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Cannabis: A History

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Martin Booth started with opium, but moved on to softer drugs. The new book
from the author of the Booker Prize-shortlisted Opium: A History tells the
tale of the narcotic weed Cannabis sativa - nom de guerre: hemp, marijuana,
gunja, hashish, dope, weed, grass.

Cannabis: A History is divided roughly into two sections.

The first looks at the rise of dope from goat fodder to international
behemoth, cultivated for strong fibre, used as medicine and eaten for its
narcotic properties.

Booth charts the weed's history, chemical components and smuggling methods
(in dates, stuffed into dead animals, cut into camel fur) from around 2000BC.

This is worthy stuff, but hardly as exciting as the drug's more recent
past. The second part deals with the past 150 years - much more entertaining.

One of the startling aspects of the recent history of cannabis is society's
love-hate relationship with it.

Worldwide, cyclical demonisation and adoration can be charted to look like
the tides rolling in and away from shore - popular in the Victorian age,
vilified in the early 19th century, loved again by the hippies, abhorred in
the late 70s and 80s and now increasingly accepted as mostly harmless.

Booth explains how in the latter half of the 18th century, England and the
United States were awash with the stuff. As a medical tincture it was sold
to alleviate neuralgia, tetanus, typhus, cholera, rabies, dysentery,
alcoholism, opiate addiction, anthrax, leprosy, incontinence, snake bite,
gout, insanity and more.

Queen Victoria was rumoured to have been prescribed it to alleviate
menstrual cramps; her physician declared marijuana "one of the most
valuable medicines we possess".

Its popularity receded and it was used mainly as an intoxicant by
underclasses - the impoverished, blacks and jazz musicians. Then along came
Henry J. Anslinger, first head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. From
1930 to 1962 he went on a hellbent crusade to turn the weed into the
scourge of America, with the help of Hollywood and newspaper barons such as
William Randolph Hearst.

Headlines like "Murders due to killer drug marihuana sweeping the United
States" and the 1935 movie classic Marijuana: Weird Orgies! Wild parties!
Unleashed passions! and the following year's Reefer Madness fed the
national hysteria.

A bureau expert witness at a murder trial revealed - under oath - his own
experimentation: "After two puffs on a marijuana cigarette, I was turned
into a bat."

The killer's sentence was reduced from death to life imprisonment.

By World War II, America's hemp-growing industry was wiped out, but the
plant was desperately needed for its fibre. A quick morality check reversal
led to the Grow Hemp For Victory campaign and any farmer (and his sons) who
grew it was exempted from military service. As the war turned, imports
resumed from Europe and the campaign was terminated, leaving thousands of
hectares unharvested.

Anslinger's campaign continued. His agency focused on blacks, immigrants
and musicians. In 1948, he turned to the stars: his agents charged actor
Robert Mitchum with possession and conspiracy to possess. Perversely, the
arrest helped Mitchum's career. The tide was turning.

When the hippy mantra of free love, universal peace and pot took hold,
Anslinger's propagandising and lies fell by the way.

As New Zealand and other countries adopt a more accepting regime, America
is caught again in a dope-smoker's horror. In 2000, 734,498 people were
arrested for marijuana offences; 88 per cent for possession. Booth takes
little more than an academic interest in the subject. But in the end, he
concludes that the benefits to be derived from it far outweigh its
perceived risks.

He argues we must learn to live with it in our society "to stop blinding
ourselves with our narrow-minded bigotry and start, as the hippy jargon of
the swinging sixties would have put it, to 'get real'."

* Random House, $49.95

Pubdate: Fri, 14 Nov 2003
Source: New Zealand Herald (New Zealand)
Copyright: 2003 New Zealand Herald
Contact: letters@herald.co.nz
Website: NZ Herald Homepage - New Zealand's latest news, business, sport and entertainment