This is the annotated script for the fourth podcast in our series on UK drug use in the 1950s and 60s: Race, Cannabis, Sex and the Police.
The episode covers how cannabis came to be illegal in the UK, its perception in the 1950s popular press and its prosecution by the police. In doing so, the episode demonstrates how cannabis was used in the press to play up social fears around racial mixing and young female independance. It also illuminates some of the origins of the police using drug laws to harass black communities.
You can find the full bibliography used to make this episode here.
Hello and welcome to Hooked on History. This is the fourth episode in our series on UK drug use. In this episode, we will look at the public reactions to cannabis use in the 50s. It has turned out to be quite a topical episode for a podcast covering events that took place six decades ago. On May 25 George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer. It became the homicide that broke the camel’s back. In the US mass protests broke out all over the country. However, demonstrations were not contained to the United States’ borders. Black Lives Matter protests spread across tens of thousands of cities throughout Asia, Europe and Australia. Here in the UK, a unique slogan was added to the chorus of remembrance for the killed and outrage at authorities: “The UK is not innocent.”
Britain has had its own long-standing frictions between the police and its black population. The reality of unequal treatment by the police is laid bare in stop and search statistics. In 2018 an LSE study found that black people were nine times more likely than whites to be stop and searched for drugs, despite using them at a lower rate.1 By telling the story of cannabis use in the 50s, this episode uncovers some of the origins of the unequal treatment. As this is the first episode covering a “drug”, there is an adage you should know; it’s not about the “drug”. This is especially true for public perceptions surrounding cannabis use in Britain.
As a result, this episode is going to start in the 1940s. And its not going to start out talking about weed either but a ship, an old German troop-carrier, bobbing its way toward England across choppy Atlantic seas. The ship’s journey filled the Labour government with anxiety. Prime Minister Clement Atlee did what he could to stop this “incursion”, he tried to have the ship diverted away from the island but despite his best efforts, he was told that could be done.
However, the year was 1948 and the ship wasn’t bristling with Nazi stormtroopers. It had since been converted into a passenger-liner and renamed the Empire Windrush. It was currently carrying citizens of the British Empire who were looking for work. What made Atlee treat this ship bound out of Jamaica as such a threat was that the passengers were black.
The irrationality and racism of the reaction is glaring, especially in the face of how badly Britain needed the workers. Britain had suffered heavily during the war and in 1946 the government estimated they needed a million extra workers to make up for post-war manpower shortages. The Ministry of Labour came up with a series of flimsy excuses as to why afro-Caribbean citizens should not be used to make up the shortage. They would apparently find the coal mines too hot, despite coming from the tropics. They would apparently find outdoor work too cold, despite thousands having served in the sub-zero conditions of World War Two bombers. Instead, the government hoped to make up the labour shortage with white European immigrants.2
However, Atlee had no legal right to divert a ship carrying citizens and the Empire Windrush made it to its destination. Its passengers were initially greeted with a positive, if curious, reception:
[Clip: The Empire Windrush brings to Britain 500 Jamaicans, many are ex-servicemen who know England. The served this country well. In Jamaica they couldn’t find work. Discouraged but full of hope they sail for Britain, citizens of the British Empire coming to the mother country with good intent. Prodded by public opinion, the Colonial Office gives them a more cordial reception than was at first envisaged. Many are to be found jobs.]3
For the passengers, this journey represented opportunity in the land imperial propaganda had taught them was their ‘Motherland’ and which many had just fought to protect. The Empire Windrush and the ships that followed also granted escape from the colonial West Indies, which had recently been devastated by a hurricane and was enduring an economic crisis. The poet James Berry described what emigration to Britain meant to him and his literate friends.
[Clip: Windrush was particularly important because – how old was I then? I was in my early 20s... As we all left school and one or two managed to move on to university and so on; and there were those of us who were left and we were full of anxiety and worry that our education was going to stop. Our parents were not in any position to give us further education. So these were the kind of anxieties with me and those friends that were like that. The idea of this ship arriving and taking workers abroad was quite a happy moment for me and, you know, my friends who were similar.]4
Berry concluded his poem To Travel This Ship:
[Clip: Man Jamaica is a place where generations,
them start out having nothing, earning nothing,
and dead leaving nothing.
I did wake up every morning and find nothing change,
Children them shamed to go to school barefoot,
only a penny to buy lunch.
Man, I follow this little light for change,
I have follow it man]
One of the Empire Windrush’s passengers, who would go on to gain international renown, put his excitement to song.
[Clip: May I know ask your name?
Lord Kitchner, now I’m told that you are really the king of calypso singers, is that right?
Yes, that’s true.
Can you sing for us?
Lord Kitchner sings ‘London is the place for me’.]5
The generation of black immigrants who followed would be named after this ship, the Windrush Generation. At first the migration rate was relatively small, in the thousands. But by the mid-50s this increased to the tens of thousands after another hurricane hit and British public services, like the NHS and London Transport, started paying for people from the colonies to come over and fill key jobs.
As the political hysteria surrounding their arrival might suggest, the cordial introduction did not last. Centuries atop an Empire where white people governed people of colour left large sections of the population with deep racial prejudices. Race riots quickly broke out, where white populations attacked black places of residence. When the police eventually did show up, the black victims tended to be the only ones arrested.6 Initiating a long-standing mistrust between Britain’s black communities and the police.7
An unofficial colour bar, which had already been used to segregate Britain’s small number of existing ethnic minorities, was enforced to the extent that Britain essentially became a quasi-Jim Crow state. Good, well paying jobs where out of reach of the Black population. One egregious example of this was E R Braithwaite, a black man who served in the air force during the war, then got a physics Master’s degree from Cambridge. Nobody would hire him in his field. Eventually, he was persuaded to become a teacher and was placed in one of the East End’s worst schools. He went on to write about this experience in To Sir With Love.8
Housing was also hard to find. The rubric “No Coloureds” often accompanied advertisements for rooms to let.9 In 57 the BBC followed a young black man, Ben Bousquet, around with a camera as he tried to rent a room in Brixton. The resulting documentary recorded rejection after rejection.
[Clip. Bousquet: I’ve heard that you’ve got rooms going and I wanted -
Landlord: I have got a room but I can’t let you in.
Bousquet: I beg your pardon?
Landlord: I can’t let you in. I’ve got fourteen English boys in here.
Bousquet: Fourteen English boys?
Bousquet: So you don’t want um-
Landlord: I can’t, I can’t mix. I’m ever so sorry. I would myself but if I let you come in all my boys would leave. If I let you come in all the other ones would go. Ever so sorry.
Bousquet older: People made all sort of silly excuses: I wouldn’t have you because my husband wouldn’t like it, other said no I don’t take blacks and things like that.]10
It was here in the private life, the hearth and the home, that Brits had the most trouble accommodating black inhabitants. A 1951 survey found that while 70 per cent of respondents didn’t mind working with people of colour, only half would invite such a person into their home and just 30 per cent would allow them to stay.11 Those who couldn’t handle the idea of an ethnic minority staying for tea were asked to give a reason. Many of these responses revolved around feelings of otherness and cultural differences, others were “afraid of what the neighbours would think”, but most could only muster vagueties: “don’t know”, “can’t say” or “just don’t like them”.
Why am I telling you all this? Well, as I said when studying a “drug”, especially when looking at societal reactions to it, its usually not about the “drug” itself. And this racism is the context, and frankly inseparable, from the public conversation about cannabis.
This ‘its not about the drug’ theme for cannabis is glaringly apparent in how arbitrarily it became illegal in the UK. In the 19thcentury the British Empire got into dealing “drugs” in a big way (see Opium Wars for more details) and cannabis was no exception. While basically unused in Britain itself, it was a popular drug in many Asian, African and Caribbean colonies. The Empire made tremendous amounts of money from taxing the drug’s trade, especially in South Asia. By 1900 the cannabis tax made up a fifth of Burma’s revenue.12
This profitable situation was challenged by a diplomatic conference which got out of hand —from the British point of view. In 1924 the League of Nations (a forerunner of the UN) held a conference to limit the trade of opium and cocaine. It ended up being hijacked by Egypt, who used the occasion to push their own agenda of stopping the cannabis trade. Egypt had its own domestic reasons for doing this, but the move also held the added bonus of bloodying their ex-colonial master’s nose by banning their valuable cash crop.13 Britain fought hard to keep the cannabis trade alive but in the end failed.
However, the British Empire was not one to let laws get in the way of drug profiteering (see Opium Wars for more details). The Indian colonial government - loath to give up the income which cannabis represented - illegally continued selling it to other parts of the Empire, Caribbean islands included.14Due to this long-standing trade, many of Britain’s afro-Caribbean immigrants were coming from places where cannabis was accessible and its use was relatively socially acceptable; from the Empire’s point of view, even profitable.
As humans tend to do, many who used the drug continued the habit in Britain. Some struggled to understand why it was so heavily criminalised and found legal intoxicants expensive and harder to obtain.15 Some simply found alcohol’s strong effects inconvenient.16 Now, it is important we don’t fall into the trap of thinking because most cannabis users were black that most blacks were users. The reality is I don’t know what proportion of the black population smoked weed but it is notable that all my sources which examine the black experience in the UK don’t even mention the drug. The sources which are looking at cannabis use in the UK simply use the word “many”, which is usually the historian’s way of saying ‘I don’t know but more than an insignificant amount’.
Since the drug was essentially unused by Britain’s white population, it had a racialised association with Indian and black men. This was exacerbated by the press, who would often mention the race of those arrested for ‘Indian hemp’ possession (an old fashioned term for cannabis). Black crime was a special point of fascination for the British press. Novelist Colin MacInnes, who took a special interest in the 1950s London sub-cultures, pointed out that black criminals “when detected pursued and punished, enjoy, from the Sunday press, a generous publicity withheld from… native entrepreneurs”.17
Overall, in the late 40s, the press had little interest in the drug beyond mentioning it as the reason this or that Indian sailor or black man had been arrested. That would all change in 1950. The police got a tip that hemp was being distributed in a Soho jazz club, ‘Club Eleven’. They raided the racially mixed club, which was packed with over 250 people. On the floor, they discovered 23 packets of hemp, a few joints, a packet of cocaine and an empty morphine vial. Ten arrests were made. This was followed by a raid on the Paramount Dance Hall on Tottenham Court Road, which hosted 500 people. Twenty packets of hemp were found on the floor this time and eight arrests were made.
The press’ attention was aroused by the raids. The racial mixing discovered in the clubs was a particular point of curiosity. One article opened with the line “Teen-age girls in bobby-sox and coloured men wearing zoot-suits and wide-brimmed hats”.18 Throughout the late 40s and 50s, metropolitan jazz clubs acted as a melting pot for young people from all different backgrounds. Colin MacInnes would write in his 1959 novel Absolute Beginners, “The great thing about the jazz world, and all the kids who enter into it, is that no one, not a soul, cares what your class is, or what your race is, or what your income, or if you’re a boy, or a girl, or bent, or versatile, or what you are… you meet all kinds of cats, on absolutely equal terms, who can clue you up in all kind of directions”.19 The soundtrack to these clubs was bebop, a sort of sped-up jazz. [Clip.]
The discovery of young racial mixing in the presence of cannabis gave birth to a narrative of black men pushing the drug on white girls. As one 1950 article put it, “teen-aged girls are falling victims[sic] to marijuana cigarettes, given them[sic] by coloured seamen.”20 This was a narrative that could sell papers and a wave of articles and exposés about weed came out in 51 and 52. The British public knew very little about the effects of the drug, allowing space for sensationalism. The main danger of the drug presented was moral corruption.
Tabloid crime journalist, Duncan Webb, was one of those wishing to cash in on the fresh new outrage. Webb was part of a generation of crime reporters you see romanticised in the era’s noir films and novels. Getting beaten up or threatened in pursuit of a story was all part of the job. Apparently, he even dated the ex-girlfriend of serial killer John Haigh in order to better cover the case.21 Webb wrote his cannabis exposés with all the flair of the era’s sensational crime fiction. His 1951 article opened:
In a London street last night I walked up to a flashily-dressed Negro and murmured ‘Got any stuff?’
Without a word he slipped a thin brown paper packet into my hand. I gave him half a crown. Then we parted, he to tout his wares elsewhere, I to examine my purchase.
That simple and openly conducted transaction was the climax to an investigation into a growing national menace-dope peddling among Britain’s teenagers.22
Webb, true to form, did not stop at buying marijuana. He went on to self-experiment for the benefit of his readers. He described the effects under the subheading “Temptation”:
I passed a burly policeman, and my drugged brain became possessed with the notion that I could throw him across the street with the greatest of ease.
It was then that I decided I must go home to remove myself from any temptation. In my drugged state I was a danger to other people - and to myself.
Criminal behaviour was a popular symptom of cannabis in news articles. A later expose claimed, “The marijuana smoker gets a mad criminal courage. Give him a gun and he will shoot”.23 But this sort of moral corruption was not Webb’s main focus. The fact that large amounts of cannabis was recovered from multi-racial jazz clubs was not lost on him. Under the subheading “Girls beg”, Webb told readers:
The young girls, in particular, abuse themselves in a nauseating fashion before their suppliers, Negroes many of them.
Sometimes the dealer tantalises his victims, refusing to sell until one of the girl has danced with him. Eyes rolling, body twitching, a sixteen-year-old girl then slides into the motions of bebop in the arms of the black peddler.
Webb’s portrayal of a drug transaction bears more than a whiff of resemblance to 19th and early 20th century ‘white slave trade’ scare stories. The archetype of these stories followed a white woman who was seduced by some foreign agent, drugged and then raped. Sullied and in the clutches of drug addiction, she was then forced into prostitution.24 In general, tabloid articles covering black men and white women mixing pushed these ‘white slave trade’ themes of decadence, corruption and attempted rescue.25
As I said in the introduction, racial prejudice got stronger the closer it approached the home or private life. Inter-racial sex and families were a prime social concern during the 50s. Due to most of the black migrants being men, black men and white women was the variant usually explored and worried over. A 1958 poll found that 71 per cent of people disproved of mixed marriages and only 13 per cent approved.26 In the same year, topical news discussion show, People in Trouble, examined the subject. One of those interviewed was:
[Clip. Farson: Mr Wentworth-Day. And you were in fact an advisor to the Egyptian Government and the Sudan, so you know what you’re talking about.
Wentworth-Day: Well I’ve been there and seen them in their own home surroundings. And as a parliamentary candidate I’ve been into a good many working class houses... where there have been many mixed marriages and I’ve seen the children; and my view is this. That no first class nation can afford to produce a race of mongrels. Now that is what we’re doing. Sooner or later that’s going to come back on the children. Those children are unfair hostages to the future; it’s unfair on the children; it’s unfair on the nation. It’s one of the reasons why France is a third class nation today. Too much mixed blood…
Farson: Are you implying that a half-cast is in any way mentally deficient?
WENTWORTH DAY: Definitely.
FARSON: You’ve nothing to prove this at all!
WENTWORTH DAY: That unfortunate child is born with an inferiority complex; if it isn’t born with it it grows up with it.
FARSON: You can’t possibly say that it’s ‘born’ with an inferiority complex. That’s something that we instil into it later.
WENTWORTH DAY: We may instil it and also, the pure black people may do it themselves because they have an instinctive contempt you know for what they call ‘white trash’.
FARSON: But if conditions were different; there was not this social prejudice, such as you have, and there were not the practical difficulties, then if two people were in love then wouldn’t you recommend them to get married?
WENTWORTH DAY: Love is a very curious thing; it depends on how you define it. I think a lot of these mixed marriages are caused purely by downright sex. Or sloppy sentimentality.]27
These were actually some of the tamer opinions Wentworth Day offered. To be fair, Wentworth Day was presented as an extreme opinion and his pseudo-scientific racial-eugenics style of prejudice dying out by this point, but their presence on national TV shows it was a fairly slow death. Another, ‘extreme’ opinion was provided by Lord Altrincham:
[Clip. LORD ALTRINCHAM: I’m sure that I would never be prejudiced on grounds of colour when it came to marrying, I can’t imagine being prejudiced on that ground, it seems to me quite ridiculous that anybody should be.
FARSON: But you might not be but perhaps your friends would and your neighbours, and people who would influence your children?
LORD ALTRINCHAM: That’s the whole trouble you see, it’s this social atmosphere against mixed marriages which creates the problem. It’s because people have got a – a complete bugbear in their minds, a completely unreal idea that mixed marriages are bad that they create a climate in which it is difficult for children of mixed parentage but if there weren’t the atmosphere then it would be perfectly normal, just like people with fair hair and dark hair intermarrying.
FARSON: But at the moment this atmosphere is so strong one would hesitate to recommend a mixed marriage even to two people who are in love.
LORD ALTRINCHAM: Well if they’re really in love they won’t need to have any recommendation, they’ll actually do it. And the more people who do it the quicker this beastly atmosphere will be removed.]
Lord Altrincham would later give up his title, become John Grigg and a substantial figure in the Anti-Apartheid Movement. That a man saying that race is not really a thing and should not be a factor in love is presented as extreme, demonstrates how difficult racial mixing was for the public to accept. The host, Dan Farson offered his opinion:
[Clip. Farson: We’ve heard the two extreme points of view of Mr Wentworth Day and Lord Altrincham. I find it deeply shocking that an enormous number of people in this country would agree with Wentworth Day… However, one can’t be too enlightened about the subject, however one would like things to be one has to face the fact that there is this great social prejudice and all the practical difficulties. In fact, I cannot honestly say that I am really in favour of mixed marriages, but that is because things are as the are. I can only hope they will change.]
One of Wentworth Day’s opinions which wouldn't have been seen as exceptional or extreme was his suspicion that inter-racial relationships revolved around sex. There were deep cultural anxieties and jealousies surrounding black masculinity and sexual ability.
[Clip. Mervyn Jones: There was this sort of mythology according to which black men have enormous sexual potency, enormous sexual power which white men can’t equal, allegedly. So there’s that kind of talk. And then there’s talk that about, “I wouldn’t let my sister my sister go out with them.” You know, “No decent girl would go out with a black man”.]28
White women who did break this taboo were either seen as innocents in mortal danger, or conversely, as promiscuous and sex crazed. Female sexuality was also a point of social anxiety and an overactive sexual desire or peversion was often blamed for their wish to go out with black men. As a result, these women were seen as having been corrupted or possessing loose morals. One black man pointed out, “If I was seen walking down Lime Street with the Queen of England and nobody recognised who she was, it would be assumed that she was a street girl.”29 These women were subjected to particularly unkind treatment.
[Clip. Margaret Miller: White people would never speak to you. As they used to pass you they used to spit. It was terrible, you know, people can be so cruel. Why? I mean we’re all human beings.]30
In To Sir With Love E R Braithwaite agonised over how society would treat the woman he was mad crushed-out-on if he acted on his feelings:
How long would our happy association survive the malignity of stares which were deliberately intended to make a woman feel unclean, as if she had abjectly degraded not merely herself but all womanhood? Only the strongest women could survive such treatment.31
As cannabis was seen as a facilitator of racial mixing, this moral degradation became a symptom of cannabis use by proxy. Often the racial mixing was seen as the larger issue. When the Paramount Dance Hall closed down shortly after the police raid, drugs had nothing to do with it. Instead, it closed because of all the complaints they were getting about black men dancing with white women. The managing director of the dance hall’s owning company told the press, “Frankly, I am not in favour of coloured men and white girls dancing together. You know what it can lead to and so, although we did not mind the coloured people making the dance hall their meeting place, our hospitality must now end.”32 And like that the doors of another place of leisure are closed to people with darker skin and the colour bar become a little tighter.
Beyond racial mixing, cannabis was often associated with the moral corruption of youthful and especially female independence. In another of Webb’s weed exposes, he found a jazz-dancing, marijuana-smoking, occasionally nude-modelling nineteen-year-old girl to be his subject. He asked her, “What are your plans for the future?” She answered, “I don’t know. I want to travel. I want to see France. I don’t want to get married. I don’t want a career. I’ve got no ambition. All I want to do with my life is have a good time.” This answer was Webb’s ‘Ah-ha’ moment, he presented it as the conclusion of her corruption and proof of the evil marijuana peddlers were wreaking on British teenagers.33
Ex-policeman Robert Fabian, who through his radio and TV work was known to the British public as:
[Clip. Fabian of the Yard. Stories of the war against crime as told by the detective of the century: ex-Superintendent Robert Fabian! Here is another crime story from the memoirs of one of the world’s foremost crime detection experts: ex-Detective Superintendent Fabian of Scotland Yard.]34
In 56 he wrote a pulpy piece for an Aberdeen paper. He managed to stuff it with all the drug scaremongering greatest hits: black criminality, racial mixing and female activity anxiety. It opened with a story about a black drug dealer and pimp, Eddie the Villain, before jumping to a totally unrelated story covering of the degradation of a seventeen-year-old girl, Shirley, who visited jazz clubs against her parents' wishes. She was found at the Club Eleven and Paramount raids, it’s heavily implied she was high. Fabian made sure to mention that black men were present. Shirley’s fate was typical of the ‘white slave trade’ motif: “She was chained to him, tighter than ever was medieval[sic] slave-girl, by the bangles of the dope hunger.”35
It was a novel variety of drug-scaremongering as it readily admits that the UK did not actually have a drug problem. The article reads more like a warning against youths associating with bohemian types or visiting multi-racial jazz clubs. By 56 the supposed dangers of jazz clubs were well entrenched in the public’s imagination. A couple weeks prior the paper’s jazz columnist felt the need to write an article to specifically dispel the association between jazz clubs and ‘reefer cigarettes’; apparently that sort of thing only happened in ‘cool’ clubs in London, New York and Los Angeles or dives.36
It should be pointed out that the press’ themes of racial mixing and female degradation weren’t new or exclusive to cannabis. Writer Marek Kohn found the same themes in the 1920s. Just swap out cannabis and black men for opium and cocaine and Chinese men.37 The looks and the sounds of the period may have changed but the social fears were the same. Even after middle England outwardly accepted racial mixing, social fears around women were still projected onto drugs. Sociologist Shane Blackman points out how during the height of the ecstasy scene in the 90s and 2000s, tabloids played up fears surrounding the “fallen woman” and male homosexuality.38 The actual characteristics of the drug matter little, what is important to these journalists are the social fears of the time.
News articles did not need to be as explicit as those by Duncan Webb’s or the ‘detective of the century’ Robert Fabian, the British public was perfectly capable of reading between the lines. In 1953 the West London Observer - which serviced an increasingly multi-cultural area – ran the headline, “17-YEAR-OLD GIRL SMOKED INDIAN HEMP”. The first sentence elaborated:
A pretty, blonde-haired 17-year-old girl was said by Det. Insp. Margaret Heald... to have been smoking Indian hemp on and off since she met a coloured man at a party 18 months ago.39
As any journalist worth their salt knows, everything important about your story should be included in the first sentence. It’s also where you include the ‘hook’, something provocative to give your reader the emotional response. This article, about a teenager being arrested for smoking weed, placed importance on demonstrating the girl’s sexual appeal and that the degrading agent was introduced through racial mixing.
As a hook, it worked well. Black immigration had been a contentious issue in the West London Observer’s letter section. R Thorburn, of Castletown Rd, seemed to have felt she was about to have the last word and titled his letter, ‘Answer this one!’ Her final point was, “Lastly, the front page of this week’s ‘W.L.O.’ has a story of a 17-year-old girl getting Indian hemp from a coloured man, which speaks for itself.”40A couple weeks later the West London Observer published a letter by John Bean stating he was forming an organisation to ban non-white immigrants. The fourth point of the author’s manifesto read, “We constantly hear of white girls being induced to become drug addicts through the machinations of ‘reefer’ smoking Negroes. This degradation of our women must stop.”41
The campaigns of people like John Bean would end up proving successful. The 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act specifically targeted people from non-white colonies. Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell described the act as ‘cruel and brutal anti-colour legislation’. In general, the association between cannabis and blacks offered a convenient way of publicly attacking them without resorting to the language of someone like Wentworth Day and risk being labelled as extreme. By associating a group or practice (such as racial mixing) with a drug, you could frame yourself on the morally safe ground of being anti-drug rather than racist. John Bean of Cowley Road, SW14 was something of an early pioneer. Protecting white women and anti-drug sentiments are still successfully used to campaign against racial immigration today.
[Clip. Donald Trump: They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists; and some I assume are good people.]
The criminality of cannabis use raised the stakes to all this. It added an extra tool in the arsenal of those who wished to stop racial mixing. If the warnings of the press failed or if a young women’s parents couldn’t exercise control over her, there was an authoritative way of stopping racial mixing, the police. In 1963 a police officer and a father were both charged with framing a black man who was going to marry his daughter. They planted a stolen jack and cannabis in his room.42
Others saw the big picture potential of this criminality. In 1955 tabloid journalist Derek Agnew ghostwrote the book Viper. It presented the autobiography of a middle-class white twenty-seven-year-old who got into the Jazz/Bebop subculture, smoked weed in this multi-ethnic environment and eventually got addicted to heroin and cocaine, which he gave up at the end. While the physical and mental distress of heroin addiction offers much of the book’s melodrama, cannabis is presented as just as serious of a menace for its role in causing moral devastation. Derek Agnew signed off the book with:
Let’s face another unpalatable factor, too. That like it or not it is the black races who are responsible for the post war spread of hemp smoking in Britain. The men who hold this view are not anti-colour. They are not conducting a witch-hunt against West Africans and Africans [sic]. They are stating a simple fact. Thousands of these immigrants are pouring into Britain every year. A majority of them smoke hemp. They do not leave their vice at home – they bring it with them. And the blunt truth is that numbers of them take a perverted satisfaction in ‘lighting up’ a white girl. I know. I have watched it happen. And it is a horrible sight!
We cannot stop them entering Britain. We can at least put them out of society’s way for a long, long time, once they have been convicted of drug offences. The law must be strengthened all round. Until it is we are fighting a tiger with a bamboo cane.43
Viper was serialised in a Newcastle newspaper and advertised in the Guardian with a complimentary quote from Labour MP Kenneth Robinson.44 Marek Kohn, who admittedly is much better at writing punchy arguments than me, offers a biting summary of Agnew’s manifesto:
To put it another way, we can’t stop blacks coming over here, but we can use the drug laws to criminalize them, lock them up and keep them out of our society. Prophetic words. Viper is less a drug text than that of a society alarmed about racial pollution, and the consequent eruption of deviant subcultures; the drug that dissolves barriers between the races is the one that instils the most terror. The objective, individual misery of heroin or cocaine addiction is a side issue. That can be beaten on its own, Viper allows. But the race-mixing will take more than medical treatment!45
Kohn was offering his perspective from the 1980s when he wrote ‘prophetic words’, but even at this early stage the drug squad had started using drug laws to police blacks. Before Agnew, the head of the Home Office’s Drug Branch, Thornton, shared a similar statement in a 1951 report:
I think I should take this opportunity to place on record the fact that unless something can be done, by any of the authorities concerned, to stem the ‘invasion’ of unemployed coloured men (mostly British subjects) from Africa and the British West Indies, we shall in a very short space of time be faced in this country with a serious hashish smoking problem... they are of little use in our labour market and ultimately drift to the West End of London—Tottenham Court Road area—where they associate with lower class white girls, drink, peddle hashish cigarettes and generally present a problem to the police.46
His superior at the Home Office felt he was sensationalising and saw no need for such concern over what, on the face of it, was a “small drug problem” and the Colonial Office disagreed with his negative portrayal of black migrants.
The spread of cannabis to the white population was a large concern for the police. Officers generally seemed to share the public’s concern over cannabis’ role in causing the degradation of white women and catalysing racial mixing. An RAF servicewoman who was at the Club Eleven raid said the affair “left me filled with resentment of the police, because I was accused of possessing a low moral standard, fraternising with ‘buck niggers’, and the likelihood of becoming a drug addict.”47 In 1953, Detective-Sargent George Lyle gave a talk about illegal drugs to an attentive audience at the Society for the Study of Addiction. He noted that a large amount of contraceptives were found in the women’s toilet during the Paramount Dance Hall raid, and informed the society, “Some young girls take to prostitution to pay for the drug. Hemp may sap their moral fibre.”48
With these concerns in hand the police seemed to start targeting the black community specifically. While the raids of 1950 focused on the multiracial jazz clubs, in 51 the police used a drug warrant to raid a black pub, only resulting in the arrest of two men. This was possibly the first time the police had ever used the extreme measure of raiding a pub for drugs. The reasons given for the raid was they got a tip cannabis was being sold there, and that the regulars had changed from a white population to a black one. There seemed to be very little strategic reason for a raid considering the small amount of arrests, especially compared to the jazz club raids. In fact the raids on the clubs were so successful in suppressing the trade of cannabis that the resulting shortage is seen as a significant factor in the subculture taking up heroin.49Historian James Mills would write of the raid:
Given the small yield of arrests, it is possible to wonder how far the warrant issued under the Dangerous Drugs Act was any more than an excuse for the police to intervene in a public space that had been contested by locals and migrants and successfully colonized by the latter.50
This raid was the beginning of a trend. The association between blacks and drugs offered an excuse for the police to harass black communities and target centres of black resistance. In the 60s and 70s the Mangrove Restaurant was the heart of Notting Hill’s black activism.
[Darcus Howe: The black community in not only Notting Hill but all over this country has a certain experience with the Police. And that experience, in my terms, is one which could generally described as brutal, harassing and generally repressive and on the 9 August 1970 the action comity in defence of the mangrove restaurant, which is a West London restaurant in Notting Hill, called a demonstration because that restaurant had been consistently harassed by the police. There was three raids on the restaurant, ostensibly for drugs, nothing was found. And so the community responded with a demonstration.]51
The police diagnosed the restaurant as a ‘drug den’ and raided it twelve times in nineteen months. No drugs were ever found on the premises.52
The crescendo of heavy handed, brute force drug enforcement tactics fell in the turbulent 80s, the era of Thatcherite ‘Law and Order’. The black neighbourhood of St Pauls, Bristol was raided in 1980 and 86, the latter involved 600 police officers. Both resulted in riots following resistance.
[Clip. Interviewee: I think the problem in St Paul’s is the youngsters; the police aggression with the coloured youths around.
Interviewer: Police aggression?
Interviewee: Yes police, they have pushed the boys too far. It’s always been the police.
Interviewer: The charges of harassment are levelled against the police as a whole...]53
In 1985, 100 police descended on the Villa Cross pub, netting them a small quantity of cannabis and sparking the Handsworth riots in Birmingham. The next year 2000 police were involved in Operation Condor where the police drove a train into Brixton “with officers crouching below the windows, halted in the heart of the flashpoint area. Then police, some of them armed, poured out of the carriages commando-style and raided shops and houses backing onto the tracks.” This was all done to the muffled backdrop of ex-police, priests and community leaders asking why such militaristic tactics were needed to enforce drug laws in black areas.54
Changes were promised in 1999 after the Stephen Lawrence enquiry diagnosed the Met police force as ‘institutionally racist’; however this process has evidently proven slow.55
Despite their best efforts, the 1950s drug branch’s fears did manifest. A young generation curious to experience the cultures and habits of their new neighbours did take to the drug. Eventually, cannabis would be added to White Britain’s drug staples of tranquillisers, amphetamines, tobacco, cocaine, hypnotics and alcohol. Today the white population smokes weed at a higher rate than the black population. Yet the police have struggled to shake off the association between drugs and the black men, which was so strongly entrenched in the 1950s.
[Clip. Police officer: The reason I stopped you is when you came out of the barns – no offence but you’re a black male okay, I’m not going to lie to you.
Driver: So it’s racism why you’re stopping me.
Police officer: I’m not saying that at all. The reason I stopped you - I’ll explain if you let me finish, all right? In this area we have a number of drug dealers, I’m not saying you’re a drug dealer, they come up from other areas they don’t live anywhere around here-
Driver: I live here.
Police officer: You might know that but I don’t ‘cus I’ve never met you before...]56
In 1950s Britain, the black population was largely treated as an invasive species by the government and public. And collaborators were treated with extreme prejudice. Black people did not enjoy the same protections from the police as the white populace, which was proved time and again during the periods race riots. The police’s main anxiety surrounding cannabis was not its use by the black population but shielding the white populace from it. The racial bias in stop and search may show they are still treated as an other. Black musician and writer Akala, who has had decades of experience being stopped by the police, wrote in 2016:
What racialised stop and search is about, in London at least, is letting young black boys and men know their place in British society, letting them know who holds the power and showing them that their day can be held up even in a nice ‘liberal’ area like Camden in a way that will never happen to their white friends... It is about social engineering and about the conditioning of expectations, about getting black people used to the fact that they are not real and full citizens, so they should learn to not expect the privileges that would usually accrue from such a status. Racialised stop and search is also a legacy of more direct and brutal forms of policing the black body in the UK, from back in the days before political correctness.57
The 1950s press used cannabis as a tool to stoke up fears surrounding this ‘other’ population. Exploiting the British concern over what 'their' women were doing, who they were sleeping with. Their editorial staff was well plugged into the nations social fears. Their success is evident in how quickly cannabis went from a colonial curiosity to a social menace, despite the government and some of the authors describing it as a small problem. As I keep saying, its not about the drug, and that 1950s drug articles so closely mirror the ones in the 1920s shows little advancement on these issues.
The people of the 1950s were clearly struggling to come to terms with the scars of the 19th and early 20th century and shake off ideas surrounding racial-hygiene. Just as we, despite our progress, despite our less offensive language, are still dealing with the scars of 20th century, particularly when it comes to the treatment of black citizens. Unless we are, at the very least, able admit these wounds exist, they are likely to continue to fester.
I would like to thank Marek Kohn for his helpful feedback on the first draft of this script.
2Olusoga, D., Black and British: A Forgotten History, (E-book: Macmillan, 2016). Chapter: Swamped.
5‘Pathe Reporter Meets’, Op. cit.
6Kynaston, D., Austerity Britain, 1945-51, (E-book: Bloomsbury, 2010). Pp. 673-674
7Olusoga, D., Op. cit. P. 1213.
8Braithwaite, E., To Sir With Love, (London: Vintage, 2005).
9Kynaston, D., Op. cit. P. 1190.
11Kynaston, D., Op. cit. P. 1195.
12Mills, J., Cannabis Britannica: Empire, Trade and Prohibition, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).
13Kozma, L., ‘Cannabis Prohibition in Egypt, 1880-1939: From Local Ban to League of Nations Diplomacy, Middle Eastern Studies, 2011, vol. 47, no. 3, pp. 443-460; Mills, J., (2003) Op.cit.
14Mills, J, Cannabis Nation: Control and Consumption in Britain, 1928-2008, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013). P. 52-53
15Davenport-Hines, R., The Pursuit of Oblivion: A Social History of Drugs, (London: Phoenix Press, 2002). P. 299.
16Mills, J., (2013) Op.cit. P. 64.
17Davenport-Hines, R., Op.cit. P. 299.
18‘DRUGS SEIZED IN RAID ON BEBOP CLUB, SAY YARD’, Sunday Pictorial, 16 April 1950. P. 3.
19Davenport-Hines, R., Op.cit. P. 302.
20‘Jive girls victims of drug drug racket’, The People, 19 November 1950, p. 5.
22Webb, D., ‘DOPE: A warning to young people’, The People, 18 February 1951, p 4.
23Fabian, R., ‘These girls are the city’s damned souls’, Aberdeen Evening Express, 31 May 1956, p. 3.
24Kohn, M, Dope Girls: The Birth of the British Drug Underground, (London: Granta Publications, 2001). P. 31.
25Bingham, A. and Conboy, M., Tabloid Century: The Popular Press in Britain, 1896 to the present, (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2015). P. 213.
26Buettner, E., ‘”Would You Let Your Daughter Marry a Negro?”: Race and Sex in 1950s Britain’, in Levine, P. and Grayzel, S. eds., Gender, Labour, War and Empire: Essays on Modern Britain, (E-book: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), pp. 219-237.
28‘Windrush’, Op. cit.
29Collins, M., ‘Pride and Prejudice: West Indian Men in Mid-Twentieth-Century Britain’, Journal of British Studies, 2001, vol. 40, no. 3, pp. 391-418.
30‘Windrush’, Op. cit.
31Braithwaite, E., Op. cit. P. 91.
32‘CLOSED-THROUGH SEX SQUABBLES,’ The People, 9 July 1950, p. 5.
33Webb, D., ‘LONDON’S DRUG FIENDS EXPOSED: Dope Street’, The People, 20 June 1954, p. 3.
35Fabian, R., Op. cit.
36Enefer, D., ‘Drugs and the jazz clubs...’, Aberdeen Evening Express, 12 May 1956, p. 3.
37Kohn, M., (2001) Op. cit.
38Blackman, S., Chilling Out: The cultural politics of consumption, youth and drug policy, (Maidenhead: Open University Press, 2004).
39‘17-YEAR-OLD GIRL SMOKED INDIAN HEMP’, West London Observer, 4 September 1953, p. 1.
40‘West London Opinion’, West London Observer, 11 September 1953, p. 6.
41‘West London Opinion’, West London Observer, 25 September 1953, p. 8.
42‘P.c. ACCUSED OF “FRAMING” COLOURED MAN’, The Birmingham Post, 9 January 1963, p. 3.
43Kohn, M., Narcomania: On Heroin, (London: Faber and Faber, 1987). P. 95.
44Agnew, D., ‘Story of a DRUG ADDICT’, Evening Chronicle, 5 April 1956, p. 1.; ‘Display Ad 65’, The Observer, 18 March 1956, p. 17.
45Kohn, M,. (1987), Op.cit. P. 96.
46Mills, J., (2013) Op. cit. P. 76.
47Hallam, C., White Drug Cultures and Regulation in London 1916-1960, (e-book, 2018). P. 193.
48‘Discussion Following Detective Sergeant Lyle’s Paper’, BJA, 1950, Vol. 50, No. 1, pp. 56-58.
49Mills, J, (2013), Op.cit.; Davenport-Hines, R., Op.cit.; Kohn, M., (1987) Op.cit. all offer this as the reason. Hallam, C., Op.cit adds further explanations.
50Mills, J, (2013), Op.cit. P. 78-79.
52Chowdhury, T., ‘Policing the “Black party”: racialized drugs policing at festivals in the UK’, in Koram, K ed., The War on Drugs and the Global Colour Line, (London: Pluto Press, 2019), pp. 132-180.
54Kohn, M., (1987), Op. cit. P. 160-161; Chowdhury, T., Op. cit.
57Akala, Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire, (London: Two Roads, 2018). P. 342.