Reefer Madness in France: Part II

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Dr. David A. Guba, Jr., of Bard Early College in Baltimore. 

One of the earliest cases of “arab aliené: folie hasishique” I’ve found thus far in my research is from Algiers in the summer of 1857. On August 22 of that year, a twenty-year-old Muslim man called Soliman-ben-Mohammed attacked a crowd of Jewish Algerians gathered in the city’s central market for the Sabbath, wounding seven and killing one. Eyewitnesses described the killer as being “crazed by a fury” and “prey to unspeakable exasperations” as he wildly clubbed the fleeing crowd of men, women, and children. It was only when a group of nearby Frenchmen, “hearing the cries of the victims, seized the madman and disarmed him,” bringing the violent scene to a close.[1]

Screenshot 2019-06-27 09.13.57The most comprehensive record of the event and trial is found in a series of articles published in the Medical Gazette of Algeria in September of 1857 by Dr.’s Alphonse Bertherand and Noël-Eugène Latour, both with the French army and Civil Hospital in Algiers.[2] During his interrogation Soliman stated that he neither remembered the attack nor recognized his victims. He recalled leaving work earlier that day, smoking kif and drinking wine and anisette for several hours at a café in Algiers. He even recalled getting into a small altercation with several Jewish patrons at that café.  But, “visibly regretful and shedding tears,” Soliman again and again claimed he never intended to kill anyone and remembered nothing of the fatal attack.[3] 

To gain greater clarity on the newly intersecting issues of hashish intoxication and legal culpability in French Algeria, the criminal court asked Bertherand and Latour to use their interview with Soliman ben-Mohammed to answer three key medico-legal questions—”1) Can the combined intoxicants make a man lose consciousness and the sense of what he is doing? 2) What is the virtue of kiff and its pernicious influence on the brain and body of man? and 3) Did Solimen-ben-Mohammed, who had enough presence of mind to distinguish and choose his victims, have the sense of what he was doing by striking, with a wooden club, the Jewish persons he met?”[4]

To the first question, Bertherand and Latour responded simply, yes—a bottle of wine, six glasses of anisette, coffee, and hashish (all consumed within 5-6 hours) “are more than enough to produce a very marked drunkenness, especially in a Muslim [man] who is not used to drinking [alcohol].”[5] To the second question concerning the “pernicious” effects of hashish on one’s mind and body, the doctors replied that “loss of memory, discoloration of the face and languor of the eyes, slimming, mania, madness and finally death are the consequences” of prolonged kiff consumption. The authors also pointed to the well-known research of Moreau de Tours from 1845 as evidence of the drug’s power to induce a “partial and furious delirium” in even the casual user. Moreau’s other more central claims from 1845, namely that hashish could cure, in addition to cause, insanity, went unmentioned in their report. 

And to the final question, Bertherand and Latour argued that in their medical opinion the defendant must be held responsible for his actions because his intentions of exacting revenge against the initial group of Jewish Algerians were well solidified before he consumed a drop of alcohol or took a puff of hashish. Moreover, it was “discovered” during the trial that Soliman told a coworker the morning of the attack that “if I were given fifty Jews, I would knock them all heartily.” “These words,” Bertherand and Latour wrote, “were an expression of the antipathy and deep contempt of the Muslim for the Jew, rather than a real or specific threat.” “It is not surprising that Soliman ben Mohammed, in the fixity of his resentment…could find by virtue of their dress and without much effort of memory, the Israelites, on whom he felt the need to quell his vengeance.”[6]

This means that, while Bertherand and Latour accepted that hashish temporarily annihilated Soliman’s free will and memory, they also believed that his Islam-inspired desire for vengeance against Jews was premediated and so strong, so innate, that the very site of a Jewish person instinctively ignited his religious rage through the haze of hashish intoxication. The criminal court of Algiers thus found Soliman guilty of murdering an “indigène juif” and sentenced him to five years’ imprisonment. Bertherand and Latour agreed with the sentence, arguing that “as we have seen, hashish can lead one to commit acts dangerous to public safety; we thus demand that something be done to prohibit the sale of all preparations of Cannabis indica” throughout French Algeria.[7] By the end of the year the Governor-General of Algiers, Jacques-Louis Randon, having read the testimonies and facts of the case, passed an official decree on 16 December 1857 regulating the sale and consumption of hashish in Algerian cafés and prohibiting the sale of hashish to minors.[8]

Though Randon’s regulation ended abruptly when he was replaced as Governor general the following year, the trial of Soliman-ben-Mohammed in 1857 concretized the diagnosis of “Arab aliené, folie hashishique” in French colonial medicine moving forward. Between 1860 and 1910, over a dozen other high-profile cases of cannabis-induced violence by Muslims in French Algeria (though not always against Jewish people) appear in the historical record. And I have found some indication in the National Assembly records of the Third Republic that several of these cases in the late 1870s were used as evidence during discussions leading to the establishment of the previously mentioned Code de l’Indigenat in 1881, which solidified the third-class status of Muslims in French colonial space. The younger brother of Alphonse Bertherand, named Émile (also a doctor who worked for the courts in French Algeria) also wrote a piece in 1880 on kif consumption in the French Algerian department of Constantine, in which he cited the case of Soliman ben Mohammed and argued that it was the primary cause of insanity among Muslim patients in asylums there. This piece was cited numerous times during debates in the National Assembly in the late 1870s leading up of the creation of the indigenous code. This means that the racially charged medical diagnosis of “Arab aliené, folie hashishique” was deployed by French authorities both to explain away intercommunal tensions between Muslims and Jews and to provide a medico-legal justification for circumscribing the citizenship of Muslim Algerians. 

So…. what does this all mean for the history of cannabis in modern France? For me, it means that French authorities for the past 160 years routinely have deployed Islamophobic perceptions of hashish to position Muslim peoples’ bodies and minds outside the boundaries of French citizenship. These cases of “folie hashishique” and the documentation they left behind also show us that scientific and legal discussions about hashish played a significant role in the formulation of medical knowledge and colonial policies in 19th century France that continue to influence French medicine and law today. And, as with all my work, I hope that this history serves as a warning, as an example of what not to do. Instead of using Islamophobic perceptions of cannabis to ignore Antisemitism and the underlying culpability of France in the historic production of both, physicians and politicians inside and outside the Hexagon should stop blaming cannabis for crime and mental illness within and between its minority communities and further contemplate the nation’s living history of limited and asymmetrical integration in (post)colonial space.

NOTES:

  1. Reported in No Author, “Art. 5417: Usage du haschich, ivresse furieuse,” Journal de médecine et de chirurgie pratiques Tome 28, 2em Série (1857): 441.
  2. Alphonse Bertherand and Émile Latour, “De l’Ivresse Produite par le Kiff,”13-16; also see No Author, “Art. 5417: Usage du haschich, ivresse furieuse, responsabilitie,” Journal de médecine et de chirurgie pratiques, 441; and No Author, “COUR D’ASSISES D’ALGER, Audience du 22 septembre, LE HASHICH—Coups et Blessures,” Le Constitutionnel, 3.
  3. Alphonse Bertherand et Noël-Eugène Latour, “De l’ivresse produite par le kif,” Gazette medicale d’Algerie (23 Septembre 1857): 142-144.
  4. Alphonse Bertherand and Émile Latour, “De l’Ivresse Produite par le Kiff,” 14-15.
  5. Alphonse Bertherand and Émile Latour, “De l’Ivresse Produite par le Kiff,” 15.
  6. No Author, “Art. 5417: Usage du haschich, ivresse furieuse, responsabilitie,” Journal de médecine et de chirurgie pratiques, 441.
  7. Alphonse Bertherand and Émile Latour, “De l’Ivresse Produite par le Kiff,” 15.
  8. Records for the Gouvernment générale de l’Algérie from August 1857 through February 1860 are mostly missing in the Archives de France de l’Outre Mère (ANOM) in Aix-en-Provence; therefore, I have been forced to reconstruct the trial of Soliman-El-Mohammad and resulting decree against hashish in Algeria from the correspondence of the Bureau d’Arabe, Subdivision Alger (ANOM, GGA 10 II/50) and contemporary newspapers and journals published by French medical experts and journalists covering the events in both Algeria and in metropolitan France. The most complete description of the decree passed by Randon that I have found is in Émile-Louis Bertherand, “Le kif  d’Algérie au point de vue de la consommation, de l’influence sur la santé, et de la règlementation adminsitrative,” Journal d’Hygiène (29 June 1880): 6-8.