Points Bookshelf: “The African Roots of Marijuana” by Chris Duvall

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.

Screenshot 2019-07-02 at 8.52.56 AMDespite 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.

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From Taboo to Veneration: Marijuana, Canada, and the New Social Construct

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Dr. Stefano Tijerina, a lecturer in management and the Chris Kobrack Research Fellow in Canandian Business History at the University’s of Maine’s Business School. 

In January 1968 the Winnipeg Free Press reported that marijuana was “the biggest mass floating of the law since prohibition.”[1]  Back then the urban myth said Lebanese cannabis was the most potent, but Canada, like the U.S. market, was limited to Mexican cannabis; “Acapulco Gold” was the common preference among “local users.”[2]  This new generation of consumers was juxtaposed against the anti-marijuana initiatives on both sides of the border that had, by that point, constructed the idea among sectors of civil society and policy makers that the drug led to mental disorders, violence, degeneration, addiction, and that it served as a gateway to other more dangerous narcotics.  It was from the late 1960s onward that a pro-marijuana movement across both sides of the border was spearheaded by young rebellious Baby Boomers in order to clarify the facts and debunk the old myths. Fifty years later the construct of the “thin, sunken-eyed individual slowly starving himself to death” has been replaced by the image of the radiant millennial stoner.[3] Within that transformation of the constructs of marijuana, Canada’s Federal and Provincial governments were able to build a government-business partnership that positioned the nation and its private sector as the pioneers of a new global business that might even surpass the global market for coffee.  A half century ago possession in Canada could cost you seven years in prison; today it represents an entrepreneurial opportunity.

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Director, Louis J. Gosnier. “Tell Your Children,” 1936.

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Fiction Points: Red Dirt Marijuana by Terry Southern

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.

As the globetrotting mass of drug historians have been preparing to make their way to Shanghai for the bi-annual conference over the last few days, I (who am, unfortunately, not attending) had a chance to sit down and read some fiction. I don’t often get a chance to read much fiction. I have a copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five on a shelf on my desk, and the bookmark has been on page 50 since the day I purchased the book for the trip to Dwight, IL, for the ADHS conference there in 2016.

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The original hardcover edition

But this latest literary indulgence was more directly research-related. Terry Southern’s collection of short stories entitled Red Dirt Marijuana and other Tastes has been on my list following a very productive archive trip to New York City two summers ago. I spent a few days (not nearly enough) in the Henry W and Albert A Berg Collection of English and American Literature at the New York Public Library, checking out the collected papers of a number of Beat writers like Jack Kerouac, William S Burroughs and others.

My dissertation research is formulating an argument about a marijuana culture in the United States beyond the Beats, with which it is commonly associated in the period prior to the 1960s. My initial reasoning was simply because this cultural movement has received plenty of coverage by literary figures and historians of the period. But I didn’t want to pass up an opportunity to look at the Beat archives during my time at the New York Public Library. Southern’s papers contained drafts of a couple of the stories (including the title work) as well as some correspondence between Southern and other literary and showbiz figures from the fifties through the nineties. (Southern died in 1995.)

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The Complicated Birth of the Gateway Theory

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Dr. Seth Blumenthal, contributing editor and lecturer at Boston University. 

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Richard Daley and Richard Nixon in 1971

In 1972 , spelling  out marijuana’s gateway potential to Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, President Richard Nixon explained, “Once you cross that line, from the straight society to the drug society – marijuana, then speed, then it’s LSD, then it’s heroin, etc. then you’re done.” This stepping-stone rationale existed long before Nixon’s presidency, of course. Still, in the 1930s, years before the War on Drugs began under “Tricky Dick,” Harry Anslinger, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics director from 1931 to 1962, initially shied away from this causal relationship, preferring to target marijuana on its own.

But by 1951, Anslinger had embraced the gateway theory as well, finally acceding to the growing chorus that connected marijuana to eventual heroin addiction. Rather than credit (or blame) Anslinger and Nixon for this approach, the history of the gateway theory proves that the basic assumptions and mythologies surrounding marijuana were much larger than the drug itself, regardless of which drug it eventually connected to. Instead, the gateway theory represented the widespread concerns and sense of racism that shaped Americans’ association with drug use and addiction in the post-WWII era.

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Points Interview: Bradley Borougerdi

Editor’s Note: Today we have an interview with Points and ADHS friend Dr. Bradley Borougerdi, an associate professor of history in the Department of Global Studies at Tarrant County College in Arlington, Texas. Dr. Borougerdi is the author of Commodifying Cannabis: A Cultural History of a Complex Plant in the Atlantic World (Lexington Books, 2018). 

Screenshot 2019-05-28 at 8.08.01 AMDescribe 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.

Cannabis Legalization in New York: State of the State

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, and our resident New Yorker. Here he comments on the state of cannabis legalization in the Empire State.

Back in January of this year, legalization of adult-use cannabis seemed inevitable in my home state of New York. Last month, during a recent public talk at Utica College, which we celebrated the stoner-holiday of 4/20 (on 4/25), I commented on the possibility of next year’s talk occurring under a legal system.

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But maybe I spoke too soon. Yesterday, Governor Andrew Cuomo, the champion of equitable legalization in January, declared it all but dead. At least for this year.

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SHAD Interview: “Legalización o Represión”: How a Debate in Colombia Steered the Fate of the “War on Drugs” with Lina Britto

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.

Screenshot 2019-04-15 at 12.53.06 PMTell 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.

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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.