From Calcutta in 1890 to Canada Today: Exercises in Cannabis Legalization

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Peter Hynd, a PhD candidate in history at McGill University in Quebec, based on the paper he presented at the Cannabis: Global Histories conference held at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, on April 19-20, 2018. In it, he explores how Calcutta legalized the sale of cannabis in the 19th century, and shows how the Indian government sought to implement legalization in the most effective (and profitable) way. Enjoy!

Imagine strolling up to a licensed cannabis shop and purchasing a few grams of the finest Government stamped and sealed ganja, no questions asked.

In your mind, where are you? Denver, Colorado in 2015? Montreal, Quebec, later this year?

How about Calcutta in 1890?

Although probably not the time or place you associate with government licensed cannabis shops, during the second half of the nineteenth century the colonial government of Bengal (modern day Bangladesh and West Bengal, India) regulated and taxed the sale of cannabis drugs in a manner that appears remarkably similar to many present day models and proposals.

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Peter Hynd presents his work at the Cannabis: Global Histories conference at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, on April 19, 2018. Photo by Morgan Scott, Breathe Images

From 1854 onwards, the Government of Bengal confined hemp cultivation to a defined tract near the city of Rajshahye, and placed the production of ganja (“the resinous flower of the hemp plant”) under the supervision of the provincial excise department. Into the twentieth century, the government regulated – and profited from – the sale of recreational cannabis drugs.

Under Bengal’s system, the cultivation of hemp, the processing of the drug, weighing, packaging, and storage all took place under the supervision of the excise department, while both wholesale distributors and retail vendors of ganja were required to take out costly licenses and maintain detailed accounts of inventory and sales. In theory, every ounce of ganja sold in Bengal paid duty directly into the provinces’ coffers.

Bengal’s carefully regulated ganja mahal (“the ganja district”) produced more than two hundred thousand kilograms of ganja per year during the second half of the nineteenth century. Barring occasional harvest failures, this was more than sufficient to meet local demand, and produced enough of a surplus that Bengal also became a supplier of cannabis drugs to other provinces in India – at least until other provinces began copying the Bengal model in the 1890s and 1900s.

Strangely, this system for regulating and taxing the sale of ganja thrived despite a widespread hostility towards cannabis drugs on the part of senior government officials. Few of the British men who occupied the upper echelons of Bengal’s colonial government appear to have had any personal experience with ganja, and the idea that habitual cannabis consumption could lead to insanity was widespread. One district collector described ganja as “…beyond all comparison the drug which has least to be said in its favour, and the most to be said against it.” To him, even opium (which his government also profited from) was “comparatively harmless.” This was by no means a rare opinion.

Such was the hostility toward cannabis that it became official policy of the Government of India after 1872 to discourage cannabis consumption to the furthest extent possible. But the provincial governments responsible for implementing this policy were rightly skeptical of their ability to enforce any sort of prohibition where there existed a natural demand for the drug, and state involvement in the licit cannabis trade only increased in the decades following 1872.

Bengal’s excise officials argued that their system for regulating and taxing cannabis drugs actually helped keep ganja consumption to a minimum. A truly free market, they argued, would have a natural tendency to promote increased consumption, whereas a regulatory regime that made licit cannabis difficult to access or too expensive would only serve as an inducement to smugglers and illicit cultivators. The excise department in Bengal instead attempted to strike a balance between the two, keeping cannabis licit (and insuring that licit cannabis was available), but artificially inflating its price through taxation. This, it was argued, would reduce the overall quantity of the drug that habitual consumers could afford to purchase, without ever becoming so onerous as to drive consumers of ganja towards illegal sources of supply or other intoxicants. Over time, the rate of duty could be increased, thus gradually reducing the quantity consumed.  

This, of course, required that the excise department control the supply of ganja, and remain vigilant to detect and interdict any sources of unregulated supply. Smuggling and petty attempts to evade paying duty remained an ongoing, if relatively minor, concern. Overall, Bengal’s policy can be said to have been successful on its own terms. In 1854-55, the ganja mahal produced some 19,157 maunds of processed ganja, the Government of Bengal realizing 402,264 rupees from duty and licensing fees; by the end of the century production had declined by half, but revenues had risen nearly ten-fold.

Although they did not think of cannabis regulation as a public health matter or safety concern, the excise officials of late nineteenth century Bengal developed a system for regulating and taxing cannabis that appears remarkably modern in several important aspects. Despite a prevailing distaste for the drug among government officials, they correctly acknowledged that there existed a local demand for cannabis drugs that could not easily be suppressed. Pragmatic, they managed to centralize production under government supervision, and developed a comprehensive system for monitoring distribution and retail sale at every stage. They settled on taxation as the primary mechanism for controlling access to ganja, and managed to generate considerable revenues while lowering overall consumption. They struggled with issues relating to smuggling from other jurisdictions and competition from the black market. They made efforts to balance what they saw as the potential harm caused by cannabis consumption against the cost and inconvenience of attempting to suppress it. They even weighed how cannabis fit into a wider regulatory regime that aimed to control access to other dangerous intoxicants such as alcohol and opium.

This system was ultimately undone in the early twentieth century, as international opinion turned against cannabis. But for more than half a century after 1854 Bengal’s system for regulating and taxing cannabis drugs operated smoothly and successfully, without generating any major local controversy. Nineteenth century Bengal cannot be described as a model of good governance, to put it mildly. But this might be the one exception.

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