end of the 19th century the biggest producer of hemp in the world was Russia, then in the 1920s they developed a new method of making paper cheaply using hemp fibre. This scared the shit out of William Randolph Hearst, the original to Rupert Murdoch, who had bought whole forests to provide wood pulp for his newspapers. But Hearst had a friend, J Edgar Hoover, boss of the FBI. Prohibition of alcohol was in force and Hoover was sympathetic to the idea that marijuana, because of its link to jazz and black culture, shouldn’t replace booze. The ban was soon in force and the African-Americans got another stick to beat them. Whatever the validity of that account, it’s definitely plausible. What is certain is that in 1925 the International Opium Convention imposed its first regulation on hashish and the game was on.
Cannabis first became illegal in the UK in 1928 when the 1925 Dangerous Drugs Act came into force but no-one took much notice of it. The only people really affected by the law were the West Indian migrants to Britain after World War 2. I can remember seeing reports in my dad’s News of the World of ‘Jamaicans’ (they were all Jamaicans according to our ‘journalists’) being busted and often gaoled for planting budgerigar seeds in their gardens. I couldn’t see the harm in that but it wasn’t explained. Then in the 1960s white kids began to catch on and the moral panic grew. But this time the youth were often university educated and had friends in high places. The fightback started. So, while it was OK to persecute major black artists like Louis Armstrong, when the cops started busting famous white musicians like Jagger and Richards it didn’t go down so well. That’s when that notorious advert in The Times appeared. From 1967 onwards smoking dope and taking acid (LSD) exploded across North America and Europe and the authorities went mental. I’ve heard Trotskyists claim it was all just a middle-class diversion, which shows how out of touch they were with working-class youth, who embraced it and the music enthusiastically. The powers that be were terrified that these kids were out of their control and becoming too laid back to take work seriously enough for the profiteers. The UK’s anti-drug laws were amended constantly – the first time in 1964, then in ’67, ’71 , ’85 , ’86 , ’91 , ’98, 200, ’03 , ’06 – ’09, the latest in 2016. Drug squads proliferated and eventually became more effective. Likewise customs officers and the coast guards – as prices began to rise, the professionals moved in to smuggle and deal. The problem was that hashish is very bulky and aromatic, marijuana even more so, which made them easy to discover with sniffer dogs, however well packaged the goods were. The best hash from the tribal areas between India and Pakistan, from Nepal, Afghanistan and the Lebanon disappeared, even before wars broke out there, and was replaced with cheap, lowgrade shit from Morocco. Thus giving rise to the claim that ‘the cannabis available now is stronger than you’re used to’. Not me, sunshine! What happened instead was that the smugglers and dealers could make more money from powders like heroin and cocaine, which are harder to detect. The argument that cannabis is ‘a gateway’ to harder drugs is a lie, it was the law what done it. That’s the simple historical fact. Then we got the ‘War on Drugs’ and all hell broke loose.
There’s much that’s good about the American people but their grasp of history is probably worse than of geography. So the lessons of Prohibition hadn’t sunk in but this replay was no farce. Invasions by the USSR and then USA, destroyed peace in Afghanistan and the autonomous Pashtun and Waziri regions of Pakistan. The hashish industry virtually disappeared and was replaced by opium cultivation and heroin production. In the Golden Triangle of Myanmar (Burma), Laos and Thailand indigenous rebel movements and corrupt army generals (warlords) now got CIA backing against the ‘communists’ in China and North Viet Nam. As Brian Inglis described it, CIA planes flew heroin from Laos to South Viet Nam from where the local gangsters shipped it on. According to him this led to the insanity of the widows of Viet Cong fighters selling smack to GI, to come home as junkies if they survived. This was such an open secret that Hollywood made a film called ‘Air America’ (the actual name of the CIA’s airline) telling the story as a comedy with Mel Gibson in the lead!
In Latin America the situation became almost as catastrophic. Previously most of the good weed had come from Mexico and much still does, but interdiction made it ever harder giving rise to two results. One was entrepreneurial heads from LA and San Francisco moving to the forests in Northern California and Oregon where they set up up farms to grow their own. Not having the same amount of sun as south of the border, they went to selective breeding to boost the THC content of their crop. Firstly they popularised ‘sensi’ – sin semilla (seedless) weed – where the female plant produces more resin instead of wasting its energy on making the fruit. Then they created skunk and its relatives … and here we are. The second result of the success of border controls was to hand the business to gangsters who, as we’ve seen, make the Sicilian Mafia look like Boy Scouts. Marijuana still gets through but the big bucks are in cocaine, even more so since the advent of ‘crack’. These gangs terrorised whole countries and practically took over some smaller ones, most famously Panama, as they tried one new route after another to get stuff into the US. Economists are clear that, as long as there’s a demand, a supply will be found and in North America the demand was vast. Everything’s been used – shipping containers, small boats, small planes and, recently it’s said, small submarines but the favourite remains ‘mules’, human couriers poor and desperate enough to take the risk. As Inglis pointed out, and even officials have conceded, customs only finds about 10% of the smuggled goods coming through. The cartels can afford that and factor it into their prices. So prisons fill up with the by-catch. In the UK the men have HMP Verne, on Portland Bill, while the women were sent to Holloway when it was still open. Those people aren’t criminals but the victims of US and European economic imperialism and this stupid campaign to stop their better-off people having fun.
That’s enough for this episode so I’ll sum up. The current state of the world, including the levels of crime and drug misuse, is entirely the fault of governments and moralising pressure groups. Sloppy journalists should have the facts rammed down their throats or told to shut the fuck up – for one thing, everything they label as ‘the 60s’ actually happened in the 1970s. No authority on earth will ever stop humans using chemicals of one sort or another to give themselves a different outlook or a good time. More and more professionals, including senior police officers, have realised the truth of this and that cannabis is not the evil it’s been painted to be. States in the USA have legalised medicinal marijuana and more countries have stopped busting users, even if few have yet made buying dope legal, but still the war goes on and now there’s a psychopath in the White House who embodies everything that’s insane and perverted in the American character. He won’t win either but who knows what more damage he’ll create.
One final footnote: despite the subtitle, I’ve said little about the conduct and the crimes (and I do mean crimes) of police forces in all this because they’d fill a whole book, even to deal with superficially. The biggest of these is that throughout the 1970s and 1980s and probably beyond, there was a secret war between the CIA and the FBI, one supporting the drugs trade, the other trying to stop it. Talk about chickens coming home to roost!