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Taming Cannabis: Drugs and Empire in Nineteenth-Century France | Review

Nicholas reviews educator and historian David A. Guba Jr’s book, Taming Cannabis.

One of the most prevalent fears promoted against marijuana use comes from the categorisation of its users and the subsequent stereotyping and fearmongering of the effects it has on these individuals.  This is shrouded in racist and xenophobic narratives perpetrated by a government to ensure control of its citizens.  The categorisation of marijuana as an exotic foreign-made drug heavily abused by the foreigners that introduced it had led France down a path for many prejudices against its legislation.  How weed became a tool of discrimination and stereotyping of a certain people is found in the history of every Western country, but there is a more intrinsic side of this repression and it is found in France.

In the wake of America’s legislative reform and the subsequent benefits that have followed in taxes and a decline in criminality, other countries have begun to look introspectively at their histories with the drug to test the waters with decriminalisation and eventually full legalisation.  Most countries find similar historical threads with marijuana prohibition, namely the perception of addictiveness, the gateway drug myth and the counterculture that has been attached to it. 

But the most predominant issue in its proscription is the racial profiling of ethnic minority users and the stigmatic agenda to associate the drug with crime and how it influences it.

David A. Guba Jr., an educator and cannabis historian, delves into this subject in his book Taming Cannabis: Drugs and Empire in Nineteenth-Century France.  From 18th century colonial laws to the brief musings of Emmanuel Macron’s drug reform, Guba sheds light on the systematic racism interwoven within France’s colonial past that still ripples into the 21st century.  The foundation of France’s drug laws today exist out of procrastination, deferring acknowledgement of two centuries of misinformation fuelled by racist notions and control.

The rise and fall of France’s history of cannabis consumption is explored from the initial French discovery of hashish during Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt, to France becoming the epicentre of hashish medicalisation, to the criminalisation of hashish in French Algeria.  The book investigates how French colonial proscriptions focused on the argument that the consumption of hashish produced threats to the social order of France.  Muslim North Africans were specifically labelled with this state-sponsored stigma.  The book continues into the 1830s and 1840s where French pharmacists and physicians began “taming” the drug to implement it within the homoeopathic treatment of epidemic diseases and mental illnesses.

As Guba writes, the main fear from the French government was what recreational opioid use could do to society, and thus began their efforts to prohibit drugs.  French colonisation generated a multicultural society in which hash was predominately consumed by those the state was most biased against.  The quest for social order continued with the assimilation of Arab and Asian minorities, forcing them to abandon their indigenous cultures in favour of French values, with antagonism for any whose cultural ways infringed upon such values.  Minorities’ use of hashish resulted in the drug being metamorphosed into an “oriental monster” in the minds of the French people.  Like today, hashish was portrayed as a gateway to violent behaviour.  Depictions of non-Westerns were seen as a race apart, often associating fanatical violence with Muslims, who were seen to turn people into murderers.

Guba examines the comparison of a new drug culture with foreign invasion, and how student rebellion followed.  The connection of drug abuse and anti-state violence became a talking point for French colonialists, stereotyping hashish users as Arab assassins.  Arab-Muslim communities became systematically targeted by authorities, leading to the mass incarceration of ethnic and religious minorities, who are often stopped and searched as part of France’s nationalistic prohibition measures.

At the turn of the 21st century, marijuana legislation reform began to gain momentum.  Various states in the U.S legalised cannabis with E.U reform in various jurisdictions all brought about due to tax revenues and prevailing attitudes from newly discovered data correcting the misconceptions of its use.  For countries that still criminalise cannabis, proscription had been loosened to stimulate medical research with mass studies on THC.  As Guba concludes, France continues to push against the progress the Western world has made by hosting some of the strictest anti-drug laws and harshest penalties in Europe.  While there is some level of intention to reform such archaic laws, the French government are dragging their heels due to two centuries of drug-related demagoguery and a reluctance from modern conservatives.

Guba outlines how France has the highest rates of cannabis consumption in Europe, yet they enforce the most repressive anti-drug laws.  At one point, France served as the epicentre of a global movement to medicalise hashish in the treatment of a litany of diseases.  Unfortunately, misdiagnosis, prescribing errors and inconsistent dosages fuelled the argument against its efficacy.

French physicians, most notably Emile-Louis Bertherand, a medical expert in Algeria’s criminal court, provided publications which became key pieces of evidence in debates in the 20th century that led to the prohibition laws France operates under today.  All of this stemmed from 19th century authoritative fearmongering, where Muslim North Africans were targeted as the proprietors of anti-social behaviour due to consumption of hashish.  Pharmacists continued to butt heads in medical journals on cannabis opinion while lies about hashish induced insanity spread in North African publications. The association of violent behaviour with hashish was to become a foundation for “taming” its use by French physicians and pharmacists throughout the 1830s and 1840s. 

By the 1850s, its usage in combating insanity, cholera and the plague was deemed ineffective and medical academics began to distance themselves from the drug.  However, the parable of hashish instilling violent tendencies in people was carried on to the forefront of the discussion, paving the way in the 1860s for authorities to frame mental illness, violence, and anti-state resistance as commodities of hashish use.  This became systemised within French colonial medicine, further becoming law by the end of the decade.  Today, France looks to reform these archaic laws to reflect the modern Western world’s view of the drug as many are moving towards legalisation or at the very least, decriminalisation.  These new attitudes along with the rise of drug-related incarceration have led the country to finally address their history with the drug. 

David Guba’s Taming Cannabis explores every facet of colonial France’s authoritative dominance and xenophobic policies to drive a narrative of social obedience and control.  More than ever, the untold history of cannabis legislation in France is needed to understand how cannabis in the Western world has been vilified to profile ethnic and religious minorities.  A major step in marijuana legislation comes from our understanding of the historical narratives that totalitarian regimes restrained cannabis with.  The history of governments hellbent on restricting anything deemed to offset the natural values and traditions of their respective countries is more accessible than ever as more and more people discover for themselves the history of cannabis in the western world. 

While most cannabis users familiarise themselves with their own country’s narrative of the drug, we must continue to educate ourselves on how the western world discovered marijuana and its eventual development in medical and recreational circles.  To only examine our history with cannabis is to approach the topic from a keyhole of perspective.  With Taming History, Guba presents a fascinatingly detailed look into France’s colonial past from the first anti-cannabis laws, to the treatment of mental illness to the fall of medicalised hashish driven by the racialised taboos currently enforcing Frances’ anti-drug policies.  Taming Cannabis is one of the most prolific pieces on the history of cannabis, the largely untold story of France’s marijuana prohibition.  I heavily recommend it to everyone interested in learning the history of cannabis as well as those interested in the history of autocratic control and the effects that stem from it.

Author’s Website: https://www.djguba.com/

Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Taming-Cannabis-Nineteenth-Century-Intoxicating-Histories/dp/022800120X

Booktopia: https://www.booktopia.com.au/taming-cannabis-david-a-guba-jr/book/9780228001201.html

Barnes & Noble: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/taming-cannabis-david-a-guba/1134504152

One response to “Taming Cannabis: Drugs and Empire in Nineteenth-Century France | Review”

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