Rumor and Libel: Regulating Cannabis in the Panama Canal Zone, 1914-1935.

Nelson Rounsevell

Nelson Rounsevell

On October 2, 1935, in the midst of Reefer Madness, Nelson Rounsevell was convicted of a single libel charge in a Panama Canal Zone District Court. Rounsevell, editor of the bilingual Panama American had published a series of editorials in the summer of 1935 alleging that Colonel James V. Heidt and Major General Harold B. Fiske were running a “suicide post” at Ft. Clayton, after reports surfaced of four suicides in six weeks at the fort. In one editorial, Rounsevell referred to Heidt as, “the Simon Legree of the zone, [relentlessly] driving his men by day and [ignoring] marihuana smoking by night.”

While the story seems have all the trappings of reefer madness discourse, his conviction on libel charges might seem curious. Surely, if Harry Anslinger had been involved, he may have led the charge against Heidt and Fiske himself. In fact, Rounsevell was indicted on five separate charges of libel during this episode and was only convicted on a single charge. I suggest that understanding the Rounsevell libel case involves understanding the evolution of marjiuana regulations in the Canal Zone that predate the conflicts of reefer madness in the U.S. Soldiers overworked, bored, and isolated had been using marijuana as a solution-seeking activity to pass time and cope with the tremendous stress and isolation of military life in the Canal Zone. Rounsevell’s error was not reporting marijuana use, it was misunderstanding the motivations for use. Marijuana use did not cause the suicides, but the factors that did were factors that also influenced an individuals use of marijuana. Continue reading →

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The Real History of France’s First Anti-Drug Law

Myth: Napoleon Bonaparte created the first anti-marijuana law in modern history during his military campaign to Egypt around 1800.

Bonaparte

Monsieur Bonaparte

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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