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Cannabis Nation:

Control and Consumption in Britain, 1928-2008

by James H Mills

O ne Sunday in June 1935, the News of the World hit Britain’s breakfast tables with a jaw-dropping special report. The West End, the paper announced, was facing a plague of “soul murderers”, who lured innocent girls into lives of sin. Through selling “doped cigarettes”, the reporters explained, these criminals were corrupting “young and pretty girls, butterflies of the metropolis”, who, “jaded and weary after sleepless nights and hectic days, fall easy victims to the plausible temptations” of the dealers in hashish. The police were already watching the airports; along the south coast, there were dark rumours of motorboats smuggling dope from the Continent. But as the historian James H Mills notes in his meticulous history of Britain’s relationship with cannabis, the article never strayed far from its central image: “innocent girls …ruined body and soul as a sequel to that first ‘whiff’  ”.

In its way, that piece was a marvellous preview of what was to come. Dope has been intensely controversial since the 1920s, when the newspapers first raised the spectre of hashish as a threat to Britain’s morals. But the great surprise of Mills’s book — a scrupulously academic work which, unusually for a volume on this subject, is both admirably even-handed and sober to the point of asceticism — is that there is much more to the story than a simple clash between long-haired bohemians and curtain-twitching reactionaries.

The story of cannabis in Britain, he argues, is intimately bound up with the legacy of empire. That it came to our shores at all was a result of colonisation: as Britain expanded into Asia and the Middle East, visiting seamen brought their drugs with them. What is more, as late as the interwar years, ­Britain’s overseas possessions had very different drugs ­policies. In Egypt, where cannabis was outlawed, narcotics officers used metal detectors to examine camels crossing the Western Desert, in case they had been force-fed with tin canisters packed with drugs. In India, how­ever, the British authorities not only tolerated the drugs trade — in part because they fancied the tax revenue — they sold ganja to their Burmese counterparts to undercut smugglers and to cream off the profits for themselves.

It was no coincidence, Mills argues, that cannabis first became a public issue (as opposed to a media one) in Britain during the 1950s. The empire was breaking up, thousands of West Indians and South Asians were moving to the imperial motherland, and the sickly sweet smell of dope was becoming increasingly prevalent in the dilapidated back streets where most immigrants found homes.

Then as now, there were dire warnings of inevitable national degeneration. Mills introduces a particularly memorable prophet of doom in Dr Donald McIntosh Johnson, a disastrously unsuccessful hotelier, doctor and lawyer who contrived to get elected as Tory MP for Carlisle in 1954. At the time, Johnson’s book Indian Hemp: A Social Menace was a sensation, attracting a front-page exclusive in the Daily Mirror. Cannabis, he thought, was a communist weapon in the Cold War. Alas, it turned out that Johnson was not quite the impartial expert he appeared. Not only did he believe himself to be threatened by “demonic forces”, but he thought the Russians had been secretly doping him, and occasionally mistook himself for a British official at the United Nations.

Public anxiety about cannabis peaked in the late 1960s. Yet despite all the tired myths, it is just not true that the 1960s saw an explosion of dope smoking among British teenagers. Scouring police and Home Office files, Mills finds there were just five arrests for drugs offences in Wigan in 1967 and only 72 in Birmingham — despite this being the so-called summer of love. In Newcastle, police reported that probably no more than 15 people in the entire city smoked cannabis or took LSD. And when Brighton police arrested a man who had bought dope in London to sell on the south coast, he miserably confessed that in three weeks he had sold just 50 reefers, well short of his expectations.

Mills shows that it was in the 1970s, not the 1960s, that can­nabis use really took off among millions of British youngsters, while in the following decade the Thatcher government preferred to concentrate its fire on more dangerous drugs such as heroin. Indeed, for the last four decades, official attitudes to ­cannabis have been governed by a typically British compromise: despite possession being technically illegal, the police have extraordinary latitude in deciding whether to charge offenders. As Mills argues in his closing pages, the issue has become one of ­symbolism rather than substance: politicians trying to look tough announce a crackdown, while modernisers turn a blind eye.

The surprising thing, though, is that cannabis use appears to be falling, largely because, in a highly pressured, fast-paced society, it no longer matches ­consumers’ demands. Surveys show that most users give it up by their mid-thirties, while figures ­collected by the government’s advisory committee on drugs found that fewer youngsters smoked dope in 2006 than in 1996. There is a nice irony in the thought that, in the long run, despite all the exaggerated ­utopianism of its supporters and the excitable scaremongering of its opponents, cannabis may end up alongside snuff in the ashtray of history.

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