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The Queen and the Hookah

When I created the above design two or three years ago, I knew that Queen Victoria had smoked opium.  I liked to imagine that cannabis was included in her medical arsenal and so it proves!  I may well have known this, or certainly assumed it, but memory plays funny tricks and I thought it might simply have been fanciful thinking.

An article in yesterday’s edition of the New Statesman gives the evidence in its review of Drugged: The Science and Culture Behind Psychotropic Drugs by Richard J Miller (OUP).

“Even Queen Victoria was prescribed tincture of cannabis. It is believed she was amused (perhaps very amused).” The world now may be inching its way back to a more sensible view, given the legalisation of cannabis by Uruguay in December, and the growing movement for decriminalisation in many American states.”

A London opium den in the 1870s, by Gustav Doré Image: Hulton Archive/Getty

A London opium den in the 1870s, by Gustav Doré Image: Hulton Archive/Getty

Some years ago, I read a fascinating account of the moral panic about drugs in the early 20th century chiefly engendered by the powers-that-be using false statistics and exaggerated or ‘beefed up’ horror stories. Dope Girls: The Birth of the British Drug Underground by Marek Kohn opened my eyes to our inherited perception of drugs and its culture and the way the Establishment characterises it.

The blurb makes it sound like a rip-roaring thriller:

A drug panic. Murder. Terrifying and mysterious black and Chinese immigrants. Dope Kings. Jazz. War. An actress dead of an overdose. “Dope Girls” is about the transformation of drug use into a national menace. It revolves around the death in 1918, in the last furious stages of World War I, of Billie Carleton, a West End musical actress. Its cast of characters includes Brilliant Chang, a Chinese restaurant proprietor, and Edgar Manning, a jazz drummer from Jamaica. Around them in the streets off Shaftesbury Avenue and in Chinatown swirled a raffish group of seedy and rebellious hedonists. The drug problem was born, amid a gush of exotic tabloid detail.

The reviews paint a much clearer picture:

  • “A fascinating look at cocaine and opium use in Britain after the first world war” Sarah Waters, Sunday Times
  • ‘The best, most perceptive and most authoritative account of the British drug scene ever. This book is essential reading for doctors, legislators and law enforcers – indeed anyone who seeks to understand the impact that the illegal status of drugs has had on our society and culture” Will Self

It may be, as the New Statesman article suggests, that the tide is turning and that a more ‘sensible view’ will permeate the globe.  I do hope so. The medical benefits are huge while the associated crime gets ever worse.

If I were to make a contemporary analogy, I’d compare it to the moral panic being cultivated by the UK Coalition, not to mention the right-wing media that do their bidding daily. Stirring up hatred against so-called ‘scroungers and skivers’ when actual facts and statistics show that fraud is minuscule and that the most vulnerable in our society are being eliminated every week by ferocious cuts, is criminal in the extreme. Hate crime against the disabled, for instance, has risen dramatically since David Cameron and Nick Clegg came to power.  Visit disabled performer and activist Liz Crowe to read (and tweet) the reality — In Actual Fact.

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