Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana – Medical, Recreational, and Scientific by Martin A. Lee. New York, NY: Scribner; 2012. Hardcover, 519 pages. ISBN: 978-1-4391-0260-2. $35.00.
[Editor’s note: This book is the recipient of ABC’s James A. Duke Excellence in Botanical Literature Award for 2012 in the consumer book category.]
The wrongheadedness of the US-driven war on drugs, particularly the prohibition of cannabis (marijuana; Cannabis sativa, Cannabaceae), has become so obvious that at times it seems the end must be near. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia now recognize medicinal marijuana; fourteen have decriminalized minor “pot” infractions. Two voted in 2012 to legalize cannabis for adults. Yet the federal government refuses to remove cannabis from its list of medically useless, dangerous substances, and drug-war-initiated infringements on rights and due process continue to proliferate. United States police made 757,969 marijuana-related arrests in 2011, the last year for which data is available, comprising half of all drug-related arrests; 43% were for simple possession.1 This contradictory moment is dynamically captured in Martin Lee’s Smoke Signals.
Early chapters recount historical cannabis use, purged from textbooks and libraries in the 1930s’ “Reefer Madness.” Lee describes cultural, medicinal, and economic uses — especially of cannabis’s non-psychoactive cultivar, collectively called “hemp.” (Sixteen states have voted in recent years to allow hemp cultivation, only to be stymied by the feds.) While little here will surprise readers of Jack Herer’s seminal The Emperor Wears No Clothes (Ah Ha Publishers, 2000), the variety and depth of cannabis lore bears retelling. However, it is not always told carefully in this book. For example, Leonhart Fuchs first assigned a Latin binomial in 1542 in the New Kreuterbuch,2 but Lee credits Linnaeus for doing so. And roughly two centuries later, in 1753, Linnaeus’s quoted description of the sexual persistence of male-deprived female plants waxes almost as rapturous as a High Times report on sensimilla, potently psychoactive seedless marijuana.
However, Lee’s knowledge of the plant’s binomial, Cannabis sativa, no matter who assigned it, makes the author’s later casual use of “Cannabis indica” for a different marijuana “strain” inexplicably confusing. Indeed, some botanists hold out for cannabis’s multi-speciosity. While it is clear that this extraordinarily variable plant has many different strains, and there is even some evidence for multiple geographic points of origin,2 none of this meets the test for a separate species. All cannabis varieties can be selected for fibrous stalks, oily seeds, psychoactive compounds — or more than one — and crossed with all others; ergo, there is one species by definition. In this age of patentable plants, and given the decriminalization movement’s history of settling for less-than-complete legalization*, taxonomic clarity is greatly needed.
Smoke Signals’ discussions of cannabis science, the endocannabinoid signaling system, and emerging knowledge of its functions are admirably clear. The subchapter “The Brain and Marijuana” should be required reading for everyone who recalls the prohibitionist cartoon of a frying egg captioned, “This is your brain on drugs” — and really, for anyone interested in brain function. Lee shines here, succinctly summarizing current research and some implications for human health while exposing unintended effects of government-funded research meant to discover marijuana’s harms.
The most consistent thread in recent cannabis history is the ongoing attempted subjugation of science to ideology versus insistence on rational inquiry. The book’s strict chronology detracts somewhat from the ability to follow this story without frequent use of the Index. It might have been useful to separate the science more clearly from the surrounding matrix of cannabis-fueled music, activism, and increasing repression, with timelines illustrating synchronous events. (For example, Israeli researcher Raphael Mechoulam, PhD, isolated tetrahydrocannabinol [THC], cannabis’s main psychoactive compound, on the same day, the author says, that Bob Dylan turned The Beatles on to grass. It is not an important confluence, but it is pretty neat!)
Unfortunately, perhaps because Lee concentrates on New World cannabis use, he skimps on nutritional aspects of hempseed and hempseed oil. Incompletely appreciating cannabis nutrition, he fails to make a connection with endocannabinoid support despite having the relevant facts. However, until after the book’s publication there were no peer-reviewed studies linking hempseed with health benefits. In March 2013, researchers at Tabriz University of Medical Sciences in Iran reported that consuming hempseed, evening primrose (Oenothera biennis, Onagraceae) oils, and a “hot-natured” diet improved clinical symptoms in relapsing remitting multiple sclerosis (MS) patients.3 Key neuroprotective and cytokine-inhibiting roles for essential fatty acids, especially the omega-3s that hempseed contains in abundance and evening primrose’s omega-6s, have been reported previously for treatment of MS. These findings may prove useful in other chronic diseases featuring spasticity.
Early concern about cannabis came from French colonial authorities disturbed by hashish use among their Egyptian subjects and French soldiers, who took the compressed cannabis flower resin back home. This is by now a familiar story: Marijuana spread throughout Western society via immigrants, slaves, veterans, and refugees, including refugees from a society found to be materialistic and void of personal meaning. Poet Alan Ginsberg, who linked asocial “beats” of the 1950s with 1960s activists, was a prime mover here, igniting succeeding generations with his vulnerable, indomitable spirit, proclaiming in the face of senseless repression, “Pot is Fun.”
Exactly why the authorities were and are “disturbed” by cannabis is a matter of debate. Drug companies and regulators remain fixated in large part on developing patentable, non-euphoria-producing cannabis drugs. One researcher even suggested suppositories to prevent the “adverse effect” of euphoria from inhaled marijuana smoke or ingested cannabis flowers and buds! Researcher, physician, and professor of medicine Donald Abrams, MD, is quoted, “I am an oncologist as well as a specialist in AIDS, and I don’t think that a drug that creates euphoria in patients with terminal diseases is having an adverse effect.” Perhaps it isn’t euphoria that raises authorities’ hackles but another effect of cannabinoids, as yet imperfectly described, that promotes higher brain function over reflexive obedience?
California’s complex history of resisting prohibition and of general social ferment sometimes crowds out experiences elsewhere. Weeks after Smoke Signals was published, voters in Colorado and Washington states approved measures legalizing cannabis for adults. Lee seems to have anticipated the Colorado victory but not the one in Washington, despite acknowledging the success of Seattle’s annual HempFest.
Readers will not learn much about “decriminalization” votes of the 1970s here. Eleven states eliminated criminal penalties for personal possession and use of marijuana then, but later recriminalized the plant. Alaska went further, actually legalizing limited cultivation, possession, and use for adults in 1975. Its Supreme Court struck down several attempts to dismantle the voters’ decision. In 2006, the Alaska Legislature unilaterally recriminalized possession of more than one ounce of pot. Since then, prosecutors have declined to act against considerably greater amounts and the Court has declined to rule presumptively, leaving the law in conflict with previous decisions. This history is mentioned only in an endnote, and even it ignores the 2006 “recrim.” Omitting Alaska, the state with the most experience with legal marijuana, is a shortcoming in Lee’s history. Neither it nor Washington is even in the Index! While Alaska’s 31-year de jure legalization was incomplete (no cannabis commerce was allowed), it has not yet been implemented fully in Colorado and Washington, and only medical marijuana has gained approval in California at this time. In August 2014, Alaskans will vote again on legalization, this time including commercial regulation and taxation.
The author bashes former US President George W. Bush repeatedly (probably unfair, given prohibition’s bipartisan history!) and makes odd, inappropriate, anti-Southern jibes, like calling United States government-grown cannabis from the University of Mississippi “confederate weed.” Anachronistic similes and faddish “street” expressions may mar the work’s accessibility. Also troubling are assorted factual errors, i.e., characterizing acetaminophen as a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) used by children; it is not an NSAID, but it is used by children and adults who cannot tolerate NSAIDs.
Smoke Signals casts a broad net over recent events and hauls it up full; if not everything within passes historical muster in 50 years, it is a lively, provocative read today. One can only hope, however, that cannabis prohibition and its “entourage effects” (i.e., urine testing for employment and social benefits) are history by then! Deep investments in suppression glimpsed in this book will not easily be unmade, and passage of state “legalization” measures will not end the United States’ longest-running war.
—Mariann Garner-Wizard Author, Austin, TX
*As an example of such reformism, consider regulation and taxation of medical marijuana as compared to any other medical product; profound differences, clearly discriminatory, are not only tolerated, but often devised by medipot advocates. Activists have split often over legalization of low-THC (fiber) hemp only, medical-use only, and/or where to “draw the line” in decriminalization initiatives.
- Arentaro P. Marijuana arrests decline in 2011, but still total half of all illicit drug violations. National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws website. October 29, 2012. Available at: http://blog.norml.org/2012/10/29/marijuana-arrests-decline-in-2011-but-still-total-half-of-all-illicit-drug-violations/.
- Russo E. History of Cannabis and its preparations in saga, science, and sobriquet. Chemistry & Biodiversity. 2007;4:1614-1648.
- Rezapour-Firouzi S, Arefhosseini SR, Farhoudi M, et al. Association of Expanded Disability Status Scale and cytokines after intervention with co-supplemented hemp seed, evening primrose oils and hot-natured diet in multiple sclerosis patients. BioImpacts. 2013;3(1):43-47. Available at: www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3648912/.