Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Thembisa Waetjen, professor of history at the University of Johannesburg, and is derived from her presentation at the Cannabis: Global Histories conference, which was held from April 19-20, 2018, at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. In it, she argues that international cannabis criminalization was, in part, the result of an appeal made by the South African government in 1923. But what lay behind that appeal? And what were its consequences, locally?
On 31 March last year, the Western Cape High Court of South Africa, in the case of Garreth Prince, ruled as constitutional the personal use of cannabis by an adult in a private dwelling, along with the possession, purchase or cultivation associated with such use. Reflecting liberalizing trends in other parts of the world, this outcome signaled a shift in South Africa’s punitive drugs policy.
Thembisa Waetjen presents at the Cannabis: Global Histories conference. Photo by Morgan Scott, Breathe Images
Jan Christiaan Smuts, 1919. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Many people don’t know that African countries, specifically Egypt and South Africa, played a crucial role in international cannabis criminalization in the early 20th century. In 1923, the office of Prime Minister Jan Christiaan Smuts requested that the League of Nations include Cannabis Sativa and Cannabis Indica on the list of ‘dangerous drugs’, to be regulated by global narcotics law. He explained:
“… from the point of view of the Union of South Africa, the most important of all the habit-forming drugs is Indian Hemp or ‘Dagga’.” 
What was the local story behind this appeal?
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Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Dr. Sarah Brady Siff, a visiting assistant professor of journalism at Miami University in Ohio. Siff’s post elaborates on the research she presented at the Cannabis: Global Histories conference held April 19-20, 2018, at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. Enjoy!
Recently, like so many others, I found myself searching on YouTube for reggae songs about cannabis. It did not take long to stumble across the age-restricted content of Marlon Asher’s “Ganja Farmer.” I feel I was able to understand this song much better because I participated in the recent conference Cannabis: Global Histories.
Sarah Brady Siff presents her work at the Cannabis: Global Histories conference at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. Photo by Morgan Scott, Breathe Images
Asher was raised Southern Baptist in Trinidad but converted to Rastafari, whose million-odd adherents smoke cannabis as a spiritual ritual. Originating in colonial Jamaica and said to be inspired by black nationalists such as Marcus Garvey, Rastafari is native to the Caribbean. The tropical climate there is ideal for the outdoor cultivation of cannabis, which Rastas call ganja. Thus the lyrics to “Ganja Farmer”’s refrain*:
Yes I’m a ganja planter
Call me di ganja farmer
Deep down inna di earth where me put di ganja
Babylon come and light it up on fire
Babylon refers literally to the ancient Middle Eastern kingdom under which the Jews were said to have been taken captive and to have suffered. Rastas often use it as a metaphor for oppressive Western institutions. In the first verse of “Ganja Farmer,” a helicopter appears “spitting fire” from the sky, and the farmer points out that the eradicators have waited to strike until after his long labors watering and fertilizing the crop. He fantasizes about using a rocket launcher to “dispense the helicopter” in mid-air.
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Myth: Napoleon Bonaparte created the first anti-marijuana law in modern history during his military campaign to Egypt around 1800.
For nearly a century, scholars and amateur historians have told their readers, quite incorrectly it turns out, that in October of 1800 Napoleon Bonaparte passed an official ban on hashish across Egypt after personally observing rampant use of the drug among Egyptians and his rank and file. For most historians of drugs and prohibition, the hashish ban of October 1800 marks the first anti-drug law in modern history and thus the starting point for histories of drugs and prohibition in the Western world. But in October of 1800, Napoleon was neither in Egypt nor was he the ranking General in Chief of the French Army of the Orient attempting to colonize the country.
Frustrated by his repeated setbacks in Egypt, Napoleon abandoned the Army of the Orient in August of 1799 and departed for France to begin his meteoric rise to power. Command in Egypt passed to Jean-Baptiste Kléber, one of the most celebrated generals in French history, who controlled the colony until a Kurdish student from Aleppo called Suliman El-Halebi assassinated him in June of 1800. After Kléber’s assassination, Jacques-François “Abdallah” Menou, the divisional commander of Rosetta, took over as General in Chief. When Abdallah Menou passed the hashish ban in Egypt in early October of 1800, First Consul Napoleon was nearly 3200 kilometers away in Paris fending off the famous “dagger plot” and preoccupied with a growing war in Europe against Austria and the Second Coalition. And a close reading of official correspondence between Paris and Alexandria throughout 1800 reveals that Napoleon had no involvement in or even knowledge of the hashish ban in Egypt passed by Menou in October. Why, then, has this myth of Napoleon banning hashish in Egypt appeared and reappeared as an historical fact for so long, and what has this myth hidden from us about the real historical circumstances that produced the first drug prohibition measure in modern Western history?
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