Editor’s Note: Today’s book review comes from Nick Johnson. Johnson holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Southern Illinois University and a master’s degree in American history from Colorado State University. A former freelance journalist in his home state of Illinois, Johnson now lives in Fort Collins, Colorado, and works as associate editor of the online Colorado Encyclopedia. He is the author of Grass Roots: A History of Cannabis in the American West.
Despite a vast and ever-growing scholarly literature on cannabis, the African experience with the plant is too often glossed over or entirely neglected. One gets a sense of this reading some of Chris Duvall’s earlier work, including the global history Cannabis (2015). But in his most recent book, The African Roots of Marijuana (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019), the geographer hammers this point home with an infallible rigor that should convince other cannabis scholars to more closely examine the biases reflected in their own work.
Duvall’s most pervasive and important argument in the book is that Europeans’ historic preference for hemp over drug cannabis was rooted in racist interpretations of cultural ecologies, and those interpretations became the foundation for much of what is known (or assumed) about the plant today. In Europe, where ecological conditions favored hemp, cannabis was known as the fiber-yielding plant of productive industrialists; in South Asia and Africa, where ecological conditions favored drug-producing cannabis, “the plant was valued principally to supply psychoactive drugs” (103). When nineteenth-century Europeans began traveling Africa under the oppressive shadow of colonialism, they saw the use of cannabis drugs as an unnatural corruption of the plant itself as well as an indicator of Africans’ supposed backwardness and inferiority (10-11). This perspective then became embedded in Western understandings of cannabis and remains lodged there today, despite a robust academic literature on the role of racism and colonialism in the development of scientific thought.