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Colonial India and Hemp: A tale of gained culture and lost traditions

Updated: Aug 6, 2023

During the colonial rule of India, which spanned from the early 17th century to the mid-20th century, the significance of hemp underwent significant changes. The plant's versatility and utility were exploited by the colonial powers, primarily the British, for economic gains and industrial purposes. However, as the colonial era progressed, concerns about the social, cultural, and health impacts of cannabis consumption emerged. This led to a phase of decline and eventual banning of hemp in India.

Economic Exploitation and Control:

Colonial powers strategically controlled hemp production to ensure their economic interests were met. Large-scale plantations were established, often at the expense of traditional crops and agricultural practices. This shift to cash-crop cultivation disrupted the local economy and led to a dependency on hemp for the livelihoods of many farmers.

Cultural Appropriation and Stigmatization:

As colonial authorities sought to assert control, they often appropriated cultural practices surrounding hemp. The plant's use in traditional rituals and ceremonies faced increased scrutiny and condemnation. Local customs were marginalized, and cannabis consumption was stigmatized as being associated with primitive or backward practices.

Medical and Social Concerns:

Over time, medical professionals and colonial administrators began expressing concerns about the potential health risks associated with cannabis use. Reports of excessive consumption and its perceived negative effects on mental health further fueled skepticism about the plant's overall impact on society.

Legislative Measures and Banning of Hemp:

The concerns about hemp's potential negative effects led to the introduction of strict legislative measures to regulate its usage. In 1838, the British colonial government appointed a commission to investigate the use of cannabis in India. The commission recommended that the non-medicinal use of cannabis be discouraged and restricted.

The Opium and Drug Act of 1857:

In 1857, the British Indian government passed the Opium and Drug Act, which marked the beginning of the decline of cannabis in India. The act aimed to regulate the sale and consumption of opium, but it also included cannabis, effectively imposing restrictions on its use and trade.

The Indian Hemp Drugs Commission of 1893-1894:

In response to growing concerns about the impact of cannabis on Indian society, the British government appointed the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission in 1893. The commission conducted an extensive study on cannabis use in India and concluded that moderate use of cannabis did not pose significant health risks. Despite this finding, legislative restrictions on cannabis continued.


The colonial rule of India had a profound impact on the history of hemp. It went from being an integral part of the economy and culture to facing decline and eventual prohibition due to social, cultural, and health concerns. The legislative measures introduced during the colonial era laid the groundwork for the eventual banning of cannabis in India in the mid-20th century. The history of hemp in colonial India serves as a stark reminder of the complex and sometimes detrimental consequences of colonial rule on the social and economic fabric of a nation. As we examine this history, we must strive to understand the broader implications of colonialism and the long-lasting effects it had on the Indian subcontinent, both positive and negative.



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