Global Histories of Cannabis

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Lucas Richert and James H. Mills, professors at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow and the organizers of the Cannabis: Global Histories conference, held April 19-20, 2018. They discuss the importance of developing a “big picture narrative” about the history of cannabis, and, as countries across the world reconsider marijuana laws, emphasize the need for this global approach. Enjoy!

Over the past decade governments in Uruguay, Portugal and the USA have made significant alterations to cannabis policies and other countries, such as Canada, have committed to major change this year. In 2018, Canada will be the first G7 country committed to ending cannabis prohibition at the federal level.

Ninety years after the UK imposed its own 1928 Coca Leaves and Indian Hemp Regulations, the Cannabis: Global Histories symposium at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow addressed a range of historical questions about the origins of attitudes towards, policies on, and markets for cannabis substances.  After all, by understanding how countries have come to the laws and control mechanisms that they currently deploy, and the reasons that consumers and suppliers have often proven to be so resistant to them, contemporary positions and future directions can be clearer, better-informed and free of the prejudices of the past.

There is often danger in analyzing a given intoxicant or medical product through one lens. This conference proposed a broader vision of cannabis in society. It moved beyond analysis of cannabis in a single nation-state and sought to understand the role of cannabis in global medical, political, and socio-economic circles.

Regulating the use of cannabis remains highly contested and the path forward is anything but obvious, but historically there are some insights into drug regulation that may prove helpful in informing the public debates over the next chapter of “reefer madness.” Participants in the Cannabis: Global Histories event (and of course others) have a vital role to play in these debates, particularly for their capacity to weave together a big picture narrative amongst the cacophony of players from policymakers, journalists, physicians, researchers, interest groups, recreational users and the pharmaceutical industry, each of whom have been investing in their own particular messages about the pleasures and pitfalls of pot.

In pressing ahead, we can also draw some lessons from the history of drugs and alcohol. Writing global drug history, according to David Courtwright, is like “peering through a microscope with a low-powered lens. The observer might see a good deal of the specimen, but only by sacrificing detail.” We begin with a global approach, and this is important because it hasn’t been attempted with cannabis historiography before. Yet our analyses will also “zoom in” to specific parts of the planet. And we will explore aspects of cannabis history in parts of the world that have received less attention in the past.

Take North America, for example. Canada, the United States and Mexico have vastly different histories. As Emily Dufton has argued in her book Grass Roots, marijuana in the US “has had the distinct ability to move back and forth at the state and local levels — between legality and illegality, acceptance and condemnation — while always remaining federally illegal.” (pg.4) Meanwhile, Isaac Campos and Paul Gootenberg suggest in their article “Toward a New Drug History of Latin America” that drug history does not always emanate outwards from Washington. Canada, by contrast, is embarking on legalization at the federal level, which will have profound health and safety outcomes.

In this series of articles, we bring some largely untold national stories of cannabis into conversation. The aim is to enrich the discourse by blurring these boundaries and developing some big picture analysis of the cannabis debates. What can we make of the histories of cannabis in Africa and the Middle East? South America? Asia? How does cannabis history conform to and/or depart from more well-known narratives?

Cannabis: Global Histories took a stab at answering these complicated questions and the posts in this series emerge from the symposium. We may not offer conclusive answers, but this is the network’s starting point rather than its finish line.

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