It’s a world history of the plant genus Cannabis, which is the most widespread crop. The events that enabled cannabis to colonize the world from its evolutionary origins in Central Asia include many of humanity’s most notable migrations. Nowadays, people mostly think of ‘cannabis’ as meaning ‘marijuana’, but the plant has meant many things to many people. It has been bred to produce fiber, oilseeds, and drugs. In the West, cannabis was most valuable historically as the source of hemp, used to make ropes and sailcloth during the Age of Sail. Its value sank to almost nothing by the early 1900s, when sails no longer powered commercial shipping. When Europeans first encountered drug cannabis in Asia and Africa in the 1500s, they saw this as an unfamiliar, wasteful use of a familiar, valuable plant. Unfortunately, this perception resonated with European colonialist views of the world, and cannabis drug use entered negative stereotypes about non-Europeans—even though Europeans have used the drug since they first encountered it. Layered upon these stereotypes was the reality that most cannabis drug users were members of low labor classes. For centuries this use was tolerated, but in the early 1900s, authorities increasingly saw drug cannabis as a problem. Since hemp had lost nearly all value, cannabis drug control laws had minimal economic consequences to 20th-century authorities. The laws that emerged were biased against the poor and people of color, and current drug-law enforcement maintains these biases. The history I tell in the book challenges widespread ideas about the plant’s past, because most cannabis world histories have been light on research and heavy on political advocacy for or against prohibition.
What do you think a bunch of alcohol and drug historians might find particularly interesting about your book?
I think perhaps that it provides an account of the plant’s cosmopolitan distribution based on physical geography, plant biology, linguistics, sociology, pharmacology, science studies, and history. I’m a geographer, so my approach is different from many historians. My strongest influences in writing the book were post-colonial scholars like Judith Carney, Londa Schiebinger, and James Blaut, alongside drugs historians like James Mills, Isaac Campos, and David Courtwright. My past research has focused on understanding people–plant interactions from multiple disciplinary perspectives, not just drug plants in history. I think my interdisciplinary approach helps bring new ideas into the discussions of drug historians.
So what new ideas might the book bring? Three come to mind. First, there has been really important research in plant genetics recently that clarifies the evolutionary history of cannabis. This work shows that there are two cryptic species that people were unable to differentiate except through drug use until the 1960s. Recognizing the genetic basis of psychoactivity and the plant’s evolutionary geography is helpful for understanding why cannabis drug use has often signified cultural difference, not plant diversity, in Western thought. Second, in African Studies several works in the past two decades have shown that societies around the Atlantic bear clear cultural inheritances from Africa, despite past, Eurocentric historiography. I argue that many cannabis drug cultures around the Atlantic are fundamentally African in terms of language and technology (that is, paraphernalia—the bong is a pre-Columbian African invention). This is the topic on which I continue to do research. Third, and really important in considering marijuana’s African past, is the book’s emphasis on social context, not cultural heritage, in determining drug use. African cannabis knowledge is widespread because the plant entered the Atlantic primarily through western Central Africa, and because African-descent peoples have demographically dominated labor underclasses for centuries as a consequence of slavery, colonialism, and racism. Nonetheless, poor, hard laborers from all continents—slaves, sailors, sex workers, low-ranking soldiers, prisoners—have been the drug’s main users for centuries. World histories of cannabis have tended to mask this because they have dwelled upon more charismatic episodes—ancient religious uses in South Asia, 19th-century European pharmacology, and the marijuana boom amongst middle-class people in the Global North since the 1960s.
I really enjoyed finding illustrations for the book, which forced me to think more about visual communication than I had before. I especially valued historic images of drug use (and hemp production), because these bear layered information—both the beliefs of the painter or photographer and aspects of the material culture of the people portrayed. Old images might be direct links to the past, but their meanings inevitably remain ambiguous, always just out of reach. There’s this one postcard, sent by a French soldier of a prostitute in Morocco smoking a joint around 1900. Why did the soldier find the photo worth sending? What was the woman’s expression—resigned, depressed, trapped, or just stoned? Other images are not as weighty. There’s this Japanese pin—“Free Paul”—that was made when Paul McCartney was jailed for marijuana possession in Japan in 1980. I can imagine a tearful, teenaged fan wearing the pin, determined to free a favorite pop star.
I was also fascinated by discovering how many holes there are in the many cannabis world histories that have been published. These world histories have mostly been written by non-professional historians, and while they’re each valuable, to some extent they often rely on received wisdom, politically motivated inferences, and stereotypes. I was frustrated that these world histories were what was available to me as I began researching cannabis in western Africa; my frustration motivated the book. I found pervasive feedback loops between popular ideas about cannabis and the contents of published cannabis histories. For instance, the widespread idea that Queen Victoria used drug cannabis appears in reference books (and has impeded public health efforts in the U.K.), yet traces to pro-marijuana advocacy materials from the 1970s—things like ads in Playboy magazine. A colleague of mine calls this transfer of popular ideas into ostensibly researched works “knowledge laundering”, and it’s common in the cannabis literature. The book helped overturn ideas about cannabis history that I first encountered—that many people probably first encountered—as a college undergrad.
Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone are you most curious to see turned over soon?
There’s a lot to be turned over! The book says a little about a lot of places, but not a lot about any one place. It covers a lot of ground in 40,000 words (about half a typical academic book). It provides context for more narrowly focused studies. I situated many existing studies in the book, but there are many times and places that someone should research. Some suggestions related just to drug cannabis: 1) Southern Asia, particularly Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, and Iran. This region is the elephant in the room of cannabis history. 2) Southeast Asia, where the primary published literature in English and French is thin, despite clear evidence of the plant’s antiquity there as drug and hemp. 3) The Mediterranean, where drug and hemp cannabis have both been present locally for millennia. 4) Brazil, where drug cannabis was earliest documented in the Americas (late 1810s), and most strongly derived from western African antecedents.
These are pretty big stones to turn over. Regional studies are really needed (in addition to the handful published in the last decade). I wrote the book to develop global context for my own study of cannabis in western Africa. I can assure you that the book lacks precision for this region. I expect people focusing other regions will find the same. What I hope, though, is that the book provides an accurate, global framework that can support more precise, less global studies. The book is a big hypothesis that must be tested, and I hope it inspires others to do more research on the plant.
BONUS QUESTION: In an audio version of this book, who should provide the narration?
I can easily think of the types of voice I wouldn’t want. No authoritarian voices—no booming males, no stern females, no professor in the ear buds. The book emphasizes the regular people who’ve interacted with the plant, not authority figures. I also wouldn’t want a reader who’s advocated for or against marijuana (or hemp). I sought a neutral voice in the book. Given these considerations, a person who comes to mind is Queen Latifah—she’s got a clear, engaging voice, and she’s established a public role that challenges multiple stereotypes. This theme, of challenging assumptions, was important to me in writing the book. In any case, if I heard an audio version, I’m sure it would just make me think about all the phrases I’d like to rework….