Whether it’s gummies, cookies, brownies, or even soda, it is hard to imagine today’s cannabis culture without edibles. Many of these stony treats offer the delectable pairing of cannabis and sugar, two of the world’s most popular indulgences. Yet most people do not know that the two commodities share a historical relationship as well as a culinary one—and that historical relationship is rooted in oppressive labor regimes.
Over the last two decades, changing cannabis laws around the world have brought renewed scholarly attention to the plant. Together with older work, recent books have helped us piece together the bigger picture of cannabis history, giving us a better idea of how the plant traveled the world, for instance, or how large-scale cannabis cultivation affects the environment. Research on the plant’s history in previously overlooked areas, such as Mexico and Africa, help us see the true depth and extent of trends that earlier scholarship only partly exposed.
One of the most significant of these trends is that cannabis traveled across the Americas within oppressive systems of agricultural labor—in particular, the sugar industries that developed across the Atlantic World after 1492.
Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Bob Beach. Beach is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Albany, SUNY.
I recently had occasion to think about an interesting diversion in my very early dissertation research. I was reading Martin Booth’s history of cannabis, and he mentioned “The Arabian Gunje of Enchantment,” produced by the Gunjah Wallah Company of New York. While the focus of my dissertation has slowly moved the research out of the 19th century, my deep personal interest in candy, coupled with a recent trip to a Massachusetts dispensary, gave me reason to revisit this mysterious “hasheesh candy.”
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.
It’s been a big month for cannabis legalization news.
On May 31, Illinois became the 11th state to legalize recreational marijuana use, and did so via state legislature (making it only the second state, after Vermont, to do so in this manner). But earlier this week, a movement to legalize in New York fell flat. Meanwhile, the federal government continues to debate whether the Justice Department should be allowed to interfere with state and territorial legalization laws.
Like I said, a big month, with, many predict, more news to come.
As drug and alcohol historians, our question is always, “How did we get here?” It turns out that the folks at MarijuanaDoctors.com were asking the same question. They put together a bibliography that covers the culture, politics, history, horticulture and science of cannabis (as well as a section on the “Best Reads While High,” which might be slightly more subjective), and it could be a useful starting place for those hoping to understand our strange new cannabis world. You can check out the full list here, and what follows are some highlights.
Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Dr. David A. Guba, Jr., of Bard Early College in Baltimore.
In early April 2017, Kobili Traoré, a 27-year old Malian immigrant, murdered an elderly Orthodox Jewish woman named Lucie “Sarah” Attal-Halimi in the Belleville neighborhood of northeastern Paris. Neighbors who witnessed the attack told police that Traoré appeared “crazed,” repeatedly called Halimi a “Jewish devil,” and shouted “Allahu Akbar” and Koranic verses as he violently beat her, then threw her from a 4-story window to her death. After his arrest Traoré claimed he remembered nothing from the night in question and felt “possessed by a demonic force” after “smoking too much cannabis” throughout the day leading up to the assault.
In the now over two years since Halimi’s murder, the French court has wavered in its official opinions on Traoré’s sanity and thus criminal culpability. Initially, François Molins, prosecutor in Paris’s second district, argued that the attack did not constitute an anti-Semitic hate crime and declared Traoré unfit for trial as a result of an acute episode of cannabis-induced psychosis, a decision he largely based on an initial and somewhat ambiguous psychiatric evaluation produced by Dr. Daniel Zagury, the same psychiatrist who established the legal culpability of Salah Abdselam, mastermind of the November 2015 Paris attacks, and dozens of other ISIS-inspired and -trained terrorists detained in France. In his report, Zagury wrote, “Today, it is common to observe, during delusional outbreaks…in subjects of the Muslim religion, an anti-Semitic theme: The Jew is on the side of evil, of the devil. What is usually a prejudice turns into delusional hatred.” Traoré’s murder of Halimi, he thus concluded, “constituted a delusional if anti-Semitic act.”
Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.
My main concern when writing this book was to try and de-scramble the loaded meaning that has surrounded cannabis as a commodity throughout history ever since people from all over the world started making there way into, across, and around the Atlantic Ocean. Cannabis has meant so many different things to different people, so I wanted to try and provide a better understanding of why this is the case, and to explain how and why the plant has transformed in meaning so many times.
What do you think a bunch of alcohol and drug historians might find particularly interesting about your book?
I hope they find it interesting how Europeans and U.S. Americans went from seeing this plant as such an important strategic commodity, to a valuable medicine, then to a not-so-valuable medicine, then a sinister banned intoxicant, and now (for some, at least) to a commodity with value again. Of course, not all of the changes in perception of the plant’s utility fit nicely into separate and distinct categories over the course of all this history, but rather these changes in meaning overlapped with each other through time and space. This shiftiness that cannabis has endured is fascinating. Not all drugs have went through so many complicated transformations, and very few commodities in general have fallen in and out of favor so many times as this plant. Investigating the cultural roots behind these changes is interesting and deserves more focus.
Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?
It was interesting to find that some of the source material I discuss in the chapters regarding cannabis use as a medicine in the United States during the 19th century have not really been investigated in detail by others who’ve mentioned them in their books. For example, I found that an organization called the American Provers’ Union published a pamphlet in 1859 titled On Cannabis Indica. Most authors who have cited this source ever since Ernest Abel’s popular book on marijuana came out in the 1980s have repeated the same mistake that he made regarding the date of this source, which he claimed came out over a decade before it was actually published. Rather than go to the source themselves, authors simply regurgitated what he said without critical analysis. I also think the short medical “dissertations” on cannabis from the mid-19th century that I used are interesting, and the material about the history of gardening and the intersection between hydroponics cultivation and cannabis prohibition was fun to work on.
Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone are you most curious to see turned over soon?
Some of the material I encountered about the League of Nations has inspired me to look further into the concept of transnational drug control cultures as a neo-imperialist tool in the 20th century, and a lot more needs to be done regarding the history of hemp in Russia and the Soviet Union. I also like the idea of looking more into the role of clandestine cannabis cultivation in the United States during the second half of the 20th century. I think telling the story of these “Guerrilla Growers” and the cultivation cultures they established is a fascinating idea, but obviously a difficult one due to the nature of the source material.
BONUS QUESTION: In an audio version of the book, who should provide the narration?
Jim Dale all the way. Anyone who can narrate the entire Harry Potter book series as masterfully as he has done, would be great to listen to with any book, regardless of the subject.
Editor’s Note: Today marks our last interview with the authors of the newest edition of the Social History of Alcohol and Drugs, which focuses on the intersection of drugs and US foreign relations. Today we’re talking to Dr. Lina Britto, an assistant professor of History at Northwestern University where she teaches on the history of the drug trade and the war on drugs in the Americas, among other subjects. You can read Britto’s article in its entirety for a bit longer here.
Tell readers a little bit about yourself
I’m Colombian, and recently became U.S. citizen as well. I began my career as a journalist, and I still write journalism when I manage to carve time between teaching and other responsibilities. I did a Masters in Anthropology, which made me to fall in love with History, so I decided to became a historian. My PhD in Latin American and Caribbean History is from New York University, and before coming to Northwestern University, where I work as an assistant professor in the Department of History, I was a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies, Harvard University.
What got you interested in drugs (and their history)?
The reality of my country, which is still one of the main producers of cocaine in the world, and my own lived experience as a member of a generation who grew up in Pablo Escobar’s Medellín in the 1980s and early 1990s. But because I’ve always liked to swim against the tide, my interest was never really to understand the history of cocaine, which I found so pervading and asphyxiating. My curiosity was directed toward my father’s homeland, the Guajira, the northernmost section of Colombia’s map in the Caribbean coast, where the country’s first drug boom took place in the 1970s around marijuana, not cocaine. Trying to connect with that other side of my family and with my own roots, I began to explore that story almost 15 years ago. Now it’s a book.
Dr. Lina Britto
Explain your journal article in a way that your bartender wouldn’t find boring
Before marijuana became mainstream and half of the states in this country legalized it completely, a group of young economists in Colombia, the country that supplied most of the weed that the hippies smoked in the United States at the time, proposed legalization. The idea was presented during a publicized conference in Bogotá that U.S. diplomats and scientists attended. The goal was to provide policymakers with an alternative solution other than the bloody war that Washington and Bogotá waged together against producers and traffickers in Colombia. But the time was not ripe yet. In 1979, such a bold idea only served to infuriate those who believed in the “war on drugs.” So, before consumers and their advocates got crushed here in the 1980s, during the Reagan administration, the forces that called for a less punitive solution to the drug problem got silenced in Colombia. Their political defeat during this month-long debate marked the end of the idea of marijuana legalization in both countries. Only in the last decade, this idea resurfaced again, this time under a completely different set of circumstances and results.
Is this part of a larger project? What else are you working on?
Yes, this is a small section in one of the chapters of my forthcoming book, entitled Marijuana Boom: The Rise and Fall of Colombia’s First Drug Paradise, which will be published by the University of California Press in 2020. Additionally, I’m in the phase of conceptualization and exploration of my second book project, which will examine the history of my hometown, Medellín, during its transition from an industrial pole of development to a cocaine dystopia, but from a counterintuitive perspective. Again, swimming against the current.
Based on your research and experience, what do you see as the frontier or future of the field?
I see colleagues doing all kinds of things, some of them quite creative. As a Latin Americanists, what I would love to see more of are twentieth-century regional and national histories of countries that are apparently peripheric for the transnational drug trade business in the Americas, however central in ways that we don’t understand yet, such as Ecuador, Argentina, and Chile.
What scholar, living or dead, would you most like to have dinner with?
First, I’d go out for brunch with Elena Poniatowska, one of the greatest Latin American thinkers of our times, a journalist, a novelist, a trailblazer, a true artist in the widest sense of the term. And then I’d have dinner with E.P. Thompson to pick his brain about my second book project. That’d be a good Sunday.