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  The Forbidden Game

    Brian Inglis

        11.  The International Anti-drug Campaign

IT HAD NOT NEEDED THE FAILURE OF PROHIBITION TO TEACH THE Americans that if drugs were to be controlled in domestic use, the need would arise for international regulation, too. Half a century before, there had been alarm at the spread of opium smoking introduced by the Chinese who came to work in California; and also at the more insidious form of opium consumption indulged in by the growing numbers of Americans who were persuaded to take tonics or cordials which had the drug as a prime constituent. After the Americans took over the Philippines, too, they became concerned about opium consumption there. Measures to check the traffic proving unsuccessful, the idea of imposing international control was mooted; and by a fortunate chance, the opportunity suddenly presented itself to secure international agreement.


The Shanghai conference

    For some years, the improvement in the quality of the opium produced in China had been reminding the British in India that their hold on the Chinese market could not last much longer. Indian opium—the Hong Kong Daily News had warned in the 1880s—was becoming a drug on the market 'in more senses than one'; the day would soon come when the native Chinese article would be exported. Exports from India to China, which had risen decade by decade for so long, began to fall, the quantity of home produced opium in China surging rapidly past the quantity imported.
    In December 1905 the Conservative Government in Britain, which had held power for a decade, resigned; and the following spring, the House of Commons unanimously adopted a resolution 'that this House reaffirms its conviction that the Indo-Chinese opium traffic is morally indefensible, and requests His Majesty's Government to take such steps as may be necessary for bringing it to a speedy close'. The new Liberal Government, urged on by its back-benchers' humanitarian zeal, opened negotiations with the Chinese by offering to reduce opium exports annually, provided they reduced home production, step by step, and did not import from other countries. If all went smoothly, in ten years' time the traffic could cease. The Chinese unhesitatingly accepted. 'It is hereby commanded,' the imperial edict ran, 'that within a period of ten years the evils arising from foreign and native opium be equally and completely eradicated.'
    The American Government, alerted by the authorities in the Philippines, realised that if India and China really did reduce production there was a chance that the United States' problems could be solved, too, provided that other countries did not expand production. Through the prompting of the State Department, an International Conference was convened in Shanghai in 1909 to study the whole opium problem. All the major countries with an interest in the traffic were invited and only one, Turkey, did not send a representative, owing to her domestic upheavals—a valid enough excuse, as they were to lead to the victory of the Young Turks, and the deposition of Abdul the Damned. The representatives of the remaining thirteen states met, conferred, and agreed in principle that there was a need for greater effort on the part of their Governments to control the traffic in opium and its derivatives, particularly morphine.
    The Shanghai Conference had been arranged only for an exchange of views; but its success prompted President Taft to call for a Conference of Delegates with plenipotentiary powers. It met at The Hague in 1911, attended by the representatives of China, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Persia, Portugal, Russia, Siam and the U.S.A. And again, a heartening measure of agreement was reached. In future, it was agreed, the production and distribution of raw opium should be carefully regulated, and its export to other countries permitted only to duly authorised persons, through duly authorised channels. The production, distribution and consumption of prepared opium—the kind normally used for smoking—was gradually to be suppressed altogether, so that trade in it would cease. The production and distribution of opium derivatives was to be restricted to the amounts required for medical and scientific purposes. The necessary licensing arrangements, the delegates agreed, would be introduced by their respective States, when they ratified the agreement.
    Crucial to the success of the whole enterprise, clearly, was the satisfactory working of the Anglo-Chinese agreement. And it had far surpassed expectations—as even the sceptical British Consul-General in China, Sir Alexander Hosie, was compelled to admit. As he had toured the poppy growing areas of China in the 1880s, he could make the necessary comparisons; and touring them again in 1910, he found that poppy cultivation in some provinces had virtually ceased, and in most others had been greatly reduced. Public opinion, it appeared, had been roused against opium, in much the same way as it had been aroused against spirits in Ireland by Father Mathew, but with the added element of patriotic fervour, opium still being identified with foreign oppression. And in a country as heavily populated as China, it was easy to detect and prevent poppy cultivation, when the will was there. Although the revolution in the central provinces in 1911, and the subsequent breakdown of the central Government's authority, meant that the drive finally to eliminate opium production lost momentum, enough had been accomplished to show that it might be possible to achieve that purpose, when order was restored.
    In India, too, opium production was being steadily reduced—or so the authorities claimed. But on a visit to Japan in 1916 the young American writer Ellen La Motte met a Hindu, who assured her that the authorities were lying. They had reduced production only so long as there was no alternative, because the Chinese market was slipping from their grasp; but they were still deeply involved in the traffic. At the time, La Motte assumed his allegations were the product of his nationalist fervour; but in the year which she spent touring Eastern countries, she came to realise that they were wholly justified.
    As soon as the agreement to reduce exports of Indian opium to China had been entered into, she discovered, every effort had been made to evade it. The simplest way had been to send opium to the International Settlements in the Treaty Ports, which were not 'China' for export purposes. As a result—a Shanghai missionary had shown—the number of licensed opium dealers in the International Settlement there had risen from 87 before the agreement, to 663 in 1914; and the value of opium imports into the Settlements had nearly trebled. The figures published showing the reduction in exports of opium to China also concealed the fact that much of it was finding its way there in a different, derivative, form. Board of Trade returns disclosed that exports of British morphine to the Eastern countries had been rising rapidly; from five and a half tons in 1911 to fourteen tons in 1914.
    Although the acreage under poppy cultivation in India had fallen following the agreement with China, Ellen La Motte was able to show that the fall had stopped by the time war broke out, and output had begun to rise again. Such confidence did the British Government have that the market, so far from continuing to contract—as the Hague Convention envisaged—would remain buoyant, that a loan made to Persia was guaranteed from the Persian opium revenue. Although the Persian delegate had signed the Hague Convention, La Motte recalled, his Government did not ratify it: 'no wonder!'


The League of Nations

    By the time the first of La Motte's exposures of the duplicity of the British Government's opium policy appeared, however—in 1920—the League of Nations had been established; and one of its functions was to take over the supervision of international agreements such as the Hague Convention. At the League's first meeting, an advisory committee on opium and other drugs was set up, with two functions; to collect and analyse information on the drug traffic, and to try to persuade member States to keep the regulations laid down to control it. The information collected, when analysed, revealed that La Motte's strictures had been justified. The Hague Convention was revealed as no more than a string of aspirations.
    The contracting nations, for example, had pledged themselves to control the output of raw and prepared opium; but they had been careful not to say how, or when. They had promised to manufacture no more opium derivatives than were required for scientific and medical purposes; but they had not settled how much was required. And even when specific pledges had been made—for example, to end the trade in prepared opium—there had been nothing to stop merchants in the countries which had previously imported it ordering, instead, the equivalent amount of raw opium, and processing it themselves.
    Britain, as the chief opium producer, was the chief beneficiary; but firms in many countries shared in the profits, particularly in Switzerland, already providing a haven for those who were evading their own country's fiscal laws. The Dutch merchants were also well placed. Although their Government had been host to the Hague Conference, and had been nominally in charge of securing adherence to the Convention until the League took over, it had neglected to make any regulation requiring returns from Dutch companies of their output of morphine or cocaine. There was consequently no legal means of telling whether they were conforming to the Hague code. Nor would the figures, had they been supplied, necessarily have been reliable. The Hague Convention, in requesting that relevant statistics should be furnished, had neglected to make any provision to ensure that the statistics would be accurate. At their fifth session, the members of the Opium Committee of the League were presented with, among other documents, two sets of figures; one from the British, purporting to be the amounts of morphine exported from Britain to Japan between 1916 and 1920; the other from the Japanese, purporting to be the amounts of morphine imported from Britain in the same period.

Year  British exports of morphine to Japan lb.    Japanese imports of morphine from Britain lb. 

    No satisfactory explanation could be found for the discrepancies—or for the one pound of morphine exported in 1920; but at least they alerted the League to the futility of relying on information provided by interested parties.
    The British blandly used such evidence to justify their policy of keeping opium a government monopoly. British governments, the implication was, could not lie, nor could they cheat. In reply to La Motte and others who accused them of exploiting the drug for revenue, they reverted to the old excuse that, on the contrary, they were keeping the duty high to discourage consumption. She had shown that in the Straits Settlements, in the first decade of the century, opium duties had sometimes provided the bulk of the revenue—a fact which, as it had been reported to Parliament by a commission of enquiry, the Government could not easily dispute. But—the League's Opium Committee was told—this was precisely why the Colonial Government had acquired monopoly powers in 1910—for the purpose of 'gradual and effective suppression'. The Government had implemented that policy by drastically reducing the number of licensed opium dens, which had fallen from 500 in 1909 to 200 in 1922, and by putting up the price. It was only later that the statistics, when they were published, revealed that so far from the suppression policy being effective, the State monopoly had actually contrived to sell more opium, in spite of the reduction in the number of licensed dens. Coupled with the higher price, this had meant a most gratifying increase of revenue; in 1918 opium still accounted for sixty per cent of the Straits Settlements' entire income.
    In India, too, the Government was doing its best to recoup some of the losses following the agreement with China by encouraging the sale of opium under licence; when in 1921 the young Gandhi called for a campaign against 'that other oppressor'—as he described the drug—his followers were arrested on charges of 'undermining the revenue'. So little concerned were the British about the views of the League of Nations that after a Commission under Lord Inchcape had investigated India's finances in 1923, its report, while recognising that it might be necessary to reduce opium production again if prices fell, went on to warn against diminishing the area cultivated, because of the need to safeguard 'this most important source of income'.


The 1925 Convention

    By this time, public opinion in the United States had been roused; and in February 1923 a Resolution was put before the House of Representatives in Washington by Stephen Porter, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, arguing that the crucial factor was overproduction of opium. At the very most, the world needed 125 tons of opium for medical and scientific purposes—less than one-tenth of what was currently being produced. All the evidence, he said, went to show that in such circumstances, 'habit-forming narcotic drugs, by reason of their extraordinary nature, will overcome all barriers, even the bars of prisons'—and he quoted Sir John Jordan, by this time a member of the League of Nations Opium Committee, 'Whatever and wherever opium is produced it will reach the consumer.' To try to control the traffic by even the most drastic of laws was futile; the only hope for effective control was to get the producing nations to cut production. Both Houses of Congress unanimously agreed to ask the President to request the producer nations to accept the necessary regulations. In the autumn, the Assembly of the League called a fresh conference, with delegates from interested member countries (and from the United States, though she was not a member) with plenipotentiary powers, to see what could be done to improve upon the Hague Convention.
    To Ellen La Motte, who came to Geneva from America to report on its deliberations, it was a heartening experience. Here were delegates from most of the great nations of the world coming together to grapple with one of the greatest of man-made evils; and the most impressive feature of all, she felt, was the integrity and dedication of the representatives of the countries which had suffered most. 'One fact emerged clearly', she wrote in her first report to the Nation magazine. 'The whole Orient is anxious to put down opium.' But some of the European nations were equally anxious to keep it up. Britain, as the European country which controlled the major source of opium, would be the key; 'if Britain yields, the rest will collapse'.
    At the first meeting, the British delegates showed themselves apparently ready and anxious to yield. They raised no objection to the proposal, backed by the Americans and the Chinese, that opium production and distribution should in future be limited by international agreement. The only question—the British delegates suggested—was how? The answer, the Americans replied, was simple. An estimate should be made of the quantity of opium and its derivatives required for medical and scientific purposes, and production limited to that amount by international agreement. Again, the British agreed, merely stipulating that the term 'legitimate' should be added to 'medical and scientific'
    It seemed reasonable; but as the Americans soon realised; it effectively sabotaged their proposal. One by one the delegates of the colonial powers rose to explain what uses for opium, in their own colonies, they would consider 'legitimate'. The Dutch pointed out that allowance must be made for custom; smoking opium might be evil, but it had been eaten from time immemorial in the Dutch East Indies. The French found it difficult to understand why it should be considered any better to eat opium than to smoke it; if consumption was going to be permitted at all, there was no reason to suppress it simply because of the way it was taken (in French Indo-China, opium was usually smoked). The British agreed. What mattered was not how the drug was taken, but for what purpose; they could not regard the use of opium as a 'family drug' as illegitimate (in India, opium was licensed for sale as a family drug). Each delegate assured the Americans of his country's willingness to accept their proposal, so long as it was understood that each country had the right to decide what form of consumption was legitimate in its own colonies, and how much could be produced to cater for it. The Americans, disillusioned, quit the Conference, the British explaining that it was all the Washington Government's fault, for giving them firm instructions which left no room for compromise. But La Motte was sure that the instructions which the British delegates had received had been just as firm—'make it as difficult as you like for a person to buy a grain of heroin, but don't hamper an "authorised person" from buying a ton, from time to time, as he pleases'. The British, though, had been careful not to reveal their policy.
    The British had certainly behaved as if 'don't touch production' had been their brief. When the Chinese urged them to introduce restrictions in their own colonial territories, they fell back on the argument they had adopted a century before: what would be the use? Some other country would simply move in on the market, and keep the colonies supplied by smuggling. The British delegates scarcely bothered to conceal which 'other country' they assumed would do the smuggling: China. For a hundred years they had argued that they could do nothing to prevent opium from British colonies being smuggled into China. Now, with exasperating logic, they were claiming they would be able to do nothing to prevent Chinese opium from being smuggled into British colonies. Following the American example, the Chinese delegation departed.
    The colonial powers, however, were careful to avoid giving the impression that they were blocking reform. An impressive-looking list of proposals for control of the opium traffic was adopted before the Conference adjourned.
    Coca and Indian hemp were added to the list of substances which were to be restricted. The contracting countries were to 'undertake' to enforce the regulations—rather than, as the Hague agreement had put it, to 'use their best endeavours' to enforce them. A permanent Central Narcotics Board was to be established, to which the contracting countries would be required to make returns of all imports and exports of the listed drugs, and also to show, separately, the estimated amounts required for medical and scientific purposes. When there was evidence of excessive production or importation, the country concerned could be asked to give an explanation. An international accounting agency, with powers to investigate, was also to be set up; and the contracting parties agreed to accept compulsory arbitration in any dispute arising out of the new Convention which could not be settled by other means. Considering the difficulties which the Conference had faced, not least through the withdrawal of the Americans and Chinese, its achievements appeared very creditable, on paper.
    American observers were not deceived. A former Editor of the New York Evening Post and Chief of the Washington Bureau of the Associated Press, John P. Gavit, had been covering the meetings; and he asked himself, when they were over, what steps the Conference had taken 'reasonably calculated to limit the manufacture of these substances or the production of the raw material from which they are made'. The answer, he felt bound to emphasise, was 'none whatsoever'. Only two of the decisions, he felt, had held out any promise: that relevant information would be more carefully scrutinised and correlated: and that the permanent Central Narcotics Board was to be composed of men who 'by their technical competence, impartiality, and disinterestedness will command general confidence'—they were to be given five-year contracts, further to reduce their dependence on their own governments. But Gavit was obviously not the only person to have realised that a strong independent central board, by publicising the relevant information, would be able to expose which States were failing in their duty. Switzerland, whose pharmaceutical industry handled much of the European narcotics traffic, promptly served notice that if the information she forwarded to the Board was disclosed to her disadvantage, 'she would forthwith cease to furnish any'.
    The Swiss need not have worried; the central board was never set up, its place being taken by an advisory committee. Only one of its members, La Motte reported, was dedicated to controlling the opium traffic; the representative of China. The rest were dedicated to preventing control from becoming effective, with the help of ingenious procedural techniques. One British delegate would insist upon open sessions, on principle. Another would agree, but put the reasons why, in practice, this or that particular issue ought more properly to be discussed in private; a proposition which would be gratefully accepted by the other colonial powers. At public sessions of the Opium Advisory Committee, the Chairman would proceed with remarks like
'Gentlemen, you have read Document 418? I take it there is no discussion? Good. We will now pass on to Document 419.'

    Sometimes, too, the reference would be to a numbered paragraph in a document which had not been made available to the press As a result the 'open' sessions were productive mainly of gibberish.
    La Motte was, however, able to unearth one news story of interest: that the British Government was proposing to extend its opium operations in India. When criticised for over-production there, the British had long replied that at least the opium was going up in smoke; it was highly esteemed for that purpose, but no good for extracting derivatives like morphine. Now, the League heard that this was incorrect. Indian opium could produce admirable morphine—and the British had decided to go into morphine production in India for themselves.


Alexander's travels

    La Motte's conviction that the British were pretending to support the League only to mask their own design—the extraction of the maximum revenue possible from opium—was soon to be given confirmation. In 1927 H. G. Alexander was offered a travelling fellowship to investigate the drug problem in the Far East; and after his return to England he published an account of what he had found. He made no secret of his own view, derived from the time when his father had been Secretary of the Society for the Suppression of the Opium Traffic; this, he claimed, had simply made him more careful to rely only on sources which could not be regarded as prejudiced against the traffic, such as the reports of the Indian Revenue, Customs and Excise Departments. And they revealed that it was still Government policy to encourage the production not merely of opium, but also of Indian hemp—even when there were complaints about the effects. Thus, in the report of the Excise Department of the United Provinces for the financial year 1926-7, the inhabitants of the Benares region were criticised as 'most depraved in respect of the use of intoxicants, although it is the very centre of the sacred soil of the Hindus'; yet the same report boasted that 'the downward tendency in the sales of charas has now been arrested', and disclosed that consideration was being given to a proposal for the cultivation of more hemp to produce more ganja and, therefore, more revenue. The sales of hard liquor were also growing. When any suggestion was made that they ought to be reduced, the reply would be along the lines given in the Excise Report for the Bombay Presidency for 1925-6; attempts to curb legal sales merely increased illicit traffic, so that there was 'no improvement in temperance, increasing contempt for law and authority, and demoralisation of the inadequate excise staff'—as well as, of course, 'loss of revenue'.
    So while the British Government was professing to be taking measures to reduce consumption of opium and hemp drugs, its agents in India were in fact busy pushing sales in order to increase the colony's revenue. Alexander did not know what should be done—or could be done. Control, he admitted, would not be easy, and might require a different approach in different circumstances; as between town and country, say. But of one thing he was certain: whatever policies were adopted, they should not be left to Britain or to any other colonial power to decide or enforce, or the situation would get worse: with, in all probability, destructive consequences—for the colonial powers, as well as for their colonies.
Even in the limited sphere of drug and drink habits, the main guilt of the West, for which sooner or later, the East will call us to account, arises from the export of manufactured habitforming drugs, such as morphine and cocaine, and from the export of spirits. So long as we go to the East with these things in our hand, Chinese and Indians and Malays are not likely to have much use for the programmes of social reform that we carry in the other.


'The Smugglers' Reunion'

    In the meantime, Ellen La Motte had been trying to keep the American public informed about what was going on at 'The Smugglers' Reunion', as the disillusioned newspaper correspondents in Geneva dubbed the League's Opium Committee. She had found an ally: the Italian delegate, Signor Cavazzoni. He was probably simply there to make mischief for Mussolini's amusement; but he made it entertainingly. The Opium Committee's only response was to find a new way to make things more difficult for correspondents; it was agreed to cut down on the number of their proceedings printed—'to save paper', they claimed. La Motte was sure it was to enable them to doctor the records. Events were to show she was right.
    At this point the British delegates created a surprise, by proposing that the League should send a fact-finding mission to the Far East to investigate the opium situation there. This proposal, they could claim, showed they had nothing to hide. But as Gavit had already warned in his Opium, published in 1925, it was part of the colonial powers' game to keep the general public under the impression that drug taking was an exotic Oriental vice, slipping into Western countries through the docks and slums; whereas in fact the real danger lay not in opium or hashish from the 'depraved' East, but in the drugs which were coming from the expensively equipped, skillfully and scientifically conducted pharmaceutical laboratories of the 'civilised' West—Britain, the United States, France, Holland, but chiefly from Switzerland and Germany. The fact-finding mission was being deliberately sent to the wrong place. And the British had another motive, as one of their delegates admitted to La Motte: 'what we really want is independent proof of our inability to carry out our obligations under the Hague Convention'. The British memorandum on the project emphasised that in spite of the vigilance of their customs officials in colonies like Malaya and Hong Kong, smuggling had greatly increased, and now 'seriously embarrassed the Governments of those territories'. Smuggled opium or morphine were indeed embarrassing: they reduced the colonial revenue.
    Having proposed the Commission, the British were in a good position to limit its terms of reference, which they did by insisting that only the distribution and consumption of opium—not production—should be studied. Three Commissioners were chosen: a Belgian economist and two members of the diplomatic corps, from Czechoslovakia and Sweden. Their qualifications for selection remain obscure. They held sittings in more than thirty different centres within the space of seven months, which precluded any possibility of investigation in depth—though as they were careful to explain, staying longer would not have helped, as the kind of information they were looking for was not available. They had hoped to be shown the results of research; but
in this field little has been done. Even the question of how much morphine a smoker or an eater of opium absorbs is unsolved. Practically every question connected with the opium smoking problem needs scientific study. A few examples of problems requiring investigation are the actual effects of opium smoking on the individual, the effect of dross upon the consumer, the relative harmfulness of smoking and eating, the question of heredity... and the possibility of finding harmless substitutes.

    The Commissioners, however, found no difficulty in collecting evidence in the form of personal views about opium; and what they heard surprised them. They had all three come out—they explained in their report—with the prevailing Western notion of the deleterious effects of opium on health, expecting to have it confirmed. But among the witnesses they examined, members of the indigenous races as well as the Chinese, they had found a widespread opinion that opium smoking was not harmful, the arguments in its favour 'reaching sometimes to a superstitious belief in the medicinal value thereof'. They also repeatedly came in contact with the opinion, based on personal experience, that opium used in moderation acted as a useful mental and physical stimulant, the physical stimulus being particularly valuable where people had to work hard under difficult climatic conditions. Even those notorious establishments, the 'opium dens'—or 'opium divans', as they were sometimes known—were far from being the haunts of depravity that Western fancy had depicted. They were 'often the only available resting places for the poor, and though they are not attractive, they are scarcely, even at their worst, more repulsive than the localities where the corresponding classes of the Western people consume beer or stronger alcoholic beverages'.
    In general, the Commission's report did just what the British had hoped it would do. It fed doubt into the minds of members of the League whether opium should be regarded as a social menace; and it actually conceded that the system of government monopolies which had been established in British possessions was the best solution, because it presented the only means by which price and consumption could be controlled. Their policies, the British could boast, had been vindicated. But their scheme, as things turned out, had worked rather too well. It was not opium—the report went on to argue—that was the real trouble. It was opium's derivatives, morphine and heroin, 'a far more serious menace to the world'.
    It had not taken long before heroin's pretensions to be a non-addictive drug had been exposed; and experience had shown that it was far more addictive than cocaine. The timing of the recommendation, too, was unfortunate for the manufacturing countries, as there had just been a succession of embarrassing scandals in connection with the statistics which each member nation was required to send to the League. Between 1925 and 1926, the returns had revealed, at least a hundred tons of morphine had disappeared—in other words, had been diverted from legal into illicit channels.
    The countries concerned had manufactured the morphine, and declared it, as bound by the 1925 Convention to do; the morphine had then simply vanished. Some idea of what this disappearance involved could be gauged from the fact that the world requirements of morphine for medical and scientific purposes were put at less than forty tons a year.
    A search promptly began for a scapegoat, and it was conveniently provided by Turkey, which had refused to ratify the Convention. If the Turks were to disclose their figures—the rumour ran—they might prove revealing. The Turks thereupon disclosed them, and they were indeed embarrassing; but not to the Turks. They showed that Turkey had exported more than two tons of morphine and four tons of heroin to European countries which had ratified the Convention. Under the Convention, they were required to declare all such imports. Assuming that Turkey would not disclose the deals, none of the countries involved had made the required declarations. Those consignments, too, had slipped into the illicit market.
    For still better measure, the Turks threw in the information that in 1928 a single Alaska factory had manufactured nearly 9,000 lb. of heroin—rather more than two and a half times the world's estimated medical and scientific needs, that year, and 8,920 lb. more than the amount which the French had declared, in the production figures they provided to the League, for the three years 1926-8. The French Government, protesting its innocence, closed down the factory. The Turks were apparently expecting this move, as the chemists who lost their jobs were offered work in new heroin factories in Turkey,
    How had the morphine and heroin been diverted? The 'Naarden Case' helped to clear up part of the mystery. Naarden, a Dutch firm, had been ordering huge consignments from other countries, including over 1,500 kg of heroin from a Swiss firm, and re-exporting them—but describing them as 'in transit', so that the Dutch Government would not need to declare them in its returns to the League. But there were no statistics to reveal the drug's ultimate destination.


The Blanco formula

    These scandals attracted hostile publicity. It could no longer be pretended that the Hague Convention, even as 'strengthened' by the 1925 reforms, was working satisfactorily. But how could it be improved? The obvious solution was the one the Americans and Chinese had urged on the other States at the Geneva Conference; limitation of production of opium to the amount needed for medical and scientific purposes. The delegates of the manufacturing countries now announced that they were prepared to accept limitation, provided agreement could be reached on how it was introduced.
    They were very careful to ensure that agreement would not be reached. It was accepted that each of the manufacturing nations should have a production quota; but none of them was prepared to accept a smaller share of the market than it already enjoyed; and the idea of simply freezing the share of each, at the level at which it had been on some agreed date, satisfied nobody, because, it was claimed, it would destroy freedom of choice for the purchaser in the future, and infringe national sovereignty.
    The apparent deadlock had been broken by a member of the League Secretariat. A. E. Blanco, son of a Spanish father and a British mother, had been in the British-run Chinese Customs Service; he had given much thought to the matter. In future, he proposed, any country which wished to use a dangerous drug for medical or scientific purposes should declare in advance what supplies would be needed, and where it proposed to obtain them. In this way it would be possible to allocate quotas in advance the world over, but without freezing the levels or restricting choice; so that if some manufacturer made a particularly good brand of medical heroin or morphine, he would be able to benefit the following year from increased demand.
    The Blanco formula was the simple answer to the objections raised by the manufacturing countries: altogether too simple for their comfort. The Opium Advisory Committee—the 'Smugglers Reunion'—unable to think of any objection to the proposal, decided simply to ignore it. Blanco resigned in disgust, and there the matter would have ended, had his scheme not been brought to the notice of the influential American philanthropist, C. K. Crane.
    Crane, struck by what he felt was the scheme's beautiful simplicity, recommended it in a letter to the State Department. It would automatically disclose the volume of the legitimate drug market in every country, he pointed out; yet it would leave producers free to compete for a larger share of the market, thereby minimising the need for government intervention to apportion quotas. At the same time, States' rights would not be infringed, as States could each decide what supply of a drug they needed. Prompted by Crane, the State Department drew the scheme to the attention of the Advisory Committee. The committee reacted as before. As the delegates could think of no valid objection, 'the only thing to do with the Scheme', the British representative suggested, 'is to bury it'; and on the motion of the Indian delegate, that 'the matter should simply be dropped', it was.


Russell Pasha

    But it was soon revived, and from an unexpected quarter: Egypt, then a British Protectorate, suffering from an uneasy sense of thwarted nationality.
    Towards the end of the nineteenth century the authorities there had become increasingly worried by the number of young men who took to smoking opium or hashish, deserting families, jobs and society. Various measures had been adopted to control drug-taking. Hashish had sometimes been subjected to a heavy duty; sometimes prohibited, with heavy penalties, even death, for anybody caught with it. The frequent alterations of policy, though, were an indication of how ineffective the laws were; largely because they rarely applied to foreigners. The better the law was enforced in Egypt, the higher rose the price of opium or hashish; and the greater the profit would be to foreigners who could import the drugs with impunity and sell them through illicit channels, until the price came down again.
    Malcolm Muggeridge was to describe in his autobiography how, when he went to teach at a school in Egypt in the 1920s, he observed that the students at Cairo University often seemed to be 'faraway, lost in some dream of erotic bliss; a consequence no doubt, in the case of many of them, of their addiction to hashish, widespread among the effendi class, and prevalent among the fellahin, particularly the ones who had moved into the towns' The deleterious effects of this addiction, Muggeridge recalled; were then universally taken for granted,
and the Egyptian authorities, following a plan of modernisation and national revival on the general lines of Kemal Ataturk's in Turkey, spent a lot of money and effort in an attempt to stamp it out. Russell Pasha, the head policeman and the last Englishman to hold the post, was particularly active in trying to prevent hashish getting into the country, and in reducing indulgence in it... if anyone had suggested that all this endeavour was misplaced because hashish did little harm, and was anyway non-addictive, the suggestion would have been received with incredulity and derision.

    And Muggeridge went on to use the recollection as the text for a sermon denouncing the apologists for cannabis half a century later; 'I know of no better exemplification of the death wish in the heart of our way of life than this determination to bring about the legalisation of hashish, so that it may ravage the West as it has the Middle and Far East.'
    The passage in his autobiography happens also to be an interesting exemplification of the way in which moral attitudes can colour memories. 'Russell Pasha'—Thomas Wentworth Russell—did indeed devote a great deal of time and energy to trying to keep hashish out of Egypt. Those were his orders, and he carried them out with intelligence and integrity. But he did not think hashish was a menace. He divided drugs into two categories 'white', and 'black'. Hashish—'the vice of the city slums'—was in the white category; it did 'comparatively little harm', he felt, and could not be held responsible for the country's addiction problem. It would be more sensible, he believed, to legalise the white drugs. According to his friend and biographer Baron d'Erlanger, he announced that 'he was seriously considering some form of government monopoly whereby hashish would be grown domestically, and its smoking would be licensed and made to produce revenue for the Egyptian Government, instead of costing enormous sums for the prohibition and, in addition, draining the country of the money which was sent abroad to pay for the foreign grown raw material'.
    The idea proved unacceptable to his superiors; Russell had to continue to try to prevent hashish smuggling into Egypt. But his main preoccupation was with the black drugs, heroin (which a missionary, Herbert Hayes, identified as the main threat as early as 1922) and cocaine (according to a report from the American consul in Cairo in 1923, fashionable men and women could be seen stopping their automobiles so that they 'could buy their stuff, and sniff it on the sidewalk'). It was heroin, though, Russell recalled in his autobiography, 'which nearly killed Egypt'. D'Erlanger agreed; by 1929, when Russell was appointed Director of the Egyptian Central Narcotics Bureau, it had pushed opium, hashish and cocaine into the background. Heroin not merely provided 'a sensation of pleasant stupefaction, of happy contented drunkenness, of deadening comfortable drowsiness', which was what people had originally taken it for, but also 'a buoyancy of spirits, increased imagination, temporarily enlarged brain power, and a capacity to think of things which they would not otherwise have imagined'. But the price was a disturbing addiction rate. One in four of Egypt's adult male population, Russell estimated, became a black drug addict.
    His first task had been to find how the heroin was coming into the country; something that had baffled the customs officials. From the start, according to d'Erlanger, 'a certain unromantic and sordid aspect was recognised and faced squarely; namely that the obtaining of reliable information is overwhelmingly a matter of money'. It was decided to pay informers so liberally that giving the required information would be more profitable than smuggling. There was an immediate and gratifying response, revealing where the heroin was to be found; 'in cases of olives; in tins of powdered glue, of butter; in barrels of tomato sauce, of oil, and of wine; in sacks of prunes; in millstones; in stoves with false bottoms: in carpenters' lasts; in the soles and heels of shoes; and even by means of tubes concealed in what Mrs. Grundy might have called 'the most intimate recesses of the person' (a method which, d'Erlanger observed, 'starts quite an amusing line of thought when one remembers which was the most usual way of taking heroin for its pleasurable effects').
    But as Russell soon realised, the men who were running the traffic were never caught, because they took good care that the actual smuggler, who might be caught, did not know who they were. As soon as they found their consignments were being intercepted, they switched them into different channels; and any temporary reduction in the supply of heroin available in Egypt actually helped them, by raising its price, to afford the increased outlay in payments to couriers, and in bribes to customs officials And Russell found, as Commissioner Lin had done, that informers would realise they could again make more money by assisting the smugglers than by assisting the police; or, they could have it both ways by tipping the police off to the occasional consignment, while helping the bulk of the heroin to go through.
    Russell was right; it was 'overwhelmingly a matter of money'. There was more than enough money in a single small tin labelled beans, but containing heroin, to persuade many officials to do no more than wink, as the crate full of tins of beans went through; and the financial resources of the traffickers stretched much further than those of the police. For Egypt to try to suppress heroin on her own, Russell realised, was a futile exercise. It could only be got rid of through an international agreement. It was with that objective that he went to Geneva to put Egypt's case to the League. Largely by the force of his personality, he finally goaded the delegates into activity.
    For all his achievement, though, in alerting public opinion to the limitations of international control over the drug traffic Russell did not disguise from himself the limitations of the general policy which he had been called on to carry out in Egypt. Whenever by energetic measures he succeeded in limiting for a while the supply of 'black' drugs, thereby pushing up the price beyond the means of many Egyptians who ordinarily took them, the enforced abstinence, he found, did them little good. They turned, instead, to a mixture of tobacco and henbane—impossible to deal with effectively by police measures, as tobacco was too well established to ban, and henbane grew wild. They even started to drink 'stewed' tea, in the quantities required to intoxicate them, with lamentable consequences 'to both their pockets and health'. So worried did the Egyptian authorities become that in the 1930s they closed the teashops, and smashed the utensils used to make and serve the tea. The addicts found other ways to get it. 'They are always searching for a stimulant', an Egyptian landlord told a committee of enquiry in 1933; and as they could no longer afford the harder drugs, or hashish, 'they are now finding it in this vile brew, to the damage of their health'.
    The reason people became addicted in this way, the landlord suggested, would make an interesting subject for social and medical research. Russell would have agreed. He was a shrewd enough observer to realise that it was not the drugs, but the disposition to take them, that mattered. Why, he wondered, were the Egyptians so susceptible? Might the responsibility lie with the spread of parasite-carried diseases like bilharzia, following the changes in the level of the Nile as a result of the construction of the Aswan Dam? Whatever the cause, a drug or drugs was invariably found to assuage the craving. Coffee, hashish, opium, heroin... and now, stewed tea; 'and so it goes on'.


The 1931 Convention

    And so it went on; at Geneva, too, though not quite so smoothly as before for the members of the Opium Advisory Committee. When Russell arrived in Geneva in 1930 as Egypt's delegate to the Committee, the scene there was quickly transformed: internally, by his energetic efforts to find ways round the obstacles they had put up, and externally by the world-wide publicity his ideas and speeches attracted. When a meeting of delegates from the manufacturing countries that autumn failed to reach agreement, because of their unwillingness to accept quotas, the Blanco formula was revived, and in the summer of 1931, a modified version of it was at last accepted. In future, estimates of production and importation were to be made by each member country, based on medical and scientific needs and submitted, with explanatory memoranda, five months in advance. All exports of heroin were to cease; all illicit heroin seized was to be destroyed or rendered harmless; and all important cases of illicit trafficking were to be reported to the League.
    From the legal point of view, the 1931 Convention was unique; the first not merely to apply the principles of a controlled economy to a group of commodities by international agreement, but also to regulate all phases of the production of dangerous drugs from the time the raw material entered the factory to the final acceptance of the finished product by hospital, laboratory, or chemist's shop. Its impact appeared to be instantaneous; by 1932 the price of raw opium was down to a quarter of what it had been in 1929. The Advisory Committee, which for so long had resisted the introduction of any such controls, now proudly boasted how well they were working. The figures presented by the manufacturing countries showed that they had begun to put the scheme into effect even before it had been formally ratified; the amounts being manufactured had 'closely approximated to, or even fallen below, the amounts which appear to be required for legitimate consumption'.
    Gradually it became clear, though, that the fall in the price of opium had little to do with the new Convention. It was the great slump that had drastically reduced demand; the resulting surplus of opium and its derivatives had pushed down the price; and some governments were restricting the production of narcotics mainly in the hope of keeping the prices from falling further. When the international drug traffic began to recover, it was seen that the Convention was of little help in controlling it. The few countries which had refused to ratify were able to cater for illicit demand, wherever it was to be found; and modifications to the Blanco formula reduced its effectiveness. The advance estimates which countries presented to the League of their drug requirements, it was agreed, did not have to be precise. Illicit narcotics, if seized, need not, after all, be destroyed. And there were no sanctions to employ against governments which failed to fulfill their pledges.
    The collapse of the Convention was described by Ferdinand Tuohy in his Inside Dope, published in 1934, illustrated by the 'news flashes' which he had collected while writing it; ranging from the discovery that 251 carrier pigeons were being employed by the inmates of a U.S. prison to keep them supplied with narcotics, to the report of the discovery by the French authorities of a smuggling trick of the kind recorded a century earlier by Commissioner Lin; a zinc-lined coffin from the Levant had been found to contain heroin, as well as the corpse, the plan being to allow the committal service and the burial to proceed, and 'for those in the deal on this side to act the ghoul later'. In spite of the optimism generated by Russell Pasha's impact at Geneva, Tuohy claimed, 'the dope stream is experiencing small difficulty in finding new channels'. And worse would follow. Earlier drugs—he cited hashish—had at least been 'natural'; it was the alkaloids, the derivatives, which were disastrous. And now, they were being duplicated by chemists; one of his 'news flashes' concerned the invention of a new synthetic drug, far stronger than morphine.
    Tuohy's fears were confirmed by S. H. Bailey's more academic survey of the international campaign against drugs, published in 1936. The third phase of the campaign, as Bailey described it—the first had been initiated at The Hague, and the second by the revised Geneva Convention in 1925—had not, he felt, been operational long enough to be fairly judged; but already administrative difficulties were making themselves felt. Any scheme for the limitation of drugs had to be
grafted on to the diverse legal and administrative roots of more than sixty independent States with their numerous and widely scattered protectorates, colonies, and leased or mandated territories. Desirable international measures may be obstructed by constitutional barriers in one country, or public sentiment in another. Handsome allowance has to be made for the variations in the efficiency, experience and reliability of administrative agencies in different territories.

    And by 1936, the chances that these administrative problems would be solved was small. The League's authority was everywhere crumbling. The Japanese had defied it by occupying China north of the Great Wall; and although they could claim that by setting up their Manchukuo opium monopoly they were only following the British colonial pattern, as accepted by the League's own fact-finding mission, it seemed improbable in view of their record that they would use their powers to reduce production. Visiting Manchukuo for The Times in 1935 Peter Fleming asked himself the question, 'is the monopoly a crusade or a racket?'. On the evidence, he decided, it was clearly a racket. Opium dens had been opened to all, even teenagers; consumption was increasing; and the monopoly was already making huge profits—as the Japanese authorities cynically acknowledged, by imprinting a flowering poppy on their Manchukuo coins.
    But even if the Japanese and all other producing countries had been willing to co-operate, Bailey warned, the effort might be futile, because of the development of synthetic drugs; 'the infinitely varied and variable series of narcotic substances which competitive research continues to discover and the medical profession of the world to demand'. And it would never be easy to control such enterprises because they were highly mobile; 'operations can be begun with little preparation in one centre and, when economic, legal or administrative conditions become less favourable, transferred to another'. It was a prophetic statement; but for the time, the drug manufacturers of illicit drugs hardly needed such assistance. With Mussolini leaving the League, and Hitler ignoring it, its authority was further eroded, and even the semblance of international control of the drug traffic disappeared.

Chapter 12

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