EDITOR’S NOTE: Points is delighted to welcome Chris S. Duvall, an Associate Professor of Geography at the University of New Mexico and the author of Cannabis (University of Chicago, 2015).
Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.
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.