|'After Two Puffs, I Was Turned Into a Bat'|
Posted by CN Staff on June 24, 2003 at 23:45:31 PT|
Mike Jay Reviews: Cannabis: A History
Source: Daily Telegraph UK
The history of cannabis, rather like the substance itself, has the capacity to be either strangely illuminating or just plain confusing. On the one hand, it throws up some odd conundrums: why is it that today's illicit drug of choice for millions, when it was legally available in 19th-century Europe and America, was used recreationally by only a small, self-conscious bohemian elite?
On the other hand, it offers plausible insights into some aspects of the modern debate. The controversy over its medical use is a prime example.
Cannabis was widely used as a tincture and patent medicine in the Victorian era, and displayed abundantly the virtues now claimed by its proselytisers: an anti-spasmodic, and an aid against nausea and glaucoma.
Yet it was less convenient for the doctors than for the patients: its preparations were of uncertain strength and impossible to turn into a standard pill, different extraction methods producing a bewildering variety of chemical compounds.
(Morphine, by contrast, was easily extracted from opium into standard doses which were soluble in water and simple to inject.)
Cannabis: a History is a similar patchwork: never less than solid, but more enlightening on some aspects of the story than others. Booth's account of the plant's early history of use, from neolithic China to medieval Sufism, Rabelais to the French Romantic poets, is functional but rather tentative; as with his previous history of opium, his step becomes firmer once he reaches the 20th century and his home territory of the politics of interdiction, smuggling and organised crime.
He is strong on the story of Harry J Anslinger, the head of the US Federal Bureau of Narcotics from 1930 to 1962, who dedicated his life to claiming that cannabis – or "marijuana", as he called it, to make it sound more sinister and foreign than the familiar "hemp" – was a "weed with its roots in hell", an "assassin of youth" that turned its users into violent, criminal zombies. Anslinger's assertions were rarely questioned, and his few critics, like the anti-prohibitionist mayor of New York, Frank La Guardia, were subjected to smears and rebuttals.
Anslinger swept all before him for decades, to the extent that his success began to pose its own problems. Admitting to marijuana use became a popular way of avoiding conscription, and murderers cited the brainwashing powers of "an addictive drug which produces in its users insanity, criminality and death" to plead diminished responsibility for their crimes. Their claims were frequently supported by an expert witness, the pharmacologist Dr James Munch, who claimed that "after two puffs on a marijuana cigarette, I was turned into a bat". Sentences were commuted from death to imprisonment on Munch's evidence, and Anslinger had to ask him to stop testifying.
Booth is interested in the mechanics of the criminal market, but most of the illicit cannabis trade remains a relatively low-rent story of Moroccan farmers and customised camper vans (the serious mafias and cartels head straight for the more lucrative trade in cocaine and heroin). He is rather less curious about the world of the cannabis user: the motives and philosophies of its experimental pioneers, such as the French psychiatrist Jacques-Joseph Moreau who was largely responsible for introducing hashish to the West in the 1850s, and of those cultures from India to the Middle East to the Caribbean where cannabis has a traditional ritual and sacramental role. Much of his social history consists of potted biographies of the usual suspects – Aleister Crowley, Jack Kerouac, Bob Marley – and rather flat-footed definitions of their cultural reference points for the uninitiated.
Booth has no axe to grind, and treads a scrupulous path between the claims of anti-drug propaganda and hippie myth, but the weight of evidence finally forces his hand. The politics of cannabis, he concludes, have been driven by a Big Lie of almost Stalinist proportions, which has had a far more detrimental effect on medicine and the hemp fibre industry than on recreational drug consumption.
Although much in this book has been told more fully elsewhere, it's a serviceable, and occasionally colourful, single-volume assembly of a very engaging history, taking in botany and international trade, colonial history and true crime, drug politics from the Assassins to Anslinger and high culture from Baudelaire to beat literature to reggae.
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