“Without Hemp Columbus Would Not Have Reached America”: Barcelona’s Hash Marihuana and Hemp Museum

Editor’s Note: Today’s piece is by Dr. Miriam Kingsberg Kadia, Associate Professor of History at University of Colorado Boulder and author of the book, Moral Nation: Modern Japan and Narcotics in Global History.

Having visited museums and exhibitions on intoxicants (several of which I’ve reviewed for Points) in nearly ten different countries, a few consistent patterns have emerged. Perhaps most strikingly, content tends to focus overwhelmingly on production and regulation, while all but entirely excluding issues around consumption. In national institutions such as the Drug Enforcement Agency (Washington, D.C.), the Drug Elimination Museum (Yangon, Myanmar), and the Opium Museum (Chiang Rai, Thailand), this slant reinforces other forms of anti-drug propaganda in vilifying “evil” traffickers against a “hero” state. At private institutions, where curators may enjoy greater intellectual freedom, many are nonetheless discouraged by the lack of reliable information to show the public.

The Hash Marihuana and Hemp Museum of Barcelona, by contrast, is almost entirely devoted to consumption of Spain’s most recently decriminalized substance. Together with its “older sister” institution in the Netherlands (a nation long known for its liberal drug policies), this museum encourages the tolerance and even celebration of marijuana by showcasing the many important functions the drug has played for users around the world and throughout time.

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Entrance to the Hash Marijuana and Hemp Museum (All photos courtesy of the author)

The two-story museum was established in 2012 in the Palau Mornau, originally constructed as an elite residence during the fifteenth century. The building was beautifully renovated in a modernist style in the early twentieth century, and then again in the twenty-first century with an eye towards transforming it for its current purpose. With its spiral staircase, stained glass roof, elaborate ceilings, and period furniture, the building is almost as much of an attraction as the exhibit—a fact recognized with strategically placed photographs and texts pertaining to its history. It is located on Carrer Ample, the main thoroughfare of Barcelona in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Today the street wends through the city’s tourist heart, the Gothic quarter. With Catalonian law permitting production for personal consumption in private spaces, the area is peppered with boutiques selling smoking paraphernalia and marijuana seeds for self-planting. The museum gift shop itself offers these items, along with free advice literature on growing. It also dispenses complimentary stickers for “Weedmaps,” an app designed to assist consumers in navigating the local marijuana scene.

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Marijuana Dispensary on Carrer Ample

The museum is open daily (except for national holidays) from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Admission to the permanent collection—nine euros per adult at the door, or 8.50 euros if purchased online in advance—includes an audioguide in the user’s language of choice: Catalan, Spanish, or English. (Tours in Italian and French are offered by appointment.) The museum also offers temporary exhibits (with free admission) in a small gallery on the first floor. At the time of my visit in early September, the space was given over to representations of marijuana in cuisine, including recipes for guacamole, hummus, and shakes.

The bulk of the permanent exhibition was donated by Ben Dronkers, a Dutch marijuana enthusiast who accumulated the world’s largest known collection of cannabis-related artifacts—more than 8,000—from around the world over four decades. In making his prized possessions available to the public, Dronkers states: “Here we want to inform people about the significance of hash and marihuana, not only in the coffee shops of Amsterdam or the social clubs in Barcelona, but as a worldwide cultural and natural phenomenon.”

IMG_20170903_113241318In keeping with this ambition, the Hash Marihuana and Hemp Museum seeks to boost the reputation of intoxicants and intoxicant culture. Initial displays situate hemp as a respected plant used in ancient societies from China to Ethiopia. Most of the exhibition is devoted to early modern and modern times. Paintings by Old Masters represent peasants enjoying a smoke in bucolic social settings. Paraphernalia from various centuries is displayed like art in glass cases. Quotes from musicians including Louis Armstrong, Bob Dylan, and Bob Marley laud the impact of cannabis on creativity. One room is devoted to medical applications of marijuana. “Press B to hear about healthy ways of using cannabis,” the audioguide directed me. Perhaps boldest is the museum’s claim that “without hemp Columbus would not have reached America.” The plant was needed for rigging, ropes, sails, and flags; was mixed with tar to caulk the explorer’s ships; and was stocked onboard for use in food, clothing, paper, and lamp oil. In tribute to the essential role played by hemp, a statue of Columbus erected on the Barcelona pier in 1888 includes a relief of the plant’s leaves on its base. The museum itself marvels that the decoration was allowed to stand, speculating that the size and elaborateness of the monument simply prevented any objectors from noticing.

In keeping with its pro-marijuana stance, the museum condemns efforts to ban the drug. Summarizing U.S. anti-narcotics policies, the audioguide declared that “the War on Drugs has failed.” I would have liked to hear more about the process of decriminalization in Catalonia as a possible alternative model. However, despite the passage of new regulations this past June, the position of the state remains vague and subject to legal challenge, making the topic difficult to distill for visitors.

During the hour and a half or so I spent at the Hash Marihuana and Hemp Museum, I learned a great deal of interesting pop culture trivia (for instance, what Popeye smokes in his pipe). Ultimately, however, such trivia amounts to the main takeaway of the institution. Calling attention to the individual benefits, material culture, and connoisseurship of marijuana is certainly a start towards decriminalizing the drug in the public mind. But the exhibition is largely blind to larger issues of political economy. In an age when observers routinely tie cannabis to narco-state building, any attempt to reclaim the reputation of the drug must acknowledge exploitation, violence, and bloodshed in disenfranchised communities. Providing the museum’s target demographic—marijuana enthusiasts with the resources to travel—with information on these issues would be a possible avenue towards bringing consumer pressure to bear on production conditions, and finding solutions to some of the structural inequalities arising from the drug trade.

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