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22 february 2017

A few months ago, two young dudes appeared in the doorway of my faculty office one evening to announce that, sir, people were smoking in the stairwell. I said, yeah, that's too bad, it's supposed to be a tobacco-free campus but nobody cares. No, said the dudes, they're smoking weed. What do you want me to do, I thought, get them to stop bogarting? It wasn't till today that I realized that my office is room 420. The dudes probably thought they had come to Dope Central.

I must have presented a disappointment. I haven't smoked marijuana since 1980, and wasn't more than an every-few-weekends user then. Getting high was pleasant enough, particularly if pretzels were present and the Road Runner was on TV. But something about the drug didn't agree with me. It seemed to derail my thought processes for days afterwards, in ways that alcohol never did. Alcohol being pleasant enough too, I stuck with that as my recreational drug of choice – alcohol, and caffeine, and reading, and watching professional sports.

So I may not be the best commenter on Chris Duvall's Cannabis. But I found the book intriguing, despite its occasional pedantry. Duvall is, honestly, too fussy about definitions. He is near-obsessed with terminology and etymology. He draws boundaries among "folk" definitions of plant species, botanical ones arrived at by visible characteristics, DNA boundaries – boundaries, in sum, where science meets ethnobotany. While Duvall doesn't police these borders prescriptively, he is heavily invested in their complexities. This makes the taxonomy in Cannabis hard to untangle. After reading the entire book, I'm no wiser about the difference between sativa and indica than I was when I started, though Duvall draws subtle distinctions between them on every page.

The word "cannabis" is cognate with the word "canvas," a legacy of medieval makers of sailcloth. The plant saw its heyday in the era of wooden navies, when hemp made the finest rope. But hemp was difficult to process and not much good for any use except fiber; the psychoactive yield of fiber-rich strains was minimal. Accordingly, the best hemp plantations were in Russia and its Baltic neighbors, where land good for little else was pressed into service.

Cannabis has historically been a marginal foodstuff. Duvall notes that people in the Baltic did eat hempseed and hemp oil, but it was often a last resource, as in the hungry years after the second world war. Ironically, hemp goodies (again, the non-psychoactive kind) are now upscale treats at many an organic shop. Last winter at my supermarket, I found some cartons of hempmilk on deep discount. Very acceptable over Cheerios.

Fascinating as comparisons of hemp to other fiber sources like flax, jute, ramie, and henequen may be, most readers are going to want to get to the drug part of this book. 20th-century stereotypes see marijuana as infiltrating the United States from the Caribbean and Mexico, associated with minorities of color and with laboring, if not outright criminal, classes. According to Duvall the stereotypes have a neutral connection to botanic geography. "Drug cannabis" is a tropical phenomenon, and spread from southwest Asia across Africa and South America in the 18th and 19th centuries. Not till the late 19th and early 20th did it make its way into what Duvall calls the "Global North." Soon after, global prohibition cracked down on cannabis – with an unhealthy measure of ethnic prejudice aiding those who called for a ban.

Naturally no ban would have been needed had the "global Northern" races been able to resist cannabis once they came in contact with it. So much for stereotypes that link cannabis to supposedly shiftless and hedonistic nonwhites. But the course that cannabis took to the stash boxes of Euro-Americans means that weed has a much different moral profile than, say, liquor. Booze is part of our precious essence – heck, even Sterling Hayden in Doctor Strangelove drinks grain alcohol – but marijuana is relentlessly the Other.

Cannabis, for Duvall, is not harmless fun, not an environmental panacea, not a scourge, not a sinister "gateway drug." It is what it is, a nontoxic but mind-altering substance inextricably tied to humanity. For all that he is on guard against credulousness, Duvall is perhaps a little quick to repeat claims that cannabis "is the most valuable U.S. crop" (141). This factoid seems to be based on flimsy arithmetic that compares the retail value of marijuana to the wholesale value of other crops. All the same, if the adjusted value of all that weed is closer to $3 billion than the oft-cited $35 billion, that's still a lot of money. And in states like Alaska and West Virginia that don't grow a whole lot of other things, cannabis just might be the top crop.

Stoner anecdotes are few in this book. Duvall does include one from the seventeenth century which suggests that human interactions with weed have changed little over the years.

People have always had diverse experiences on drug Cannabis. For instance, in the 1670s 'eight or tenne' British sailors tried bhang tea in eastern India. Two sailors experienced no effects (common among first-timers), one 'wept bitterly all the Afternoon', one was 'terrified with fear', one was 'quarrelsome', two 'Sat sweatinge … in Exceeding Measure' and four or five 'lay upon the Carpets[,] highly Complementinge each Other in high termes.' (91)
Far out, man.

Duvall, Chris. Cannabis. London: Reaktion, 2014.