BOOK REVIEW: Chris S. Duvall, "Cannabis" (2015)


Clearly written, comprehensive, and rigorously researched, Chris Duvall's Cannabis (London: Reaktion Books, 2015) is a superb, easily digestable crash course on the history of the remarkably diverse human-Cannabis relationship. As one of the few true scholarly histories of the cannabis plant produced in the last decade, Cannabis clarifies or refutes many of the widely accepted claims about the plant’s origins, dispersal, and history found in a wealth of semi-scholarly works.

But the book is much more than a corrective of existing cannabis literature. Perhaps Duvall’s most important contribution to current conversations about the plant, scholarly or otherwise, is his observation that people’s diverse experiences with the plant, as well as the profound symbolism they attach to it, have shaped, complicated, and confused our understanding of it. This is something that everyone writing or speaking about cannabis should be aware of, yet Duvall, a geographer at the University of New Mexico, is the first cannabis writer to dedicate two entire book chapters to it. Additionally, the book’s framing of the history of cannabis as a plant instead of a drug (perhaps unsurprising, given its inclusion in Reaktion’s Botanical series) helps to push cannabis scholarship in a more honest and valuable direction.

In fewer than 200 pages, Duvall marshals an assortment of sources in several languages to sweep the reader around the world not once but twice; he covers the global use and spread of both primary species of cannabis, sativa (hemp) and indica (drug). One of Duvall’s major contributions here is emphasizing the under-acknowledged African contribution to both the dispersal and naming of the plant, especially in the New World. Noting that “etymologists have barely considered possible African etymologies” for the plant, he explains the term “marijuana”—the most popular official word for the plant today—as being a Spanish mispronunciation of mariamba, a “plural of riamba, meaning ‘cannabis’ in several Central African Languages” (p. 15).

Cannabis is not only the history of a human-plant relationship, but also of how the multiple experiences within that relationship have confounded attempts to understand it. For example, Duvall notes that “what people mean by any Cannabis term is conditioned by their experience with the plant” (p. 25). “Marijuana aficionados,” he notes, routinely use sativa and indica to differentiate between drug plants that produce a stimulating or relaxing high, even though botanically speaking all drug cannabis is indica.  Duvall also emphasizes drug cannabis’s historical association with “labour underclasses,” (p. 155) people whose experiences are often absent from the historical record and thus only scarcely inform current understandings of the human-cannabis relationship.

Importantly, though, Duvall also stresses the role of the plant itself in producing such distorted and incomplete understandings of the plant: “[t]he unusual character of Cannabis—a cosmopolitan genus with two cryptic species and two symbolically charged uses—has strongly shaped how people have generated information about it” (p. 179). Overall, Duvall’s largely botanical treatment of cannabis offers a more complete view of the plant than other histories, scholarly or not, which mostly treat it as a drug.[1]  

Duvall’s Cannabis joins Jim Rendon’s Super Charged (2012) and Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire (2001) as plant-centric cannabis books written for a broader audience. Yet Duvall’s Cannabis is more comprehensive in its history and more robust in its documentation, and so helps immensely in the important task of re-framing the scholarly discussion about cannabis from drug to plant.

For all its contributions to that scholarly discussion, Cannabis is also brief and highly readable—a remarkable achievement, given the inherent complexity of the plant and the cultures surrounding it. Readers will find that Duvall’s book moves at a brisk and steady pace, riddled with vibrant illustrations and peppered with historical anecdotes integrated so seamlessly that they bely what was surely an excruciating research process.
On account of its accessibility, focus on cannabis as a plant, and upfront grappling with the confusion and myths surrounding the complex human-cannabis relationship, Duvall’s Cannabis is perhaps the most important scholarly work on the plant to date.


[1] See Peter Hecht, Weed Land: Inside America’s Marijuana Epicenter and How Pot went Legit (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014); Isaac Campos, Home Grown: Marijuana and the Origins of Mexico’s War on Drugs (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012); Martin A. Lee, Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana—Medical, Recreational, Scientific (New York: Scribner, 2012); Martin Booth, Cannabis: A History (New York: Picador, 2003); Larry Sloman, Reefer Madness: A History of Marijuana (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1979).

Pumping the Presidents with Pot: A New February Tradition

Happy Presidents Day!

As many of us get a Monday off in honor of the country's most esteemed caretakers (or maybe because we live somewhere in the one-half of the country that is currently being blanketed by snow and/or ice), some members of the pro-cannabis crowd take Presidents Day as an opportunity to remind Americans just how friendly our founders were toward their highly esteemed herb.

Today, the Facebook page "MJ Headline News" dropped one of these unfailingly misleading "historical" nuggets onto my news feed:

"Did George Washington Use Medical Marijuana?"

Look, a totally legit eighteenth-century portrait!
The original article at the Daily Beast notes:
George Washington’s rotting teeth and the dentures that replaced them—made of hippopotamus ivory, gold springs, and brass screws—caused enormous pain, which some believe he alleviated with weed as evidenced from a passage from one of the president’s letters:
“Began to separate the male from female plants rather too late...Pulling up the (male) hemp. Was too late for the blossom hemp by three weeks or a month."
To the dismay of weed enthusiasts, however, the article's headline question is answered in the next paragraph:
However, it’s most likely that the female plants he refers to were used for seeds to grow more hemp and the male hemp plants were pulled up for fibers.

Daily Beast writer Nick Sheppard's conclusions seem to be the ones that most historians come to.

Cannabis prohibition in the United States has produced some peculiar cultural side effects; one of them is the urgent desire for many cannabis enthusiasts, in an attempt to legitimate their own movement and cultivate a more favorable public perception of the plant, to re-interpret or exaggerate the relationships that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and other popular "Founding Fathers" had with cannabis.

Other examples of this reactionary myth-building include:

-The half-true notion that both the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were written on hemp paper; it is more likely that drafts of both documents were scrawled on hemp paper.

-The utterly bogus claim that "James Madison was once heard to say that smoking hemp inspired him to found a new nation on democratic principles." (I think we can all agree that "was once heard to say" is not proper historical documentation)

-Claims that Jefferson and Washington exchanged "smoking blends as personal gifts." This assertion and the previous one apparently come all the way from 1975, in a fabricated article in the pagan magazine Green Egg. (Here's a link to the magazine's current digital iteration - WARNING: Content is extremely hippie. Avoid clicking link if you hate hippies)

To the movement's credit, there are those among its ranks who actively decry and objectively evaluate these historical stoner fantasies, but misinformation persists nonetheless, especially within the broader cannabis culture.

Personally, I know these myths are simply an overreaction to prohibitionist rhetoric (which, like all propaganda, also bends the facts), and find them more amusing than irritating. That pic of Washington smoking a J is priceless - can someone please doctor all the presidential portraits in a similar fashion?

Plus, I don't think the story of George Washington and other founders growing hemp needs exaggeration to be politically effective. After all, simply pointing out that the first framers of our government found considerable value in the cannabis plant already makes the point that more modern framers of government perhaps overreacted when they declared the plant to be utterly useless and dangerous via the 1970 Controlled Substances Act.

Moving on from “Marijuana:” Why Names and Plants Matter in the Age of Cannabis Legalization


Marijuana. Everyone in America knows this word, regardless of how they feel about the offerings of the cannabis plant. But its roots in this country stretch back to a time that very few of us are still familiar with—a time when the drug was widely considered to be as harmful and addictive as opium, and when newspapers blasted out bold, sensationalist headlines linking the psychedelic herb to violent acts of madness, rape, murder, and general mayhem.

For younger generations and cannabis enthusiasts (not assuming the two are mutually exclusive), perhaps marijuana conjures up more of a satirical image, such as its use in the beginning of the Sublime song “Smoke Two Joints.” The song features a gravely concerned male voice from the infamous film Reefer Madness (Duncan McLeod, playing Porter Hall in the 1970 film Beyond the Valley of the Dolls) saying he “wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to learn that all four” of the young adults living above him “habitually smoke marijuana cigarettes—reefers.”




Of course, newspapers today are much more objective on the subject, and outside of Nancy Grace and a few other hardline prohibitionists, nobody really believes that cannabis creates murderers or rapists, or turns everyone who uses it into perpetually stoned human derelicts. For that, we can largely thank the dogged persistence of the medical cannabis movement; it has refused to let the plant’s ancient and valuable medicinal properties be run roughshod over by the federal government’s relentless crusade to stamp out all psychedelic substances. 

Despite all the progress we’ve made in understanding the cannabis plant, we still hear the word marijuana—but curiously, never from anybody who actually uses the herb. They usually call it by one of its bazillion nicknames, by far the most common of which are “weed,” “bud,” or “pot.” The dealer who goes to his clients and asks, “wanna buy some marijuana?” will likely be regarded as either a first-time pot dealer or the world’s worst undercover narc (probably the latter).

Though it is starting to compete with cannabis, marijuana remains the “politically correct” term, the term overwhelmingly preferred by lawmakers, physicians, journalists, and even some legalization advocates (who are usually seeking to appeal to lawmakers, physicians, and/or journalists). In addition, many members of the general public who don’t use or aren’t familiar with cannabis also refer to it as marijuana—probably because their experience with cannabis is largely filtered through “official” channels such as news reports, police statements, medical textbooks, or political debates. Even the text of Amendment 64, the ballot initiative that legalized adult use of cannabis in Colorado in 2012, reads “the people of the state of Colorado find and declare that the use of MARIJUANA should be legal for persons twenty-one years of age or older.”

So how did we get here? Why do we still use an outdated and botanically inaccurate term for a plant that most Americans want to see regulated, and that some states are already regulating? More importantly, does it even matter what we call it?

USA Today's Denver correspondent Trevor Hughes wrote an excellent op-ed on this exact subject this past week, in which he notes that some in the cannabis industry are calling for the word's retirement::

"For some, the old and frequently used words evoke the scare tactics long employed by governments and police. There's a school of thought that "marijuana" opponents ginned up the word because it sounded scary and foreign. (Although I can't find evidence that that's the case, despite what Wikipedia might say.)"

He goes on to say that this issue "highlights the challenges of changing how we describe things": 

"You may have noticed I've used a variety of words when referring to marijuana. It's hard to argue readers don't understand that reefer, pot, weed and ganja all mean the same thing. As Shakespeare's Juliet might muse, does the name really matter, be it marijuana or Montague?"

I'd say it does. Here's why (and I promise not to quote Shakespeare):

As the geographer and cannabis historian Chris Duvall has convincingly pointed out, marijuana is likely a Spanish derivative of mariamba, a hybrid Angolan-Portuguese word for drug cannabis with roots in the slave trade of the sixteenth century. Mariamba is the pluralized Portuguese equivalent of the indigenous Angolan word for drug cannabis, liamba. The term crossed the Atlantic on slave ships to Brazil, where it was disseminated to Spanish-speaking parts of the New World, eventually evolving into marijuana.

During the first few decades of the twentieth century, US citizens and politicians appropriated the term marijuana from Mexican Spanish as a way to racialize the cannabis plant. In an era where many Americans were deeply paranoid about foreigners and their corrupting influence, using a Mexican word, marijuana, instead of cannabis emphasizing its foreignness and thus its inherent threat to American society.

So, while Hughes is right that US officials didn't invent ("gin up") the term, they did appropriate and deploy it for racist purposes, namely to drum up popular support for federal cannabis prohibition (and it has been well-documented in books such as Martin A. Lee's Smoke Signals, Richard Bonnie and Charles Whitebread's The Marijuana Conviction, this article, this article, this article, and other sources)

It is true that many public officials and citizens did not initially realize that Mexican marijuana and the cannabis sold in US pharmacies were the same plant; however, newspaper reports suggest this fact became widely known even before federal cannabis prohibition began under the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. Calling cannabis by its foreign name successfully “othered” a plant that had been in the United States for decades, and that was only now attracting the concern of drug-wary public officials on account of its alleged introduction by brown-skinned foreigners (not to mention its well-known affiliation with what the architect of the Marihuana Tax Act, the racist bureaucrat Harry J. Anslinger, called “satanic” jazz musicians).

I should mention that in Mexico today, the term marijuana has largely been replaced by other words, such as “mota.” This is possibly in response to the Mexican government’s adaptation of marijuana in laws that prohibit cannabis use or production; it could also be, as it is in other Latin American countries, a rejection of the United States’ appropriation of marijuana as an official term for cannabis.

The fact that the term marijuana was historically used by racist public officials to stereotype and imprison non-white Americans is reason enough to limit our use of it, especially when it refers to a plant that has been universally coveted by nearly every human society over time.

In places such as India and China, the plant has held an important place in human culture for thousands of years. In that context, using a term appropriated by US racists for racist purposes, all within the last century, seems inappropriate, even negligent. But then again, cultural sensitivity and a stoic appreciation of the past have never been strong suits of an “exceptional” America.

I'll be the first to admit I have bought into this official language business and used marijuana many, many times on this blog. In fact, when I began my research, it was in the subtitle. But as I read more and thought more about it, I've come to better understand and appreciate the history of cannabis in the US, and to disdain the term. I plan to use it much less frequently hereafter.

So if not marijuana, you ask, what should we call the drug product of the cannabis plant? Honestly, both “weed” and “bud” are more accurate terms: “weed” quite accurately describes elements of the plant’s nature, while “bud” accurately describes the parts of the plant that are actually smoked (the flowers). In official language, cannabis (Cannabis indica for pot, Cannabis sativa for hemp) should prevail. 

As Hughes argues, it is highly unlikely that marijuana will ever leave the lexicon of American cannabis culture. Nor should it; as a word that reminds us of the fraught history of the plant in our society, it is an important cultural artifact, worthy of lampooning in Sublime songs, satirical cartoons, or in stoned laughing sessions the nation over.

But for all the reasons mentioned above, the American cannabis culture and industry should at least try to get marijuana out of the official discourse. It shouldn’t be used in the text of official legislation for other states (although as Hughes points out, it will probably have to be). Dispensary owners should avoid using marijuana in the names of their stores, and be judicial about using it to brand their products. These actions, as well as the inevitable legalization and acceptance of cannabis across the nation, will go a long way toward snuffing out all serious usage of this outdated and inaccurate term.

Plus, if you’re like me, you’d agree that ANY effort to limit the number of times public officials drawl out their godawful, nasally pronunciation of “MARE-eh-wanna” is well worth it. Seriously, if you don’t know what I’m talking about, just tune in to any televised or radio debate about cannabis—the way Americans pronounce the word can be classified as aggravated assault on the human ear.

So yes—to respect the universal value of the plant, to deny the racists behind American cannabis prohibition their most effective legacy, and for the sake of our own precious ears, let’s just call it by a better name.

Cannabis in the Cornfields: Then and Now

Cannabis is grown in cornfields all over the United States. This plant was found in an Indiana cornfield.
In August 2006, clad in safety gear that protected her from the scraping stalks, Wisconsin ecologist Kaitlin Whitney was collecting ecological data in one of the Dairy State's numerous cornfields when she came upon five marijuana plants "bursting with buds ready to harvest." Her presence even spooked the bud tender, who just so happened to be tramping through the corn to check on the plants. The anonymous grower split, leaving Whitney with both an interesting story to tell and more excitement than she probably expected that day (she was, after all, walking through cornfield after cornfield for her job).

That story became the lede in an article Whitney wrote for The Atlantic this past fall on cannabis growth in Wisconsin cornfields. "Almost every corn grower I spoke to that summer had a tale of discovering marijuana in their cornfields at harvest time," she wrote. "Which led me to ask: What is it about the nation’s largest crop that has made it so attractive to marijuana growers in recent years?"

Whitney attributes the "recent" phenomenon to modern technology, such as auto-harvesting combines and GPS field mapping, that keeps farmers out of their fields. She argues that marijuana growers have quietly moved into this blind spot in modern agriculture, siphoning the water, soil, and chemicals meant for the primary crop. The technology that turns today's cornfields into more isolated environments may indeed be one reason why growers prefer them. But Americans had been growing weed in cornfields - whether their own or someone else's - long before the advent of helicopter pesticide application and tractors with WiFi. See, for example, the following clippings:
From The Oakland Tribune, July 28, 1948.

From The Denver Post, August 15, 1934.
From the Woodland Daily Democrat (CA), September 7, 1934.


From The Denver Post, July 18, 1948.




AP story from November 22, 1967.

From the Rocky Mountain News, June 13, 1946.

















From the Corona Daily Independent (CA), July 15, 1947.
There are more, but hopefully my point is made: growing pot in cornfields is not a recent deal. But even after a slight redaction to make it less historically ignorant, Whitney's original question is still valid and important:

"What is it about the nation’s largest crop that has made it so attractive to marijuana growers in recent years?"

It's relatively simple, actually. Corn (Zea mays) grows tall and green; so did the first few strains of pot (Cannabis indica) grown by Americans from about 1910 - 1975. Both plants are also camp-followers: plants that thrive in open, human-disturbed environments. The neatly organized, irrigated landscapes of cornfields give pot plants everything they need. Plus, as Whitney notes, cornfields are dense, uncomfortable, and disorienting places where very few people go stomping around. Of course, growing cannabis in corn was even less risky if the pot grower happened to own or lease the farm, as was the case in several of the examples above.

The millions of acres of corn added to the American landscape after mid-century to support livestock and produce ethanol have only given the nation's outlaw horticulturalists millions more acres to grow pot. Whitney hit on this as well, and even mentioned Ralph Weisheit's study of cannabis growth in rural, Midwestern America, Domestic Marijuana: A Neglected Industry (1992).

Finally, economic downturns such as the Great Depression of the 1930s, the recession of the 1980s, the so-called "Great Recession" of the late 2000s, and others provided Americans with plenty of incentive to grow pot in their own or someone else's cornfield; as Dave Carter of the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union said in 1986, "I would imagine these days there's probably a couple farmers with some pot growing between the corn rows - any way to make some money these days." As the landscape historian J.B. Jackson would put it, the "official" landscape and the unapproved, improvised, "vernacular" landscape overlap in the world of cornfield pot growing.

The logical follow-up question to Whitney's first is "should anyone be concerned about this?" She starts to answer this question, but only extends it to farmers who've found pot growers pilfering their soil, irrigation water, and chemicals. Understandably, they're upset - and more than a little jelly, as small-time weed farmers are making a killing with a few plants while they're often struggling to profit from thousands. And although Whitney nearly ran into one by accident, apparently finding and arresting cornfield pot growers is really hard;  members of law enforcement she interviews say confirmed reports of marijuana grows rarely result in arrest.

This illustration from the Rocky Mountain News in 1986
 shows cannabis growing between two corn plants.
My biggest concern is not for the farmers - who honestly aren't giving up that much in the way of resources by unknowingly sharing their cornfields with a handful of cannabis plants - but for the unknowing black-market consumers of marijuana that has been doused with industrial-grade fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides.

Do these cornfield cannabis growers wash their crop after harvest? Would that even do any good? I imagine the ones who care would, but participants in a black-market economy don't normally give a shit about any of that. They just want the money.

In the end, the story of cannabis in cornfields yields yet another compelling reason why we need regulated, responsible cannabis production in the United States.

Did you know joints were sold legally in the US in the 1870s? Neither did I.


Yesterday I stumbled across this ad for Grimault & Co.'s "Indian Cigarettes" in an 1876 edition of the Daily Argus in Rock Island, Ill. I was aware that, during the nineteenth century, Cannabis indica was used in a variety of remedies and carried in pharmacies across the nation. But I had never heard of anyone selling joints before the early twentieth century, when cops started rounding up pot-puffing Mexicans along the border.

The folks over at the Antique Cannabis Book have more details on these early legal reefers. They note that Grimault & Co.'s Cannabis cigs were available since 1870, and they were apparently the only ones on the market. This, along with the general dearth of reports of intoxicating Cannabis use during the nineteenth century, seems to suggest that Americans at the time just weren't that interested in using Cannabis to get high. Opiates could also be legally obtained then, too, so maybe those who wanted a trip just chose the stronger stuff instead.

Isn't it funny how some thirty years later, when poor, migrant, brown-skinned, non-English speakers started bringing the same exact product across the border, we completely lost our $hit and banned them?

Granted, the middle and upper classes in Mexico didn't exactly paint a sparkling image of marijuana for Americans, and the unruly behavior of pot-smoking soldiers and prisoners didn't do the plant's image any favors, either.

Modern-Day Reefer Madness: How the Ferguson Police Department Used Michael Brown's Cannabis Use to Cheapen His Life

Police investigators repeatedly stressed Michael Brown's Cannabis use prior to his death at the hands of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson.
Former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson displayed a stunning mastery of nineteenth-century racist rhetoric when he described Michael Brown, the unarmed black teenager he shot and killed, as a "demon" whose freakish strength mirrored that of "Hulk Hogan." "I had to kill him," Wilson said.

After the shooting, as is common after a non-black kills a young black person for no good reason, media personalities and the public showed respect for the dead teenager by digging into his personal life and piling up as many excuses for his killer as they could: Brown was a a cigar-snatching bully and a career criminal! Wilson was working in a dangerous (read: black) neighborhood; you can't expect him to exercise the same kind of calculated judgment with all those scary black bodies walking around! Brown was a "thug" who liked guns and liquor and money: See, here's a picture of him holding a gun and money next to some liquor  (oh wait, that wasn't Brown; it was just another black person profiled by another white police officer)...

And then there was my personal favorite, Brown was a drug user!

As if Wilson's harrowing story of Brown's super-Negro strength was not enough to convince the Ferguson police "investigators" that their fellow officer was squeaky clean in this incident, Brown's toxicology report showed he had been smoking pot at some point before he died. A construction worker then told police investigators that he saw Brown with some marijuana the day of the shooting and asked the teenager whether he had tried  "wax" - highly concentrated Cannabis oil. Brown was not seen smoking any Cannabis preparations the day of the shooting. The worker did not offer Brown any wax, or say anything about where he might get it. Brown told the worker he had never tried wax before, and that was the end of what should have been considered an irrelevant conversation.

But you can almost see the police investigators' eyes light up upon hearing this tangential information: "SUCCESS!" their tiny brains must've cried, "Not only was Michael Brown a black criminal, but he was also high! We got him! ... er, well, we already got him, but now WE'VE GOT HIS REPUTATION, too!"

In their ensuing questioning of witnesses, investigators proceeded to lay out the absurd possibility that extremely concentrated hash oil made Brown hallucinate that he was invincible, thus explaining the bizarre part of Wilson's story where a "demon"-eyed Brown "charged" him and required the officer's astute unloading of six rounds into the body of the drug-fueled beast.

Again, nobody saw Brown smoke any kind of pot that day. Depending on rate of use and body type, THC, the primary psychoactive compound in Cannabis, stays in the system for days or weeks. Brown could have smoked the small amount of pot the construction worker saw him with that day, or he could have smoked pot a day or two before. Herbal forms of Cannabis, like the kind Brown allegedly had, rarely have enough THC to induce hallucinations. High concentrations of THC, such as those found in hashish or wax, can. Again, there was no evidence that Brown had access to, possessed, or smoked anything besides enough weed for a joint. Case closed, right?

Wrong:
"... prosecutors still pursued the waxing angle.

The jurors first heard the term from a police chemist Oct. 7, as he was being questioned by Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Kathi Alizadeh.

“If one were to ingest that, you would be consuming a higher level of THC than you would if you were to have smoked or ingested the plant material?” Alizadeh asked.

The chemist answered, “Yes, you would.”

The questions did not lead to any mention of Brown’s waxing, though, leaving it unclear why they had been raised."
The Post-Dispatch writer seems confused. This is understandable. Allow me to explain: the purpose in pursuing the "waxing angle" was not to discern whether or not Brown actually was suffering from drug-induced hallucinations during the struggle with Wilson. It was pursued and brought up in front of the grand jury in order to highlight - to plant in the minds of the jury, onlookers, reporters, and commentators - yet another possible reason that Brown's life may not have been worth all that much anyway. One does not have to look far to find precedent for such a strategy: Earlier this year, attorneys for Theodore Wafer, the Detroit man who shot 19-year-old Renisha McBride to death for knocking on his front door, also fervently claimed that the victim's use of Cannabis and alcohol that evening somehow justified her dying. (The difference is that Wafer, a private citizen, was put on trial and sent to jail, whereas Wilson, a cop, never even got close)

The idea that Cannabis fuels crime and violence, especially among poor minorities, is nothing new. In the 1930s, during his push for federal Cannabis prohibition, Federal Bureau of Narcotics chief Harry Anslinger maintained that "Mexicans, Greeks, Turks, Filipinos, Spaniards, Latin Americans, and Negroes" who smoked marijuana were responsible for 50 percent of the violent crimes in their neighborhood. Anslinger also warned that blacks were using marijuana to steal and corrupt virtuous white women, claiming that "marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes." Similarly, a newspaper editorial from 1934 claimed that  "Marijuana influences Negroes to look at white people in the eye, step on white men's shadows and look at a white woman twice."

Anslinger's racist testimony - really the only testimony that was heard at the time - was instrumental in Congress' decision to pass the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which effectively legalized the racial profiling of minorities under the guise of rooting out potentially dangerous drug users. But the most chilling resonance to the Michael Brown case is found in the Bureau's explanation of marijuana's effects, which it published in pamphlets during Anslinger's reign as chief from 1930 to 1962. This was the text as of 1962:
"The drug produces first an exhaltation with a feeling of well being, a happy, jovial mood, usually; an increased feeling of physical strength and power. Those who are accustomed to habitual use of the drug are said eventually to develop a delirious rage after its administration during which they are temporarily, at least, irresponsible and prone to commit violent crimes. The prolonged use of narcotics is said to produce mental deterioration."
Sound familiar? The above government-concocted myth about Cannabis fits like a glove on the hand of the mythical hulking beast Negro. I'd like to remind you all that it is now 2014, and both of these myths were just deployed - with depressing efficacy - to support the claim that a white police officer was justified in shooting an unarmed black teenager to death, and then leaving his uncovered body to rot on the sidewalk.

The persistent idea that the lives of drug users, especially minority drug users, are worth less than any others amounts to nothing more than absurd discrimination and hypocrisy on the part of the American authorities and the drug-shaming (but secretly drug-loving) American public. The Michael Brown case is yet another example of how our awful and unproductive history of stereotyping and punishing drug users, especially those who have already been "othered" by racism, lives in the present.

As someone who reads a great deal about race in America, the grand jury's decision not to indict Darren Wilson did not surprise me. What did surprise me, however, was the slew of blatant, centuries-old myths that the white public and white authorities have subsequently used to justify that decision. The only conceivable reason these myths were drudged up is that, somehow, somewhere, people still believe them. The whole scenario has resulted in a profound distortion of the space-time continuum, in which every day I have trouble answering the deceptively simple question of "what century am I in?"

Although, as Harry Anslinger and the Ferguson police would argue, maybe it's the pot.

"A little reefer by the woodstove:" How Cannabis Indica came to Alaska

Courtesy of CannabisCulture magazine.
In last week's midterm elections, Alaskans approved Ballot Measure 2 by a margin of 52 to 48 percent, making theirs the fourth US state in two years to legalize recreational cannabis use. Oregon became the third earlier Tuesday night, joining Colorado and Washington, states that legalized in 2012. Add in marijuana's quasi-legal status in California, and Alaska's vote brought legal weed to the entire West Coast of the United States (perhaps to the chagrin of oft-busted bud growers in Canada's B.C.).

In an age of near-universal public support for some kind of cannabis legalization, it may not seem very surprising that Alaskans voted to legalize weed by a fairly wide margin. I mean, the stuff had pretty much been legal in the country's northernmost reaches since 1975, when the Alaskan Supreme Court ruled that personal cultivation and consumption of marijuana in the home was protected under the state constitution's right-to-privacy article [1]. Under that ruling - which made marijuana laws in staunchly conservative Alaska the most liberal in the country by far - Alaskans could possess up to four ounces of cannabis and grow up to 25 plants in their home. When that ruling was challenged by a 1991 initiative that re-criminalized cannabis, barely anything changed [2]. State troopers refused to enforce it, with some even agreeing that they'd rather try to take a man's gun than his stash of weed.

Yes, you read that right: In Alaska, a state where people love (and actually need) their guns more than they do in Texas, state troopers in the 1990s preferred grabbing guns instead of ganja. Alaskans further undermined the '91 law when they legalized medical cannabis via a ballot initiative in 1998.

Alaska is a cold, unforgiving place, populated by people who, as their state constitution's privacy article suggests, value their individual liberties above most everything else. It's safe to say that telling people what they can and cannot do in a state where nature's laws undoubtedly govern more effectively than man's has never been popular. In such a harsh environment marked by half-years of total darkness, it's also completely understandable why Alaskans have some of the highest rates of marijuana use in the country (see footnote #1 and the map to the right, where as of 2008 the percentage of monthly marijuana users in Alaska was surpassed only in three other states and Washington, D.C.).

But when we discuss Alaskans' historic relationship with cannabis in a purely political or social context, we gloss over one of the most fascinating and important elements of the story: namely, how did a plant that thrives in the most sun-drenched parts of the world come to find a happy home so close to the Arctic Circle?