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Poisons, the Police and the Pharmaceutical Society.

Cannabis and the law in the 1920s.

The article reproduced below appeared in the 2002 Christmas Edition of The Pharmaceutical Journal.

Unfortunately, it is no longer available on their website so we have included it here for posterity.

Jim Mills relates exotic tales from far-flung colonies, of police bungling, shaky science and media excitement that eventually led to cannabis substances becoming subject to British law.

Dr James Mills is a lecturer in modern history at the University of Strathclyde. His book ‘Cannabis Britannica: The social and political history of cannabis and British government, 1800–1928’ will be published by Oxford University Press in 2003.

Despite the fact that there was little domestic consumption of cannabis in the United Kingdom in the 1920s, either for medicinal or recreational purposes, it was in that decade that preparations of the Cannabis sativa plant first became subjected to controls and regulations. In 1925 the League of Nations Opium Convention was ratified in Parliament. This meant that cannabis could not be imported or exported without a licence and could only be exported to a country in which the government permitted imports. It also meant that certain preparations of cannabis, the pharmaceutically manufactured extract and tincture of Indian hemp medicines, were available only for medical and scientific usage. It also gave the government the power to pass further regulations on cannabis and coca leaves if it saw fit to do so. This it duly did in 1928 with the Coca Leaves and Indian Hemp Regulations. These stipulated that the right to sell or possess preparations of cannabis was reserved for pharmacists, doctors, dentists and vets and to those who had been granted a licence to possess the drugs, such as wholesale drugs merchants supplying the pharmaceutical trade. The ordinary citizen could only possess cannabis or preparations of cannabis if he or she had been prescribed it by one of the above. Yet the ratification of this treaty was preceded in 1925 by the inclusion of cannabis preparations in the Poisons Schedule at the order of the Pharmaceutical Society.

Increasing suspicion

Throughout the 1920s cannabis preparations had been the subject of increasing suspicion, both in official circles and in the media. In August 1922 the chief constable in South Shields in Northumberland, William Scott, had forwarded a pipe and two samples of a substance that his officers had recovered at the house of Mr A. Hamed of 5 Tiny Street. A local chemist had declared that it was neither opium nor hashish and the chief constable was rather perplexed as to what had been discovered. The Government Laboratory in London confirmed that it was indeed hashish and that the pipe could be used for smoking either opium or hashish but that in fact it had not been used for either. The Home Office was intrigued by this report from the shores of the North East and asked in its reply to Scott's letter "if you should observe the smoking of hashish to be prevalent in your district". The chief constable replied that it was not and it was explained that Hamed was alleged to have been selling opium to Indians and that the hashish had been found alongside the pipe in the man's coalhouse. The matter does not seem to have proceeded from there. Sir Malcolm Delevingne of the Home Office, the nearest that the British Government had to a "Drugs Czar" at the time, was satisfied that there was no widespread use of the drugs in South Shields but observed that the town had "an Arab colony". Indeed, he was sure that the British had not taken to cannabis and that no further restrictions were necessary as "it is probable that the haschish consumption is confined to Arab, Greek and Lascar seamen [and] it is doubtful whether restrictions would diminish the vice amongst them, who could always smuggle in sufficient for their needs".

Curious episode

Another curious episode in the Welsh borders, however, raises some doubts about Sir Malcolm's conclusions. Although the evidence for either suggestion ultimately seems cloudy, there was, for a time, the possibility that cannabis was either being smoked with tobacco in the provinces by British youths or that UK cigarette companies were sneaking a little hashish into their ingredients. In the British Medical Journal of 22 September 1923 a doctor in Shrewsbury reported on the following house call: "I was summoned one evening to see a young woman who was reported to have become suddenly 'paralysed'. On arrival at the house the mother told me that about two hours previously her daughter had introduced into her nose some tobacco dust after which she had become very giddy and had lost the use of her legs. It appeared that a young man spending the evening with them had induced the girl, and also her sister, by way of a rather foolish joke, to sniff up the dusty tobacco at the bottom of his pouch in the manner of snuff. The sister, aged 17, had shortly afterwards vomited violently and no further untoward symptoms developed in her case. The patient however aged 18 I found in a very curious condition."

He went on to describe the behaviour of the older girl who had evidently taken to the powder rather more enthusiastically than had her younger sibling. He observed that "she was lying on a couch, frankly intoxicated (no alcohol had been administered) talking incoherently and giggling in a fatuous manner. She could not move her lower limbs, the feet and lower legs being completely anaesthetic [sic] and there was general paraesthesia. The pupils were dilated and the pulse was frequent. She was oblivious to her surroundings unless well shaken when she took some notice and would answer questions." The doctor, with the rather suitable name of Dr Downer, administered an emetic and large doses of black coffee to combat the effects of whatever it was up her nose and he managed successfully to bring the girl back to her senses.

The doctor took possession of the remains of the substance that had so affected the girl and he passed it on to a friend of his in Shrewsbury. Dr Herbert Henstock was a local chemist and, after devising a test of his own, he came to the conclusion that the powder inhaled by the girl was smoking tobacco with "0.66 per cent of solid Cannabis indica in the sample, equivalent roughly to about 1 drachm of the BP tincture per ounce of tobacco". It appeared that Dr Downer and Dr Henstock had discovered cannabis smoking in the heart of Shropshire.

The Times noticed the letter from Dr Downer in the British Medical Journal and published a short report of it on 24 September 1923 under the headline "Hashish in tobacco: a disquieting case". It concluded that "ordinary smoking tobacco may sometimes be contaminated with Indian hemp ... the continued smoking of even minute quantities of 'hashish' is likely to prove exceedingly harmful". Arthur Fisher MP, while reading the papers at his home in Chichester, noticed this piece and dashed off a letter the same day to the Ministry of Health insisting that it find out the name of the cigarette that had been analysed by Dr Henstock, that officials should warn the public of that brand's poisonous ingredients and that a prosecution of the company for adulterating their product should be initiated.

The Ministry did act although the way in which it pursued the case showed that it was not as convinced as was Fisher that cigarette companies were mixing cannabis in with their tobacco. It contacted Customs and Excise to see if it had any information about the adulteration of cigarettes with cannabis. The latter decided to test a number of brands of cigarettes to check the story. The Government Laboratory failed to find cannabis in any of the samples and indeed the Government Chemist, Sir Robert Robertson, declared that the tests carried out by Dr Henstock were themselves unreliable. The inadvertent result of all of this was, however, that a reliable test for tracing cannabis in tobacco mixtures was devised. By this test the offending cigarette brand, Ogden's "St Julien", was cleared of suspicion. If there had been hashish in the Shrewsbury cigarette pouch, and there was now no clear evidence that there had been, then the Customs and Excise concluded that "the presumption is that the hashish was mixed with the tobacco by the consumer after the tobacco had been sold in retail".

Exchange of letters

Meanwhile, the original account of this story in the British Medical Journal had sparked an excited exchange of letters in subsequent issues. Lieutenant-Colonel W. S. J. Shaw of the Indian Medical Service wrote with his observations on "Cannabis indica: a dangerous drug". He maintained that it was strange that Cannabis indica and the various preparations made from the substance had not been included in the Dangerous Drugs Act and offered stories from his time in India: "In 24 years' experience in India I have seen only three cases of the use of the drug as a 'dope' by Europeans. One of these was a well-to-do globe trotter who had taken drugs all his life and who had no particular interest in Indian hemp except to obtain prolongation of time. Another was an excise inspector who when we first met was compelled to turn his back, stoop, and view me from between his legs in order to see me in the standing position. His insanity was caused by ganja and he recovered rapidly. The third was an habitual of the beachcomber type who had become demented."

This set off a correspondence that was at first dominated by other stories from the colonies. T. F. Hugh-Smith related stories of Asian mountain tribes and tobacco use and observed that "the Afghans do not confine themselves to the soothing weed, but mix it up with a number of intoxicating and injurious substances, such as Indian hemp or charas". In similar vein, E. Griffith-Jones wrote from the Public Health Laboratories in Cairo to observe: "I do not recollect having heard any previous case of such adulteration in England. In Egypt, and the East generally, as is well known, 'hashish' is mixed with tobacco — chiefly cigarette tobacco — with the deliberate intention of catering for the palate of the 'hashish'. Tobaccos and cigarettes admixed with hashish are expensive and can only be purchased clandestinely. The precise object of mixing Cannabis indica with tobacco for sale in England is not clear."

W. E. Dixon finally felt compelled to write something positive about cannabis. Established as a reader in pharmacology at Cambridge and destined to serve on the Rolleston Committee on Morphine and Heroin Addiction in 1925, he had worked with cannabis as a young researcher at Cambridge in the 1890s and had published his conclusion that "I believe it to be an exceedingly useful therapeutic agent" in the British Medical Journal. Almost a quarter of a century afterwards he vigorously asserted that cannabis had no place alongside cocaine and morphine in the British legal system. "The Ministry of Health to my mind were right not to include hemp in the Dangerous Drugs Act since to do so is but to call attention to a drug which from the nature of things it is impossible to use as a drug of addiction on this country, and the action of which, except to a few experts, is unknown here," he argued, adding "I do not believe that active Cannabis indica in a form suitable for smoking can be obtained in this country."

Unwelcome attention

Cannabis was attracting unwelcome attention then, both in the Home Office and among medical professionals. It seems that the Metropolitan Police also found time to develop a concern. Indeed, they had been advocating that Indian hemp be included on the Dangerous Drug Act lists as early as 1921. A letter in Home Office files in 1923 from the CID at New Scotland Yard claimed that "the desirability of including hashish in the regulations under the Dangerous Drugs Act was reported to the Home Office some two years ago" and indeed it went on to observe that "it is regretted that this drug is not included in the Dangerous Drugs Act. It appears that it has practically the same effect as cocaine and morphine has upon its victims." The Home Office was dismissive of such exaggerated claims and an official noted after reading the letter that "no sort of evidence is adduced that there is any real prevalence of the hashish habit or that the habit if acquired has any results subversive of public morality". The police lobbying therefore failed to have the drugs included on the 1923 revision of the Dangerous Drugs legislation.

However, it was blundering by the police later that year that stoked further media interest in cannabis. The case of Thomas Garza and Idris Abdullah showed that there was a trade in preparations of the plant that was being carried on right in the heart of London. Abdullah was registered with the police as "a Soudanese subject" and had been employed "in native costume" as a coffee maker in various West End restaurants. Garza was also employed as a coffee maker at the Trocadero Restaurant on Shaftesbury Avenue and was registered as an Abyssinian. Charles Owen, a detective with the CID at New Scotland Yard, reported his account of a meeting with the two men as follows.

"Acting on information received at 4.30pm 8th August 1923, with Detective Dixon I went to 12 Old Compton Street and there saw prisoner Garza outside the street door. I said to him 'are you the person who has some opium to dispose of?' He said 'yes come inside'. Dixon and I followed Garza up the stairs to a back room on the top floor. In this room was the prisoner Abdullah. Garza introduced me to him as the person who wished to purchase opium. Garza then locked the door at the same time saying 'we must be careful'. I said to him 'have you got any opium here?' Garza replied 'my friend here is a little afraid of you, because he doesn't know you. Last month the police came here and he is suspicious now.'

"Garza then held a conversation with Abdullah who, after some hesitation, unlocked a trunk in front of the window and took from the bottom of the trunk a large cake of brown substance closed in a canvas bag on which was stamped in red a sign of a double eagle with the word 'extra' underlined. Abdullah pointed to this stamp and said 'Bon! Good!' I said to him 'is it good?' Garza then replied 'yes, it is pure Persian opium'. I said 'how much do you expect for this?' Garza said 'ten pounds'. I then sent Detective Dixon to telephone to this Office for the assistance of another Officer and during his absence the prisoners and I conversed on general subjects.

"On the return of Detective Dixon I said to Garza 'have you any more opium?' and he replied 'no, but when you like I can get plenty from a friend'. I said 'how much?' and he replied 'I will get you plenty of good Persian opium if you have the money'. I then said 'we are Police Officers, I shall arrest you both for offering to supply opium'. Garza said 'it belongs to a friend and I tried to do him a turn'. Abdullah said 'me lose my work'."

The newspapers were quick to seize on this story and the Daily Mail and The Times reported it two days later while the News of the World picked it up two days after that on 12 August. Under the headline "MAN IN A FEZ" the latter reported that "alleged traffickers in 'dope' named Idris Abdullah and Thomas Garza were arrested by detectives in Soho on suspicion of trafficking in opium. Before the magistrate at Marlborough Street Abdullah, who is 41, wore a fez; Garza aged 32, is an Italian subject. They were described as coffee makers of Old Compton Street."


The case quickly became controversial because of the results of tests carried out on the substance that the accused had offered the policemen. Detective Owen had taken a sample to the Government Analyst who had declared that it was in fact "a drug manufactured from Indian hemp and was known as hashish". New Scotland Yard decided to give the impression that they had been aware all along that the substance was cannabis and Inspector Walter Burmby declared that "it has been known to police for some months past that these two men had been dealing in this drug, which is commonly called opium in the Soudan". If this had been the case, quite why the detectives would have wanted to arrest the accused would have needed explaining as Garza and Abdullah were simply offering to sell cannabis, something that they were perfectly entitled to do as it was not subject to any restrictions at that time.

However, the men remained charged with attempting to supply opium and the police insisted that the case go to court. When there it became clear that Abdullah had limited English so it was impossible to demonstrate that he understood that his colleague, Garza, was offering to supply raw opium. As such the charge against him was withdrawn. Garza was sent for trial at the County of London Sessions on 21 August 1923. His defence was that he was simply acting as an interpreter between Abdullah and the prospective customers and that as such he was not transacting on his own behalf. The jury seems to have been satisfied with this and he was found "not guilty" of the charge.

The police had arrested Garza and Abdullah for offering to supply cannabis, something which at the time they were legally entitled to do. They had then prosecuted them for trying to supply opium and indeed had failed to secure a conviction against either man. Despite all this, they would still not let the matter drop. The solicitors representing the police in the prosecution wrote to the Home Office arguing that "the facts of this case go to show quite clearly that there is in London a traffic in this stuff, and there can be little doubt that both these men, who were coffee makers and servers in West End restaurants were supplying this noxious article for consumption in coffee or otherwise to persons whom they knew to be addicted to the habit of taking it".

Indeed, it is possible to suspect that the police did not simply argue their case through solicitors and with the Home Office as newspaper accounts such as that in The Daily Chronicle suggest that the police were often helpful in supplying information. The allegation that there was "a serious growth in the traffic of hashish, a deadly Eastern drug which induces madness in this country" closely followed the police line, as did the conclusion that "hashish is being used as freely as dope in this country, the practice is probably of very recent growth, and may be due to the obstacles placed in the way of obtaining cocaine by recent police action". Other newspapers were less concerned to parrot police opinions but were no less excited about the story. The Times on 18 August wrote up the story under the headline "HASHISH NOT OPIUM: New Turn in Drug-Dealing Case" and reported the prosecution solicitor making the statement that hashish "was used in that form for exactly the same purposes as heroin, cocaine and morphine. It was a narcotic, an excitant, and irritant and when indulged in to excess it induced madness." The Daily Mail similarly reported this statement and went further, naming the Coventry Restaurant on Regent Street as the place of employment of Abdullah and revealing that hashish "can be put into a pipe and smoked or put into coffee". Other headlines included "The New Dope Peril: Hashish to come under Dangerous Drugs Act" and "Hashish: Drug forgotten by law" and stories speculated that "a second amendment to the Dangerous Drugs Act will probably be presented to Parliament by the Home Secretary in the next session as a result of the recent discovery of the omission of the words 'hashish, bhang, or Indian hemp'".

One official scribbled the word "liar!" in the margin of a Home Office copy of The Daily Mail from 23 August that claimed that "a Home Office official stated yesterday that it was not possible at present to announce any decision regarding hashish but that one might be arrived at in the course of the next fortnight". The combination of exotic substances, mysterious foreigners and the metropolitan setting of the West End evoked the cocaine scare stories of the 1914-18 war that had proved irresistible to the press. An internal memo at the Home Office suggested that these reports on the cannabis case were evidence of the journalists "having nothing better to do".

However, it was the direct result of this flurry of media attention that cannabis came to end up in the Poisons Schedule. The Pharmaceutical Journal announced on 9 August 1924 that "the proposed addition of cannabis and its resins is an outcome of cases that have come before the police courts of the use of hashish and other narcotic preparations of cannabis". It was the Pharmaceutical Society that was responsible for deciding what was and what was not to be classified as a poison. A substance was officially recognised as poisonous when the Society recommended it as a new entry on the lists known as the Poisons Schedules. Although amendments to the Dangerous Drugs Act went through Parliament the recommendations for inclusion on the Poisons List were simply rubber-stamped by the Privy Council. Cannabis received its stamp that same month and the only explanation given of this decision was that vague reference to "cases that have come before the police courts". As the only such case that can be traced is that already discussed, of Thomas Garza and Idris Abdullah, it seems that it was this story that prompted the Pharmaceutical Society into finding cannabis a place on the Poisons Schedule. This article has shown, however, that it was not simply this case but a whole host of stories that had succeeded in blackening the reputation of cannabis in the 1920s. Exotic stories from far-flung colonies, police bungling, shaky science and media excitement had found cannabis substances a place in the drugs regulations of Britain for the first time. Indeed, they had found them a place there despite the policy of the Home Office and the opinions of experts like W. E. Dixon. Nearly 80 years later, at a time when cannabis drugs remain entangled in the UK's drugs regulations and are the subject of almost constant attention by the police, the media and the scientific community, it is worth remembering the circumstances in which they first became the subject of law.

Cannabis as a Schedule 1 poison in CI law.

"Cannabis; the resin of cannabis, extracts of cannabis; tinctures of cannabis; cannabin tannate" were included in Schedule 1 of the Poisons (General Provisions) (Jersey) Order, 1968.

In 1982, the UK revised the Poison List and removed cannabis as part of the restructuring of legislation as a consequence of European Directives.

It was not until the Poisons (Removal of Cannabis from List) (Jersey) Order 2019 that cannabis was removed from the Poisons Order due to "outdated references to cannabis and cannabinol derivatives which need to be removed".

Cannabis remains a Schedule 1 poison in Guernsey's Poison and Pharmacy Ordinance, 1970.

À bétôt et à la préchaine,
The ECPJ Team.